For R; inspired by a certain bathroom in Vancouver.

Never Again
K Hanna Korossy

It had been maybe fifteen minutes. A whole friggin' quarter of an hour. Sam had some hidden gifts that had nothing to do with psychic abilities, to get into trouble in their motel room in that short a time. But Dean's brother was a genius, and not just with ancient languages and archaic information and the law.

The truth was, Dean was exhausted. Beyond tired, scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel worn out. Their last hunt had been two solid days of tracking and hiking and climbing, sleeping in a tiny tent next to Octopus Sam and living off jerky and water. It was a good thing the charging razorback hadn't done more than slice Sam across the back because it would have been Hell trying to carry him out of there.

As it was, they'd stumbled back out into civilization together, battered and bloody and Sam listing a little, each propping the other up but on their feet. Sam had promptly curled up sideways in the front seat and either passed out or fallen asleep, Dean couldn't tell. He kept one hand hovering in front of Sam like a soccer mom with a kid, ready to catch him if needed, and wished not for the first time the Impala had seatbelts.

But the ride to the nearest motel/Winchester clinic went without a hitch. Dean had dragged his half-aware brother into their room, dumped him on the far bed, and carefully cleaned, stitched, and bandaged his back while Sam dozed. It was only after he'd tucked the guy in that fatigue hit Dean like a wave with a massive undertow. It had made him sway where he stood, while he ran his hands over his bloodshot eyes and tacky hair.

He couldn't go to sleep, though. Not with Sam already running a light fever and not quite coherent since before they'd reached town. There had been enough time for infection to get a foothold, and Dean had to make sure Sam was truly fine before he could rest himself. It was what they did, no hot nurse around to make the rounds, and the sight of each other's stubbled, sleep-pale face was as common a sight to wake up to as an unfamiliar bed. It had been a Dad thing until Sam had left for school; now it was a brother one.

But this brother's brain was shutting down. Dean yawned, rubbing his eyes one more time before he reached for his keys. Coffee. He needed coffee, and not the muck that strained through cheap hotel room coffeemakers. There was a diner up the street, and roadsides always had good, hot, strong brew, cups he could drive for hours on. Or sit a bedside vigil without nodding off. Yeah, sounded like a plan. He'd only be gone for a few minutes. Sam would be fine for that long.

Famous last words.

Dean splashed some water on his face in the tiny bathroom, giving the closet-sized shower a longing look before he dried off. The towel was smeared with dirt and his hair flaked with the stuff, but coffee first, hot water after. Cleansing both inside and out. It kept the what-ifs at bay, too, the ones that wandered through his weary brain after Sam got anything more than a bruise. One more glance at the sleeper, and Dean wandered a few steps closer until he could actually see Sam's back rising and falling as he breathed, before he shook himself and headed out.

The coffee was half gone by the time he got back, shifting the bag of pastries he'd bought for Sam so he could unlock the door. The key didn't stick for once, not that the unconscious lump he'd left behind would probably have roused at the rattling, although Dean never knew. The hunting instincts hadn't gone that dormant in his little brother, and Sam was even more alert than he was sometimes. Dean blamed it on Sam's new sixth sense. Another unfair advantage over his elder brother, along with the three inches of height. Dean shook his head—he was way too tired despite the false awakeness of the caffeine—and swung the door open.

Sam's bed was empty, covers thrown back.

Dean's gaze immediately swung to the bathroom, where the door was closed. He'd left it open, and his uneasy frown eased, but only slightly. Sam was still more than a little woozy on his feet. It would have been good if he'd waited for Dean's return to take a bathroom break, but it wasn't like Dean had had a chance to tell him when he'd be back. Or like Sam was probably even thinking too straight. Dean had forced some pain pills into him out in the woods still, and between that and the strain of injury and how tired he'd already been, they were probably lucky his foggy brain even remembered what a bathroom was.

Still. Dean tossed the keys on the table, setting the cup and bag down next to it. "Sam?" he called as he shed his jacket and moved over to the narrow door. He rapped on it with his knuckles. "Sammy, you okay in there?"

