This story first appeared in Road Trip With My Brother 1 (2006), from Agent with Style

In the Blood
K Hanna Korossy

Dean pulled the Impala up to a careful halt and turned the motor off. With a glance into the rearview mirror, he spoke quietly, mostly to himself. "We're here."

He didn't really expect a response from the back seat and didn't get one. With the drugs he'd given Sam to make the trip as painless as possible, he'd be lucky if he didn't have to carry his brother inside.

Dean got out tiredly, glancing back at the car before approaching the house. He'd expected big, but this was impressive: three stories, porch, glass-walled living room, even an indoor pool in the back, supposedly. The snowy scene around them completed the picture of perfect peace. Just what they needed right now, but Dean's gaze was impassive as he found the key and opened the door. He scouted out what he was looking for on the first floor, then hurried back to the car.

He opened the back door and leaned inside. "C'mon, Sam, we're here," he murmured, still talking to himself. Extracting his brother was almost as much work as settling him into the back seat had been, but you didn't prop bruised and cracked ribs against the front passenger door if you didn't have to. Even if Dean would have felt better having his brother within arm's reach.

Sam swayed and lurched as Dean got him upright, the arm that wasn't in a sling stretched over Dean's shoulder. He clasped Sam's waist tightly and nudged them forward into a shuffling, stumbling gait that could be considered walking if you used a little imagination. Sam's chin was on his chest, a dark curtain of hair hiding his nicked and scratched face.

Crossing the snowy yard was a feat; getting up the stairs should have earned Dean a medal. But they made it without a single fall, and that was all he asked for. Sam's weight grew heavier with every step, and Dean was glad to get them inside and headed for the bedrooms.

The room he'd found was not only closest to the front door, it also had a king-sized bed. Dean had half-expected to be sleeping in a chair or on the floor, at least until Sam could get to the bathroom on his own, so he wasn't complaining. He sat his brother on the side of the bed nearest the door with a relieved sigh, unwrapping the jacket he'd only draped over Sam while he slept. Then Dean pulled the covers aside and eased Sam flat, careful of arm and ribs and bandages.

Sam's face creased momentarily in pain, glazed and confused eyes fluttering open. "What…?" Even the one word came out slurred.

Dean curled a hand gently around black-smudged skin. "It's okay, Sam, it's me."

"Dean?"

It wasn't a question about who he was; Sam knew that or, even drugged and injured, he would have been a lot more worked up than he was. It was just that damnable ever-present curiosity again. Dean kept it simple: a smile and a soothing pat.

"We're someplace safe, Sammy. Trust me."

Sam shifted, trying to get comfortable. Dean, having seen the bruises on his back, doubted that was possible. He leaned forward, stilling the restlessness by leaving Sam no room to fidget.

"Go to sleep, Sam." Half-order, half-soft request, he knew it was a combination Sam would respond to. And he did, blinking hazily at Dean twice before his eyes sank shut and stayed that way. It took another half-minute before his face smoothed out again.

Drugs were a wonderful thing, Dean thought blearily as he straightened up, rubbing kinks from his own muscles. He pulled Sam's sneakers off, noting dispassionately the blood and glass on one, and tucked his brother in. Sam didn't move.

The car still needed to be unloaded and the rest of the house checked out; Dean always made sure he knew where the doors and windows were, just in case. But nothing was urgent just then, and Dean took a minute to sit on the edge of the bed and watch Sam sleep. Too close. He hadn't said it to Sam and never would, sticking to his usual optimism and denial. But down deep, with all the other things he never admitted, he couldn't help but know. Too close.

He stared at his brother impassively a long time, cupping a hand against one cheek to check its temperature, then finally pushed himself to his feet. He had work to do. There'd be time now, time for them both to rest, time for Sam to get better and for that to sink into Dean. He could watch the utterly fascinating show that was his unconscious, drooling brother later. With a huffed laugh and a shake of the head, Dean stood and went out to finish unpacking.

00000

It had been close to nightfall when they'd arrived. It was dark by the time Dean finished unloading the car, checking out the house, and settling their stuff into what was to be their room. Sam still slept the sleep of the dead, and Dean had only paused to check his vitals before going to take a long, hot shower.

Amazing how cleaning up could make you feel human again. Maybe that was all some of the creatures they hunted needed, Dean thought idly as he poked around in the kitchen afterward. A little water, some soap, and Bigfoot might even be a looker under all that hair.

God, he needed sleep.

The kitchen was stocked, as promised, and Dean assembled and ate a sandwich he couldn't have identified later if his life depended on it. Then he went around checking locks again, making sure their little sanctuary was just that. Not that he had any reason to believe there were any supernaturals lurking out there in the Colorado night, but a bear could kill you just as dead as a wendigo, and he'd really had enough of the fight for a few days.

Also something Sam would never hear.

The house locked up and dark, Dean turned the heat to a comfortable level, then looked Sam over once more before sliding into the other side of the bed. Despite his brother's soft breathing in the otherwise silence, or maybe because of it, Dean fell asleep almost immediately.

00000

He woke twice in the course of the night to check on Sam. The second time, his brother's skin was warmer, and Dean fought his way out from the comfortable covers to fetch some aspirin. He cursed to himself as he staggered into the bathroom doorjamb, stubbing his toe. No wonder Sam was so unsteady if that was the best Dean could do.

Rousing Sam was easier than he'd expected. The guy was already restless with the low-grade fever, and nearly knocked against Dean's chin as he started awake. In that first unguarded moment, the fear was unmistakable in his eyes.

Dean didn't know if it was for recent events, Jess, or something else Sam's unconscious had plucked from his memory. It wasn't as if there weren't plenty to choose from. But he quickly jumped in to relieve it.

