Disclaimer – I do not own Supernatural or anything affiliated with it.

A/N – Depressing Dean – and by that, I do mean depressing. Don't worry; I love Dean, and it made me kind of sad to make him so emotionally and mentally scarred, because he's really not as extreme as this. We Fanfiction authors do tend to over dramatize the characters we write with, but then again, I just couldn't help myself – like a lot of you out there. ;) Anyway, read the bottom A/N if you want background (and I strongly plead you to, because I'm oddly proud of this one-shot). :) Enjoy reading!

Warnings: AU. Self-Inflicted Damage (which is what I label alcoholism, drug addiction and self-mutilation). Hints of prostitution for drugs. Nothing graphic – but I didn't feel very safe posting this 'T', so it's 'M' instead.

Chink in the Armor

Chink. Swallow. Thud. Pour. Chink. Swallow. Thud. Pour. Chink

He's pretty sure that the room isn't supposed to be spinning around him, but he can't really care too much right about now. All he can concentrate on is the bottle in his hand, the shot glass in the other, and the cold, bare emptiness of the room around him. The only sounds are the echoes in his mind.

"…Mom's dead! Why are you so determined to…"

"…talk about her with respect! She died for…"

"…us, because something got her – this…"

"…comes into it! This is about you abandoning…"

"…college! I'm trying to get a life of my own, so…"

"…do you think your brother and I can…"

"…be fine! Both of you! We don't need…"

"…you going? We're not done with this yet…"

"…I am, and I'm going no matter what you…"

"…say. Just watch what you say, Sam, because…"

"…if I need to, then I'll run away…"

Then, the most fatal curse of all. The sound he can't help but hear again, and again, and again. The words that make the silence a dream that he can never have, a hope that he can not get back because those words are ringing, ringing, ringing in his ears.

"If you're going, you better just stay gone, then!"

And that's all he needs to abandon the shot glass and take a healthy swing, straight from the bottle. It's going to be the longest night of his life.

When he wakes up, his Dad still isn't back. A part of him is relieved – to hear that voice would bring up the event that's going to turn into stuff of nightmares for him. But then again, it would be nice to know that someone – anyone – is still there with him. Instead, he's stuck. Waiting alone.

It's been three days. He had to deal with his dad's voice the day after he woke up with a headache the size of Texas and a stomachache that rivaled the headache. He's pretty sure that his liver is still recovering from that binge, and he's not helping it any by continuing to throw himself into a stupor each night.

Pushing at the dingy, tangled motel room sheets, he manages to swing his legs out of his bed before he realizes that he is not, in fact, alone in the room. Thank goodness the knife was ready in hand, forgotten in his shaky grip but there. His dad can't get mad about him being weaponless and unaware in the room.

But he does let it rip. He does stomp his feet and roar and shout. And when his dad is done tearing him a new one, the bottle is gone from the bedside table and shattered glass against the carpet. There's not a lick of alcohol in the room.

And he's nodded along, agreeing with his dad, because he desperately doesn't want for his father to leave him. He's getting flashbacks from the argument that still plays in his head, a broken record, and he's praying that his dad isn't going to leave him, too.

They stay together, long enough for him to remain sober and his father to pull together two hunts. They're in different states, one of them closer to California. He tries not to appear eager to direct them toward that one, but to his surprise his dad hands it right over.

Then he finds out that they're going to both of them. He's got to deal with the one closer to California alone.

He agrees to it, of course. He's not one to back down from a challenge – even when his gut is twisting inside as he watches his father pack, even as he nods respectfully when his father reminds him that the hunt he'll be on is going to take a lot of research before it can be taken on, and then he's standing there alone. Watching his father's truck disappear.

And he feels his already torn heart, which was ripped in two barely a week ago, absolutely disappear.

If he were more selfish, he would have taken the chance to stick around in that motel room, get himself nice and drunk now that his father's supervision was completely AWOL, and proceed to stay there until his father checked in to see why the hunt was taking so long.

Instead, he's more than eager to leave that motel. He'll never see it again, because he'll make sure that he doesn't. He memorizes the name of the place, put it in his rearview mirror, and breaks all speed limits on his way out of town.

When he finally pulls to a stop in a hunt right inside the Nevada border, he considers just driving straight towards that college his brother is now attending. He considers going into California, being selfish in an entirely different way, and sticking around there until his father shows up to see what's wrong.

But then he realizes that he can't. Because his brother doesn't want to see him. And he knows this because that first night, he tried fifty-two times to call his brother's cell. From the very first one, it went straight to voice mail. He started calling before he got drunk, until he was halfway through the bottle and just couldn't take it any more.

So he starts to hunt, and tries to ignore every…freaking…sunset.

He finishes the hunt early, but tells his father – over the cell, in a one-minute-ten-second conversation, that he wasn't quite done yet. He buys himself at least two days.

