A/N: Haven't seen this verse in awhile, have you? I've got another story to put in this 'verse, and then possibly one more, but I'm not one hundred percent certain about the idea just yet. Give me time.

Also, not related to this 'verse but still incredibly awesome: moogsthewriter wrote a companion fic to my fic, Closed In. You can find it here, at www(dot)fanfiction(dot)net/s/4688588/1/ (please remove the fake, pretty (dots) with real ones). The piece is titled Guardian, and she did a fabulous job on it. Please check it out and tell her how awesome she is, because she is. Truly.

When it came down to it, no matter how well Dean was doing now, Sam still jumped in to protect.

It was probably how Dean had felt for years, guarding and saving Sam. That sudden twist of the gut that made your chest too tight to breathe, made everything slow down and focus on that single, pivotal move that was going to make or break you.

Sam wasn't letting anything break them again.

The gun was too far away. The demon was practically already on top of Dean, who was sprawled on the floor, and even though Dean was reaching for the holy water and not cringing away, there was still fear on his face. And that was enough for Sam to move into action.

Sam's hand shot out, and the demon went flying back against the wall. "Can't protect him forever," the demon sneered, then turned to Dean. "What, you gonna hide behind little brother forever? Tucked behind his skirts, like a whimpering baby. I gotta wonder why he brought you back, when all you do is cower like a dog." The man's possessed body jerked forward, out of Sam's paralysis, and Sam stumbled backwards with a gasp of surprise. Dean's fear was sliding fast to terror, and without thinking Sam's arm shot out again.

This time, the electricity crackled, slamming the man back into the wall. The demon within him started shaking, black eyes lighting up to a fiery red, before dying out in smoke. The body fell to the ground, eyes open and sightless.

Sam panted heavily, still feeling the power surging inside of him. How easy it had been, and they'd known the man was dead already, but...his stomach twisted inside him, and he clenched his eyes shut.


Sam turned to Dean's voice and found a worried gaze. A concerned gaze, but not for himself. "You okay?" Dean asked.

"Are you?" Sam asked in return.

Dean swallowed hard, but eventually nodded. "M'all right."

"Then I am, too," Sam said simply. Dean's lips quirked up at that, then fell back away to the solemn gaze full of too much self-loathing for Sam's taste. He stepped over to Dean, shaking his hands once to make sure they were rid of any charge, then reached out. Dean slowly but surely reached back up, and Sam pulled him to standing. "Dean, he scared me," was all Sam said.

"Because of me," Dean replied quietly. "You were scared for me."

"I'm always scared for you."

At that, Dean turned to him, a war still going on within his mind. Sam smiled. "Deal with the overprotective nature. I did for years."

It was a moment longer than Sam would've liked, but Dean finally, finally smiled back. "I wasn't that much of a pain in the ass."

"Right," Sam drawled, and got a half-hearted attempt at a pinch for it. There was still something in Dean's gaze that he didn't like, but for the moment, Dean was out of Hell and back with Sam.

He'd take what he could.

Dean had stopped counting how long it'd been since Hell. It only made things worse.

Except for the brief moment of clarity when Sam had been threatened a few weeks ago, except for that shining moment when Sam had fallen apart for the first time since Dean had been pulled out of Hell, Dean was still the same Dean Sam had brought back. Twitchy, jumpy, nightmarish from time to time, and afraid. Not as afraid as he used to be, but still afraid.

And frankly, he was getting tired of it.

Back at the hotel, had been for about an hour. Sam had taken care of calling the cops, tipping them off to the body, then had gathered up their things and headed out, Dean right behind him. Dean had driven back, but the demon's words had echoed in his mind.

I gotta wonder why he brought you back. All you do is cower like a dog.

Dean winced and rubbed the back of his neck, keeping his eyes open and forward. Never up, never down.

God. The hell was he going to get over this? He hadn't been there that long, not long enough for this.

A sharp thud made Dean jerk slightly from his seat on the bed, his head whipping towards the door. The bathroom door; Sam had probably dropped something. Dean snorted in self-loathing and shook his head. "You got a case of the dropsies?" Dean attempted, aiming for jovial and feeling as if he'd fallen flat on his face.

