Previously appeared in Road Trip With My Brother 5 (2007), from Agent With Style
Sequel to my friend Brate's story "Underneath" from
RT4, which can be found at: brate7 (dot) livejournal (dot) com (slash) 3826 (dot) html

Surfacing
K Hanna Korossy

"You know, we don't have to do this," Dean offered.

"No," Sam agreed.

"I mean, it's not like we promised anyone anything."

"No."

"We're not even sure if it's our kind of gig."

"No."

Dean made a face at his brother. "You gonna say anything besides 'no'?"

Sam grinned tiredly back at him.

Dean grimaced. "Great, Sam, real mature. I am so reminding you of this next time you say I'm acting like a four-year-old."

There was silence as they sat and stared out the windshield. The park was a small suburban one at the end of a cul de sac: a few dozen trees, a token playground, a tiny creek. And apparently something that had made five people in the last three weeks go crazy, killing family members, tearing up property, hurting themselves. The only commonality all the research had turned up was this little park.

Of course, said research had been gathered sluggishly and distractedly. They probably shouldn't have been hunting at all, and hadn't even been looking for a job when Sam had spotted the headline on a fellow diner's paper. One of Dad's rules was that you didn't hunt when you weren't a hundred percent. But their dad wasn't there, and sometimes…sometimes you just didn't have a lot of options.

"Tell me straight, Sammy, you up for this?" Dean finally asked, turning to his brother.

Sam shrugged, returning his glance sidelong. "I'm not the one who hasn't been sleeping, man."

Dean winced. "I'm okay."

"Right. 'Cause me getting possessed was no big deal." Sam squinted at him from the corner of the seat he was pressed into. "You still haven't told me what I did when it was in control."

There was a beat while Dean considered answering, he really did. But what point would there have been to saying, yeah, he remembered every barb Sam's unwelcome tenant had dug out of his brother's mind and lobbed at Dean, knowing his weak spots better than he did. That he still heard Sam's screams in the quiet of the night, saw him writhing when Dean shut his eyes, witnessed Sam suffer because the first exorcism hadn't gotten all of it out of him. And Dean wouldn't have even known his brother wasn't clean if Sam hadn't tried and been unable to leave the protection circle. What would sharing all that help except to get Sam upset and apologetic and to make a big production out of something that wasn't his fault and was over and something Dean would happily forget? He finally shook his head. "I'm not the one it was in. Dude, don't even try to tell me you're not still wiped. I saw you fallin' asleep while that old lady talked."

"Dean, Mrs. Conyer was boring. She talked for, like, three hours before she even got to what her son had done."

"Hey, I thought you liked the whole 'personal touch, lemonade on the front porch' thing."

"Not for three hours," Sam said with just a touch of little brother sullenness. Then, after a thoughtful pause, "I'm a little sore, all right? And, yeah, I'm tired—I dream about…saying and doing these awful things, and I don't even know what's real or what isn't."

A pointed look at Dean, and he squirmed in his seat. Okay, so maybe there was a reason to revisit the past. He'd think about it. After this case, because Sam was starting to get that stubborn look again. His brother continued, confirming it.

"But we can't just ignore this. This is our kind of job, and people are dying, Dean. We can take a break after."

"Assuming there is an after," Dean muttered.

Sam's eyebrow went up. "What happened to Mr. We-Can-Kick-Anything's-Ass?"

He was exhausted, that was what. Feeling illogically guilty and just…weary. But out loud, Dean said, "Fine. We'll do this. But you feel you can't handle something, you let me know. We can always come back."

"Right. Are you gonna promise me the same thing? It gets to be too much, you back off?"

Dean's mouth lifted with genuine humor. "I'm not the wuss here," he said without bite, and opened the car door and slid out.

Sam copied his actions, casting him a dark, exasperated look that just made Dean laugh.

They were going hunting. With sketchy information and both of them a little strung out. Sometimes, Dean had trouble recalling if they'd ever done things any other way.

00000

"Well, that was a bust."

Dean threw the duffel of weapons down at the foot of what was by default his bed. Sam slanted him a glance. Dean never tossed the weapons around unless he was really frustrated. And Sam couldn't blame him, although a hunt that netted them no prey wasn't all that unusual.

"Look, we don't know exactly what we're looking for, right? I mean, apparent psychic influence—that could be everything from possession to a shapeshifter. We might have walked past something and not even known it was there."

"Possessions localized to an area?" Dean asked skeptically. "C'mon, Sam, you ever hear about anything like that before? And how many shapeshifters would we be talking about? Three of our 'victims' are dead, two more locked up."

Sam tilted his head. "Could be the shifter did the dirty work, then stuck the real victim with the consequences or just killed them."

"Yeah, maybe," Dean mumbled, sounding unconvinced. "You want the first shower?"

Sam gave him another look, but saw nothing more than honest frustration. For an unsuccessful hunt, he couldn't blame Dean. He'd wanted to catch this thing, too. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I won't take long."

"No rush," Dean answered, flopping back on the bed and reaching for the remote.

Sam pulled out a t-shirt and clean boxers and headed into the bathroom.

