For Cathy

Unseen Damage
K Hanna Korossy

The sound of a shotgun firing, no matter how familiar and even welcome, was still deafening. It echoed off the trees around them and thankfully blocked the creature's dying shriek. By the time Dean's hearing cleared, the forest was silent.

He glanced over at Sam, just picking himself up off the ground with a wince. "You okay?" Considering the only reason the thing had slowed down enough for Dean to shoot it was that it was busy tossing Sam around, the question was reasonable and held more than the usual concern.

"Yeah. You?"

Sam seemed to be moving gingerly but all right and only sounded winded, which allowed Dean to answer honestly, "I'm good. But did you see the speed on that thing? Son of a—" He kicked the carcass for good measure.

Sam didn't bother replying, looking around for his dropped axe and shotgun. Dean got busy, too, pulling out lighter fluid and matches. It was the Pacific Northwest and the ground was predictably wet. They could torch the thing safely and go home to hot showers and pay-per-view and junk food from the machine just outside their door. Heaven on a budget.

The funeral pyre was burning merrily by the time Sam had retrieved his stuff, but Dean watched the fire until it started to die down, making sure it was under control. It was only then he nodded back toward the general direction of the Impala. "You coming?"

"No, I thought I'd stay here," Sam answered moodily, and started trudging.

Dean should have been used to the attitude by now; another hunt ending meant another hunt where they hadn't crossed paths with Dad, and a stretch of time after to think and remember too much. For all his hatred of hunting, Sam came alive with the research and the saving people and the watching Dean's back. It was in the in-between times—and the sometimes not-so-good endings—that chipped away at him. Dean had carved them out a couple of vacations in the few months they'd been back on the road, fun things that kept Sam rested and occupied, but otherwise Dean hurried them from job to job for his brother's sake more than his own. Sam's grief was a powerful motivator.

Dean started after his brother's retreating back, trying to see his compass in the thin moonlight. He moved forward, taking the lead and slightly altering their course, and Sam silently followed.

"So, what do you think this thing was tonight?" he asked after a minute. Dean had never liked silence.

"Does it matter? The important thing is it was mortal."

"Yeah, well, I think we're gonna need a little more than that if we're gonna write it up in the journal. We're not gonna earn our merit badges for 'mortal' and 'smelly.'"

Sam snorted softly, not an amused sound. "Right. We wouldn't want to be bad little hunters, would we?"

Dean's lips compressed a little; at least he'd been trying. Sam usually liked the research questions. "Fine. I'll look it up."

"Do you even know how to run a LexisNexis search, Dean? It's not like charming your way into a girl's pants."

Dean didn't answer, playing mad, feeling hurt. There was unhappy, and then there was mean.

Sam sighed. "I'm sorry, that's not what I meant." He rubbed at his forehead.

"Yeah?" Dean asked tightly, not letting himself relent. Sam knew too many of his weak spots as it was. "What did you mean, professor?"

His brother reared on him, an angry silhouette. "Stop calling me that! I didn't even finish my degree, Dean—I'm a college dropout. Do you know what that feels like? Oh, that's right, you don't."

And Dean's stomach twisted like he'd been kicked. "No, Sam, I don't," he said levelly. "And you know why? Because you got to have a few years of a normal life I didn't."

"No," his brother continued with spite, "you were busy following Dad's orders. You don't know what it's like to give up your dreams."

"Shut up, Sam," Dean said miserably, because they'd already said too much. Any more and he'd either hit his brother or toss him out on his little college-trained rear to go chase his rainbows. Even so, Dean didn't know how he'd look Sam in the eye the next morning, not without remembering his brother's disgust.

"No, Dean, I'm not going to shut up. I'm finally getting to say what I think. You hated being alone so much, you dragged me back in—"

Dean's hand, already curled into a fist, took a swing at Sam before the intent even registered.

Sam lurched back, avoiding the blow just in time, but rubbed at the side of his face anyway as if Dean had connected, staring at him in shock.

He stared back, just as stunned. Living together 24/7 all those years, it wasn't the first time they'd goaded each other into physical reactions, but it was usually a tackle or a swat of the head or punch of the arm. Sam drove him up the wall and down the other side. But Dean had never wanted so badly to shut him up, to rattle those Crest-white teeth and knock Sam's six-foot-four down to size.

"Sammy…" he murmured.

Sam stumbled back from him, reaching numbly out for a nearby tree. And then, without a sound, the younger Winchester's eyes rolled up and he slid down the trunk to the ground.

Not before Dean lunged to catch him, still stupefied, but instincts undampened. Anger and hurt instantly melted into worry, and there was no hesitation as he cradled Sam's body to him and checked for hidden injuries.