Even the sudden switch from comfortee to comforter when Sam had fallen apart hadn't been enough to snap Dean out of this...this mindset of fear and constant worry. He'd been the old Dean, comforting Sam and instantly dispersing his fears. Now, it was back to Sam protecting him while Dean hid behind him.

His thoughts stopped abruptly when he realized he hadn't gotten a response from Sam. "Sam?" he called. No answer. His heart started pounding in his chest, and he forced himself to breathe deeply even as he stood. The water was running; Sam was probably busy brushing his teeth or something. Hadn't heard Dean, couldn't respond because he had his mouth full of toothpaste. Yeah.

"Sam?" he asked again, up against the bathroom door now. Still no answer, no sounds except the running water. Dean's beating heart was speeding up and pounding harder, and his gut was twisting anxiously as he opened the door.

Then his stomach dropped out and his heart stopped beating as his eyes took in the scene.

Sam only remembered washing his hands and reaching for the toothbrush in their toiletries bag. Razors, little bottles of shampoo, dental necessities, it all went in there.

He thought his fingers had caught hold of the toothbrush; he wasn't sure. He thought they had, and hoped it hadn't been the razor.

The only thing he felt after that was blinding, furious pain.

It had caught him off guard, cutting off his throat from screaming. His head had suddenly exploded, and he'd felt his hand fly up to make sure his head really hadn't burst open, that the pounding hadn't been pushing brain all over the wall. He'd encountered a solid skull before everything had whited out.

Then all he'd known was pain. Not his name, not his age, nothing but white hot pain that flooded through his body, hit his nerves and set them on fire. Everything had locked up, and it was too much, too fast, overload. His head had suddenly felt too heavy, and his hands had felt as if knives were digging in, nailing him to an invisible surface, and his eyes had rolled back to see white hot fire consuming him from the inside out.

When he became aware of himself again, and the white hot pain had faded away, he was still in the bathroom, his body sprawled out on the floor. Above him was a muffled sound, sharp and distorted and rapid. He blinked and tried to focus, but his eyes kept rolling back.

They finally focused, and his hearing began to filter in the words to the voice. "-god oh god oh god Sammy c'mon don't do this oh god Sammy Sammy nonono don't leave me I can't I can't oh god oh god oh god-"

Dean. Dean frantic and panicked.

Sam licked his lips and tried to speak. "D'n?" He licked his lips again, breathing in heavily, but he didn't need to speak, because suddenly Dean was there. In the cramped, tiny bathroom, Dean was somehow wedged between the wall and Sam's body, his face shattered and scared.

"Sammy?" he said, hands reaching for Sam. They were shaking so hard that they were almost tiny little slaps against Sam's cheeks, but he didn't say anything. Wouldn't say anything, even if he could.


Dean's voice was shriller, fear sliding into terror, so Sam found his hands and tried to push himself up. "M'l'ght," he managed, his tongue and lips still not moving the way he wanted. The hell had happened?

As soon as he pushed up, the white hot flash of pain shot through his brain again, and he distantly heard a high pitched shriek of pain. When he came back, the pain fading away faster this time, things were in a different position. He was propped up on something soft but firm, and something was shaking his arm.

"-be okay, okay? It's gonna be okay, just...just relax, oh god Sammy, it'll be okay-"

Sam blinked and felt trembling fingers touch his cheeks, smearing something wet on them. Tears, he realized, and the next realization connected the shriek to himself. No wonder Dean sounded even more freaked even as he tried to be strong.

This was not what Dean needed. Sam could handle pain. "Hlp m'p."

"What? Sammy?" Dean shifted a little, and the hand that had unintentionally been shaking his arm moved to prop up Sam's shoulder. He was half laying on Dean's knees, his brother kneeling awkwardly in the small space. "Sammy?"

"Help. Me. Up," Sam managed to get out, his lips moving a little easier now. Maybe whatever it was would wear off.

When Dean didn't move, he rolled his head to look at Dean, who looked beyond scared, bordering on terrified. Dammit. "Please," Sam said, and his lips were definitely functioning better now.

Dean bit his lip but nodded, placing his shaking hands on the back of Sam's shoulders. "We're going easy," Dean swore. "Just...just take it slow, okay?"