The dead silence wasn't encouraging.

Dean knocked harder. "Sam! Can you hear me? If you don't talk to me, I'm coming in."

There had been a few times, in the weeks after Jess, when Sam had retreated to the bathroom to mourn or pine or just be alone. Dean had tried to respect his space, but occasionally he needed to know Sam was okay. It had taken only one splintered door for Sam to learn to give Dean at least that much even if he wanted to be left alone. He never just clammed up on Dean, not anymore. Not with the life they led and its dangers.

There was nothing but resounding silence from the other room, though, and Dean grimaced. "Fine, you asked for it." He hoped it was nothing more than a petulant little brother who'd gotten tired of his hovering. Dean turned the knob, relieved to find the door wasn't locked, and pushed.

The door swung open about two inches, then jammed up against something.

Dean ran through a few choice curse words in his head. He had an idea what that something was. "Sammy," he called again, pushing a little harder on the door. But there was no give, and he didn't want to force it. He picked up his father's commanding tone, the one Dean rarely used with his brother because he couldn't have stood Sam rebelling against him, too. "Sam, answer me!"

No groans, no murmurs, nothing.

Dean sank into a crouch and reached into the small gap of door and doorway, bending his shoulder at an awkward angle to touch whatever was wedged against the other side. He felt warm skin, and took a second of exploration to decide it was a foot. Terrific. Dean made a face and grabbed the extremity. "Sam! Wake up!"

There might have been a groan, but the foot he held didn't even twitch.

"For God's sake, Sam, snap out of it!" Dean called in exasperated worry, and slid his fingers down to the arch. There he pinched tender skin, hard.

Definitely a groan now, but nothing coherent. The door slid open another half-inch as something stirred on the other side.

"That's good, Sam," Dean lavished on the praise, not because he had any delusions Sam was trying to help, but because the silence, even broken with sounds of pain, was an unwelcome presence in an already too-small room. "Try to move a little more for me, okay?"

But the door wasn't budging. There was just too much Sam in too little a space. Ironic, considering Dean had spent most of the last four years with the opposite problem.

Frustrated, Dean slithered his arm out again and started looking for another way. Hinges? No, they were on the wrong side. There was a window over the shower, but it was too narrow if memory served. Just in case, Dean jogged out, ran around back, and scrutinized the opening. But no, it wouldn't fit his shoulders. He hurried back inside, feeling none of the earlier fatigue and thinking absently that adrenalin always left caffeine in the dust.

The door was as jammed as he'd left it, and Dean slammed a fist against it in frustration. Well, he could always break it down. It was small and thin enough that one kick would probably do it. But it would be crashing down on Sam, which made it a less-than-ideal plan. Maybe chop out the top half? Wouldn't be the first time he'd had to get to Sam that way, and the axe was right outside in the trunk. But again, that would rain who knew what kind of debris down on who knew what part of Sam. Not optimal, either.

Dean gave the door another shove, and found the gap had widened a little. He could fit an arm through now to his shoulder, and he squatted to try again, twisting the limb until it verged on dislocation. His palm just brushed a fully bent knee. Dean patted it, then dropped his hand.

Into a tacky, cooling puddle.

Oh, God. His fingers stretched with urgency now, tracing down to feel the fast pulse in Sam's ankle, then back up to his shin. That, Dean slapped hard. "Wake up, Sam!"

Silence. Dean really, really hated silence. It never meant anything good, always anger or hurt or injury or loneliness. For all his complaining, Sam had no idea how much softer Dean played his music now that his brother was back and he didn't have to fight the silence anymore.

"Sammy." His fingertips could only reach to the top curve of Sam's knee, feeling nothing but empty space and blood beyond that. Dean moved back down to his shin, trying to fold the long legs up more to give Dean those few precious extra inches to slip inside. "Come on, man, help me out here," he pleaded. "I can't get to you."