"Easy, Sam," Dean said, molding a hand around the back of his brother's neck. "You're okay."

Sam stared at him, dragged in a breath. And winced as he sank back into the pillow. "Dean." His hands were already tightened into white fists when Dean had turned the light on, and jolting awake like that hadn't helped.

But Sam had never been a complainer, not about things like this. Sure, he could go on and on about bad food and Dean's music and the Impala's uncomfortable seats, but he'd always been tight-lipped with his pain. Figured that would be the one thing in which he'd follow in their dad's footsteps.

Jaw creaking with the effort to hide his discomfort, Sam asked, "Where are we?"

"Colorado," Dean said, testing the edges of bandages to make sure they weren't too tight and that bleeding hadn't started again. He glanced up into Sam's eyes, and, surprised by the coherence there, directed more of his attention to the conversation as he kept up his exam. "Somewhere in the mountains. Your friend Rebecca's family's place."

"Becca?" Sam's confusion grew, and Dean wondered just how much he really was taking in. Sam was slow to take the pills and water he offered, and downed them shakily.

"Yup. Winter home or something—lifestyles of the rich and bored. I called her and asked her if they had a place we could go for a while." It had been the only thing he could think of when he'd gotten Sam back to the motel and realized just how bad off he was. Their dad's friends didn't have places this comfortable, and Dean had no friends of his own to turn to.

Sam stared at him for an inscrutable moment, until Dean looked away. "That bad?" he finally asked softly.

Dean immediately shook his head, managed a smile. "Nah, just looks like it. Figured we'd better get you somewhere no one's gonna see you and freak out."

"Yeah, sure." Sam's eyes sank shut under the weight of fatigue, but he still moved in small, painful twitches as he sought to get comfortable.

"You wanna lie on your side?" Dean offered after watching him struggle.

A listless, aborted shrug. Dean took that as a yes and stood to get leverage. He did the roll in one smooth motion, not reacting to Sam's quiet gasp, then anchored him with a pillow at his back and another under his bad arm. He sat afterward with a hand on Sam's shoulders, waiting for the hitching breaths to ease.

"Better?"

But Sam had already dropped off to sleep.

Dean made a face and slid his hand up to the underside of his brother's jaw to gauge temperature and pulse. Still warm, but the pills would be kicking in soon, and maybe resting on his least-bruised side would offer Sam some relief. Dean would be awake again before dawn to check him to make sure.

He waited until the restlessness faded completely, Sam once again heavy and still. Going around the bed seemed too far, so Dean tiredly crawled over him, careful not to bump the knobby elbows or shoulder blades. Sam was all lean muscle under those loose shirts, but with the emphasis still on "lean." Another thing Dean intended to work on while they were there. Later. For now, he settled close to Sam's back, wanting to keep tabs on the fever. He'd know, even sleeping, if it went too high.

In fact, the one thing he ignored that night was Sam's occasional pained whisper.

"Dad…"

00000

Funny how different things looked in the light of day.

Or maybe it was just that he was looking for different things now. Last night's sweep of the house had been a security check, making sure the place was locked up and that Dean knew where all the exits and dark corners were. Today, he was just checking out the possibilities.

The pool was indeed pretty amazing, glowing a soft blue in the indoor lighting. Not that Dean liked to swim or that Sam would be up for it, but still, impressive. The entertainment room was even more so, with a big-screen TV and DVD collection Dean could actually appreciate. Still, he could muster only lackluster enthusiasm as he went from one room to the next, cataloguing: pool table—he winced at that one—a library that would have Sam salivating, winter sports equipment, overflowing pantries. All the comforts of a home they'd never had. And Dean would have traded them all to be in a ratty motel room with Sam back to a hundred percent.

Dean paused to look into the bedroom as he passed it yet again, relieved to see Sam still deeply under. Healing, yes, but a hundred percent? Yeah, right. Sam never really had been that, not since he'd hit the road with Dean again. He wasn't any likelier to become so after recovering from nearly being killed on a job, no matter how long they stayed in Colorado.

As a teen, Sam had always yearned for more. He'd found it in college, but then lost Jess and went back to the hunt and Dean with reluctance and desperation. Still yearning, never wholly present. The older Winchester had known a long time he was second choice and accepted it, but it didn't bother him any less, especially when he saw that distant look in Sam's eyes. No, what Dean wanted was the Sammy who had loved their life because he'd loved Dean, back when that was enough. And no amount of R&R would return that Sam to him. They'd both have to settle for healing of the physical kind.

Dean grimaced; near misses always made him melancholy. Better to stick with the here-and-now. Like breakfast.

There was bread in the freezer, and Dean took out two slices to make toast. He was searching in the cupboard for jelly when he heard the first cry.

He made it to the bedroom in time for the second, this one distinctly his name, and burst in with bread knife in hand. Yeah, not the most formidable weapon, but he was flexible.

Except, there was no creature or ghost there, or at least none he could take on with a bread knife. Only Sam, twisted in the covers and his sling, fighting sleep and internal monsters.

Dean dropped the knife and crossed to the bed in two long strides, grabbing his brother firmly by shoulder and hip. "Sam," he said urgently. "Sam!"

Sam's eyes snapped open, his breathing ragged. Dean half-expected him to glance at the ceiling, but his eyes ping-ponged around the room with unfocused panic. Fingers dug into Dean's thigh. "Dean? Where…? Is it safe?"

It hit him sometimes, like a shot to the heart, what he and Dad had done to the sensitive, happy kid of Dean's childhood. "Yeah, Sam, it is, it's safe," Dean answered intently, craning to meet Sam's eyes even as his scattered gaze bounced around the room again. "Look at me—look at me, Sammy." The hazel eyes swung darted to him. "It's okay. I've got it under control, okay? Relax."

