A/N: A tag to Sex and Violence. Given how this episode ended, and how long we have to wait for the next one, I wanted the boys to talk. And, because it's me, I threw in a dash of comfort to help ease the heaping helping of hurt the brothers dumped on each other. Spoilers for Sex and Violence, obviously, but nothing beyond that.

DISCLAIMER: The characters of Sam and Dean Winchester belong to Eric Kripke. Here, hopefully, I'm bandaging up the toys he's left broken in his sandbox.

THE DEEPEST CUT

He'd said it. He couldn't deny it or take it back. And now it played in his head in an endless loop, his own voice ripping into him in a relentless reminder of how vicious his words had been.

"You're too busy sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, whining about all the souls you tortured in Hell. Boo hoo."

Sam felt sick. He'd never seen Dean more emotionally destroyed than when he'd made that roadside confession about his time in Hell but, under the influence of the siren, Sam had mocked him for it.

He glanced over at Dean, his brother's game-face firmly in place as he sat behind the wheel, eyes focused on the road ahead. His left hand loosely gripped the wheel while he cradled his injured right arm protectively in his lap.

Sam's gaze travelled to Dean's shoulder, to the stab wound now hidden beneath his shirts. Bobby had controlled his strike so the cut was small and just deep enough to yield the blood needed to kill the siren. The wound had been cleaned, stitched and bandaged and would mend quickly. The brothers' verbal attacks on each other had been far less controlled and cut far deeper, the siren's venom twisting and distorting pent-up worries and fears into anger and accusation.

Sam's stomach roiled again. "You know I didn't mean the things I said back there, right? That it was just the siren's spell talking."

Dean had answered quickly. Too quickly. "Course. Me too."

"So we're good?"

"Yeah. We're good."

Sam swallowed against the bile rising in his throat, turning to stare out the passenger door window as the landscape hurtled by them. Good? They were anything but good. The truths at the heart of each barb sat like a herd of elephants between them, impossible to ignore. And yet, in true Winchester fashion, that's exactly what each was prone to do; stubbornly rebury everything the siren had used to provoke the fight and move on like nothing had happened.

But the fallout from the siren's sophistry couldn't be overlooked. Even the stereo was uncharacteristically silent, the quiet magnifying the tension. Zeppelin had pounded out of the speakers when Dean first turned the key in the ignition that morning but he'd snapped off the music with a snarled curse at 'Nick' for tainting what had always been a source of comfort.

Sam winced as he shifted in his seat, a deep bruise near his kidneys loudly protesting the movement. When Dean had slammed him into the door, taking them both down and the door off its hinges, the doorknob had been driven into Sam's lower back. The impact had winded him, the pain momentarily paralyzing him – and that had given Dean the opening he needed to go in for the kill.

And if Bobby hadn't shown up, Dean would have killed him. His brother, who had spent his entire life protecting him from threats both real and imagined, who had gone to Hell to save him, would have taken off his head with fire axe.

And that would have killed Dean. With sickening certainty, Sam knew that by the time police arrived on the scene, there would have been two bodies in that hotel hallway. It wouldn't matter one iota to Dean that he'd been under the siren's influence; he couldn't, wouldn't, live with taking his brother's life.

Sam leaned his head against the window, rolling his forehead on the cool glass as another wave of nausea washed over him. How screwed was it that each was so willing to die to keep the other safe and yet, lately, had done nothing but hurt each other?

" … whining about all the souls you tortured …"

Sam cringed at the callous barb. Dean had never been cruel. As a hunter, he could be brutal when called for, but to be forced to hurt others, just to stop his own pain … Alistair was a master torturer and he'd honed in on the best means possible to rip Dean apart. Guilt.

And that guilt still tormented his brother – guilt over not being able to hold out longer, over making others suffer so he didn't have to … over meting out the agony and enjoying it.

Enjoying it. Sam's jaw clenched. He'd never believe his brother enjoyed torturing others, even damned souls. To him, it was just Dean's battered psyche confusing absence of pain with pleasure, and fuelling even more guilt in the process.

And now, under the siren's influence, Sam felt as culpable as Alistair of exploiting Dean's guilt to inflict pain. He slammed his forehead against the glass in anger.

"Sam?"

He startled at Dean's voice, the single word heavy with concern. Always concern. As devastated as his brother was, as thick as the tension was between them, Dean still instinctively worried about him.

"Hey." Dean's frown deepened at Sam's lack of response.