Okay, he regrouped under the spray of hot water, if it was possession, that would explain the confusion the two surviving affected people had evinced upon interrogation. But Dean was right, possession attached to a place was really odd. And a shifter, while plausible, was unlikely. While they seemed to revel in mayhem and death, they didn't usually wait for their prey to come to them. Maybe it was some kind of curse on the land? Something that latched on to any trespassers? They hadn't done a thorough background on the park land yet, thanks to both of them being at half speed. Or maybe it was just something that influenced any who passed by, like some kind of psychic exposure? Sam rinsed, rubbing at tired, wet eyes. Maybe it would all make more sense in the morning. Provided they both slept well, which was a big if.

He turned off the water and toweled himself dry, slipping into the clean clothes with some residual stiffness. Possession took a lot out of you. There were still moments when his body felt off, as if he wasn't quite settled back into all the corners of his skin, or when there was an echo of something alien in his ear. They'd run every test they knew, double and triple-checked to make sure he wasn't carrying any more unwanted passengers. He wasn't. Sam knew it in his head. It was the rest of him that wasn't so sure.

Sighing, he stepped out into the main room.

And sniffed, frowning. "What's that smell?"

Dean was sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes distant like Sam had seen him a few times those last several days. "What smell?"

"Something…I don't know, sweet." Sam shook his head, turning away. "Never mind, it's fading."

"I didn't know it was still in you."

He froze, just for a second. Wondered if Dean was finally ready to talk to him, and if Sam was relieved or scared by that. He wasn't sure he was ready. "I know," he said quietly. "I didn't, either."

"Dude, holy water didn't affect it. I've never seen that happen before."

It was easier not to look at Dean, Sam's back to his brother as he puttered at…nothing, really, his mind somewhere else entirely. "Me, neither."

"We don't even know if we got it all."

Sam's breath caught. Was Dean really doubting that? Had Sam given him any reason to? Maybe that soft whisper…

"We have to get it out, Sam."

Dean's voice had changed, going low, hard. Almost seething, Sam realized with a jolt.

Something was wrong.

He turned…a half-second too late.

He felt the pressure of the blade go into his lower back as if he'd just taken a hard hit, but Sam had been knifed before and knew the sensation for what it was. The pain would arrive soon, as his body recovered from the shock. Which meant he didn't have much time to stop Dean. From killing him.

Sam's mind reeled. "Dean," he bit out, jerking away, gasping when the knife tore his skin before clattering to the floor as Dean's grip was dislodged. Sam only saw it out of the corner of his eye, but realized with relief it was Dean's boot knife: wide but short. It probably hadn't gone deeper than muscle. But blood was starting to soak Sam's shirt with warmth, and he was running out of time. He held up a pleading, defensive hand. "Dean, don't."

He was talking to a stranger. Dean's frame was coiled with fight, his eyes cold and clear, expression focused. He was assessing Sam as an adversary, and real fear blossomed in Sam's chest at the realization.

"Dean," he pleaded breathily. His back felt tight, hot.

"We have to get it out of you, Sam," Dean answered with a matter-of-factness that terrified Sam like no other tone could have. "I have to cut it out."

Realization flared. "Dean, it's affecting you. You're not thinking straight here, man. You're hurting me."

"Has to be done," Dean said with a slight shrug. There was no emotion in his eyes, none of the regret and empathy Sam remembered from the second exorcism. No conscience to rein in the ruthless hunter Dean could be.

Sam forgot about trying to reach him. Dean wasn't coming out to play, and the back of Sam's shirt was fully soaked now. He had to do something before it was too late; already a wave of weakness was washing over him.

He lunged bodily, clumsily at his brother.

Dean hadn't been expecting a full-out assault and tried to dance away. But he wasn't himself, clumsy and unfocused, and Sam outweighed him as well as having the height advantage. He put all his momentum into bringing his brother down, and they landed on the floor in a thudding tackle, Dean trapped underneath him. At least, for the moment.

The jar awakened nerve endings that had been shocked into silence until then, sending a shot of searing pain through Sam's back. He gritted his teeth against it and stretched himself out, trying to keep as much of Dean pinned to the floor as possible while he just…he needed to think for a second…

Dean's knee came up, swiping at Sam's ribs and sending another hot jolt through his back, blinding him for a moment with pain. He couldn't wait. He had to stop this, now.

Grimacing, Sam shoved himself up on his left elbow, braced himself, and swung down hard with his right fist. It took two blows, each rocking Dean's head against the floor, but then he went limp beneath Sam.

"Sorry, bro," Sam whispered, then gingerly tried to push himself up.

And sank back with a groan as his back erupted in sheets of pain, one after the other. Grace period was over; his muscles were screaming their displeasure, and blood was dripping onto the floor. Sam tried to figure out how much time he might have left in which to act, and could only wrap his fuzzy mind around the realization of, not much. He rested his sweat-slicked face in the hollow of his brother's neck for a moment, gathering strength and wishing futilely but little brotherishly that Dean was up to helping him. Then he tried again to rise, slowly and incrementally this time.

Apparently, you used back muscles in nearly every movement. Sam could feel each flex of wounded flesh as he managed to get himself up to his knees, then, stooped, to his feet, stopping to wipe perspiration and stray tears as he went, stifling moans of pain. He needed to do this. They were both depending on him.