It didn't take long to find. Cupping the back of Sam's lolling head, Dean's hand came back wet.

He muttered a frustrated curse. "What did I tell you about keeping secrets from me, Sam?" he growled unheard, but quickly moved on, testing limbs, ribs, reflexes. There were a few warm bruises, but nothing that gave under his fingers nor elicited a groan from his thoroughly unconscious brother. Nothing but the lump on the back of Sam's head where he must have connected with something when the creature had knocked him around. The skin was split over the goose egg, matting the dark hair with blood and dripping down his collar, all invisible in the dim light of the forest.

The only symptom Dean could and should have picked up on, in fact, had been the uncharacteristically cruel words coming out of Sam's mouth. But no, he'd been too busy getting mad and having his feelings hurt.

He sighed heavily. "Sam." Dean tapped his brother's cheek. "Sammy, wake up."

Sam's face twitched but then went blank again. Dean winced, pulled his eyelids up to check pupil response. Both were equal and shrank when Dean scraped a match to life and held it up in front of them. Just knocked out, then, and with Sam's eternal fatigue, head injuries of any sort usually took him a while to wake up from.

Dean glanced up, gauging distance back to the car. Doable. "Fine," he grunted, pulling Sam up with him. "Make me do all the work—see if I care. I probably deserve it for listening to you in the first place. Let's just get you back and cleaned up first, and worry about eating crow later."

Sam was dead weight as Dean levered him up to his feet, then folded him over his shoulder. The weight made him stagger, but they didn't exactly have options here. Locking his knees, Dean headed back for the car.

He let his mind drift to keep it from worrying about how still Sam was. Even Sam's words from before were a less frightening topic for his mind to play with, if not a lot less painful. Trust even a concussed and not-himself Sam to know where to inflict the most damage. Invoking their dad, Sam's departure and education, and Dean's broken dreams in one fight was an impressive hat trick even for Sam. Dean still felt the wounds seep blood.

But…it hadn't really been Sam, right? Even while Dean had recoiled from the words, something about them hadn't felt right. The seeds were there in Sam—it was no secret he was frustrated by Dean's obedience to their father and lack of aspiration to something more than hunting—but his little brother was at most thoughtless, never deliberately cruel. Dean should have known something was wrong.

He thought he felt a small shift of weight on his shoulder. "Sammy? You with me?" Dean called out, and heard a faint groan in response. Better than nothing.

The Impala coming into sight was a powerful relief. Dean groaned himself as he leaned Sam forward into the car, supporting his head with one palm. He was really tired of Sam's blood on his hands. Stanford might have been too far and unprotected and a different world, but Sam probably hadn't gotten anything worse than a paper cut in his time there. Until the demon had come after him, anyway. It was the paradox of Dean's life, keeping Sam safe while letting him go, wanting him to have both his innocence and the protection of skill and knowledge.

You don't know what it's like to give up your dreams.

Dean carefully closed his mind to the words as he shut the car door and went around to the other side. Time to stop thinking and just do.

Sam hadn't woken to more than moan in the time it took for them to wind their way out of the forest and down to the nearest motel. Dean wiped the blood off his hands on a rag, watching Sam critically for a moment, then went in to get them a room. After reparking in front of their door, he carried his brother inside and eased him onto the farther bed, then went back out for their gear. Dean locked the door after himself, laid down the salt lines, and turned the thermostat up before tossing his jacket aside and rolling up his sleeves. "Okay, little brother. Now for the fun part."

The cut had only been bleeding sluggishly by the time Dean had seen it, and was just crusty now with dried blood. Dean soaked the dark strands free and snipped away just enough to nestle two butterfly bandages over the cut. He tousled the mop of too-long hair and the bandages disappeared completely.

We wouldn't want to be bad little hunters, would we?

Dean washed the dried blood off Sam's neck and upper back next, pulling off his jacket before he changed his shirt for a clean one. Busy following Dad's orders. The unconscious were unwieldy, heavy dolls that never moved the way you wanted them to and kept threatening to topple over, but Dean had had more experience than he liked in that department. Do you know what that feels like? He was clinical and efficient as he stripped off sneakers and jeans, bundled Sam in the thickest sweatshirt they had, and tucked him in on his stomach so he wouldn't accidentally put pressure on the wound.Oh, that's right, you don't.A towel-wrapped ice pack against the back of his head completed Dean's doctoring. Not like charming your way into a girl's pants. Painkillers might have been good, too, but Sam hadn't even cracked his eyes open since they'd left the woods, silent and unaware while Dean looked after him, and Dean wasn't going to try to rouse him for that.