Sam was panting now, whether from exertion or fear, but his eyes grew a little less frantic. "Dean?"

"Sam." He tried miserably for a grin as he untangled the sling. "What, you're dreaming about me now?"

Sam wasn't up to playing along. "I need to..." He swallowed, shut his eyes. Pain seemed a permanent addition to his features, making him look like the older brother. "I need to go."

For a moment, all the frightening potential meanings of that phrase shot through Dean's mind—leave, quit, die—until the more obvious banal one presented itself. He mustered a shaky, probably embarrassed laugh. "Right. Can you walk?"

Sam didn't answer, but he started to shove covers aside.

Dean helped him up and lent him a shoulder to the door, where Sam shrugged him free. "You sure?" Dean asked skeptically.

"You can fish me out if I fall in," Sam said with a little more grogginess than Dean was comfortable with, but there was a limit to what he would force on his brother when Sam was conscious. Still, he stationed himself at the door, one foot guaranteeing Sam didn't close it all the way, and waited until the flush.

Just in time to take Sam's weight as he swayed with perplexed drunkenness. He groaned softly when Dean's arm tightened along his back, and Dean winced. "Sorry—I'll get you some more pills in a minute."

"Dean..." His speech was slurred again, Dean hoped fervently just from fatigue. "…where are we?"

The repeat conversations weren't doing a lot to make him feel better, either. "Colorado."

"Poltergeist?" Sam's head rolled on Dean's shoulder.

"Back in Oklahoma City…or wherever banished poltergeists go. We got rid of it, Sam, remember?" All this staggering around with Sam was starting to give him a serious case of déjà vu.

"It hurt."

"Yeah, well, it usually does when you go head-first through a window." And got thrown into two walls and a ceiling, not to mention having books casually lobbed at your head.

He helped Sam back to bed, flat and shivering, and dug out more painkillers. They were at the max for a daily dose already, but Dean was guessing Advil had never counted on customers who'd been tossed around by angry supernatural forces.

"Try to stay awake—I'm warming up some food."

"Not hungry," came the sleepy sigh.

"Did I ask you? Stay awake, Sam."

"Go 'way, Dean."

He took that for a yes, and went to collect cold toast and some orange juice he'd reconstituted and a banana from the car. He managed to coax the fruit and juice into Sam, but the toast was a lost cause. Dean chewed on it apathetically while he watched his brother sink back into sleep.

This wasn't the first time Sam had gone down; since leaving Stanford, he'd been badly beaten by a skinwalker, bled by Bloody Mary, and thrown around and nearly choked to death by another poltergeist. Dean had seen him hurt before, and he wasn't in mortal danger. A motel room would have served again for a place to tend to him and wait for him to heal up.

But, no, Dean had called Rebecca because they'd been running on empty since Lawrence. A lot of air had been cleared in Burkittsville, but they were still struggling to keep it together, surviving instead of living, and Sam—both of them—needed a break. Some place Sam could relax and enjoy. Some place Dean could actually let him.

Not that it seemed to be doing a lot of good so far, though, besides baffling Sam whenever he woke up. It wasn't exactly how Dean had imagined things going. Then again, he didn't usually imagine tending his battered and bloody brother, either.

But the injuries, they were part of his world, his life and choices, not Sam's. As mortified as Sam sometimes was at getting hurt or, Dean snorted, being a "burden," he seemed to forget this was par for Dean's course. Dean had no qualms about laying up for a few days if that was what Sam needed. That was what he needed then, too.

He just hated seeing the cost for his brother.

Dean rubbed a weary hand over his face. One bad thing about downtime: it gave him too much opportunity to think. It was time to check out that DVD collection.

"Sleep well, Sammy." He patted his brother's shoulder, then went out in search of greasy food and distraction.

00000

Dean woke to a silent blue screen. He started, tensing fractionally for a moment before memory clicked in to fill in the blank of where he was. Right, Colorado, the Warrens, DVDs. Sam.

He yawned, scrubbing a hand through his hair as he sat up. Apparently, The Ring wasn't as exciting as people said, although the girl did remind him of Bloody Mary. He'd have to watch the ending he'd slept through to see how they destroyed her. Never knew when you could pick up something useful.

Dean yawned again, glanced at his watch, and blinked in surprise. He'd napped through more than just the ending; it was well into afternoon now. Time for more painkillers and food for Sam. Dean pushed himself up, stretching sore muscles and scratching as he went back downstairs to the bedroom.

The room was dim with the indirect afternoon light, and Dean was halfway to the bed before he realized it was empty.

The jolt of adrenalin woke him up fast.

"Sam!" he called, double-timing it to the bathroom door, but that room was also empty. "Sammy!" Dean yelled again, more worriedly. He pelted out of the bedroom to the kitchen down the hall, then to the neighboring rooms.

Nothing. And in the silent house, there wasn't a single creak of movement.

"Sam!" His voice verged on panic now, but this had just become a systematic search, and training clicked in. Dean started again, this time at the front of the house, and worked his way back, checking every place a 6'4" body could wedge itself into.

The back door stood open.

The house was breached, and that could mean a lot of things he didn't want to consider, but logic prevailed. There were no wet footprints into the house, no signs of the door being broken. Nothing but an incongruous glass door swaying in the breeze, as if someone had just gotten distracted. Someone hurt and not thinking straight.

Ignoring the fact he was in socks and a t-shirt, Dean dashed outside.

His brother's name caught in his throat, unneeded. Just down the slope from the back deck, visible as soon as Dean cleared the back door, stood Sam, shivering in snow that was nearly up to his knees.

"Sam!" he called in sheer frustration and receding adrenalin as he bounded down the cold steps into the even colder snow. "What the—?"

Sam turned, motion jerky with chill and eyes dazed, to look at him. "Dean?" His teeth chattered the name almost into unrecognizability.

