Dean can't put his finger on it, can't say what it is about his brother that screams of a profound change. Which is a oxymoron by itself if you look at the big picture – you don't change drastically without something spectacularly heinous of beautiful happening to you. Sam died and came back for fuck's sake and Dean's not forgotten Yellow Eye's words, but there has been nothing major to freak out over. Until now, and there has been nothing out of ordinary for the past weeks. Not that Dean is aware of anyhow. But ever since Broward County, something is up with Sam. It's not on the surface, it's not like his brother is suddenly babbling incoherently and climbing walls, screaming and going psychic on him. Or if he is, he isn't telling.

It's more in the set of the jaw, the blankness of the eyes when he stares out the windshield, the darkness that makes the green shadowed with bottomless despair when he thinks nobody is watching. And the quake in his hands as he grips a doom-of-demons-weapon. It's like for a moment he is remembering something - something so dark it sends white-hot pain through him all over. That white-hot pain he told Dean about. The pain Dean can't get out of his mind. Not even if he only heard about it from Sam. And that's because he watched it happen before his eyes. There is something about Sam that tells him his brother is slipping away. Something in the close to imperceptive quake of the hand gripping the gun.

Something is just off.

Like now, when they've hunted down a particularly fucked up demon and Sam's face is scratched up, his flannel shirt's front ripped into flimsy stripes and the skin around his neck is raw from the stranglehold, Sam downright spooks him.

The determination and fearlessness Sam showed when the horrid thing came at them with claws and fangs and flapping golden hair, screaming like the fucked up Banshee-Siren this demon was. This Banshee didn't just announce the imminent death, it caused them. This was a new kind of demon; a hybrid of the old and new world. This little thing, barely four feet had thrown Sam up against the wall hard enough to make the planks screech before it turned to Dean and showed its true colors. He had not had time to step away and reload the gun before the thing's claws almost took his head off. But Sam had stepped up and thrown him aside hard enough to make him lose his breath when he landed hard on the unforgiving ground. The screeches had almost deafened him and he saw Sam being mauled over good before he managed to strike the stake between the eyes of the squealing bitch. That had taken the edge off the attack and when Dean managed to add to the injury by cutting its head off with the machete, it finally imploded on itself, leaving just a foul stench behind. But what had Dean marveling was the speed of Sam's arm cutting through the air. It just didn't seem humanly possible.

When the thing dissolved, Sam had turned to him, wildly dark-eyed, bloodied and scratched and asked how he was. Dean had told him he would live but he never told his brother that the grimness Sam had shown during the hunt had jarred him. Something about Sam's face when he waited for the thing to get up close enough to kill him before he plugged the stake in between the demon's eyes. It looked like it played with Sam, like a cat played with its prey. Long blonde hair swiping over Sam's stoic face, a low purry laughter when one silvery claw ripped Sam's coat open. Then the thing put one hand around his brother's neck and squeezed while the other clawed at his side, like wanting to pull him close. It looked like a morbid seduction of a reluctant lover. Dean reloaded his shot-gun. Not until then did Sam make his move. Dean wasn't sure but he thought he'd seen a cold smile of evil satisfaction play on Sam's lips. But in the commotion, he might just have been imagining things.

It took them some time to gather their wits and get out of there. Sam held onto Dean's coat the whole way back to the Impala, like steadying and sheltering him. And Dean got pissed because that's his job, he's supposed to take care of his little brother, not the other way around. But he can't stay pissed for long because he hears Sam's breathing change and become more laboured, like he is in serious pain. So he asks how bad the thing got him and Sam tells him he's fine.

Sam's never been good at telling lies.

There's something new about Sam all right and Dean watches him with narrowed eyes. How did he know that a pine stake would stop that creature? They had found no intel on this particular kind of evil. They didn't even have a name for it, no lores, nothing. They had gone in blind and it had cost them. Old Sam wouldn't have done that. And Dean keeps his eyes on his brother, wondering.

Without a word Sam wipes off the machete with what's left of his shirt, opens the trunk and carefully twirls the protective cloth around its egg before he puts it in its designated place. There's something eerily familiar in his moves; the meticulous preciseness and the unobtrusive concentration while he handles the weapons. It's familiar, but it's not Sam.
"Hey dude, you done fondling the sharp edges so we can split?" Dean asks when Sam wipes the weapon-case with the clean part of the bloodied piece of flannel shirt that he holds in his hand. His brother had always had a compulsive streak, but this was bordering on obsessive.