Sam's voice was an unhappy murmur. Better yet, the door shifted open a bare inch more.

"That's it," Dean said warmly. "Just give me a little more, Sammy. I've almost got you." The door didn't move, but Dean patted his way to Sam's ankles, bending his feet up. It gained him another two inches, and a moan from his brother. "Just a little more. C'mon, Sammy, just move up a little more for me." Because Sam could ball up like no one Dean had seen, long limbs tucking against his body until he was as small as Dean's memories of him twenty years before, easy to pull close and comfort. That hadn't happened in a while, Sam finally starting to find his emotional balance again, but Dean hoped some part of Sam would hear and respond to his begging. Dean only ever begged for him.

Sam's leg shifted beneath Dean's hand, and the door gave again.

Enough? Dean squeezed his head through it, then angled his torso to slide inside, scraping material and skin against wood. His hips stuck before he could get more than a glimpse of Sam in a heap on the floor, and Dean had to twist and worm a little more before he finally slid inside all the way, almost stepping on Sam's outflung hands.

"Attaboy," Dean said softly, and bent down awkwardly in the small space to cup Sam's damp face.

Sam shivered and flinched, the door swinging shut again with only his weight against it now.

Even though he could see it now, Dean still wasn't sure how Sam had managed to get flat in the small space. His head was almost wedged into the corner between toilet and shower, his belly up against the porcelain base. His legs were bent back, his arms curled around the pedestal of the sink, and the blood seeping out from under him was inching toward the crevices along two walls. Dean leaned over to check—yep, the gauze bandage was soaked through. Sam had probably gotten dizzy and gone down, slamming his back into something on the way and breaking open his stitches. There were any number of blunt force culprits in the tiny space.

Dean felt like he was in the middle of the unfunniest game of Twister ever as he rotated back to reach Sam's head. "Okay, Sam, think you're done cleaning the floors with your face and ready to get out of here?"

His brother's eyelashes unexpectedly fluttered, thin wedges of murky green visible beneath. "D'n?"

He sighed. "Now you wake up. Just rest for a minute and let me do the work, okay?"

Sam's blink was slow, not quite understanding. "Al'right." The right was stretched out a few syllables.

Normally, Dean would have turned him on his side before lifting him up, easing the strain on his injured lower back, but there was just no room. He slid both arms under Sam's instead, and pulled.

Sam gulped, gnawing at his lip, one hand pawing at Dean's arm briefly, but he didn't make a sound. Not until his forehead hit Dean's shoulder, when his gasp was a warm breath against Dean's skin.

"You okay?" Dean asked, hand pressing briefly against Sam's neck to make sure he didn't wobble away again. If he fell a second time, Dean would never unwind him from the floor.

Sam swallowed hard, nodded a little.

"You still need to use the john?"

"What?" Sam sounded completely lost.

Right. Confusion. For all Dean know, Sam had just been looking for him and ended up wedged and shut into the tiny room. "Never mind," he said. "Do you think you can stand?"

That took longer, the nod more tentative.

"Terrific. Let me do the lifting—your job's just to control those freaky long legs, okay?"

Another tiny nod. Dean belatedly ran a hand through the mop of dark hair, looking for any lumps or gashes, but there was nothing. Just the back. Good. He could handle that.

Dean wrapped his arms around Sam's back again and lifted.

Sam shook and shivered, but he rose with Dean, whole body bent against pain and weakness as he stood. But his bare feet were braced, his position determined, and Dean found himself maneuvering Sam to his side in a simple assisted walk instead of the carry-and-drag he thought he'd need. They had to twist out of the way before Dean could wrestle the door open again, and Sam nearly slipped away from him in the process, but Dean wasn't letting him go this time. Doggedly, he got the door open and the two of them through it, then aimed for the bed.

Sam sank down with a groan that sounded more relieved than pained this time.

"We're not done," Dean warned softly. "You busted your back open sleepwalking, bro."