Sam grit his teeth as he was gently and cautiously pushed up. Still white hot flares of pain, but they were quicker in coming and passing, and five minutes later, Sam was standing again, albeit gasping for breath. Dean was all but wrapped around him, eyes wide but grip firm, and Sam moved his gaze to the room. "Bed," he said through clenched lips. Dean didn't argue this time, simply taking baby steps out.

Sam dared to glance at the mirror as they passed it by, and realized in a instant why Dean had been so freaked. There was dried blood running down from both his nostrils, and little trickles from his entire bottom lip. His eyes looked sunken, and his skin was ashen. He looked dead.

Sam winced for an entirely different reason besides pain as they moved slowly to the nearest bed. This was the last thing he'd wanted. Ever since Sam had broken down, Dean had been worse, jumpier and more afraid. The nightmares had returned, though not as intense. Because of that one day, when Sam had fallen apart, and Dean being Dean had jumped in to help.

And hurt himself in the process.

He'd been forced back into being the all encompassing protector too soon. For the good it had done them that day, it had been nothing but setbacks since.

And now this. Sam felt like cursing, long and hard. Dean didn't need this.

But what the hell had happened?

Sam kept shaking through the night, even with blankets piled up around him. Dean had managed to wipe the blood off his brother's face, but Sam still looked pale. And Dean still remembered his little brother's limp body, bloody and still.

Sam continued, though, to insist that he was fine. He'd tried sitting up on his own, kept trying to talk when it obviously hurt to do so, stayed calm even though he had no clue what had happened.

If Dean hadn't been so worried, he would've been pissed. The old Dean would've instantly been pissed and hidden the fear underneath. Not this Dean. And that just pissed him off even more, and left him feeling even more helpless. They needed help. Dean needed help, and didn't even know where to start-

The knock at the door made him jerk, hard enough that he moved the bed slightly. Behind him, on the other bed, Sam shifted, the sheets rustling as a tell-tale sign. "Probably...pizza," he managed to get out. Dean nodded and stood, taking in a shaky breath. If it wasn't pizza, he needed to be on top of his guard to help Sam.

He needed to be on guard at all, instead of being a coward.

"Shortbus! Open the damn door!"

Not pizza, then, but Dean let out the breath he'd been holding and opened the door. The blonde beyond the door was the quintessence of annoyed, hands on her hips, face pinched tight. "Took you long enough to answer," she said, her tone clipped.

But underneath it all, Dean could see the worry, and he was blindingly jealous for a quick, short moment. She was what he wanted to be.

Ruby moved past him to Sam, who was desperately trying to sit up. "Just...knock it off, okay?" Ruby finally ordered, pushing him back down into the bed. "Save up your reserves, or what little reserves you have left."

Something about her tone made Dean pause as he shut the door. He waited until it was closed before asking, "You know what happened?"

"Yeah, and so does Sam," Ruby said, raising her eyebrows at them both. Dean glanced over at Sam, who still looked just as puzzled as before. Ruby waited a beat, and when no one answered her, she heaved out a heavy sigh. "You overdid the powers, Sam."

Dean felt his chest constrict, and one glance at Sam showed his brother's realization come in the form of closed eyes and furrowed brow. "Oh god," Sam mumbled.

"This is gonna get worse," Dean said shakily, and swallowed twice until he felt like his voice was his again.

Ruby glanced between them, the annoyance fading away. "Yeah. It's gonna get worse. It's like taking a new medication your body isn't used to: the first dose goes down fine and does the job, but as you start making it a regular thing? Your body's gonna react." She gestured with her hand to Sam, who was valiantly trying to sit up again. "Same thing, and would you sit back already?"

"I'm fine," Sam insisted, and Dean could've smacked him.

"Sam, just stop," he said, and when Sam continued pushing himself up, Dean moved forward and pleaded, "Sammy."

Sam froze, his face mid-grimace, and caught his brother's eyes. Dean bit his lip and begged with his gaze, and Sam finally slid back down until he was laying flat again. "I'll be okay," Sam insisted, but his words sounded slurred, like he was fighting sleep.

Ruby sighed and rubbed at her head. "I can get herbs that will help, mix up a cocktail or three that'll ease him out of it. At this point, it'll be like going cold turkey. Sam learned how to shoot up, but he never learned how to come down right. Which, as soon as he sees the other side of this, we'll be doing."