Sam nods curtly and closes the trunk, his hand coming out in a pleading gesture that contradicts the determination in his voice. "I'll drive."

And Dean stares, confused. Sam's all scratched, choked and banged up and he actually acts like he should be taking care of business all on his own.
"You think I'm letting you anywhere near the wheel after tonight? You're bleedin' like a pig and I'm surprised you're still standing! That girly devil banged you up good."

"Gimme the keys," Sam's index finger beacons impatiently, the upturned palm rusty red with dried blood. The other is still pressed to his side and Dean glares with disbelief.

"Man, we need to get outta here," Sam persists. The emotionless voice and the stoic face are grating at Dean's nerves.

But Dean is too tired to put up a fight. Not tonight, not with this non-Sam. He makes an irritated sound for emphasis but hands over the keys; his eyes never leaving Sam.

Riding shot-gun with non-Sam is a literal pain in the ass. Sam is constantly over the speed-limit, spinning the wheels as they take off, drives too close to the shoulder of the road and his knuckles are white around the steering-wheel. He keeps his right hand pressed to his side and only lets go when he needs to shift gears, making the gear-box scream because he doesn't even bother to ease the clutch up slowly. Dean growls at him every time Sam revs and makes his baby roar. Tells him that it's the friggen last time he ever drives her and that he'll be stuck in the trunk next time. Sam doesn't reply, barely even looks at him. Just keeps on driving, flooring it all the way. The look on his face is grim and determined, except when he shifts gears. That's when he can't quite hold on and his face shifts with pain but the shift is over in a blink of an eye and the blank grimness is back. And Dean awaits some kind of explosion. There is none of their usual banter as they drive the long dark roads in this godforsaken rural Alabama to get to their motel room in the small town that's so similar to every other small town they've all started to blend into one in his mind. There's only this tension, like the thickness of the air before a thunder-storm. But there's not one cloud on the sky, only stars and a sliver of the pale moon. Dean is about to go insane when Sam won't respond to his usual smart-assery. He doesn't even get a 'jerk' from his little brother, despite how thick he lays it out.

It's he who finally explodes when they get out of the car in front of the motel and Sam takes both their bags and nudges Dean up the stairs toward their room. A hand on his shoulder steers him onward and grips the fabric of his coat as if to lift him when he's about to climb the stairs.

"Dude! Why don't you just carry me over the threshold while you're at it?" he snarls over his shoulder as he walks up, irritated and so goddamned tired that his bones are aching.. "What the fuck is wrong with you? That thing in there nearly ripped your side open because you decided to shove me out of the way and take care of business all on your own. Now you're acting like I'm a damsel in distress and you've turned into a bad imitation of Prince Charming on crack."

Sam stops behind him and Dean whips around. Their eyes are level and Dean feels his jaw tighten at the sight of Sam. The sickly green color of the neon sign is casting shadows under Sam's eyes and giving his face a strange tinge. The eyes are still dark enough to send the faint light skidding, like it's not even reaching inside. The bags thrown over his shoulder seem to be weighing him down. His brother is still pressing his right hand to his side but his face is now a strange mix of apology and confusion.

"C'mon, how bad, Sammy?" Dean asks for the fifth time, expecting no real answer this time either.

"I'm fine, I just wanna get a look at that gash over your eye before you get blood-poisoning or something. Don't think that thing was very keen on keeping her fingers clean."

"You're a fuckin' liar, Sam!" Because Dean knows that the demon got Sam. How bad, he has no idea and Sam isn't talking. Sam's stopped telling him things and it's killing Dean.

"Dean, I -," Sam starts in a cracked voice, shoulders sinking as his gaze turn to the tip of his boots. He mumbles something under his breath and Dean rolls his eyes.

"You're such a girly-girl, with all your secrets and sneakin' around with demons and hidin' what the fuck's really goin' on, Sammy!" He turns back and takes the last steps three at the time.

"What? Me? You just told me not to treat you like a girl and now I'm being one?" Sam protests from behind.