Dean reached him, took one look, and decided any conversation on the matter could wait. "C'mon back inside," he said tersely, hand clamped around Sam's arm. It was frigid even through two layers, and Dean really didn't want to think about how long he'd been standing out there.

Sam started to move and immediately sagged. Dean took his weight silently, readjusting their balance back to the half-carry he'd had so much practice with.

"I d-don't know what I'm doing here," Sam forced out.

"Freezing your shorts off is what," Dean growled, rubbing Sam's back and arm as he pulled him up the deck steps, trying to warm him up a little. Perfect. Drugs and pain weren't enough; now they had to deal with delirium. He hadn't thought the fever that high, but Sam had been confused every time he woke, and was bound to get sicker now from that dip in the cold. Just what they needed.

"Dean." It was a whisper.

"I'm here," he answered flatly, almost slipping on the hardwood floor as he tried to maneuver the two of them in socks.

"I'm sorry."

Dean flinched. "S'okay. I'll just tie you to the bed from now on." He felt Sam's sluggish tension and winced; he hadn't meant to invoke memories of a fake Dean restraining and taunting Sam. "It's okay," he repeated dumbly.

Sam was nearly out on his feet by the time they reached the bedroom, and Dean had to hold him with one hand to keep him from falling out of the chair as he switched out cold, wet clothes for dry, warm ones. They'd have to suss out the washing machine before they moved on, but that was a worry for another day. Dean lugged his brother over to the bed and flat on his back, watching the painful-looking intermittent shivers that still wracked him. The way his jaw was clenched against any sound of pain. The dark-circled eyes. His little brother.

With an anger-deflating sigh, Dean hitched himself onto the end of the bed and pulled Sam's ice-block feet into his lap, beginning to rub one.

Sam's shivers increased, dragging a moan from him, then began to taper. Fine, trembling fingers tangled in the blankets. Good hands for bow hunting, Dean thought not for the first time, and knew that had never even occurred to Sam. When there was some warmth again in the foot, Dean pulled a wool sock over it, traded it for the other.

"Do you remember going out there?" he finally asked. Sam's eyes were shut, but Dean knew he wasn't asleep.

A small shake of the head.

"What do you remember?"

"Dreams." The word barely quivered. "Cold. Getting away. You called me."

Getting away? Oh, yeah, nothing messed up about the two of them. But all Dean said was, "Yeah, I called you. You went outside in an early Colorado spring in socks and a t-shirt. I figured you weren't planning to stay long."

He got a wan attempt at a smile for that.

Dean took a breath. "Hungry?"

Sam's free arm curled protectively around his stomach. "No."

"Tea?" Dean offered mildly.

Sam considered that, actually blinked at the ceiling. "Maybe."

"Bathroom?"

Sam snorted softly. "You do know tea's a diuretic, right?"

Dean shrugged, not sure what that meant but not wanting to ask. He had an idea from context, like he often did when Sam sprang that college-training on him without realizing it. Dean didn't take it badly; it was part of his brother. But the ten-dollar words were a good sign.

Both Sam's feet warm, Dean shoved the second sock on and tucked them under the blankets, then went to wash his hands.

Dean came out of the bathroom to the sight of Sam staring baffledly at the picture by the bed, one Dean hadn't even noticed before. Looked like Rebecca and Zach, and Dean's eyes moved back to his brother.

"You remember where we are?"

Sam had to think about it. "Colorado?"

Finally. Dean nodded. "The Warrens' place. Thought it would make a good spot for you to rest up."

"Rebecca? You called her?" Sam frowned.

"Yeah, 'course I called her." Dean shrugged, grinning. "Figured she kinda owes us, exonerating her brother and all, right?"

Sam stared at him, or maybe it was supposed to be a glare. It was hard to tell when he was that exhausted. "Since when do we charge for helping people?"

Dean's motions slowed, his grin fading. "This isn't charging, Sam—we needed some help, she could give us some. That's what friends are for, right?"

"How would you know?" Sam muttered, and shut his eyes, rolling with difficulty away from Dean.

Okay, yeah, just because he wasn't all sensitive like Sam didn't mean the occasional sharp little jabs didn't wound. Sam had always been able to give better than he got. Dean tossed the towel back into the bathroom and gave his brother an even look. "Yeah, 'cause I'm a selfish bastard who never thinks about anyone else besides myself."

Sam's brow furrowed. "That's not what I said."

"Then what're you saying?"

A frustrated shake of the head was the only answer he got.

Dean knew the feeling. With a dismissive sound, he headed toward the door, and the kitchen beyond, to crash a few pots together while he made some tea.

"Dean."

It was the one whisper in the world that could stop him cold, drain him dry of anger or fear in a moment. Even his dad hadn't had that kind of power over him. Dean didn't turn around, but he did halt, waiting. "What, Sam?"

"I'm scared."

Dean cursed long and silently. "You're gonna be fine, you just need some rest."

"That's not..." He trailed off.

Dean half turned. "What?"

But Sam was asleep, face drawn as if he'd been fighting tears again. He hadn't done that much since Bloody Mary had finally let him clear his conscience some and mourn for Jess. His brother's pain both drew and repelled him, but Dean found himself back beside the bed, staring at the sleeper a long minute, then drawing the covers up to his chin. A brush of his forehead revealed he was back to his earlier elevated temperature. Maybe he hadn't been outside that long, after all.

"I wish I knew what was going on inside that freaky head of yours," Dean said quietly. Shaking his head, he walked out.

Tea could wait. Dean needed something stronger just then.

