At Loss
K Hanna Korossy

"You ready?"

Dean looked up, hiding his surprise at the question. Usually he was the one asking. "Dude, just waiting on you," he shot back.

Sam's eyes scanned him as Dean rose, and it took him a moment to place that look. Sam was checking him over to make sure he was okay, really ready to go. Also typically Dean's role.

He sighed, standing hipshot as he waited for the all clear. "It's been four days, Sam—I'm fine, all right? Can we go now, or you wanna check my forehead for fever first?"

Sam shook his head, face expressionless. "Let's go."

Dean grimaced, frustration turning into a wince of pain behind Sam's back as he hefted his duffel and followed his little brother out.

Sam had changed. Then again, they probably both had.

Dean wondered sometimes, as he looked at his newly scar-free skin, at the lines he couldn't recall around Sam's eyes, even at the small differences of wardrobe, armament, habits. Couldn't help but think maybe he was the one who was altered, memories distorted or lost, perspective shifted. Maybe Sam hadn't changed so much as Dean remembered.

But he wasn't prepared to deal with the thought that maybe he wasn't himself. Nor had Sam said anything, and Bobby was giving Sammy at least as many long side glances as he gave Dean, even though Dean was the one who'd come back from the Rest Home of the Damned, so…yeah. Dean was thinking Sam was different.

Not that Dean didn't know how losing your brother could affect you. Granted, he hadn't had to live through months of being the last Winchester—he doubted he'd have made it that long—but he knew. Even now, more than a year later, he himself dead and resurrected since, he still broke out in a cold sweat sometimes at the thought of Sam's lifeless body. Of feeling Sam slowly extinguish in his arms. No way did that not change you.

He just hadn't so much expected…this.

"I'm driving."

It wasn't even a request, and Dean's scowl bounced harmlessly off his little brother's back as Sam headed for the Impala. "I can drive."

Sam seemed to swallow a sigh, shoulders squaring before he turned back. "You had surgery this week, Dean."

Okay, yeah, it had taken him a while to recover from the attack of the Witnesses at Bobby's. There'd been a visit to the hospital and maybe some surgery, then several days flat on his back first at Bobby's, then in a motel with Sam, before Dean started to get back on his feet. Sam hadn't dealt too well with the close shave, which for Sam meant first keeping his distance, then keeping quiet. Dean could understand that, and had let his brother deal however he needed. But Dean had finally healed up enough, and they were heading out after a werewolf killing co-eds on a Texas campus. Back to business as usual.

Sure.

Dean tweaked an eyebrow, all sarcastic charm. "I'm not talking about climbing Everest, Sam, just sittin' and driving a few hours."

Sam eyed him again, and the tacit assessment reminded Dean uncomfortably of his dad. He found himself straightening even as he flinched inside at strained stitches. He always hated looking weak in front of Sam, but now it felt different. Like judgment instead of concern. "Fine," Sam finally decided, like his word was law. "But only until North Platte." He turned back to the car.

Behind his back, Dean mockingly gave him a little bow. It didn't make him feel any better.

The drinking hadn't so much surprised him upon his return. There was a history in their family of numbing broken hearts with a liquid diet; Dean had spent the first weeks of Sam's departure to Stanford in an alcoholic haze. The girl in Sam's room had been more of a shocker, but, fine, there were a lot of ways to drown pain. The efficiently re-organized trunk, the depleted first-aid kit, the bulk Sam had added to his already considerable frame: those worried Dean a lot more. Mostly about Sam's state of mind, because he was still Dean's little brother whether he acknowledged it or not. But, okay, also a little worry for himself, because it kinda looked like Sam had turned into the Great White Hunter in Dean's absence, and Dean wasn't sure where he fit into that picture anymore. Wasn't even sure, honestly, that Sam was better off with him back.

Sometimes, deep down, Dean couldn't help wonder if Sam had even truly missed him. Seemed like he'd been doing just fine alone.

And, come to think of it, maybe that wasn't so much of a change, after all.

00000

"Sam? You been down here all night?"

Bobby's words fell mostly on oblivious ears, as he kinda figured they would. Sam made some sort of sound, but whether it was a yes or no or go away, old man, Bobby had no clue. Wasn't the first time he had no idea what the kid was thinking, and with Sam's interpreter…gone, it surely wouldn't be the last.

Bobby sighed and shuffled into the kitchen. Looked like they both needed coffee.

He'd at least spent the night in bed, for all the good it had done. The problem of knowing as much as he did was that he couldn't shut it off: descriptions, drawings, accounts of Hell pushed into his mind no matter where he tried to turn his thoughts, and picturing Dean in the midst of that, in torment…

Bobby cursed, rubbing his eyes. Damned fatigue always made them watery.