"Oh shut up, Sammy!" Dean fiddles with the key-card and the door opens with a click. He watches his brother angle himself in through the door and waits for the 'jerk'. It never comes and Dean pulls the door shut, bends to un-lace his shoes before he toes them off He sits on the nearest bed, pulls his coat off and throws it to the floor before he ungraciously flings himself to his back on the bed. The ceiling needs a new paint-job, there is no TV, the lampshade is too gaudy and the bulb too weak to actually light up the room.

Something is terribly off with his pain-in-the-ass-little-brother. And he's too tired to figure out what right now and Sam just isn't talking. Dean exhales with frustration and closes his eyes.

He must have dozed off for a while because he wakes with a start when the beds dips thanks to Sam sitting down on it. A harsh light is shone on his face and he blinks irritably against it. "What the hell, Sam?"

"Lie still!" His pain-in-the-ass brother orders and leans in over his forehead to nip skin between his index-finger and thumb.

Dean looks up to see a plastic syringe hovering over his left eye and feels the prick of the needle. His hand fly up to grip the wrist. "Sammy?"

"Lidocain," Sam explains and drapes a towel around Dean's face. "I'm gonna have to anesthetize you and I guessed you'd prefer this to a punch to your face."

"Sam, it's a gash, barely noticeable, man. Hand me a band-aid and I'll be as handsome as ever in a couple of days." He tries to push the hands away from his face but Sam is adamant and is already pouring liquid that smells worse than a devil's piss on his front. Sam protects his eyes with the towel and Dean huffs and pulls it away. The pungent odor has him wrinkle his nose in disgust and the harsh light is making his eyes tear up.

"Last time I took you to the ER you begged the nurse to give you something," Sam points out.

"That was because the nurse was hot, man. And she had a thing for awesome men in pain." Dean clarifies. "Not like Ineeded it or something."

"Don't pout, I can't set the edges straight!" Sam gruffs.

"I never pout," Dean rebukes and wrinkles his brow in a futile attempt to see what's being done to him. "I swear, Sam. If you're painting 'jerk' on my forehead with a marker, I'm gonna have to kill you. Quit kiddin' around."

"Shut the cake-hole, an' that's an order," Sam lets out tersely and leans further in over him with squinted eyes.

Dean can feel Sam's fingers tremble slightly and he grips the wrist to steady him. "You're getting back at me for stealing your Prom-date, that so?"

Sam says nothing and Dean hears a plastic wrap ripped open. The skin on his forehead feels stiff and cold and the light prohibits him from seeing clearly. But he senses a nip to his skin and hears the medical glue being sprayed on the wound before Sam pulls out a ridiculously large band-aid.

"Looked worse than it was," Sam says and pulls off the surgical gloves.

"You done playing nurse now?" Dean huffs.

"Dunno, any other part you felt the need to serve to the demon? You're so damned reckless at times, Dean." Sam looks at him, concern evident in the darkened eyes.

"I'm awesome but I do have a stick named Sam right up my ass, mind removing it?" Dean quips, trying to lighten the mood. "And if you don't mind I'd love to have my bed warmed by a regular nurse, uniform an' all the jazz. Wouldn't say no to a beer either." Drawing a hour-glass shape in the air with his hand, he grins wider. Anything to get that morose look off Sam's face.

Sam just sighs and gets off the bed stiffly. It's right then that Dean notices he still has his coat on, sleeves scooted up over his elbows. Turning the blinding bed-side lamp away from his face makes the darkness of the room seem thicker for a while and he can just hear his brother close the first-aid kit and step away before his eyes are adjusted.

Sam turns the ceiling lamp off before he saunters into the bath-room and closes the door behind him.

Even with only the bed-side lamp lit and the rest of the room in semi-obscurity; Dean can tell that Sam's steps are stiff and his breaths are superficial and running fast like before. It wasn't the strain like Dean had hoped, it was pain, like he initially feared. And what's worse, there's not much sound coming from the bathroom. Water's not running, toilet's not flushed nor are teeth being brushed.

He crawls up from the bed and flicks the light back on before he walks to the bath-room door. It's closed and Dean cusses under his breath. "Sam, how long you gonna be in there?"

"What? You need to go now? Can't a guy even pee in peace?"