00000

Sam slept away the afternoon, which was probably best for both of them. Although, Dean found himself at loose ends, wandering the beautiful but empty house with an uneasy restlessness he couldn't put his finger on. Every time he looked in on Sam, the sight of his sleeping brother stirred protectiveness and, yeah, love in him, but also a disquiet Dean didn't like. And it wasn't just Sam's attitude from before.

They'd done this to him, Dean and their dad.

Dean had become a parent at the tender age of four, and while he and John had both tried, neither of them knew what to do with a kid like Sam. His mom would have, but she was long gone by the time her youngest mirrored the soulful and sweet look in her eyes as he looked up at Dean. No, Sam had been left with a kid who was growing up himself and a father who was too broken with grief to always notice what he still had left. They'd tried their best, but Sam, he'd needed more.

Instead, they'd forced him into a role he never wanted to play, made him into what they wanted and understood. It was the only way they knew how to protect and be there for one of their own, on the hunt, in training, as back-up on battlefields kids should never have been on in the first place. They'd been the ones to put that fear and pain and grief in Sam's eyes. But it had been their best, at least Dean's best. Or so he'd thought. Now he just wondered if it was selfishness or, worse, cowardice. Not understanding Sammy's world, Dean had dragged him into his own.

He wouldn't have been surprised if Sam did hate him.

Except, he didn't, even with the complaining and brooding and occasionally snotty behavior. There were still moments when he looked at Dean with that same adoration in his eyes, and unguarded moments of candor. You're my brother and I'd die for you. Dean even pushed past his own comfort levels sometimes to say it back. More often, they spoke in actions, risking their lives for each other, sometimes even their souls, back-to-back in an otherwise solitary quest. For all his distaste for the life and impatience to find Dad, Sam was still there, fighting at Dean's side, had even returned after taking off to look for Dad. And if the brooding and whining and testiness hadn't all been part of the package deal that was his brother, Dean would have put up with it anyway, because he owed Sam, and always would.

But that didn't mean it wasn't a test of his patience sometimes. Or that it didn't hurt.

Dean balanced the tray he held on one hand while he clicked the bedside lamp on with the other. The overhead light was too bright; he could tell earlier it bothered Sam's eyes. Not that his brother even stirred at the light, and Dean grinned faintly as he sat on the edge of the bed and patted Sam's back.

"Rise and shine."

The discomfort that crept back into Sam's face along with consciousness told Dean that while maybe he would rise, shining would have to wait for another day. He'd kinda suspected as much, but kept up the grin as Sam squinted at him.

"What time's it?"

"Dinnertime. Made you some soup." Opened the can himself and everything. "I wanna take a look at those bandages, too, when you're done."

"It's fine." Sam pushed himself up, breathing through his mouth when he used muscles he shouldn't have.

Dean set the tray aside to help him, and between the two of them they managed to get Sam more or less vertical, propped against the headboard.

Sam dropped his head back against the wood and wrapped his arm around the sling. "What's wrong with my shoulder?"

"Dislocated," Dean said, busy breaking crackers into the tomato soup like he knew Sam liked. "I popped it back in in Oklahoma, but it's gonna hurt a while."

"I know."

Dean glanced up at him without raising his head, expression a question. He remembered every injury Sam had gotten, and a dislocated shoulder wasn't on the long list.

Sam's head canted in resignation. "Stanford. I was playing soccer on the quad with some of the guys and I fell wrong."

Dean ghosted him a smile. "So, even Stanford wasn't safe enough, huh?"

"At least I wasn't risking my life every day," Sam snapped, and reached for the tray.

Dean relinquished it, eyeing his brother as Sam started awkwardly eating. "No," he finally said. "You weren't." His face twitched. "Why did you leave?"

Sam stopped eating to stare at him. "I can't believe you're asking me that."

"You know we would've kept looking for the thing that killed Mom and Jessica. You didn't have to come back."

"Yes. I did."

Dean never had heeded the voice that told him when to shut up, or maybe he was just masochistic. "So all this, coming back to a life you hate, it's all for your girlfriend?"

Sam shoved the tray at him so hard, tomato soup splattered them both. "Screw you, Dean," he said coldly. Then he rode the wave of anger to his feet and took a few steps, before physics and his battered body caught up with him. Almost at the bathroom door, he wobbled, threw out a hand to catch himself.

Dean reached him just as his death-grip on the doorjamb kept him from falling but not from crashing painfully into the wooden doorway, face paling at the collision. Dean stretched out a hand to help him, comfort him, something. But Sam batted it away angrily and hobbled the last few feet into the bathroom, leaning heavily on anything but his brother. A few seconds later, the bathroom door slammed in Dean's face and the lock clicked.

Well. That was pretty unambiguous.

Dean stared at the door, tempted to yell something caustic and get the last word in, but he didn't have the heart. Instead, he glanced down at himself, stomach twisting at his red-spattered clothing—there had been a lot of blood in Oklahoma—and the mess on the bed. Sam's little revolt would come crashing to a halt soon, along with his strength, and he'd need a place to lie down again. And Dean needed something to do.

He turned away, headed out to find the linen closet. And paused at the hallway door, looking back at the bathroom. Maybe Sam did hate him, down deep where it had taken injury and weakness to strip away the responsibility they felt for each other. He'd said as much in the asylum, but Dean had finally convinced himself that had been Ellicott talking. If it was true, though, was all this still worth it?

Dean chewed his lip a moment, and walked out of the room.

He changed the bed, rewarmed the soup, put out clean clothes for Sam, and paused each time by the bathroom door, listening to the silence and anger inside. Finally, he did the one thing he still could for his brother and announced he was going upstairs to watch some TV. There was no answer. He'd expected as much.

When he ventured back down an hour later, the food was gone and Sam was curled up in bed, asleep. He'd taken off the sling, but hadn't managed to get the clean t-shirt on, and lay bare-chested and shivering even in the warm room. Dean felt the warm skin, shaking his head at the elevated temperature, and draped another blanket over him. Then he turned the light off, shed his outer clothes, and climbed in on the other side of the bed, as far from Sam as he could get without rolling off.