Unaware he was even considering it, he heads to a bar. But not one of those he goes to in order to track down a lady who's willing to spend the night – no, he goes to the type he's only ever ventured into once before, when he had been head-over-heels into a little crush and she'd been something of a bad girl. After he found out what she was up to, the crush was gone.

Of course, now he's very glad he remembers what she'd babbled about while dragging him into the place. He's got a nice little pile of cash in his back pocket, and he's more than eager to try something that will help him forget everything. An hour later, he comes back to his motel room – back pocket much lighter, but a little brown paper bag rolled up in his hand with something guaranteed to make him forget.

And ten minutes later, he's addicted.

For two months, he's been away from his father – by choice. He insisted that he was old enough to handle this on his own, and his dad jumped to agree with him. In that time, he's gotten several more jobs over the phone, and gone ahead and cleared out every nasty in upstate Nevada that has made it's mark on his father's hunting radar.

Also, he's managed to hustle up a heck of a lot of pool money and blown almost all of it on the drugs.

Some of it goes to the basic food necessities – even half-high and desperate for a hit, he's aware enough to know that he's got to eat. And he was careful enough the first time, even while drowning in his misery, to start himself off with a tiny amount of that stuff.

Of course he knows the addiction is going to increase. He knows that he is addicted already, needing that tiny bit at least twice a week to make it through his jobs. And he knows that this is going to destroy him – possibly even kill him.

But he's half-dead already, what with a heart that's completely ripped to shreds. So what does it matter?

When his dad finally comes to get him from Nevada, he's careful to resist for two days before his dad's due to arrive. He gets some of it out of his system, and makes sure that his father won't be able to find his stash, hidden in the bottom of his bag.

They head off, towards a new state and a new place. He's sad to see his motel room in the rearview mirror this time, but he is also glad his father's not in the car with him. There would be an awful silence between them, only broken by the sound of the shouting in his head. It still hasn't faded.

And his car carries a little bit of the scent that he doesn't really want there. But he depends on it too much to try and get it out.

Their first stop is to help a man with a poltergeist. His dad makes his heart crack and ache when bragging and boasting about his youngest, the man that went to college. He can't help feeling a tad bit jealous, and wonder if his dad would say the same things about him if he had gone off, too.

That his father doesn't say a word about his eldest son's hunting expertise doesn't really register on his radar until the man they are helping asks about him. Then he says he didn't go to college, and that his little brother is the geek, and tops it off with a grin. Only when his father doesn't say anything does he realize that his heart isn't actually gone yet.

The revelation is too painful for him to acknowledge, and then there's an excellent distraction. The poltergeist manages to scratch him with a kitchen knife along the arm, and his dad makes sure that it's gone before helping him up. He denies that he was wounded, since his father didn't see.

In the bathroom later that night, he stares at the cut that no one except for him knows is there. And he wonders how something so simple as a wound could have helped diminish the pain in his chest.

Pretty soon, he's depending equally on the drugs and the knife.

The darkness that has clouded his days for nine more months is suddenly a little brighter when they move on to their next hunt together. They've been working together again for quite a while, and he can hardly believe that his dad's been sticking with him. No matter the pain that it causes when his father brags about his little brother all the time, the fact is that he's not alone.

And then he met her.

She's beautiful and strong, and smart and witty. She's everything he's ever wanted in a woman, everything that reminds him of his mother. Their skin and their hair are different colors and this girl is actually alive – but she's still everything he could have wanted.

He's known her for two weeks, but it feels like a lifetime. He even gives up his addictions just to be around her. He tells her he was getting over a cold when she asks why his eyes were so shadowed the first day they met, and laughs when she says she thought he was a druggie. He thinks that it's good she doesn't know the truth about that.

He thinks of a lot of things while he's with her. He thinks about staying in one town, having a home he can come back to. He thinks of having a place he can stay, where he'll be wanted and know it. He thinks of introducing her to his father – a permanence that not a single other female has ever experienced with him – and thinks of sticking around.

But he's trying not to be selfish, and staying would be immeasurably selfish of him. He has people to save, to help and to keep alive. He must do his duty, a soldier on the battlefield. So he tells her this, opening up to someone for the first time – ever.

A day later, he's told his dad that he wants to take on a hunt alone and watches as the truck disappears.

He doesn't hang around; just heads straight back to Nevada. He makes it there on a heck of a lot of coffee and the rest of his stash and a few more careful, clear slices along his arm.

As soon as he arrives, he goes to an ATM, maxes out his oldest fake card, and is down in that hellhole once more, money in his back pocket.

This time, he is selfish. It's been eleven months of no little brother and he's dead tired and weary of being dragged up and down the country to hunt. He is taking his time. And for the next month, he does.

He drifts, from town to town. Not the little, pleasant country towns, but cities. Eventually he ends up in Vegas, and there he finds a veritable Mecca of everything that he wants. It has the drugs he's addicted to, the alcohol he needs just to sleep, and the women that he can go to when the depression of her hits.

Most importantly, he can stay there without lying to his father because there really is something that he can hunt there. He pushes himself to sobriety for three days, making sure he won't get anyone killed when he goes to take the thing out, and celebrates by not needing the knife or the drugs he's become addicted to.