Dean wants to tell him no but holds his tongue. He looks at the alarm-clock on the table and when five minutes have passed, he pulls hard at the handle. "Sammy, if it takes you this long you really should have your prostate checked."

"Just a minute, dammit!"

The voice from inside is barely contained and so oddly high-pitched that Dean isn't even sure it's really Sam in there. "You okay?"


The word comes out like groan and that's enough for Dean. "Open up or I'm coming in, Sammy! And you're gonna cough up the dough for the door I'm about to kick in."

The lock clicks open and Sam turns his back on Dean the moment he steps inside. The bathroom floor is a mess with the shredded bloody shirt, a torn T-shirt and the coat. The shoes are kicked to the corner. The first-aid kit is open by the pile and besides it is something that resembles a hook. Dean can't figure out where it comes from. He bends down and picks it up and the moment he touches it, he knows what it is. A claw from the thing they hunted down. A big-ass sharp and thick claw that is smeared with blood. He almost gags at the sight and grabs Sam to turn him around. "Jesus fucking Christ," he barks, looking at Sam's damaged side. There's another claw buried between his ribs and the towel Sam is pressing to his side is rapidly turning red.

"Thought you needed to go?" Sam says in a small voice and Dean's eyes flick up to the pale face.

"I lied, surprised?" Dean snaps and forces Sam to sit down on the toilet lid. "You pulled that thing out yourself? Damn, man! You need to see a doctor for this. What if it punctured something? You might bleed out!"

"Nah, I just gotta get this second one out. The bitch is curled around a rib." Sam's hands are remarkably still when he grips the claw and tugs at it. But his face is ashen white.

"Sam, I'm calling 911," Dean takes a step back to retrieve his cell-phone but Sam's hand grabs his shirt and stops him.

"No! How we going to explain this? This is no kitten-claw. Not even mountain lions on steroids have claws this big. Chill, I've done this before, I'll be fine." And before Dean has categorized what Sam is saying and even begun to try and comprehend, Sam's fingers are on the claw, turning it from side to side and up and down until it pops free and blood oozes out from the gaping hole.

Sam doesn't say a word and Dean is about to barf just thinking about the pain it must have caused. He rips another towel from the rack and presses it to the wound. For a moment his ears ring and he has to fight the gagging reflex. Not before his stomach settles does he dare lift his eyes and look at Sam's face. The darkness of the eyes is contrasting starkly against the pallor of the skin. His brother won't meet with his gaze, instead he tries to look anywhere but at Dean.

Dean looks at the towels turning red and realizes that the claws must have served as tamponades, or Sam would have bled out a long rime ago. So Sam walked half a mile with claws in his guts and said nothing? What is he trying to prove? Then the words Sam's spoken earlier finally sink in.

"What do you mean 'not the first time'?"

"Huh?" Sam wipes his nose.

"Cut the bull! You know what I mean."

Sam looks up at him in full puppy-eye mode and blinks."I've patched myself up before, Dean. So have you."

Dean crouches by his brother's side and removes both towels. Blood is still oozing and Dean guesses that Sam's position is not helping to ease the stream. "Bull-crap, Sam. We've never handled anything remotely similar to this by ourselves."

"S'not so bad," Sam speaks quietly and moves uncomfortably. "Just need a stitch or two. Hand me the needle, will you? It's all prepared, won't take a minute."

Dean stares with amazement. Who is this and what has he done with his brother? It's like the physical pain isn't registering. It's just the breathing that tells Dean that Sam is really feeling it, but he isn't reacting to it.

"You need more Lidocain, Sam, where is it?"

"We're out," Sam says and now his voice is starting to get affected. It's lower and gruffer, almost sliding over the vowels.

"You used it all on me?" Dean asks. "Of all the fucking stupid things, Sammy!"

His brother blinks at him and a small apologetic smile breaks through the grimace of pain that is forming. "You're the wuss," Sam smiles hollowly and looks away.

Dean buries his fingers hard into Sam's shoulder. He can't watch this, can't stand seeing Sam like this and finally he gets through. Sam stiffens and whimpers, lifts his face to look at Dean, tears forming in his eyes.

"Sammy, we need to get you to a hospital for this. You're bleeding like a pig and who knows what's left inside there."

"Please Dean, no." Sam's eyes are red-rimmed now, watery and his hand flexes shakily when he presses the towel to the sores. "M'so tired, Dean. Don't wanna go anywhere, please."