His brother's quiet breathing did nothing to calm his thoughts that night, though, and it was a long time before Dean drifted off to sleep.

00000

Sunlight woke him, and Dean blinked against the early morning rays. He ran through his usual inventory—where, why, injuries—that had become second nature in a life that included waking up someplace different every few mornings. Heaviness settled on him as he remembered the scene the night before, and Dean turned to look at his brother.

Who wasn't there.

Not again. Dean bit off a curse and lunged out of bed, grabbing clothes as well as his boots and jacket this time, and noting Sam's were also gone.

He didn't waste time with a sweep of the house, checking only the bathroom before heading for the back door. It stood open again; Sam was either sleepwalking or just didn't care, and Dean wasn't crazy about either option. He stormed out the door, shrugging into his coat.

Sam had gotten farther this time, but was still just outside the tree line, moving slowly but doggedly for the forest. Where did he think he was going? He'd been unconscious on the way up, had no idea the nearest house was about ten miles away through densely forested elevation. Dean huffed in frustration as he plowed off the deck, into the snow toward his errant brother.

"Sam!" he called when he was close enough to be heard over the whistle of wind through the trees. Geez, it was cold. The rising sun was just starting to warm the air, and Dean buried his hands deeper into his pockets. "Sam!" he called again, wondering what he'd do if this was sleepwalking or delirium. He didn't relish the thought of dragging a struggling Sam back through the snow into the house.

Sam stopped, but didn't turn around. He wasn't shivering, motionless almost as if he were waiting, or listening. Gone was the stooped posture that came with cracked ribs and bruised muscle; he stood tall and straight against the backdrop of snow and trees, his back to Dean.

And Dean froze in mid-step, a chill that had nothing to do with the weather running through him. "Sam," he said, more cautiously this time. Then, voice firming, Dean called out something else. "Deus."

Sam seemed to shudder, and turned finally to face him. Or something like Sam: his eyes were dark, alien, and he didn't seem to notice the blood dripping from his nose.

Dean's own eyes went hard. "Who are you?"

Sam's smile didn't fit his face. "You thought you'd defeated me, but I hid part of myself in him. If he had not been so weak, I could have come forth sooner."

The thing from Oklahoma. Dean shoved down a moment of panic at the thought of what it had done to Sam last time. "He's not weak. You're the one that hurt him," he shot back.

"If he does not fight me, I will not hurt him again." The voice was Sam's, but not, just like the body language.

"Yeah, well, don't count on that," Dean muttered.

Maybe Sam was a reluctant fighter, but he was still a fighter, sometimes even more so than Dean. He wondered now how much of the last few days had been Sam trying to fight this silent invasion and fighting Dean instead. Or if that had just a bleed-through from a malicious spirit that didn't care for either of them very much.

The thing in Sam spread his arms. "Go back, and I will let you live."

Dean grimaced. "Okay, that's not happening, either."

The Sam-thing smiled. "You cannot stop me."

It did have a point there. Dean hadn't come out there hunting Sam or planning an exorcism. All he had on him was his knife, and stabbing his brother to save him would rather defeat the purpose. Still, he wasn't a poker player for nothing.

"You're not taking him," he said flatly, definite in his determination if still unclear on the delivery. He was working on that.

"You cannot stop me," it said again, and turned away.

That was something he could act on, anyway. Dean started running again, plunging through the crusty snow toward his hijacked brother. He ran through Sam's injuries in his head, trying to figure out how to take him down with the least amount of damage.

It was a moot point, as it turned out. As soon as he was close, Sam stopped, then swept back an arm that sent Dean flying.

Okay. He blinked at the sky. Plan B.

Dean sat up. "Hey!"

Sam kept walking.

"Hey, I'm talking to you! You wanna borrow someone, why don't you take me? You said it yourself—he's hurt, weak. I'll keep a lot longer." Dean scrambled to his feet as he talked, the words tumbling out effortlessly. It wasn't like there had been a decision to make there, anyway. Sam could yell at him later.

Not-Sam didn't even turn around. "He suits me," it called back to Dean, and kept going.

And Dean was fresh out of plans. If Sam hit the woods, he'd be almost impossible to find. There was no time to go back for supplies, and without them, any incantation would be powerless. Dean had no elements to work with, nothing but…

"Hey!" He pulled his knife silently, although the thing in Sam's body didn't look back at him. "I can give you something Sam can't."

Was that hesitation?

Dean closed the distance between them with speed born of desperation, pulling off and flinging aside his jacket on the way. He slid to a halt just short of his brother and the evil that had him, pushed up his own sleeve, and, bracing himself, sliced the knife across the prominent vein inside his elbow.

"A free-will sacrifice," Dean finished

Blood dripped, then flowed.

Sam turned to face him, shock and horror in his expression, and Dean couldn't tell if it was his brother or the monster in him he was seeing. That was okay; he was counting on it knowing what he was doing. Salt was a ward because it was of the earth, but you didn't get more organic than the source of life.

It only took one more step to rub his blood-slicked forearm against Sam's chest, and even as the thing recoiled from him, Dean stared hard into the foreign eyes. "Blood's the most powerful element of all—Sam knows that. Freely offered, even your mojo can't beat that. Exorcizo te, spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei." He stamped his brother with his blood again, and thought inanely of tomato soup.

The thing shrieked in Sam's voice, hands going to its head.

Blood trickled off his fingers, turning the snow between them red. Dean was starting to get dizzy, but he held his ground, raising his voice until he was yelling. "Exorcizo te, spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei!"