Unfortunately for that proclamation, he discovers something much more potent in the form of a needle that he hadn't realized was so much better for such a small dosage.

He maxes out an entirely new credit card for that stuff.

He can't remember the last time he looked in a mirror. He can't remember the last time he saw himself. And he sure as heck doesn't remember the last time he saw his father, not just a little name on caller ID. But he does know that Vegas feels like the home he can't remember, now that he's been here so long.

A part of him is desperate for the open road. It wants to get free, on that highway, and just drive so that he can save people along the way. He wants to help. He wants to be the hero again. But what kind of hero could he possibly be? He's a drug addict, an alcoholic, and he's so lonely and tired and worn that he just wants to turn that knife lengthwise already.

It's the last thought that scares him enough to lock himself in the bathroom, all his weapons on the other side of the door. Even though his dad always taught him not to go there, not to even go to the bathroom without a weapon, he knows that by locking himself in and them out that he just might be able to keep himself alive.

It's when he realizes that he's still got the first aid kit in there with him, and there's a needle in his hand and he's not quite sure what he wants to do with it, that he drops everything and throws the kit out, too. Then he collapses on the closed lid of the dirty toilet and puts his head in his hands.

The drugs have him not thinking quite right and before he realizes what he's doing, he's got the phone to his ear and his brother's number pressed into the keypad. It rings, rings, rings, rings, rings…

Only forty-four tries this time. Then he can't stop himself from reverting back to the blade.

A year and three months after the argument, he can still hear them shouting in his head. It comes through even when the rest of his mind is foggy from drugs and it comes when he is on a case and when he is alone and when he's with someone who's not on a case with him.

He sees his dad, finally, and in preparation of the event he's been sober and clean for a week. He's a mess. He's that dependant on everything. When his father asks about his state of health, he simply replies that he's been having a tough time getting over a cold. His father, ignorant of drug addict symptoms, believes him. Or maybe he just doesn't care.

That thought hangs on tight as they take care of two months together, working side by side again. He can't help thinking that his dad's going to disappear on him again, and he knows that its really only a matter of time before he can't take that any more. Without his little brother there, his father has no real reason to come back to him – except to request help hunting.

And that's one thing that he absolutely has to help with. It's the only thing he can do right, when his life is a hidden spiral of depression accompanied by everything bad and sinful.

One year and six months ago was the last time he saw his brother. And now, it's time for his father to ditch him again, leave him behind in a scruffy old motel room in the middle of nowhere. There's not a single bar he can go to and expect to trade money for drugs, so it's up to the blade and the whiskey this time.

Neither works. It's too familiar, not enough of a painful, embarrassing thing to make him feel something other than the gaping blackness in his chest. Just where his heart should be, there's nothingness. And pain.

The idea pops into his drug-induced mind that he can't let go of. If he really wants to feel something new and unexpected, why doesn't he just go to California? Why doesn't he just go see his brother? The shouting in his head disappears at the sound of this new voice – he listens to it, because what else can he do? The idea is far too tempting to pass up.

So he gets in his car and makes it to Palo Alto on coffee, cutting and the very dregs of his two stashes. Yes, two – he's dabbling in double poisons, now. He pulls his car to the side of the road, at the college and ready to do something. He doesn't know what, but he knows that whatever his mind was telling about coming here was right.

He's so high on nothing at all that it's ridiculous and weird. He's wired in a way that the drugs haven't managed to accomplish. It feels similar to what he felt around his father – an addiction that didn't involve inhaling or needles. A sense of belonging, rightness, and hope all molded together in the perfect attitude – and it's called 'family'.

Setting up base camp at a nearby motel, he manages to lock himself up for four days, only stepping outside of the room to grab food. He told the desk clerk he had a nasty cold, so she doesn't bother him. And he stays clean for those four days, so that he'll be presentable to anyone he has to talk to.

He always does this for hunting jobs. It's always one hell of a relief when he no longer has to hold himself back from diving into those glorious addictions he can't break.

He talks to the administration and gets the information on his brother that he needs. The clerk looks at him oddly, but he doesn't really care. That was a day ago, and then he no longer needed to keep up his drug-free facade. He goes back to the motel room, lights up and fills a needle for a hit he desires after four days clean.

He let the room fill up with the sweet-smelling smoke and didn't bother airing it out. He slept, soaking in it, and had to change clothes from the bag in his car so that there'd only be a whiff of it on him when he went into a diner for breakfast. That was in the morning.

After that, he hung around campus. Tailing his brother's form from a distance. An hour ago, he had to drive out for lunch. Now he's back, for his little brother's afternoon class is going to end soon and he wants to see if he can spot him again.

The administration clerk had asked his name and he used the alias he had used when his family was still whole. That last night as a family, he'd just come home with their new credit cards, the names printed boldly on the plastic. He'd joked about that, not realizing that his little brother was trying to work up the courage to say something.