"I'm fine." Sam's obvious lie fooled neither of them, but it was all he had until he could figure out a way to set things right. Everything he'd done was to try to end this war they'd been thrown into, to give them a chance to just be brothers again. So it was a cruel irony that with every step and mis-step, the chasm between them widened.

"The Sam I knew … he's gone."

Sam screwed his eyes shut. Dean's words stung, but he couldn't disagree with them. He'd lost so much of himself in the past few years that sometimes it was hard to recognize what was left. The Sam who'd took off for Stanford, who dreamed of a so-called normal life, was long gone. Sam: Jessica's would-be fiancé was a stranger to him. Even Sam: John's angry son, a role he'd played most of his life, was little more than a distant memory. But the hardest to lose was Sam: Dean's brother, that role ripped from him the day Lilith dragged Dean into Hell.

All he had left then was Sam Winchester: hunter, the role he'd never wanted. And without his brother as partner and protector, he'd hardened – to the point he barely knew the man staring back at him in the mirror. He was cold, distant, suicidal – everything Dean's little brother wasn't.

When Dean had shown up at the hotel in Pontiac, when Sam had hugged him, it was the first time he'd really allowed himself to feel since Dean's death. But as good as it felt, as right as it seemed, he hated the vulnerability. In the months since, his edges had softened but he was still far different from the Sam he used to be.

His brother was different too. There were flashes of the old Dean – when he'd met Jaime at Oktoberfest, when he'd consoled Sam after his first meeting with the angels – but the nightmares and heavy drinking were constant reminders of what he'd been through and the scars he still carried.

Sam had seen the terror in Dean's eyes when Uriel had threatened to send his brother back to Hell. His jaw clenched. That would never happen – no matter what he had to do.

Sam's stomach lurched violently. "Pull over."

Dean looked at Sam, startled. "What?"

"Pull over. Now." Sam was already twisting around, fumbling with the door handle, fighting to get it open.

"Jesus, Sam." Dean grabbed Sam's jacket sleeve as he hit the brakes and steered the car onto the shoulder of the road. "You trying to get yourself killed? Just wait 'til I-"

Sam yanked his arm free of Dean, pushed open the door and stumbled out onto the gravel before the car came to a full stop. He fell to his knees and retched, throwing up soda and bile, all that was in his stomach.

The throaty rumble of the Impala's engine disappeared behind him, replaced by the familiar creaking groan of hinges as the driver's-side door was shoved open. Gravel crunched quickly under foot as Dean scrambled around the car to his brother's side.

Eyes watering as he retched, Sam sensed his brother crouch beside him, felt Dean's hand rest on his back. The hands that had punched him almost senseless the night before now fulfilled a far more familiar role – offering silent comfort.

"Get rid of it, Sammy." Dean's hand stayed on his back as Sam threw up again. "Trust me; you'll feel better when it's gone."

Sam coughed and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth as he shot a puzzled look at Dean.

Dean smiled tightly. "It's the siren venom. I puked my guts up in the shower this morning. You got dosed later than me, so I'm guessing it just took longer to work its way through your system." He patted Sam's lower back as his brother retched again, then frowned as Sam flinched at his touch. "Sam?"

Any ability to answer was lost in another violent heave but Sam instinctively twisted away from Dean's hand and the inadvertent pressure on his bruised back.

Worry and suspicion deepened Dean's frown. Too quickly for Sam to protest, he hauled up his brother's shirts. Sam's back was littered with bruises but Dean's eyes widened at the large, liver-like contusion, deep reds and purples blending with varying shades of black, just above the waistband of his jeans.

Hands responsible for most of the bruises now gently pressed the skin, assessing the severity of the injury. "Damn it – you should have said something. This is right over your kidneys."

Sam dragged the back of his wrist over his mouth. "It's just a bruise." He winced at the subtle pressure of Dean's fingers.

Dean scowled worriedly. "No. It's an iceberg of a bruise – it's not what you can see that's the problem; it's what's underneath." He sat back on his heels. "It's not rigid though, so I don't think there's any internal bleeding." He looked up at Sam. "Any blood in the toilet last time you peed?"

Sam scowled at his brother in between heaves. "Jesus, Dean ..."

Dean's stare didn't waver. "Well?"

Sam coughed, shaking his head. "No." He sensed his brother relax slightly as he pulled down Sam's shirts and his hand returned to between his shoulder blades.

"Good."