Dean was mercifully still out, but he wouldn't stay that way long. Between Sam's lack of strength and Dean's lack of a glass jaw, Sam was surprised his blow had taken him out even this long. And if his brother woke and went back on the attack, Sam would never be able to subdue him again.

He stumbled over to the weapons bag, found a pair of handcuffs. Went down on one knee next to Dean and then almost kept going before he steadied himself. Snapped one circlet around Dean's wrist, threaded it through the bed frame nearby, because he wasn't moving his brother a single inch, then snapped the other end on. And bowed his head at the thought of standing again.

Dean stirred. Sam pushed himself up, biting off curses and dripping sweat.

Dean's discarded overshirt was the closest item in reach, and Sam stretched out clumsy fingers to drag it closer, folding, bundling, until he had a sort of bandage. Better than nothing, and he threaded it around his waist with held breath, then formed a loose tie and pulled it tight.

He didn't scream, but it was a near thing.

The cuffs rattled by his feet. "Sam? Let me out, Sam."

He blinked through hazy vision at his brother. Sam saw with dismay but no surprise the twist of rage on Dean's face, before it and the whole room wavered. He ignored that as he took a slow step. The smell. That was important somehow…

"Sam! You know we need to get it out of you. It's evil. Sam!"

Coke. The sugar would help, replacing fluids. Sam's fingers didn't want to work right on the tab, and the syrupy liquid almost made him gag. He should elevate his feet. But the smell… And Dean would be okay, right? The others, they had been confused but normal later, horrified by what they'd done. It wasn't shifters, or possession, or even influence. It was the smell. Herbs? A spell? Or something simpler—some sort of gas?

Dean was pushing himself up, half-sitting against the bed now. The Dean Sam knew would have gotten himself out of the cuffs in a minute, but Sam was banking on the same lack of rationality that necessitated the restraints also clouding Dean's ability to remove them. "Sammy, let me out. It's controlling you—don't let it. I can help you, I can get it out."

He might have smiled at the irony if he'd had the strength. Gas. A mad gasser? But they didn't usually cause hallucinations or delirium, just physical illness. Sam sank down on the chair and typed heavily, making mistakes, the screen blurring before his eyes. He swayed, feeling cold and sick to his stomach. Blood loss, not the gas.

Metal rattled harshly as Dean let off a stream of curses. "Let me out of here, you evil—"

Sam read through a haze. Mad gassers' effects wore off, too, if the victim didn't inhale too much, and Sam didn't smell it anymore. Dean would be all right. Dean would be okay. He'd be safe.

Sam crumpled off the chair, onto the floor next to his brother, and knew no more.

00000

It was like waking up from a bad dream. Into a nightmare.

The unreal haze of being sure Sam was still possessed and needing to carve that thingout of him, faded abruptly into the reality of a red-and-black toned motel room, red-speckled carpet beneath him, his jaw aching, his arms stretched uncomfortably to the side.

And Sam lying motionless a foot away, his formerly cream shirt the same color as the floor.

"Sammy!" Dean gasped, yanking his arms toward his brother. But neither Dean's hands nor Sam moved, and as Dean pulled again in frustrated desperation, he realized why. Cuffs.

But that had been a dream, right? Dean's eyes frantically scanned the room, coming to rest on his red-slicked boot knife on Sam's far side. A wash of cold went through Dean. Not a dream. Which meant he…

Oh, God.

"Sammy," he begged. "Talk to me." His brother's chest was rising and falling, but he was too pale, and then there was all the blood. Dean yanked once more on the cuffs, then forced himself to think. He had to get free. Had to help Sam, and shied away from thinking about the why. Cuffs first. Bed frame. Wire box springs.

One minute and two savaged wrists later, Dean was free. He rolled over onto his knees, reached for Sam, then hesitated. But there wasn't time for fear. His head felt clear, the insane drive of before completely gone. Helping Sam was all that mattered now.

Guilt made him even more gentle than usual, cradling head and chest as he turned Sam over onto his stomach. Dean's shirt, pressed into a makeshift bandage, was soaked through and ruined, not that he would ever have worn it again. He eased the knot of it free, peeled it off, then rolled the layers of Sam's shirts up out of the way. Dean's hand lingered on the nape of his brother's neck as even in unconsciousness, Sam's breath hitched from the pull on the wound.

The gash was half-obscured with blood, ugly, puckered, and still leaking. Dean forced himself to be dispassionate as he noted the clean slice at one end, ragged skin at the other as the blade had torn its exit. But it wasn't deep, didn't appear to have penetrated the muscle layer completely. Probably hurt like nobody's business, and blood loss would be a real problem soon, but it was survivable. Treatable.

Dean had always fixed what he could and let the rest go. But he was praying now the damage he couldn't see wasn't irreparable.

He'd been silent so far, afraid to add even more to whatever nightmare memory floated in Sam's unconscious, but Dean couldn't stand it anymore. "Let's get you more comfortable, Sammy, then I'll fix you up, okay? You're gonna be fine. Gotta be to kick my ass for this, right?" His smile died almost immediately, and Dean hesitated before reaching out to clasp clammy skin.