He should have, he reflects. He really should have noticed. But he hadn't.

Sent scrambling for the blade, he manages three short slices before students begin coming out of the building he's watching. He's two 'blocks' down, the standard that he's always used, ever since he could drive and they had gone on stakeouts. The thought of 'they' and who makes that word up has him adding two more cuts on his forearm.

Slipping the pocketknife away, he waits for ten minutes. Half an hour. Still no little brother. He doesn't know what to think, hopes that his brother is just stuck inside talking to a teacher. But somehow, he knows that isn't what's happening. He thinks about getting out of his car and checking to see if anyone had seen his brother.

Then he realizes that there must be more than one entrance to the building. Cursing to himself, he starts the car and pulls away from the curb, feeling that familiar black agony settle in again. How odd that pain of any other type can cancel out that anguish, at least for a while.

He drives back to the motel room, blearily noticing the contrast between the gigantic, sparkling clean school and this tiny, dingy and dirty pit on the very, very outskirts of town. He's practically not even in town anymore. Palo Alto is way behind him.

He parks, barely noticing the taxicab that's pulled into the front desk somewhere off to his right. He doesn't really care, either, because right now he's practically itching for a hit. And he's not a very patient person. He grabs the brown paper bag from the glove compartment, taking it with him as he heads into his room.

Only a second later, as he opens the bag, someone knocks on his door. He hasn't even taken anything out yet, so he just leaves the bag there and heads dizzily over to the door. The room is rank and stinking of his smoking, but it was like that before he even got there. He figures that it won't make much of a difference.

He is entirely unprepared to see his little brother on the other side of the door.

Sam looks great: skin tan, hair the same shaggy and long style, and clean clothes. He knows that he must look absolutely terrible in comparison.

"You were watching me," Sam says, his voice cracking. Sam's not really looking up at his brother, eyes stuck to the ground. "The administration told me that you came by. I remembered the name… I followed you here." The admission doesn't spark anything in his heart, in his mind. No answer appears in his mind. "Why did you come?" Sam says softly.

When Sam doesn't receive an answer, he looks up and his eyes widen. "What happened?" Sam asks hoarsely, stepping into the room and making him step back to allow the giant of a young man into the room. Then the younger brother's nostrils flare, eyes widening, and then narrowing in on him. "What is that smell?"

One year and four months of using, and his little brother pops up on his motel room doorstep and instantly knows that something is neon-bold 'not right'. One year and four months of keeping it all secret and two seconds with Sam has blown all that careful hiding into the open water. Sam has gone on a rampage in his room while he looks on.

He's reeling from shock, just barely managed to close the door to his room before anyone standing outside could see the mess that his little brother is making of the place. He thinks that maybe he should stop Sam, but he simply can't move away from the door more than a few feet. Then he stands there, swaying and unaware. The faint scent is like being tempted with a hit, and he can't help inhaling it over and over, hoping it will do something. This isn't better pain; it's just plain pain. A hit might fix it for him.

While he's standing there, Sam has already upended his duffle bag, exposing the inhalant secret to the world. Then the taller man is upending the weapons bag, which only reveals a concealed knife. He's luck that his little brother doesn't realize – yet – why that tiny little blade is so pristinely clean and separate from the rest of his weapons.

Then Sam's eyes are locked on the bag on the table, and before he can move Sam is ripping the paper and exposing the needle and materials he was about to use. Sam's eyes rove towards the obscene amount of empty alcohol bottles and before he can say a word, he's being manhandled out of the room.

He doesn't think he's ever seen Sam so furious. Not even during that argument that's still ricocheting around the inside of his skull, and definitely not aimed at him. But it's there, all right – the anger, the hostility. Directed at him.

This is why he kept it secret. This is why he was determined not to let his father know. This is why he was so careful about being sober anytime his father came around. Two seconds with Sam changed everything. His selfishness – his need to see his brother – ruined him.

He finds it and oddly fitting metaphor that he's been stuffed into the passenger seat of the car while Sam slides behind the wheel. He's not in control of anything, and he's known it all along. But he's just now realizing that it wasn't the need for a new kind of high that brought him out to Palo Alto.

He wanted his brother's help. He just didn't know how to get it. And now he's got it, and he's not letting that go no matter how hard it is.

The drive back to Sam's college was long and silent, save for the shouting in his head. He tried his hardest to keep awake, since he's seeing his brother again for the first time in ages, but he really can't help the sleepiness that's claiming him.

He finds himself being prodded and nudged awake, and dragged along slowly towards some building or another. He thinks that it's just about sunset, because the season is fall because Sam left them just as summer vacation started. Because Sam's class was in the afternoon and then he was found just after that, in his stinking motel room with drugs and a knife that Sam still doesn't realize the use of.

His head is fuzzy and he's leaning too much on his brother, but his pride has flown out the window. All he is aware of is his body's desperate need for a hit, now that he's gone without for longer than he's used to. Usually a hunt takes only about five days. He works a nine-to-five job now, and he wishes he could tell Sam that.