Another wave of nausea washed over Sam. His vision blurred and his limbs shook as he threw up again, his stomach clenching painfully as the retching became dry heaves. Dean said nothing but his hand stayed on his brother's back. Then, as the heaves subsided, Sam nodded at Dean and accepted his brother's help as he pushed himself back toward the car, collapsing against the rear wheel. He sat on the gravel, scrubbing a hand across his face to clear his watering eyes, before drawing up his knees, resting his elbows on his thighs and holding his pounding head in his hands.

Dean disappeared from his side. Sam heard the familiar groan of the trunk opening and then Dean was back beside him, cracking open a bottle of water and pouring half of it onto a facecloth they'd once swiped from some motel. He bent down and offered the damp cloth to his brother.

"Here, this'll help."

Sam took the towel, again nodding his thanks, then scrubbed the cloth over his face. When he looked up again, Dean was handing him the open bottle of water.

"Drink up." His eyes scanned Sam, assessing him as only Dean could, instinct honed by years of practice. Satisfied the worst was over, a smirk toyed with his lips. "You want me to dig out your toothbrush, or will the roll of Mentoes in the glove box do?"

Sam took a long drink of water then glanced up at his brother. "We really gonna do this, Dean? Sweep it all under the rug. Pretend this fight never happened?"

"It was the siren..." Dean's smile was gone as he looked off into the distance, rolling the cap of the water bottle absently between his thumb and his finger. "Tricky bitches – that's what Bobby called 'em. He … she … it … twisted everything around."

Sam stared at the damp towel in his hand. "Doesn't make the truth in what we said, what I said, go away."

Dean's voice held an equal mix of hurt and anger as he turned back to look at Sam. "So, what? You really think you're a better hunter than me? That I'm weak? I'm holding you back?"

"No … and yes." Sam swallowed. He'd opened the door, now he had to go through it. "I think I'm a better hunter than you give me credit for. I think that Hell ripped you apart, inside and out, did more damage than you'll ever admit to me, or even yourself." His jaw clenched. "And I know you're holding me back – your words, Dean, "If I don't stop you, they will."

Dean stared again at the bottle cap in his right hand, stood up, then threw it suddenly, as far and as hard as he could as if it was a live grenade. He grunted as pain ripped through his injured shoulder, and then whirled on Sam. "And that doesn't scare you? That angels don't want you using your abilities? That God doesn't? Cause I'm telling you, Sam, it should."

"It scares the crap out of me." Sam looked up at Dean, his jaw set but his eyes betraying his tenuous hold on his emotions. "But in case you hadn't noticed, we're losing this war. Half the seals are open and we're no closer to stopping Lilith than when you got out of Hell." His voice dropped noticeably in volume. "My … what I can do, pulling demons, it's the best chance we've got."

Dean scrubbed a hand across his face. "You're playing with fire, Sammy – your words." He shook his head. "Remember Uriel? Big guy … king of the dicks? Threatened to turn you into dust if you didn't stop."

Sam swallowed. "If he wants me to stop, then I need to know why."

Dean's jaw clenched. "I don't think God feels a need to explain himself. The angels made it pretty clear; they're told what to do and they do it – no questions asked. Disobedience gets them dead."

"Well, I'm no angel," Sam snapped. "Demon blood, remember? So I'm asking – why? Why, huh? Why can't I take this crap hand I've been dealt, use it to do some good? To take out demons and save innocent people – people who would be just road kill in a war they don't even know is taking place.

"And maybe, just maybe, in the process, get revenge against Lilith, against Alistair, rip them apart for what they did to you … did to us." Sam curled his fists to bring his shaking hands back under control. "An eye for an eye – pretty biblical, when it comes down to it. So why shouldn't I, huh?"

Dean's voice was tight. "Because Yellow Eyes didn't give you these abilities to help people. I don't know what his end game is, Sammy. Hell, the angels don't even know; but it isn't good, trust me on that."

Hurt diffused the anger blazing in Sam's eyes. "Like you trust me?"

Dean held his brother's gaze for a moment before crouching down beside Sam, his eyes falling to his brother's chest. He hesitated for a moment, then tapped his fist over Sam's heart. "The Sam in here, I trust with my life – always have, always will." His hand fell away and he looked up again at his brother. "But, out here, with all the crap raining down on us … where we've got angels being dicks and demons being helpful, I can't trust that the sky will be blue tomorrow."

He shook his head. "Nothing's the way it should be, Sammy. Especially you." Dean's voice softened at the hurt that flashed again in Sam's eyes. "Remember when you told me, 'I wish you'd drop the show and be my brother again?' Well I'm asking the same of you. Let's fight this the way we always have … before Ruby, before your powers, before Hell … just you and me – Butch and Sundance with a much better ride."