Christ's own sacrifice had been blood, and while even Dean's ego wasn't up for comparison to the Son of God, the power of his sacrifice couldn't be denied. Blood had held him and Sam together through more than most people would have survived. He wasn't losing that now. Dean pressed his palm against the leaking vein, and grabbed Sam's hand.

The thing inside his brother writhed, resisting but losing. It started shaking, hard enough to dislodge Dean and nearly send him sprawling. But the damage was done.

Even as it tried to wipe the blood off its hands, Sam's head snapped back, neck corded. Limbs rigid, it pinned Sam to the air, not even his chest rising and falling.

It wasn't unheard of for an exorcism to kill the possessed, the person either too weak to survive or the thing in it determined to take him down with it. Both could easily apply here, and real fear turned Dean's stomach.

And then the thing dropped Sam in the snow, leaving behind nothing more than a cloud of darkness not unlike the phantom traveler. It swirled away and dispersed even as Dean watched, stunned.

It was gone. Maybe for good, maybe to possess some nearby evergreens and start a whole new series of campfire stories, but Dean couldn't have cared less just then. Relief made him weak, and the wave of vertigo that crashed into him knocked him over.

Okay, that was enough spilt blood. Dean pressed his fingers hard against the inside of his elbow and, woozy, looked up at his brother. "Sam?"

It took a few heart-stopping seconds, but the lanky figure stirred.

Dean took a deep breath, pushed himself up on his knees. "Sam, talk to me."

He moved as weakly as Dean felt, pushing up on unsteady arms, dazedly shaking snow out of his face. Then Sam, his Sam, looked at him in confusion and dismay. "Dean…"

Good enough. He tried to smile at Sam, and wasn't really surprised when his brother started shaking in reaction. Sam crawled the few feet between them, and dropped his head onto Dean's shoulder.

He would've liked to cinch an arm around Sam, rub his back, do something to make him believe they were both fine, but the resulting bleed-out would've put a damper on things. Besides, Sam seemed to have it covered, his hands sliding along Dean's back to tangle in his shirt. His shoulder had to be killing him, but he wasn't complaining, so neither was Dean. He settled his chin on Sam's head like he had when Sam had snuggled up to him as a kid, and exhaled slowly. "You okay?"

A terse nod. Right: not yet, but they would be. They had time, and a place right out of those magazines Dean thumbed through in hospital waiting rooms,and a laundry room, which was good because he was still bleeding like a stuck pig. The whole landscape was doing a slow tilt-a-whirl, in fact, which might have worried Dean a little more if it hadn't actually been the highpoint of his day so far. Possession trumped blood loss anytime, and losing his brother...

Yeah, this wasn't so bad at all.

Except, the lightheadedness was getting stronger, and there was nothing like someone passing out on you to drag your emotional recovery to a screeching halt. Best to take the drama indoors.

Dean shifted reluctantly. "Sam?"

His voice sounded distant, echoing, and Dean realized fuzzily he was too late.

"Sammy?" he murmured. He thought he felt Sam shift against him in awareness something wasn't right.

Dean proceeded to prove the point eloquently by tumbling into darkness.

00000

He woke knowing without an inventory that the warm figure curled around him was Sam.

The rest took another moment, but his brother's proximity gave Dean a clue about the important parts: something bad had happened, but they were okay. Better than okay, in fact, if the lack of fever burning through Sam's shirt meant anything. He was still nestled on his good side against Dean's back, his arm clasped to his body, a faint frown line between his eyes. But there was no labor in his breathing indicating pain, and the way he was tucked against Dean spoke of simple comfort and keeping tabs, not of desperation. Satisfied, Dean patted his shoulder and rolled gently away to keep from waking him.

And remembered then that he hadn't escaped unscathed this time.

His arm was sore and stiff, the latter partly from the bulky bandage that swathed his elbow. Dean studied it with mild interest. It wasn't soaked through; Sam was as good at the first aid stuff as he was, although the room still swam when Dean moved. Making up the blood volume would take a little longer. At least he wasn't bleeding to death anymore, which was always nice.

Nor, in fact, was he bloody at all, Dean realized with a start. He looked back at Sam. His brother was shirtless again, probably still unable to pull clothing over that bad shoulder, but his blood-smeared tee was nowhere in sight. Considering the last thing Dean remembered was being cold and gory out back, that meant Sam had somehow hauled him indoors, cleaned him up, and put him to bed. And that was on top of being recently injured and freshly unpossessed. So much for Dean taking care of him. He smiled, shook his head once. "Not bad, little brother."

Suppressing a groan, Dean pushed himself to his feet and staggered over to his bag, hanging on to furniture as he went. He wasn't too worried, between what he'd seen that morning and what Sam had obviously done since, but Dean had been fooled once, which still chagrined him. He dug the EMF detector and a bottle of holy water from their kit, and shambled back to the bed. The detector barely blinked, registering only fading residuals. Made sense. Dean shut it off and opened the bottle with stiff fingers. He wet one, marked out the sign of the cross on the back of Sam's hand. No reaction, either from the water or from Sam.

Satisfied, Dean started to rise to put the stuff away. He really could have done with a shower, and he was thirsty. But…the bathroom seemed miles away, and there really was no hurry, right? He shoved the detector and the bottle under the bed. There was a cup of stale water on the nightstand that Dean drained with pleasure, then he glanced back at his brother again.

Sam slept on, no doubt exhausted, but okay. And there wasn't anywhere Dean could think that he'd rather be. With a few winces and a sigh of relief, he gave up and sank back into bed, pulled up the covers, and dropped an arm over Sam's waist. The keeping tabs thing, it went both ways.

And for the first in a long time, Dean slept without worry.

00000

"So."

"Uh-huh."

Dean winced. Best start with the innocuous. "How do you feel?"