Trying to speak, he's rewarded with a hush and comforting murmur from his brother – the first sound he's heard from him since his exclamations in the motel room. He doesn't know why Sam is comforting him – he thought that his brother was furious at him for letting all this crap happen. But to his surprise, he's being handled gently, treated like a toddler taking his first steps.

He stumbles his way up a set of stairs, and then he's in a room or a hallway or something. All he knows is that he's inside and it doesn't smell like his drugs, and Sam's got him securely by the waist and arm and he's being dragged along, step-by-step until they stop.

He makes out a door and then he's being pushed inside, and manhandled to something – a couch or a bed, he can't tell. He considers making a joke about Sam trying to get in his pants, but the thought makes him remember the few times he didn't have enough money for drugs, couldn't hustle, and ended up doing some stuff he'd rather forget about. He shivers, hands clenching as he fights the need to go for the knife strapped to his ankle.

Sam's large hands smooth over his fists and his little brother is somehow, also managing to ease a blanket across his body. He struggles a little, unused to such warmth and care, and he fights to open his eyes. "Sammy?" he whispers, and he's surprised by how odd his voice sounds to his own ears.

"Just rest," comes the response. "I'm right here, Dean."

And now he wants to cry, and his heart gives a jolt, because he realizes that's the first time in months that he's heard someone say his real name. He's been avoiding dad's contacts, their other hunter friends, because he just couldn't bear to see them if Sam was gone and dad was gone and he was alone. Months without a single person to so much as say 'Dean' to him, ever since his father disappeared again and just pops up every now and then to give coordinates or ask how the current 'hunt' is going.

Maybe a few tears slipped out, he can't tell. All he knows is, suddenly Sam's thumbs are brushing his cheekbones under his eyes and murmuring soothingly. That might be because of tears. Or it could be because of bags under his eyes, ones that he knows have to be there. Drug use, cutting, alcohol, and very little sleep – he has to look like a wreck. He feels like one.

And still Sam sits on the floor beside whatever he's lying on, touching his face and calming him down, telling him it's going to be all right.

Like he's been pulled from a movie theater out into the midday sun, Dean wakes up in the morning. He can see clearly, and he's no longer caught in the semi-high glaze of the night before. Just the overwhelming scent from his motel room was enough to give him some kind of a fix, because he doesn't feel like a thirsty man in the Sahara anymore. Just a starving man in the middle of the ocean, that's what Dean feels like.

Then he realizes that he's looking at his brother, and Sam's head is in his hands, elbows on his knees. Sam is sitting in a desk chair beside the couch – it's a couch – and Sam's shoulders are shaking as he tries not to sob louder. But that's what woke him up: not the shouting in his head that's only a murmur, now, but the sound of his brother crying.

He doesn't even think about it, doesn't hesitate even when his vision swims and his head screams in protest. He's already moving, already weaving an arm around his brother's back and pulling Sam's face to his shoulder. Sam stiffens, surprised, but Dean manages to grunt, "No 'uns dead. Nothin' like that hap'n'd."

Then Sam relaxes in his grip, letting out a sigh of relief. He knows that, even with the continuous shouting match stuck on instant replay in his head, Sam does still love dad. That's what gives him hope for his wish and hope, his dream of their family together again. Like it used to be.

That's why he clings to his brother, gives him a few long minutes to wind down from his sobs and shaking, before Sam is abruptly pulling back. Dean knew this would happen, so he's prepared for it, but it doesn't stop the hurt. He just knows how to hide it behind smiles and fake jokes. He grunts, "H'ppy with your chick flick moment? N'ver happening again." His mouth is starting to feel a little less fuzzy and he can talk more clearly.

He is hurt when Sam shoves him back onto the couch, but surprised when his brother drops to his knees in front of him. Sam pulls at his arm, none-too-gently shoving the sleeve of his shirt up. Dean realizes that his coat's gone, and wonders where it went as he tries not to look at the arm that his brother is exposing.

He takes in the poor-yet-homey feel of the apartment he's in. It looks like they're still on campus. It must be a college dorm. It doesn't look like his brother lives here alone, either, and he wonders for a moment who it is that his brother's sharing the space with. But he can't ask, doesn't want to, and won't get the chance this time. He already knows it.

"Dean." Sam's eyes draw his like a magnet. Puppy-dog eyes and a heartbroken expression greet his. "Dean, what is this?" he asks gently.

"What does it look like, Sammy?" he answers wearily. He doesn't want to talk about it, not when he won't be here, with his brother, for much longer: his heart is feeling much less broken from Sam's touch and he doesn't want to think about what will happen to him when he leaves.

"It looks like you're trying to kill yourself," Sam whispers, pleading for a straight answer. Dean can't give one. Instead, he caves and looks at his arm.

His skin is eerily pale, and the thin scars from the knife are obvious and red. They're healed, but red. Probably because of all that he's injected into his blood. There are about a million little needle marks on his forearm, bruised and yet healing. And now Sam understands the knife, he thinks to himself. "Maybe you're right."