And when Sammy pleads, he always wins. Whenever he uses the puppy-eyes from hell, Dean caves.

"Can you walk? Dean asks but doesn't wait for an answer. If he doesn't get Sam to the bed he's gonna faint and crash to the floor. Which doesn't look too sanitary and getting him up from there would require some kind of crane and cause some serious pain. Sam's heavy; he remembers the weight when his brother slowly died in his arms and it sends a shiver down his spine. He drapes Sam's right arm over his shoulders and pulls him up to stand before he twines his free arm around his brother's middle.

"A couple of steps, Sammy. Hang in there, just a couple of steps. You're gonna have to help me press on the wounds, can you do that?"

Sam's body feels like it's vibrating in a low frequency, like a live wire. Dean is not so sure Sam actually will make it to the nearest bed and he holds his breath until they're at the edge. Sam winces when Dean pushes him down to sit and forces him down to lie on his back. Sam tries to curl up into a fetal position but Dean stops him by grabbing the legs of the jeans and pulling his legs straight out.

"I'll have to get the pants off you, Sammy. And don't take this as a pick-up, you freak." He pulls and Sam wriggles out of the soiled pants. Dean can't help a sardonic smile when his brother blushes. He shakes his head and mutters about wasted college-years, loud enough for his brother to hear.

When Dean bends over Sam and pulls his hands to the side, he sees that the towels have leaked blood right through them. Now granted, the fabric is thin and worn but it concerns him enough to lift them off the wounds and check. The bleeding has calmed, but there is still steady pouring.

"Keep pressing on the wounds, Sammy. I need to get the kit. Lie still and keep pressing. Sammy, you understand me?"

Dark eyes open and glare at him. Telling him to quit fuzzing and that's enough for Dean to turn and go for the kit. His hands are shivering when he grabs it and all the medical knowledge he's ever had is all jumbled up in his mind. Ice, he needs ice to stop the bleeding. With a last look at Sam, he's out of the room and on his way to the vending machines in the hall, fishing for change in his pocket. There's one for coffee, another for sandwiches and the last holds sodas and ice-creams. There's a see-through package holding five popcicles in bright colors. He wouldn't suckle on them if he so was lost in the Mojave but right now he feels they are heaven sent. He drops the two dollars asked in the slot and hammers the button. The requested items drop obediently into the bowl and he exhales with relief and is on his way back to the room before the machine has stopped humming. Acting on pure impulse, he wraps the plastic wrapping in the last clean towel and presses it to the wounds. Sam coughs and lifts his head off the mattress.

"That's cold!"

"Oh shut the fuck up Sammy," Dean snaps. "If you fuckin' bleed out on me I'm gonna tear you a new one. Then I'm gonna bash your head in before I whip you ass till you can't sit for a month. Then I'm - if you die on me again Sam, I'm gonna -." His voice fails him and his head sinks.

"Maybe if I die the deal is off?"

Dean lifts his head and looks at his brother's pale face. He has to refrain from punching his brother hard. "That what you're trying to do, Sammy? Get killed to free me from the deal? That your stupid plan? I made the fucking deal because I couldn't watch you dead! I made the deal because I couldn't go on fighting without you. I held you while you died, you schmuck! And let me tell you, all those chick-flicks lie! Nothing beautiful about it."

Sam meets his gaze with a lucidity that has Dean inhale sharply.

"I watched you die over and over, Dean. There was nothing I could do and -."

"You were in a time loop, Sam. Groundhog Day, remember? It's not the same. Get that into your thick, collage-educated, stupid, skull. Not. The. Same! You weren't standing there, watching me dead on a ratty bed. Gone. My little pain in the ass brother slaughtered like a fucking lamb. The one person I was supposed to watch out for. The one person I had left in the world. I didn't go cold on you, I didn't – Sam?"

Something in Sam's eyes tells him that Sam knows exactly what he's talking about. Something tells Dean that Sammy really knows, beyond skin deep. "Sam. What happened exactly? What are you not telling me?"

Sam closes his eyes and turns his head away from him. "I'm not letting you die, Dean."

He speaks softly, but with steely determination and Dean senses that Sam's changed forever. To what, he's not exactly sure but this is not innocent Sammy anymore. The eyes speak of a thousand kinds of pain and unfathomable agony.