Sam tilted his head. "You mean, besides the cracked bones, headache, dislocated shoulder, and cuts and scratches?"

"Cracked bones?"

"Ribs, Dean."

"Oh, yeah. Right, besides all that."

Sam laughed, lightly, because even that was obviously painful. "Okay."

"Yeah?"

Sam's head rolled against the headboard to look at him. "Yeah. Why?"

Dean shrugged. "Nothing."

He'd woken to Sam's nightmare, the quiver of his body and the subvocal sound of pain as his brother tensed against waking. Sam's movements had been sluggish and he'd ground his palm against his forehead before cradling it against his side. But then he was completely awake and not anxious to get back to sleep. And so Dean found himself sitting up next to him, spine pressed against the headboard and head tilted back against the carved wood. Grateful for the darkness that hid his uncertainty, because Sam could read him like a newspaper.

Sam shifted gingerly next to him, trying to see his face, anyway. "Really, what?"

Dean remembered the way his eyes had looked outside, hesitated, then took the plunge. "Maybe it would be better if you went back Stanford, Sam."

Sam pulled away from him. "Are you sure you're not possessed?"

"I'm serious," Dean said sourly.

"If this is about me getting taken over and nearly getting you killed again—"

"What? No! You didn't hurt me, Sam—free-will offering, remember? You were ready to go all Amelia Earhart on me and disappear into the woods."

"And we're gonna have a talk about that whole blood-offering thing later, but don't change the subject. Aren't you the one always telling me I was wasting my time at school?"

"Look, just forget it, Sam." He knew he shouldn't have brought it up. Dean pushed himself to the edge of the bed and tried his legs. They held, mostly. "I'm thirsty. You want something?"

"An answer."

"To what?" Dean asked impatiently.

"To what we're not talking about here. Are you mad at me?"

"Are you through asking stupid questions?"

"You're the one asking me if I want to leave."

"I've got my reasons." He was too weak to be standing this long. Dean sank back down on the bed at the opposite corner from his brother.

Sam softened. "You okay?"

"I'm fine. Are we done?"

"What reasons?"

Dean sighed, pulled the edge of the blanket over his legs because he was freezing. "Well, you'd be safer, for one."

He could feel Sam's sage nod. "Oh, like Jess was."

Dean made a face and turned away, staring into the dark corners of the room. He didn't remember anymore what it was like having his own room, and wondered where people got enough stuff to fill the space. Sam had had a whole house, and had walked away with only a scorched duffel bag.

"Look," Sam said quietly. "I know you've been worried about me, and I'm sorry. But you know how you said I always knew what I wanted and I should go after it?"

He didn't answer, but he was listening and they both knew it.

"This is where I want to be, Dean," Sam continued, undaunted. "For my reasons, not yours or Dad's. No one forced me to leave school or give up on going to California to look for Dad. I know you think you dragged me away from something, but it's not like that. I seem to remember you saving my life, actually."

"Yeah, 'cause you're such a trouble magnet," Dean said grudgingly.

He could hear Sam's smile. "Who saved who from the scarecrow last week, Pauline?"

"Who keeps ticking off poltergeists, Carol Anne?"

"Who couldn't think of any way to defeat the poltergeist besides opening a vein?"

"Hey, saved your skin. Again."

"I know." Darn it, he'd played right into that one, and didn't Sam sound smug. But just for a moment. "Uh, you do know that wasn't all me before, right?" he asked less certainly.

Dean rolled his eyes. "No, Sam, I thought you were just being your usual charming self. Yeah, I kinda got it after the whole nose-bleed, talking-about-yourself-in-third-person act."

"So…are we okay now?"

It was a question only Sam ever asked. As long as the two of them were alive and together, Dean was okay. But not having the acid threaten to chew holes through his stomach, or his mind switch channels all the time to keep from thinking about stuff was kinda nice. Not enough to want to make a daily thing of it, but he'd survived. They'd survived.

And the saving-your-brother thing, it went both ways, too.

Sam, with no visuals clues to go on, misunderstood his silence.

"Dean?"

He cleared his throat. "Yeah, we're good."

"Good." Sam sounded deeply relieved, and that convinced Dean of his earnesty more than anything. "But I do have one more question."

Dean's trepidation returned. "What?" he asked warily

"Would you help me get to the bathroom?"

00000

They packed slowly, both of them a little reluctant to leave. Dean glanced at Sam a few times, opened his mouth twice to make the offer, but always shut it. The last bag in the car, he glanced up. "Ready to go?"

"Yeah."

Sam was looking at the house, which gave Dean a moment to look at him. He was still moving cautiously, ribs only half-healed, but his face didn't look like it had gone through a window anymore, he was using his arm without any trace of discomfort, and he'd been handling the bathroom stuff by himself for a while now, thank God. That was about all Dean could ask for from a pit-stop; it was time to go. Still, he couldn't help notice the wistful look on Sam's face, and found himself speaking up, after all.

"We could stay longer. Finish the beer, watch the rest of those movies?" He canted his head invitingly, wanting Sam to feel free to take the offer.

His brother looked at him, and smiled with unexpected warmth. "No. I'm ready to go."

That was Dean's kind of conversation: a philosophy, a whole change of heart summarized in a few innocent words, not a flower in sight. It was also the real Sam, Dean was sure of that. Right or wrong, their past had made them who they were and brought them back together. Regrets remained, probably on both sides, and Sam would probably start complaining again in, oh, about forty minutes, give or take thirty. But as long as he knew where Sam's heart was, Dean could handle the rest.

They got in, and as Dean started the engine, Sam pulled out a sheaf of Internet print-outs and started reading aloud. Potential jobs, from the serious to the ridiculous.

Dean grinned as he pulled away from the house. He was looking forward to it.

The End