Dean didn't mean to say that out loud. He didn't want to hurt his brother, worry him any more than he already had been. But one slip of the tongue later and Sam's face makes him look like he's been stabbed straight in the heart. Dean sighs. "Sam…"

"No. Don't. Just…" Sam's starting to panic; Dean can see that. His whole perfect college life is beginning to unravel in front of his eyes, just because his big brother showed up on his doorstep, so battered and bruised because of his own actions and choices.

Dean can see what this is doing to his brother, and he begins to stand up. "I shouldn't have come here…"

"Don't you dare say that." Suddenly there's fight in Sam's eyes again, a burning spirit that Dean knows showcases all of his brother's stubbornness. "You should have come here long ago. How long has this been going on?" There's a spark of understanding. "Where's dad?"

Dean lies. "Research run." Then he adds, "How long has what been going on?"

"This!" His arm is being waved in his own face. "This, Dean, this! Has dad not noticed this, at all?"

"No. Because there's nothing wrong," he snapped, yanking his arm away and smoothly covering it with his shirtsleeve. Hide the evidence from the world. "There's nothing wrong with me." He knows he's being too defensive, but he doesn't care. He knows he's lying, too, but he can't help it anymore. He has to be okay, for Sam. Sam needs him to be okay.

"No, you're not. You need help," Sam argues, shaking his head sadly. "You need help, Dean."

"No. I don't." Yes, he does. He just can't admit it. Now that Sam's here in front of him, he needs his pride back. He needs something to hold on to, so that Sam's kicking him out isn't going to leave a wound. He can't let it.

"Then why did you come here?" And to that, he has no answer. To that, he knows he can never argue what he thought had been the truth, because he knows that he did want help. And he knows that telling Sam about the pain is just going to destroy him as he says it.

So he shuts his mouth, and lets Sam help him.

He stays for a month. He answers his phone and says he's a bit laid up with a cold for the first week, and the second he informs dad it's pneumonia and that he's got it under control. He asks dad to take over for him, and his dad doesn't question it. Just lets him get away with it. The fourth week, he says that he's feeling better and is starting to look up another job.

But for that first week, he's under house arrest. Sam doesn't let him go to the bathroom alone. His knife, previously strapped to his ankle, is gone. There's all kinds of creative methods to help him ease off of his addictions, going cold turkey and needing crutches to keep it that way. Sam did his research. Dean trusts Sam to know what he's doing.

Sam doesn't really trust Dean, but Dean understands why. He understands what his brother's going through, to an extent. And he knows that if he wants Sam to help him he's just going to have to live with it until he gets kicked out of the apartment.

Sam's roommate disappears. At the start of the second week, Dean asks about the person he's never met and Sam tells him that the roommate is staying with some friends until Dean's better. The roommate was compliant with Sam's request, and Sam's friends seem to be understanding people, too.

That is, until one of them shows up and Dean finds out that she thinks he has a really bad case of pneumonia. Lucky for him, he figured that out pretty quick and grabbed a notepad to write that Sam was in class and thanks for the chicken soup, because he 'can't talk'.

His voice screams 'druggie' and he knows that his appearance would too, without the 'pneumonia'. He doesn't find any fault with Sam for this, and hates that his brother flinches when Dean tells him about the visitor. Dean reassures him that it's okay, but Sam still has that guilty look in his eyes for three days until Dean explodes at him.

He's been edgier by the day ever since quitting. It's that fourth week when he shouts at his brother, and Sam leaves the room with a pinched look on his face. Dean saw the tears in his brother's eyes when he left. The mere thought would have sent him scrambling for a knife.

As it is, he holds off longer than he expected he would, because he knows that it would hurt Sam even more to discover that he's given himself a new scar on his arm. But in the end, he can't help himself. He just has to; he needs it too much to stop himself…

Sam finds out, of course, since Dean is not allowed to wear long sleeves. For an hour, Dean is successful in hiding his forearms. Then Sam asks for a piece of paper, Dean doesn't think about it, and pretty soon the pinched look and tears are back – except this time Sam is the one shouting at him.

And if he thought he needed a knife before, well, this just makes that look like he was taking his stress out in a healthy way. The way Sam shouts at him, the way that Sam tells Dean how much he's giving up, how guilty he feels for kicking his roommate out of their shared apartment, how he's worrying day and night to try and make ends meet because a full ride doesn't really cover food and other basic amenities…

Well, Dean manages to hold off until Sam is gone for his last day of school before winter break. Then he fights himself all day long, needing the blade like never before to release the pain that has come from the knowledge that his brother really doesn't want him there. Sam doesn't want to see Dean anymore, because Dean's just pushed him over the edge.

So he packs his bag – Sam thought he didn't know where it was stored – and leaves the apartment. His baby, his Impala, is parked along the curbside. He tosses his bag in and goes back into the apartment to write a note. He scribbles –

Thanks for your help, Sam. I'll get out of your hair now.