There was no good way to lift a prone body, so Dean rolled him to his side and scooped him up. Well, tried to, anyway; he wasn't in the best shape, either, and it was more like heave and stagger. But he managed to get Sam up onto his bed, then quickly back on his stomach. Sam's body clenched a little, but he didn't make a sound, and Dean was silently grateful for that. He didn't think he could have borne much more evidence of what he'd done.

He gathered supplies quickly, returning to sit on the edge of Sam's bed. Wove a towel under him, then whispered comfort as he started applying pressure with real bandages this time.

Sam quietly groaned, back arching. Dean laid a hand flat between his shoulder blades. "Okay, easy there now, easy," his voice rose over the sounds of pain. "It'll get better in a minute." Which was a lie, but everyone needed hope.

Even Dean.

He pressed relentlessly until the bleeding slowed and finally mostly stopped. The sutures he put in were soaked red by the time he was done, but there was only some seepage left, not the flow of before. Still, Sam was shivering with the blood loss, his face a waxy white, and Dean turned to that problem next.

"Almost done, Sammy, then I'll leave you—" Dean cleared his throat. "Then you can rest," he promised as he wound a few layers of white around Sam's waist, tied it off, and maneuvered the limp body under the blankets. Getting liquids and painkillers into him would have been good, but right now Sam could just as easily choke on them. Dean had seen the open Coke, knew his brother had at least tried to self-treat. After neutralizing and cuffing Dean.

He shoved one of their bags under Sam's feet, laid a hand on his damp forehead to check temp, then buried his own face in his other hand. What the friggin' hell had happened here? And, yes, "Hell" was the right word. He'd attacked Sam? Stabbed his own brother trying to protect him? In what insane universe did that make sense, and why had Dean dropped into it for a visit?

He remembered…hearing the shower. Relaxing a little as he got out of hunting mode. Flipping through channels: news, Simpsons rerun, Home Improvement, something on World War II. Then…the nightmare. Except, he'd been living it, not dreaming it.

Sam stirred restlessly, followed down into sleep by pain and God only knew what other demons. Dean tightened his grip, rubbing soothingly at the mop of dark hair before realizing his touch might not be the most reassuring thing right now. He stood instead and turned listlessly away, feeling like he might burst if he stayed there too long, looking at the evidence of how he'd almost tried to kill Sam. Dean laughed, a burst of sound that scared even him. He was crazy. Had to be.

His eyes fell on the laptop, and blood-smeared keys.

Dean stepped closer, pushed a button to get it out of sleep mode. A page was up about…mad gassers and phantom attackers. He clicked the back arrow, to find Google was up, madd gassrr in the search bar. A mad gasser? Like in Illinois?

A smell, sickly sweet, drifted through his memory.

And suddenly it made sense.

Dean bit off a curse, stared back at the bed. Sam would sleep for a while now, hopefully, and even when he woke, he'd be in no shape to hunt. Assuming he could even stand to be around Dean, which wasn't at all a given. Dean was pretty sure he himself couldn't handle the proximity much longer, Sam so still and silent and damning by his very presence. Uh-uh.

He reached for his jacket, dug out his phone. He had plans to make. And this time, he would take care of Sam.

00000

He woke to shivers of cold and sickness, and knew before he felt the stabbing throb that this was wrong.

"Dean?" he murmured, worry he couldn't quite place lingering in the back of his mind. He wanted his brother, but he needed to make sure Dean was safe, too. When there was no answer, he raised his head from the pillow his face was buried in. "Dean?"

"He's not here right now, kid," came a sympathetic and familiar voice, but decidedly not Dean.

Sam's eyes snapped open as the feeling of wrong grew several-fold, and craned to see who was there with him. "Jefferson?"

"In the flesh." The hunter grinned at him, leaning forward on the chair he was spread out on. "Seen you lookin' better, though."

Sam blinked slowly. Sorted through memories, trying out pieces until he was pretty sure he had them all fit right. The gas, Dean, the knife, his back. Sam stiffened, feeling the wound throb. "Dean?"

"He's all right, kid, just went out for a while. Asked me to stay with you. Here," a hand descended into his line of sight. "Said I should make sure you took these."

Sam ignored the pills and pushed himself up on weak arms, easing onto his side with a breathy groan. A stab of a different sort went through him at the realization Dean had left him behind, but he quelled it just as fast. Dean had left because he cared too much, not too little. "Where is he?"

A small shrug. "I didn't ask, but I figure he's out hunting whatever did this to you."

Jefferson didn't know what happened. Sam was grateful for that; Dean would be carrying enough as it was, and Sam had no desire to explain anything. But, "Was he…okay?" he asked hesitantly.

One eyebrow went up. "Besides being worried about you? Looked fine to me. Kinda tired."

Sam sagged a little. Jefferson knew Dean well enough to notice if he was influenced. Besides, the Dean who had attacked him would never have bandaged him, put him to bed, found him a babysitter. A babysitter with firepower, at that; only Dean would provide him an armed nursemaid. Sam's mouth twitched despite itself, but he sobered quickly. Whether he remembered or not, Dean would have figured out what had happened. And it would have torn into him as surely as the knife had into Sam. Bad enough he was out hunting alone, but in that frame of mind…

Sam made himself push up on one elbow, gritting his teeth against the sensation of a knife being shoved into his back over and over. His jacket was draped across the nightstand, and he fished his phone clumsily out of the pocket. He brought up Dean's number and dialed.