"Well, neither am I, you stubborn bitch."

He moves the towels and sees that the bleeding is much lesser know. Barely a trickle. And he goes to work. Pours the sterilizing liquid into the wounds and stiches them up. Sam jerks with every prick of the needle but he says nothing. His abdomen is tensed and the skin flutters nervously over the muscles, yet he never moves or complains. Only the occasional moan or wince tells Dean that Sam is still capable of feeling pain, that he's still human.

It takes Dean close to an hour to finish the job and by then his hands are trembling so bad that he can't close the kit. He can't even see straight when he goes for the antibiotics they always keep stacked up and rolls two pills into his palm. He can't keep the glass still under the running water and it's only half-full when he returns with it. His shaking hand splashes water all over the floor.

Sam's curled up on his side, trembling.

"Hey, Sammy. You need to take these before you start snoring." He has to help Sam hold the glass while he drinks. Both their hands are shaking, unfortunately not in sync and Dean wipes his brother's chin dry with his hand.

He pulls the covers off the other bed and drapes them over Sam before he lies down by his side. His head is throbbing and he feels nauseated. The questions still won't leave him alone.

He stares up at the ceiling until it goes dim before his eyes that burn and sting with fatigue. He falls asleep with his hand around Sam's wrist. Fingers on the pulse-point.

That night Sam's dies on him. Over and over again. He wakes up in cold sweat, sensing the weight of his dead brother in his arms. Despite the pulse throbbing against his fingertips, he still isn't convinced and has to lean in and listen to the even breaths. Not until he sees Sam's ribcage move does he dare believe that Sam's still alive. Then he falls back into bed and closes his eyes and Sam falls into his arms, goes limp and the heart beats fade while he holds on and screams with helpless despair and rage. And then he wakes again and checks, goes back to sleep and Sam dies again. Dean wraps his arms around him, Sam's heavy and the smell of fresh blood is nauseating. Dean babbles and cusses and agonizes. Tries to shake life into his dying brother. Sam's skin is clammy when he cups his brother's chin and begs him not to die. The eyes are unfocused, lids sliding shut. Dean can't bear to watch it and the breathing stops when Sam's head lolls onto Dean's shoulder. He holds on, runs his fingers through Sam's hair, that's amazingly soft to the touch. He cups his hand around the neck and pulls Sam closer, presses his wet face to the warm skin on the still neck and feels the long hair tickle his face when his tears soil Sammy's collar as darkness consumes him.

In the morning he understands Sam a little bit better. The remembrance of Sam dying in his arms will never fade; it's imprinted in his bones and etched in his soul. It will never go away.

He feels groggy as hell and his head is still pounding when he checks on Sam. Cups his hand around the neck and tries to figure out if he has a fever. Sam doesn't move but his breathing runs fine. Then he goes into the bathroom and balls all the bloodied towels under his arm, casts a last glance at his little brother and walks out.

He almost falls down the stairs because he can't see straight and stuffs the bundle in the garbage before he goes to the reception and pays for two other nights. The receptionist barely looks at him. Then he walks two blocks to the Diner and orders a take-away breakfast; a steady burger with greasy fries on the side for himself and pan-cakes for Sam. With strawberry syrup. A coffee and a couple of bottles of water. He's not letting Sam have any coffee before he's coherent, but if he starts running a fever he's gonna need liquids. He asks for a beer for himself, sensing he's gonna need it to calm his rattled nerves.

When he comes back, Sam's still curled up exactly like when he left him. He wakes him up and feeds him antibiotics and ibuprofein, growling at him when he pouts and sniffles that he's tired. Forces him to eat because if he starts leaking pan-cake, he's getting his ass hauled to the hospital.

Sam does as told, petulant like a little kid. Mumbles under his breath while he glares at Dean and complains about the fact that Dean didn't get him coffee too. And Dean tells him to shut up and get some sleep.

Then he remains sitting on the bed and watching his little-pain-in-the-ass brother fall back to sleep before he again checks if he's running a fever. He feels like he's in a fricken Hallmark movie. He is fucking scared shitless of losing Sammy.

Yes, Dean does understand his pain-in-the-ass little brother. And that's the hell of it.