The last part was aimed at Dean, and Dean gave her a small nod with relief he hoped wasn't too veiled. Sam would be fine, Sam would make it through. He had Ruby's word on it, and he owed it to her to trust her.

"I'll be back," she promised, heading for the door. "If you need me before I get back, call. On my cell. Doing that demon summoning thing itches for days." She stepped out and shut the door behind her, and left them alone in the room.

Dean swallowed and moved to sit across from Sam. "B'fine," Sam mumbled. His eyes were already sliding shut. "Pr'mise."

"You better be," Dean whispered. He sat and watched as Sam succumbed to sleep at last, and then sat and watched some more.

Two days into...whatever this was, and Dean looked ready to jump out of his skin. He always got more panicked and upset when Sam tried to sit up, though, so Sam finally relented and stayed in bed.

Not that moving was a picnic. The pain was starting to exhaust him, and his body felt weary from tensing and tightening with each shock. The heavy shaking that seemed to startle him awake was down to minute trembling, simply because he didn't think his body had the energy to shake anymore.

And Dean was...Dean was freaking out. And trying to be quiet about it.

Part of Sam wondered if maybe some of the freak out was coming from the fact that his powers were involved. Dean hadn't really said too much about it, even that terrible one time that Sam had fallen apart about everything. Dean hadn't been afraid of Sam or his powers then.

He coughed, the noise harsh and grating in the silent room, and Dean was there in an instant. "Water?" he asked. Sam nodded wearily and let Dean help him up to a sitting position, with Sam leaning heavily on Dean. After a few sips, Sam sank back into the bed, already shuddering again.

Dean gazed down at him, fidgeting. "Is there anything else I can get you?"

Sam shook his head. Nothing that Dean could get him, unless Dean came up with the miracle cure Ruby had promised two days before.

Dean nodded reluctantly and sat down on the bed across from him. His knee instantly began bouncing, and his fingers tightened in the sheets. He looked lost and bewildered, and if Sam hadn't been trembling and afraid of his own limbs not working, he would've reached out and stilled his brother's movements.

As it was, his quiet, "Dean," had Dean freezing and looking up at him. Sam gave as much of a smile as he could. "Be okay, promise."

Dean nodded, but hesitantly. Sam wasn't impressed. "Dean," he said again, and Dean finally stood up, all his nervous energy coming to the front.

"No, it's not okay," he said tersely. His hands were clenched into fists, his hands trembling as much as Sam was. "None of this is. Not you getting hurt because you saved my frickin' life more than once, not you having to step up and play hero for the chicken, and not me. Not anything of me is okay, Sam."

The tiny piece of relief that Dean wasn't afraid of Sam's powers paled instantly to what was really going on. Dean was still beating himself up for not being the man he'd been before Hell. "Dean, s'not your fault."

Dean snorted. "I was fine for one day. One day, Sam, and I was back. I was big brother, I was there for you when you needed me-"

"Still need you," Sam interjected firmly, glaring as best he could. That wasn't changing.

"But it was just one day, Sam," Dean protested, and Sam felt his heart twist in his chest as tears sprang to his brother's eyes. "Just...just one day. That's not good enough for me. I want to be that all the time, and ever since then, I've been worse than I've been since you dragged me out."

"One step forward," Sam started softly. He couldn't keep his voice from shaking because of his shudders, and Dean winced at the sound of it.

Dean's shoulders slumped, and his head bowed. "I know. Three hundred steps back."

Sam pulled himself to the edge of the bed, feeling the hot white sliding up his spine. He breathed harshly through his nose, willing it back, and felt it flare up even harder at the mental order. "My fault," Sam said, and the look of shock, exasperation, and worry he got for it was all Dean. "Pushed you too soon."

"You needed me," Dean urged in a low tone. "You were falling apart because of that demon, and you needed your big brother, and he wasn't there."

"Yes he was," Sam insisted, and the pain flared up to the base of his neck. He felt his body tensing up again, as if he was about to be sick, and closed his eyes. Breathe through it. Breathe through it. "Still...is," he managed to get out through gritted teeth. "Still...still Dean...to me-"

The pain hit again, just as suddenly as before. This time, though, it brought reinforcements, and Sam's eyes shot open as pain consumed him. It was fire and needles and knives. Even as he burned, even as every piece of him was being hacked into little pieces, sharp and hot and serrated and destroyed, and Sam couldn't move, couldn't do anything except stare and silently scream as the pain continued to overtake him. He felt his skin melting away, his bones being broken one by one, and his head being pushed inward.