It rang and rang, finally going to voicemail.

Sam cursed, looked back at Jefferson. "Call him. My phone's been…acting up lately."

"Sam, he's—"

"Jeff, please. Call him. I…I just want to make sure he's okay." Which wasn't a lie in itself.

The hunter's mouth compressed, but he nodded. "Fine. Make you a deal—you take the pills, I call your brother. 'Kay?"

Sam reassessed the medication. Antibiotics and Tylenol. Nothing to knock him out. He nodded and reached for the pills, gasping when it pulled on stitches and injured muscle. Jefferson rolled his eyes and leaned forward to drop the pills into Sam's hand, offering him a water bottle next. While Sam swallowed, the older man took out his phone and dialed.

Dean seemed to answer on the first ring. "Yeah, he's okay," Jefferson was quickly saying. "Woke up and took his meds like a good boy. He wants to—"

Sam grit his teeth and reached out, grabbing the phone from Jefferson's hand and ignoring the hunter's glower. "Dean," he said, wincing a little at how weak his voice sounded. "Get back here."

A pause in which he could hear his brother breathing, then, low and rough, "Not yet, Sam. Get some sleep." And before Sam could say anything in response, the line went dead.

He cursed fluidly, ignoring the other hunter's wide eyes at the display of linguistic skills as Sam fought the urge to throw the phone across the room. Of all the stupid, stubborn— Dean wasn't seriously taking the blame for…

Oh, who was he kidding? It didn't matter what made your hand move, what your intentions were, how out of control you were. Your own flesh and bone wielding the weapon against your brother for any reason wasn't something you just moved on from. Sam knew that one up close and personal already. What he'd done while he was possessed was still eating at him, and he couldn't even remember it. Meanwhile, Dean probably still had Sam's blood on his hands.

He reached down to flip the covers back from his legs, then slowly, gingerly began to ease himself upright. If he clamped his jaw down really hard, he wouldn't even cry out.

"What the— Are you stupid, boy?" Jefferson reached out to push him back down.

Sam shoved his hands away with more strength than he felt. "We need to go."

"What do you mean 'we,' kemosabe? Dean's gonna—"

"Dean needs help," Sam said stubbornly. Panting through his teeth, it wasn't too bad. Just mildly agonizing.

Jefferson frowned at him. "He told you that?"

"I know."

The older hunter groaned. "You also know what your brother's gonna do to me if I haul you out there?"

Sam glared at him even as he felt sweat roll down the back of his neck. "You know what I'm going to do to you if you don't?"

Jefferson's eye twitched. "Fine. Whatever." His grip was surprisingly gentle as he hooked his arms under Sam's and lifted him to his feet. "Are all little brothers a pain like you?" he asked with a shake of the head.

Sam clenched his jaw on a moan. "Pretty much," he wheezed, and managed a grin.

Still beat the screaming.

00000

Dean's dead stare had made more than a few uncooperatives break and evil things shiver. But it didn't seem to be doing a thing to the copse of trees he'd been glowering at for a while.

If there was something lurking in there, it knew more tricks to hide than Dean knew to find it. He'd searched around every tree, waded through the stream, checked out the playground. The need to find and kill something was almost overwhelming, but there didn't seem to be anything to kill.

So now what was he supposed to do? He couldn't go back, not to Sam with his pale face and wounded eyes. He would eventually—he owed Sam an apology, if nothing else—but not yet. Just…not yet.

Sam never had listened very well.

Dean squinted into the rear view mirror as a truck approached, then he was yanking the Impala's door open. What was Jefferson doing there? He was supposed to be back at the motel with Sammy, making sure the kid was…

Sitting right there in the truck's passenger seat. Dean jerked to a stop.

Their dad's old friend climbed out, giving Dean a rueful arch of the eyebrow as he went around the front of the truck. "Tried to tell him, but he's as stubborn a cuss as his dad."

"Tell me about it," Dean muttered in frustration. Sam's eyes were locked on his through the windshield, and Dean had a moment's relief at seeing him awake and up, and at not glimpsing even a flicker of fear or hesitation in his expression at the sight of Dean. But he frowned darkly at Sam as he watched Jefferson open the door, then help the kid slide out, one hand around his bicep. Because eighteen hours earlier, he'd been bleeding out on the floor of their motel room: he shouldn't've even been able to stand yet.

"Two of a kind," Dean continued flatly, and he stepped forward. "Sam, what the—?"

"I asked him to bring me—we need to talk, Dean." His hair was damp with his exertion, and he was hunched over like an old man, but his eyes burned with determination.

Dean shook his head. "What you need to do is get back to bed before you fall on your face, Sam. I've got this covered."

"Oh, yeah? Have any luck in there?" Sam nodded beyond him to the trees.

Dean grimaced. "Not yet, but—"

"Dean, man, please. I need to talk to you. This can wait." A hand raised to encompass the small woods beyond them nearly unbalanced Sam. Dean took another step closer before Jefferson steadied the younger Winchester.