Sam rolled his eyes at his brother's ill-timed humour. "Butch and Sundance jumped off a cliff."

Dean shrugged. "But they went together – their way." He held his brother's gaze. "And that's my point. I wanna do this our way. Whatever the outcome. I don't want angels or demons pulling strings, making us dance …" Dean's jaw clenched. "And I sure as hell don't want us on opposite sides."

Dean's words stole the air from Sam's lungs. His voice was barely audible. "I'm not evil."

Dean reached over, his hand resting briefly on Sam's shoulder before sliding around the back of his neck and turning his brother's head to face him. "I know that. And that's my problem with all this, Sam. The Terminator has a heart. You may have changed, but there's still enough of the old Sam in there for Ruby to prey on … to manipulate … talk you into doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons."

Sam eyes flashed angrily, pulling from Dean's hold. "I'm not a stupid kid or a mindless puppet. I know what I'm doing. I'm not gonna let it go too far."

Dean's eyes narrowed. "And where's the line? How will you know when you've gone too far?"

"I don't know, but it's a risk I have to take," Sam said, quietly. "So much of my life, I've had no say in how things played out. I didn't choose demon blood. I didn't choose to become a hunter. I didn't choose to have abilities." He looked up at his brother. "But this is my choice. To use what I have and fight back."

Now it was Dean's turn to look nauseous. "Damn it, Sammy ..." He turned around and sat in the gravel at his brother's side. He shook his head, then looked over at Sam. "What you do, what you can do, scares the crap out of both sides – and that puts you on a track with two speeding locomotives coming at you from opposite directions. Right now, I don't know which train is faster or stronger; I just know that, if you don't get out of the way, if I can't pull you out of the way ..."

"Then trust me to know when to jump off the track." Sam held his brother's gaze. "You've been looking out for me all my life, Dean, and, believe me, there's a part of me that wishes my big brother could just fix this. Always will be." His jaw clenched. "But you can't. Not this time…"

He swallowed. "I can't pretend to know what you went through … but here, on my own, I did what I had to to survive. You may not like some of my choices, some of the ways I've changed, but it's who I had to be to get through this. Who I have to be to get us through." He shook his head. "No one's happier than me to have you back, but it doesn't mean we can just go back to the way it was before the deal – with you making the decisions, with me following your lead."

Dean's eyebrow quirked. "When exactly did you sit back and let me make all the decisions? You've questioned everything since you were old enough to talk. I swear, your first word was 'why?'"

Sam sighed. "I just mean I'm your brother and your partner … but I'm not the little kid who needs his nose wiped any more. I make my own decisions, and sometimes you're not gonna like them."

"Like putting an iPod jack in my car."

"Yeah, like that." Sam smile faded quickly. "And working with Ruby …"

Dean's eyes narrowed. "Well you're right about me not liking that. I'm grateful for what she did for you but I don't trust her, don't trust what she's doing to you." He tilted his head. "And while nobody's happier than me to hand off nose wiping duties, it doesn't mean I can quit looking out for you. That part of being a big brother doesn't come with an off switch – even when your kid brother annoyingly gets bigger than you."

Sam frowned. "Well big brothers don't get a monopoly on worry. You're bleeding."

"What?"

Sam gestured to Dean's right shoulder. "Where Bobby stabbed you. You must have popped your stitches when you did your Nolan Ryan impression with the bottle cap."

Dean scowled at the blood soaking through his shirt. "It'll be fine, don't worry about it."

Sam sighed, pushing himself up. "Too late. Take your shirt off. I'll get the first-aid kit."

"It's nothing. I-"

"Dean." Sam held his brother's gaze. "So much is spiralling out of control right now. This is something I can actually fix. Please."

Dean frowned, the pain in Sam's voice cutting far deeper than the stab wound, and nodded slowly.

By the time Sam grabbed the first-aid kit and a bottle of scotch from the trunk and returned to his side, Dean had shrugged off his shirt and t-shirt, and was peeling off the blood-soaked bandage that covered the cut just below his shoulder. Blood trickled down his back from the small gash, the black thread from the broken sutures stuck in the clotting blood at the side of the cut.

Sam washed his hands with a mixture of holy water and hand sanitizer, then crouched at Dean's side.

Dean grunted in pain as Sam probed the torn skin. "Damn it, Sam. You're supposed to be putting me back together, not pulling me apart."

"Sorry." Sam's brow wrinkled in sympathy. "But you're lucky – the two stitches holding the muscle together held. If I had to redo that out here, you'd really love me. I've got no local anaesthetic like Bobby gave you last night."