All around him, he could hear Dean's screams echoing, and tears ran from his eyes. Not Dean. No, not Dean, leave Dean alone-

Something had Sam suddenly, something was drowning him, and he choked on the liquid. No. No, he wouldn't, he couldn't go like this, Dean needed him, Dean-

Was still screaming, and this time, Sam heard the words. "Sammy, don't fight us! Sammy! It's just Ruby!"

...Ruby? The liquid was back, and on instinct and trust, Sam swallowed it, tasting vileness and bitterness before it pulled him down into a dark abyss, away from the white hot pain.

When Sam finally came to, Dean was nearly asleep in the chair next to him. Ruby had come and gone, left Dean with a smaller bottle of whatever it was she'd all but forced down Sam's throat. "It might come back again, but I doubt it," she'd said. "After he recovers, we'll make sure it doesn't happen again." Even she'd sounded shaken.

Not that Dean blamed her. He'd thought finding Sam bloody and silent in the bathroom was one of the scariest things he'd ever seen. But Sam arching up off the bed, eyes wide open and his mouth caught in a silent scream even as he tried to shake out of his own skin, tears running out of his eyes?

Yeah. Ten times worse.

Dean's eyes were slowly shutting of their own accord when he heard the soft, hoarse call of, "D'n?"

His eyes flew open and he pushed himself up to where Sam was slowly opening his own eyes, looking for all the world like a bleary-eyed child. "Dean?" he tried again, his voice sounding stronger.

Dean finally let himself smile, because Sam wasn't shaking anymore. Sam wasn't crying and screaming anymore. Sam was going to be okay. "Yeah, Sammy," he said warmly, reaching out to take Sam's hand in his. "How you feelin'?"

"Been better," was the careful response, as if Sam was trying out his vocal abilities. Not that Dean blamed him; Sam had been out for almost three days.

Long enough for Dean to worry and pace and fret but think.

"You with me?" Dean asked quietly. Sam blinked up at him owlishly but nodded, just as carefully as he'd spoken. Dean took a silent breath in and nodded back. "Okay. Because...because you were wrong. It wasn't your fault."

Three days out of it, barely able to talk, and Sam was already shaking his head, right back in the conversation. "Dean-"

"Unless you conjured up that demon, what happened wasn't your fault," Dean said.

"I shouldn't have let it...let it get to me," Sam insisted, clearing his throat midway through. "Was stupid."

"Stupid that you'd believe it was true," Dean agreed, before he bit his lip. "But not stupid that it got to you. Trust me." He let out his breath and hung his head. "I...I think I did jump back in too soon, though. And that wasn't your fault; that was mine."

"Dean, no-"

"But you needed me," Dean said softly, finally raising his head. Sam's face was twisted with anguish, and he was shaking his head hard enough that Dean almost thought about reaching for the psychic cocktail. "You needed your big brother, the one from before Hell, and I think I used up all my energy to be that Dean."

"You are that Dean," Sam insisted, and squeezed Dean's hand in his. Weak, but solid. "You're still Dean. You're still sarcastic, you're still able to eat things I can't even look at, and you still leave your dirty towels on the floor." He gave a small smile. "Besides, brothers are supposed to look out for each other, remember? Equal partners?"

Dean gave him a look. "And you call this what, equal?"

"No, I call it equality justified," Sam said. "We were unequal for years, me constantly ducking behind you so you could take the shot and take the lead and take the danger away from me." His lips quirked up and he said in a softer tone, "So I learned from the best. And now it's my turn."

Dean gazed down at him and had to swallow hard. Sam was still smiling up at him, and he had to close his eyes and focus on the bottom line, because the unspoken words were loud and clear. Sam was completely okay with Dean not being the Dean from before. Possibly never quite getting back to that Dean he'd been.

And Sam was really okay with it. If Sam could be okay with it, then...then Dean would try to be okay with it, too.

"I'll still keep trying," Dean said, opening his eyes again.

Sam's grin broadened. "You wouldn't be my big brother if you didn't."

Dean felt his own lips twitch upwards, and Sam's hand tightened around his again.