"Sam, I don't want to chitchat right now," Dean growled, frustration rising at the sight of Sam so weak, an AWOL culprit, and a conversation he knew he couldn't dodge or win.

"Then just listen, all right? Please. You owe me that much."

He was still grappling with that when Sam's trembling legs chose that moment to give way. This time Dean leaped to catch him, snagging handfuls of his brother's jacket because he knew any grip he got on the lean body would hurt worse. Sam still gasped in his ear, panting against Dean's neck, and Dean raised an arm automatically to wrap around his kid brother's shoulders. Because, when it came down to it, there were some things that were his job and that Jefferson just couldn't do.

Dean looked past the shaggy head at the older hunter and sighed. "I've got him, Jeff. Thanks, man."

"Dude, I'm not a kid who has to be passed around," Sam muttered into his skin, almost sounding like himself.

"Yeah, well, you're acting like one," Dean shot back without rancor, and he hitched his arms a little more securely around his brother. "Come on."

Jefferson turned away, shaking his head and muttering about crazy Winchesters under his breath. Dean would have been hard-pressed to disagree with him just then.

He half-dragged, half-walked Sam to the Impala, shifting his grip to unlock the car and slide his unexpected passenger in. He sat Sam sideways, careful of putting pressure on his back, then tugged his still blood-crusted shirt up to take a quick look at the bandage. "You're lucky you didn't tear those stitches open."

"Shut up and get in," Sam said tiredly, cheek dropping heavily onto the back of the seat.

Dean obeyed only because it made sense, but he eyed Sam uncertainly once he got into the driver's seat.

His brother blinked at him. "It wasn't you."

"Fine, it wasn't me. Are we done?"

"Stop being a jerk. It's a mad gasser."

"Yeah," Dean said, running a hand over the steering wheel. "I saw."

"So why were you out here?" Sam asked with what sounded like honest curiosity.

Dean shrugged. "Figured here was where it was hanging out and latching on to its victims. It would explain the deaths, and why it came after us."

"That's not the way they usually work," Sam said slowly.

"Yeah, well, they don't usually make you go all Charles Manson, either."

Sam lifted his head up, which looked like it took effort. "Hey, in some twisted way, you were still trying to protect me," he said earnestly.

Dean's mouth twisted; here it came. "Right, by stabbing you. Good plan. Which, by the way, is the second time now, if you're keeping count." There'd been one time he'd been delirious with cold, and he'd only managed to skewer Sam's arm. This repeat, more serious performance was becoming a pattern that terrified Dean.

Sam winced, but the kid was nothing if not his father's boy. Dean alternated between loving and resenting him for that. "When I was possessed—"

"You were possessed, not high." It wasn't resentment Dean felt now, just...a tired bitterness. "There's a difference."

Sam sluggishly pushed himself a little higher. "Fine. Roosevelt Asylum, Dean. You haven't got the corner on hurting somebody you care about."

"Sam, just…don't." Dean rubbed his eyes, then looked away, out the driver's side window. It was still early evening, but the street was dead, empty.

"I'm just saying, I know that's not you, all right? Maybe the protecting me part, but not the rest. Hate to say it, man, but I'm not scared of you."

Dean's jaw worked, but he didn't say anything for a long minute. Wasn't sure what he could say to that. His eyes finally slid over to Sam. "You okay? I mean, besides having a new hole in your back."

And, geez, Sam smiled at him. "I'm all right. Dude, that little pig sticker doesn't do much damage, you know that."

Dean managed a half-scowl in response. He didn't believe it for a second, not having seen the wound, not the way Sam looked now. And he was definitely off his game here, even having this conversation. But if Sam—geez, he couldn't believe he was even saying this—if Sam could get past Dean having attacked and impaled him, it seemed kinda selfish for Dean to hang on to it. Especially when Sam was giving him that stupid dewy-eyed little brother look, which never worked except for most of the time when it did. Dean swallowed, shook his head in exasperation, and felt something in him ease just a little.

Sam was still smiling at him, in that soft way he did when he had Dean's number. "I have a plan to get this thing."

Dean met his gaze warily. "What?"

Sam looked sheepish, and Dean already knew he was going to regret this. His brother's, "You're not gonna like it," pretty much confirmed it.

He was right.

00000

"Dude, this is, like, the worst plan ever."

"Ever?" Sam raised an eyebrow. "Worse than when we were kids and decided to sneak along on one of Dad's hunts?"

A pause. "Okay, top five."

Sam leaned his head back against the red-and-black checked wallpaper. "I don't think this even cracks the top ten, Dean. Besides, it's not like we've got a lot of choice."

"I could be bait."

He smiled thinly at the phone, the open line that was his connection to his brother. "Right. And when the gasser shows up, I'll just tell it to slow down while I shuffle after it."

"I'm just sayin', injured guy as bait—never a good plan. Remember Mobile?"

Sam sobered. "That was Dad's plan, Dean. I trust you to watch out for me." He didn't have to add the implied more than Dad would have, because even Dean couldn't argue that sometimes the hunt blinded John to everything, including the danger he put his children in. Mobile being a prime example. Sam shook his head. "Besides, I'm in the farthest corner from the windows. You'll get it before it can get me."