Then he leaves for the motel Sam dragged him out of.

Sam doesn't follow him there. Sam doesn't find him. This time, Dean is the one watching his cell as it rings – not forty-four times, not fifty-two, but a whopping seventy-eight times. And over half of those times, a voice mail message is left in his inbox.

Dean sits at the table, phone in front of him, with a large bottle by his left hand and a clean knife by his right. Right above the cell phone is a brown paper bag of the injecting materials. He didn't have any money on him, so he's a little bit sore, but that's fine. And all the while, the cell is ringing.

Eventually, he listens to all the messages, deleting one after the other robotically. Sam is alternately furious and despairing, shouting and pleading. He's saying anything and everything to get his brother to call him back, or come back. He's saying he needs Dean there, that he wants to see him, and that he has to make sure Dean is okay.

Somehow, Dean manages his test of willpower. The blade stays on the table. The bottle is practically glued there. The drugs stay safely folded away. He got sore for nothing, so that damage is still done. But he's sure of himself now. He's sure that he's going to be okay.

He knows that while Sam didn't want him there at the time, he obviously wants Dean there now. The only thing is that Dean can't quite manage to bring himself to do it this time. He knows Sam won't be happy about that, but he also knows what his little brother needs. That's not his elder sibling hanging around, needing help like a pathetic puppy.

Dean had to pull himself together and not impose on his brother's perfect life any longer. He has to be strong all on his own, use what Sam told him and taught him and make it work for him. He had some bad lapses around Sam; obviously he has to take what he's gotten from his brother and get the hell out of Dodge. He's got to finish this recovery on his own.

It's going to be hard and it's not going to be pretty, and he has to tell his brother that he can't come back. Abandon Sam like Sam abandoned him. The thought makes his chest tight, his lungs scream for a puff, his veins for the thrill of the injection.

He sits on his hands and stays that way until dawn, the phone ringing in front of him all through the night.

In the morning, he finally calls his brother back.

"Dean?" It's a frantic, worried Sam that's answering the phone now. And Sam sounds tired.

He knows that he doesn't sound much better. "Listen to me a minute, okay?"

"Dean, where are you? Why did you leave? You better not have done anything stupid or I'm going to –."

"Let me talk for a second, would you?" He finally gets his brother's attention. "Look, I'm sorry I freaked you out. I just…I needed to do something on my own, okay? I needed to see if I could handle it, all on my own, for at least one night."

Sam gets it. "Dean, you managed one night but that's not enough. That doesn't mean you're better, that just means you're stronger for right now. Please, come back. Let me help you. I don't want you to relapse."

"I've got to do this by myself, Sam. You've helped me as much as you can," he gently tells his brother. "It's time for me to get my ass in gear and do this on my own."

Sam protests. "Please, Dean, let me help. You can't do this alone."

"I'm not going to be alone, Sam," he sighs, knowing that he's lying and hating it. "You helped me a lot, and I appreciate it. And I'm sorry that I asked so much of you. I shouldn't have, it wasn't right."

"No, it was," Sam disagrees. "You're my brother, of course I'd help you. Just let me keep helping, I can – I need to –."

"I need to go," he states, hating it as he says it. "You have your own life, Sam, and I can't keep imposing on that."

"You're not –."

He snorts. "You kicked your roommate out for me. Yeah, I did mess up your life. But I'm not anymore, so it's okay. Don't – don't worry about me, Sam. You helped, a hell of a lot, and I know that I needed it. I don't know what I would have done without you. But I don't need your help like this, not anymore."

"Dean, just two days ago you cut yourself again! That's not 'fine' or 'better' – you still need –."

"Yeah, I know," he grunted. "God, Sam, I know that! But, dude, I'm not heading to cruise the roads alone, all right? I'm not going to go make myself a hermit on the back roads or something stupid."

"Then where are you going?" Sam challenged.

He had his answer ready before he left. "Bobby's. Or Pastor Jim's, more likely, since I don't know how Bobby would treat me showing up after that showdown with Dad." He softened his voice. "I know I'm not that much better. I know that I need help. But I'm not going to find it with you anymore, Sam. You have your own things to worry about. You have your own life to think of."

"This is about what I was saying, isn't it?" Sam's hit the nail on the head. He closes his eyes in exasperation as his little brother winds himself up. "God, Dean, that's not – I wasn't thinking when I said that! It's not that bad, and I've been managing it fine! I just got angry, I didn't mean any of it!"

"Sam," he sighed, "I'm not blind. You've been working yourself to the bone, taking care of me and keeping up with your classes and that job." It's true, too. He's not even lying. "I can't do that to you, Sam. You're working too hard to stay afloat in that world as it is, and it's easier on my contacts in my world than it is on you. I'll be fine."

"Dean…" It's a pathetic whimper over the phone, and he wonders for a moment if there's something Sam wants to say that he just hasn't been able to. "Please, don't leave…"

But he knows that he has to be right. "I swear to you, Sammy, I'm going to be okay. Thank you for – everything." He swallows, then, "I won't bother you anymore, Sam."