Sam folded and clung to the bed, trying to get warm amidst cool, stiff sheets and blankets. Dean covered him up to the gash and wiped the cold sweat off his face.


"'M tired."

"Yeah, well, that's what you get for going someplace without me." He cupped the back of the dark head, feeling the same grit in Sam's hair as was in his own. "You can go to sleep now."

Perversely, Sam roused at that. Either his contrary nature had come into play, or he heard something more in Dean's tone, and Dean could take a stab at which it was. Eyes didn't change all that much over the years, and just looking into the sleepy hazel took Dean back in time. Maybe that was one of the lures of family, his one tie to when he was innocent. "What happened?" Sam murmured.

Dean was already wiping blood off him with light strokes. "You did an imitation of a bathroom rug and broke open your stitches. I swear, I can't leave you alone for five minutes, Sam."

"I don't remember," Sam slurred, frowning. Dean paused, mentally tallying up the amount of blood on the bathroom floor and on the ground in the forest, and how pale Sam was, and decided he wouldn't be feeling well for a while but didn't need a hospital. Lightheadness, confusion, and weakness were all normal symptoms of blood loss, and it really shouldn't have been that surprising Sam had decided to take a walk and then gone down. It was just Sam that he'd picked the worst possible place to do it.

"Yeah, well, I don't think you're thinking too straight, little brother." Dean laid a hand flat on the plane of Sam's shoulder, and wondered not for the first time why the lanky teen he'd dropped off at Stanford had bulked up and kept in shape if he hadn't intended to hunt again, becoming a man while Dean wasn't looking. "It'll be better when you wake up."

"Don't talk to me like I'm two," Sam muttered irritably.

Dean was tired and coming off a bad scare, and his temper was short. "Then quit acting like it!" he snapped. "I go out for fifteen minutes, Sam—fifteen minutes!—and I come back to find you bleeding on the bathroom floor and…" Sam's dilated, shell-shocked gaze finally registered. Dean muttered something dark, pinching his nose. "This wasn't your fault," he quietly countered himself. "I shouldn't've left you when you were out of it. I'm sorry, Sam, okay? Just…let me patch you up and put you to back to bed."

"'M not a kid anymore, Dean. I…accidents happen." Sam was tired, too, but fighting it with more than just stubbornness. His fingers curled, a meek version of his usual passionate motion. "Don't have to…carry…" And then he was out again, sinking into sheets and pillows only a little more white than he was.

Dean didn't always know how to read him, Sam had changed so much at school. But there was still a basic Sam-ness that never changed, and Dean was learning the rest. This wasn't Sam's petulant little brother act. This was the more grown-up You don't have to worry about meversion. Or even, We're in this together, but Dean couldn't quite let himself believe that one.

He did the restitching quickly in case Sam roused again, smoothing fresh gauze over it, then covering Sam up to his neck. The kid—man—never stirred, and Dean watched him with bittersweet eyes. For all the times he'd gloried those last few months in having an equal in the game, Dean had also mourned the twerp who'd followed him around with worshipful eyes and had been so easy to protect. Everything was harder now. Well, except one. He still loved the guy as naturally as he breathed.

Hey, he could admit it. Didn't mean he'd be saying it aloud anytime soon. Or, you know, ever.

There were other ways, though, and one was making sure his two-quarts-low and slightly loopy little brother didn't go wedging himself into any more places Dean couldn't follow. And with his adrenalin dropping, not even coffee was going to keep Dean coherent much longer. They both needed rest, and the certainty all was okay.

Dean rolled his eyes, and stretched out on the bed next to his blanket-wrapped brother. Sides touching, he'd know even in sleep if Sam got up or needed something. You don't have to worry about me—yeah, right, like that wasn't hardwired into him already. Into both of them, but especially him as eldest.

He wasn't leaving Sam alone again. The youngest Winchester might leave him someday, and Dean wasn't exactly sure what he'd do then, but he wouldn't be the one to move away. It was the best he could promise.

Dean fell asleep wondering when he'd gone from leader to follower.

The End