"I still don't like it," Dean grumbled wearily, and Sam smiled again. That was exactly why he felt safe. Because Dean would give up the hunt and all the gasser's future victims, would play bait himself even with Sam's sketchy backup, would cut his own arm off before he'd let something happen to Sam. Sam had seen the peek of white bandages under his brother's shirt cuffs, the bruised jaw Dean would never, ever mention, and the scared-guilty glances he'd kept throwing Sam while they drove. There wasn't a shred of fear in Sam's heart toward his brother, nor doubt in his mind Dean would protect him.

Sam shivered and drew the blanket Dean had tucked in around him a little closer. It was a warm summer night, only the slightest breeze passing through the open windows, but blood loss had left him feeling thin-skinned and cold. The chair he was huddled in seemed unforgivingly hard beneath him. Sam gave up trying to get comfortable and leaned his head against the phone, shutting his eyes.

"Dean."

"Yeah?"

"What happened when I was possessed?"

He expected an instant deflection, but there was only silence. Then a soft sigh. "Sam, let it go."

"Dean, it's two days out of my life I can't remember," Sam argued quietly. "I can't."

"You didn't hurt anybody, okay? I didn't let you, I promise."

"What about you?"

"Didn't hurt me, either—I wouldn't be able to hide that from you if you had, you know that."

"But I did something," Sam whispered. "Something you won't tell me."

Another long pause, then reluctantly, "You just said some things, all right? Demons and spirits like messing with people's heads. But it didn't matter, it wasn't you."

Except…your hand wielding the knife, your voice speaking cruel words: It wasn't that big a difference, was it? No matter who was in control, you were the tool, your malice-twisted face the last thing your brother saw. Sam closed his eyes. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Dean said firmly. "It wasn't you, Sam."

He didn't ask what kind of things the demon had said; it would only hurt Dean more to repeat them even if he was willing, and besides, Sam already had some ideas. But he couldn't resist asking, "Whatever it was, you know I don't feel that way, right? Just 'cause I know what your buttons are, man, doesn't mean I plan to push 'em."

There was a moment of silence, and Sam tried to figure out if it was doubt or indecision. He opted for the latter when Dean said quietly, soberly, "Yeah, Sammy, I know."

And because he never had known when to leave well enough alone, "And I know it wasn't you yesterday, too."

He could almost see Dean's grimace. Knew Dean only answered because Sam needed him to. "Just don't expect me to be okay with having buried a knife in my little brother's back, all right?"

"Fair enough." Sam nodded. "Just…stop beating yourself up about it at least, okay?"

Only the slightest hesitation this time. "Whatever, dude."

Which was Dean's way of saying he'd try. The relief that flooded Sam was unexpected. That Dean would work on forgiving himself, that he had forgiven and trusted Sam even though Sam had burned him before, that Sam hadn't turned into something unforgivable while he hadn't been in control. "Good," he said warmly. "'Cause—"

The smell touched his nose, just a hint of it, but it grew stronger as Sam sniffed, frowning. Too sweet, like rotting fruit or perfumed flowers. He knew that smell. Sam's heart started thudding.

"Dean," he gasped, "it's here!"

00000

Dean's spine snapped straight as he shot up out of the bushes he'd been crouched in. What? But the porch in front of the motel room was empty, the two open windows unblocked, the door still closed. That only left one window, in the rear of the room, but they'd left that one closed and locked. Sam was sitting next to it…

Dean cursed and lunged for the back of the motel strip.

"On my way," he spat into the phone as he ran. "Get down on the floor, Sam." And then his arms were pumping too fast to talk.

He had to round three more rooms to reach the end of the strip and get to the back of the motel. Dean knew this plan had been stupid from the start, thinking they could maneuver a gasser into a trap. They didn't have enough info about the things, and for all Dean knew, they could walk through walls. He shouldn't have left Sam, shouldn't have let the kid talk him into being bait, shouldn't have let himself get gassed or Sam possessed in the first place…

There was a shadow by their back window. Tall and vaguely person-shaped, but Dean couldn't make out any other details besides that it had one appendage pressed against the window glass. Son of a… "Hey!" he barked when he was close enough, the Beretta already in his hand.

Red eyes whipped around to face him.

That was all the proof he needed that this was prey he could kill, if endangering Sam wouldn't have already given him permission. Dean let off three shots, two center mass, one aimed between those red eyes, and prayed the consecrated bullets would work on whatever this thing was.

The black form dropped, writhing.

Dean skidded up to its side just in time to see that it wasn't suffering, it was disintegrating. The whole Jedi bit looked unpleasant, though, black flesh peeling off ghostly bones, which dwindled as if acid had been poured on them. The red eyes were one of the last things to go, staring at him with wide accusation until they faded, too, leaving only limp ebony cloth behind.

Dean could've care less; the thing was neutralized. Sam was what mattered now.

He glanced in the window, saw nothing from that angle, and considered for a moment breaking the glass. But there was no indication the situation was that dire, and the last thing they needed with Sam possibly feeling homicidal was a lot of potential sharp weapons and a Dean who was distracted for a moment. He tucked the gun back into his waistband and started running back the way he came.