Then he hangs up the phone.

He follows through on his word and goes to Pastor Jim. He doesn't tell the man anything about what happened, and knows that it will be almost easy to stay sober and drug-free in a church if he sticks around long enough. Drugs are forbidden here, in Jim's quarters and the grounds, so he simply sticks there to resist temptation.

When Sam shows up, he knows that it's winter break. He wonders what he told his roommate, if he said that he was visiting his family because his brother had been so sick and staying with him for so long.

He's sitting in the garden when Sam shows up, reveling in the peace and quiet. The fresh air is wonderful in his abused lungs, but he still feels the longing for that poisonous smoke and acidic injection. The alcohol, not so much: but the blade, now there's the one he hasn't quite been able to kick yet. It's just too easy in a place where none of the other poisons can be brought in – but there is no prohibition on blades.

Sam is behind him, and like a homing beacon turning on he can sense his brother traipsing closer to him – until Sam slides onto the bench beside him, quiet like he is. Then the brothers sit in silence, watching the garden grow millimeters per hour.

He speaks first. "So. You tell your friends you're stalking me?"

"Nah – I said I was spending the holiday with family," Sam replies easily, gently. Like Sam's still afraid he's going to run off again, his little brother is being extra careful.

He doesn't say anything for another long minute before he finally turns and stares blankly at the shaggy-haired young man. "Why did you come here, Sam? I said I wasn't going to ask you for anything any more, and I haven't. Why are you here?"

"Because you didn't need to ask." And that's all that Sam is going to say. He finds that it's best to just take what he's been given and enjoy a season with his younger brother, even though they leave the church while Jim is doing holiday stuff and spend the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth doing nothing even remotely holiday-related.

It's all quite, not-quite-easy calm between them, but he didn't expect much else. Why would there be? This is because Sam felt guilty about Dean leaving. This is Sam's way of trying to make it up to him. This isn't doing much more than make the final departure more painful, in the end.

It's not until the day after Christmas that Sam tells him he's got to go. He knows that this is because their dad was planning to come up to visit Jim for the New Year, because Jim told them as a fair warning. The pastor knows about the falling out – which still echoes inside his head, but he hasn't told anyone about that yet.

He tries not to feel abandoned when Sam leaves again, but he can't help it. Out comes the switchblade and the click of the bathroom door locking.

One year and ten months after that December at Pastor Jim's, he's been on the road for the rest of that time. He stopped being selfish and threw himself into hunting once he'd made up his mind that the drugs and alcohol were out. He's been clean from the addictions for all that time, thank goodness.

But he's found a better alternative to the blade on his arm.

He can't do that when his father's around, and his father has been back for a better majority of the past year and ten months. So instead, he volunteers himself for the dangerous parts of the job. When he does go off on his own, when his father gives him an assignment by himself, he doesn't have to worry about making sure he gets the more deadly parts of the job.

Either way, he gets knocked around a bit and the physical pain takes away from the pain he can't control. This pain, he can orchestrate. It's become a fine art, almost, a deadly and precise dance of limbs, mind and an outside source.

It's also sick in it's own right, but at least this way he's kept his promise to Sam not to do this himself anymore. He promised he'd get better, and he did – it's not really his fault that he gets beat up on the hunts. That's just how it goes.

And then he comes back to Palo Alto. He finds out that the mysterious roommate was, in fact, a girlfriend. Sam gives him careful looks that he pretends not to see, in favor of acting like the older brother Sam can remember from before the whole fiasco that ended up with him on his little brother's doorstep.

Then the demon is back, his brother's life is torn apart, and it's back to the road again. And despite his problems, despite all that he's stupidly done and is still fighting to overcome, he's made a deal with himself.

Sam is never going to do what he did to deal with everything. Dean is going to make sure of it.

A/N – This came about as a combination of reading 'Altitude' by Aegroto Dum Anima and thinking about what that line in chapter four – '…to try everything else', and thinking about what Dean said in 'Pilot' about not bothering Sam for 2 years. And then I just couldn't stop thinking about those two in combination. So, shouting out to Aegroto Dum Anima, thank you so much for inspiring me! ;)

In the argument that is in the first section, I created it to be read as if it is one thing. It kind of flows together a little, even though the argument doesn't make that much sense that way. I tried really hard to make it flow like that, and I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. I just thought it was so cool that I did a few lines by accident the first time, and then I was determined to make the rest of it that way, to. (Go check it out!) ;)

Also, I didn't mention Dean's name for the first part of the story because I was trying to include a bit of symbolism in that. You see, only after he runs into Sam, when Sam is trying to help him (which he hasn't had for a while) does Dean's name come into the story. This represents how Sam is such a large part of his brother that Dean needs him there to feel like himself again.

Anyway. Thank you so much for reading! I would really appreciate feedback from you – what I did wrong, what I did right, what I need to work on. Thank you!