You hated being alone so much.

He pulled up a chair and the laptop to the bed, and propped his feet up near Sam's side. Maybe he wouldn't run a Lexus-whatever search, but he could still show Sam a thing or two about researching. "I know enough to look after you, don't I?" Dean asked his unconscious brother pointedly.

Although, considering the "unconscious" part, he wouldn't be winning any big brother awards on that count, either.

Dean grimaced, leaning forward to finger-comb the bangs that fanned out over Sam's eyes and the pillowcase. He needed to see every flutter, to be aware of any change of vitals or consciousness just in case the head injury turned out to be more serious than it looked. "We're both a little beat up tonight, huh, bro?" he said softly.

Sam slept on.

Inhaling deeply, Dean rested one socked foot against Sam's rising and falling ribcage and booted up the computer.

00000

It was a few hours before Sam moaned in his sleep and whispered something. Dean leaned closer to hear him, mouth curling unexpectedly when he made out the Latin. You could take the boy out of hunting…

"Sammy?" he said quietly, and laid a hand on the warm forehead to keep his head from rocking. Every movement would hurt for a few days.

"Mmm," was his college-trained brother's intelligent reply, followed by reluctant cracks of murky green.

Dean ducked lower to meet them. "Well, you've looked better," he pronounced. "You awake, or do I still have two heads?"

"You always have two heads," came the murmured reply. Even as Dean tried to judge exact mental status from that, Sam's whole body flinched. "Dean, I'm gonna throw up."

He already had the wastebasket there, lined with a plastic bag from their last fast food stop. "Yeah, kinda figured that. I've gotcha covered."

Sam leaned over the bed and heaved.

Dean grimaced; not one of his favorite parts of first aid. But he left a hand on Sam's back and coaxed him through the attack. "Take it easy, don't fight it. It'll be better in a minute." He was lying through his teeth; the headache would really hit when Sam could feel it past the nausea, but Dean was always about making Sam feel better.

Sam finished arching up from the bed with each wave of nausea, just gagging now on the strings of saliva, and Dean left long enough to get him some water. Then he eased him back onto the bed, put the latest ice pack back in place, and covered the top half of Sam's face with a wet cloth.

Sam groaned.

"I'll get the Advil," Dean said, standing. Only to be snared by his brother's hand.

Sam pulled the washcloth off to give him a bleary eyed stare. "No, it's not that—Dean, man, the things I said out there…"

Dean was far better at dealing with tangible wounds than intangible. He squirmed in Sam's grasp, but his brother wasn't letting go. He reluctantly sat back down. "Forget it."

Sam's fingers twitched on his sleeve. "I can't, that was—Dean, I didn't mean that, I swear. I don't even know where it came from, just…"

He would remember this scene a month later in an asylum in Illinois, but neither then nor now was any real revelation. Nor something Dean wanted to remember or dwell on. "I know," he said. "It was the concussion talking. And maybe if you would have toldme you were hurt—"

"I didn't…" Sam's face twisted. "I was just…confused. Dean—" He groaned again, and this time it wasn't angst.

"Let me get the pills," Dean said softly, and stood unimpeded this time. He retrieved the bottle and the refilled glass, propped his brother's head up while Sam swallowed, then tucked him in again.

"Dean," Sam's head shook a little, like his voice. "I'm sorry, my head hurt and it all came out wrong. I never thought you were…I'm sorry."

"Sammy, it's all right." Dean said it gently, meaning every word. "I get it, okay? I called Dad a soulless demon once when I got cracked on the head."

Sam made some sound between a gasp and a laugh. "What'd he do?"

Dean's mouth snagged into a smile. "Well, he didn't make my head feel any better."

Sam burst out a laugh, and winced. "Ow…dude, stop, that hurts."

"So quit talking and go back to sleep."

"You, too." Sam's voice was thin. "Don't have to…Tired, I'm…sorry…Dean, I didn't…"

"I know," he soothed. "It's okay."

And it was. Because Dean wasn't an innocent when it came to fraternal resentment, either, and he still felt a little guilty he hadn't realized the reason for Sam's tirade sooner. But even more so, because no matter what Sam thought of him in his darker moments, he still never hurt Dean on purpose, and that counted for a lot. For the bury-your-feelings-deep Winchesters, in fact, it pretty much meant it all.

Dean would remember that a month plus a few days later.

He flipped the towel to its cooler side and slid Sam's hand under the blanket. The kid was out again, probably for the night now. Dean just sat back to watch him.

You hated being alone so much, you dragged me back in.

Besides, Sam hadn't been completely wrong, either.

The End