Two other motel patrons had stuck their heads out of their doors, looking for the source of the gunfire, and Dean barely paused to shrug off their questions with an "I don't know" before he burst into the room.

Sam was sitting on the floor, pressed into the corner, eyes swinging wildly around the room. His stare was immediately drawn to Dean upon his entrance, and the elder Winchester felt his heart sink at the sight of Sam's unfocused gaze. So much for the gas maybe not having gotten to him.

But as he reached his brother, the smell wasn't that strong. Maybe Sam hadn't gotten a full dose? Dean crouched in front of him, gazing intently into Sam's eyes.

"Hey. You all right?"

"Dean." Sam's voice sounded stretched thin with strain. He set a hand down on the carpet to push himself up, flinching and trembling but still trying. "Dean, I have to go."

"Why, Sam?" He reached out to his brother, freezing when Sam cringed away from him. Dean dropped his hand on his own knee instead, and bent down to catch Sam's eyes again while carefully keeping his distance. "Sam?"

Dark hair heavy with dampness shook, concealing Sam's eyes. "Don't touch me. Need to get—get away from you." He groaned as he tried to rise once more, and pulled at his stitched back.

They still hadn't figured out what the gas did exactly, but paranoia had been high on Dean's suspect list before. Now, he was thinking maybe it just brought out hidden truths.

"Sam, I'm not gonna hurt you," Dean insisted softly, painfully.

"No." Sam shook his head again, every motion a little too exaggerated, eyes wild. "No. I have to…" His breathing sped up until he was panting. Having given up on standing, Sam tried to crawl around past Dean. "I'm gonna hurt you. I have to go."

Dean blinked. That was what Sam was scared of? Not that Dean would hurt him, but that he was a danger to his brother? The bitter frost inside him began to thaw, leaving only warmth behind, warmth and what felt suspiciously like love.

Dean leaned forward, wrapping a hand around his brother's arm, keeping him where he was. "Dude, you're not gonna hurt me—you're the one who's hurt, remember?" he said gently. Like he would talk to a preschool Sam, which was about the level of comprehension that shone out of the confused hazel eyes.

"Dean, let me go."

He brought up his other hand in response, loosely pinning Sam by his arms. "Never gonna happen, Sammy."

Sam's breathing was ragged. "Don't you get it? I'm dangerous. I can…I can do these things, Dean. One slip and I—"

"I won't let you slip, Sam, all right?" He stared hard into confused eyes. "I promise. Nobody's hurting anybody. We're gonna be fine."

Sam was blinking hard. "You promise?"

"Yeah, I do."

Sam's chin dropped. "I don't want to hurt you."

"You won't."

"I don't want to be alone, Dean."

His mouth twitched. "Yeah."

Maybe the gas did bring out deep truths.

Sam finally sighed his surrender, head tipping back against the wall, eyes shutting.

Dean just sat with him, rubbing up and down his arms soothingly, and waited for his brother to come back to him all the way.

00000

Sam packed slowly, both in deference to his back and because he wasn't really in a hurry to hit the road. They'd stayed in town two days longer to give him time to heal, although Dean had relocated them down the road after declaring the red-and-black room was driving him insane, and Sam hadn't argued. His healing back probably wouldn't love the hours in the car, but it wasn't bad anymore. That wasn't the source of Sam's reluctance.

Spending hours in the car with Dean, on the other hand…

Not like Dean hadn't been there with him all the time since they'd killed the gasser, except for some quick excursions to get some food or pick up reading material for Sam. But between the books and TV and the additional sleep his body still craved, they hadn't interacted much. Honestly, Sam wasn't sure what to say. It seemed like something that had stood between them was gone, but he wasn't sure how much he remembered besides panicking in a heap on the floor and Dean holding him like he was some little kid afraid of the dark.

He was embarrassed. Dreading the teasing or, even worse, the sympathy in Dean's eyes in the aftermath of the last week. Sometimes he hated being the little brother.

Dean came back in the door, looking around the room for anything they might have left behind, then glancing at Sam. "You ready?"

"Yeah, almost." He squeezed in the last t-shirt—Dean had gone shopping for him one day to replace the bloody, sliced clothes and had gone a little overboard—and pulled the zipper closed. But he didn't move to get up off the bed, looking around the room with vague uncertainty.

He could feel Dean's eyes on him. "We can stay a little longer, Sam—Taloosa can wait. Comfortable beds here for once."

His mouth curled faintly at that. Dean had seemed to be sleeping better since they got there, and Sam doubted it was just because of the beds. "I'm good, man." He stood, only wincing a little.

Dean looked at him for a moment more, then nodded with a quick grin. "Awesome. I found a tape at the thrift store I wanna try out." A tilt of the head. "You're gonna love it, Sammy."

Which all but guaranteed he wouldn't. But there was no mockery in Dean's grin, no pity in his eyes. Just happiness at hitting the road again, at Sam being there with him. At moving on.

And, yeah, just a little watchful concern, because Dean would always be his protective big brother.

Sam could live with that.

He picked up his duffel and followed Dean out the door, shutting it behind them.

The End