Dean reached with his left hand for the bottle of scotch Sam had grabbed from the cooler. "This is the only anaesthetic I need." He uncapped the bottle and took a long swig. "Besides, if Bobby was here, he'd call me an 'idjit' for screwing up his repair job and hold back the painkiller on principal."

Sam shook his head. "Well, you did manage it in under 12 hours."

Dean twisted his head around to watch as Sam wiped dried blood from around the wound. "It's well off my record. It took me less than two hours after that fight with the zombies in New Orleans."

Sam looked up as he finished threading the needle. "I remember. You came to still throwing punches ... popped 15 of the 20 stitches Dad put in your side." Sam took the bottle of scotch from his brother then, with a warning nod, poured the alcohol over the open wound. He winced in sympathy at Dean's loud hiss of pain. "I stitched you up the second time around – while you were awake and bitching loudly, if I recall."

Dean grinned, as he took back the bottle of scotch. "All part of my plan, Sammy. Dad didn't like complaining patients – I knew if I whined long enough, he'd hand off the job to you." He shrugged again at Sam's look of surprise. "What? You're better at it that he was – it hurts less and you give me prettier scars."

Sam shook his head as he moved behind his brother and held the needle over the wound. "Well this should be over pretty quick – three stitches and we'll be done. You ready?"

Dean took another long drink, then nodded. "Don't make a liar of me."

Sam stitched the gash quickly and efficiently, used a tongue depressor to slather on antibiotic ointment, then covered the wound with a fresh square of gauze, taping it in place. He sat back on his heels as he attached the last piece of tape and shot his brother a look. "If you feel like throwing anything in the next 24 hours, use you left hand, okay? We're running low on supplies."

"Got it. We'll stock up in the next town we hit." Dean accepted Sam's help to put on his t-shirt and shirt, then watched as his brother packed away the first aid kit. "How you doin'? Still feeling sick?"

Sam shook his head.

Dean took another drink of scotch. "And your back?"

"It's fine." Sam looked up after dropping the first-aid kit in the trunk, catching his brother's disbelieving look. "It's a bruise; it's no big deal." His eyes narrowed as Dean took another drink. "How 'bout you let me drive for a while."

Dean frowned as his gaze jumped between Sam and the bottle in his hand. "This? I've barely had any. Sober as a judge."

Sam said nothing, just shifted his stance slightly.

Dean sighed. "Fine. Whatever." He took another belt from the bottle before capping it and dropping it back in the cooler in the trunk. With an exaggerated smile at his brother, he slammed shut the trunk and walked around to the passenger side.

Sam watched him disappear inside the car, then moved around to the driver's side, pulled open the door and slid behind the wheel.

Dean cleared his throat. "What I said yesterday, about Madison … it was below the belt."

Sam pulled the door closed slowly. "We're both guilty of low blows."

Dean stared out the front window, at the road stretching out in front of them. "Yeah. I was just worried, but ..."

"I know." Sam turned the key in the ignition, the Impala's throaty rumble a welcome relief from the silent tension. Slipping the transmission into drive, he pulled back onto the hardtop and pressed gently on the accelerator. As the Chevy quickly picked up speed, he reached for the stereo.

Dean's hand quickly closed over his. "Don't."

Sam glanced over at his brother. "We've lost too much that's important to us, Dean. This was your music long before the siren screwed with your head. Don't let him take that."

Dean stared at Sam for a long moment, then slowly pulled back his hand. Sam turned the knob and Zeppelin's Immigrant Song blasted through the car.

Dean slumped against the seat back, twisted to relieve the pressure on his injured shoulder and allowed his eyes to slide shut. As Sam glanced over, he could see a little of the tension melt from Dean's shoulders as his brother nodded lightly with the music.

Sam turned back to stare at the road in front of them. They weren't quite good yet, but they were better. There were plenty of bumps and detours ahead, still some secrets that were bound to test them but, for the first time in a long time, he believed they'd get through it. Because, ultimately, what was holding them together was stronger than anything trying to pull them apart. They were brothers.

Finis

A/N: I stuck with canon for this story but, if I had my druthers, I'd have had the boys lay all their cards on the table – clear the slate so they could fight the good fight, side by side. I don't know what Kripke had in mind but I fear there are rough waters ahead. Still, fingers crossed, their bond as brothers will ultimately win out.

Hope you enjoyed this and/or it helped as we suffer through another long hiatus. I'd love to hear from you on this, on the episode and/or where the brothers' relationship is going. Till next time, Cheers.