He fixed a couple of fried egg sandwiches and a mug of black coffee, and went back to the library.

"Here," he muttered, dropping a plate onto a book-laden table. "Eat."

Tousled, greasy bangs shook. "Later."

"Sam—"

The dark green-brown eyes that shot up to his took his breath away. The pain was still as raw as it had been when Bobby had first come upon Sam cradling his brother's torn corpse, but behind it burned a fire that scared even the old hunter a little. "You think he's eating in Hell, Bobby? You think he gets even a second to rest?" The tone shook, struggling to contain all the emotion. "I have to get him out. I promised him."

Bobby sighed, deep and pained, and plunked the mug down next to the plate. In its place, he took up a book. "We have to get him out," he corrected.

Sam didn't agree, but he didn't argue, either, just turned back to the volume he was scouring and the notes he was scribbling into his journal.

Bobby refilled the mug several times, but neither of them touched the plate.

00000

"It's pretty bad," the medical examiner warned, his hand resting on the handle of the morgue locker.

Sam's mouth twitched, and he sensed his brother's amusement next to him. "We're fine."

The doctor gave them a skeptical look but pulled open the sliding locker. Out came a body. Or what was left of one.

The face was oddly untouched, expressionless and pale in death. Even the torn chest didn't look so bad, cleaned up and stitched together, although parts of the ragged hole couldn't be closed. Sam leaned in for a closer look.

Watery blood trickling down the curve of ribs, skin tearing at the pull of the needle, losing its elasticity in death. Staring, blank eyes over gaping slashes—

"…no heart?"

Dean's voice jolted him back to the present, and Sam took a quick breath, ignoring the quick questioning jerk of his brother's eyes.

"No heart," the ME concurred. "Every other organ accounted for, which is actually unusual in an animal attack this vicious. But the heart's completely gone."

Sam cleared his throat. "Animal attack?"

The older man nodded slowly. "Bite marks are consistent with the canine family: large dog, or maybe a stray coyote. It's rare but it happens. Poor kid was probably just wrong place, wrong time."

Dean snorted softly at that. Sam thanked the doctor and pushed away, hearing his brother fall into step behind him.

"So, definitely a werewolf," he said as they exited into an empty hallway. Signs pointed the way to the medical library, records room, and elevators, and Sam followed the arrow for the last.

"Lunar cycle's right," Dean put in. "You said, what, two other attacks a month ago?"

"Three." Sam punched the elevator button.

"Okay, so, two days of full moon left. Furball's probably gonna strike again, so, what now? Check out the vics, see if we can find a pattern, someone they had in common?"

The elevator doors pinged open, revealing a college-aged guy with an armful of books and notebooks. Sam didn't move into the elevator, paused in thought. "Or…if the attacks started last month, the…subject was probably bitten in the weeks before."

The kid in the elevator looked up at him, startled, then edged warily around them and headed toward the library, glancing back as he did.

"Smooth," Dean commented, backhanding Sam's arm. "Fine, records it is."

Sam turned back to him, hitching a shoulder. "I can do that. Why don't you go check out the victims in case I can't find anything?"

Dean's eyes narrowed. "What, split up?"

Sam barely checked an eye-roll. "Dean, it's the middle of the day. I don't need back-up to go through a bunch of records in the middle of a hospital." He cocked his head. "Unless you wanna take the records and I'll do the interviews."

There was a pause, Dean giving him that searching look that he'd regularly been subjecting Sam to since his return. It was getting on his nerves, the constant feeling of being second-guessed, of not being trusted, but Sam grit his teeth and bore it, staring back steadily, almost defiantly.

Dean looked away first, swallowing, then swinging his head up with a false grin in place.

"Nah, wouldn't want to deprive you of your geek fix." He heaved a deep sigh. "Guess I'll just have to handle the college girls myself."

Sam did roll his eyes at that, feeling long-forgotten fondness flutter inside him. "Just be careful how much handling you do with fresh stitches."

"Hey!" Dean looked affronted. "I'm a professional."

Sam shook his head and turned away while Dean headed past him into the elevator.

"Sam."

Sam wheeled back, smile flattening out as he took in Dean's sudden sobriety.

"Just…" He didn't seem to know how to finish that, eyes sliding from one side of Sam to the other as he looked for a way to say what they never did.

It was hard for Sam to remember there'd been a time when Dean's concern had made him feel safe instead of defensive. And that Dean was probably having as much trouble adjusting to all this as he was. Sam let his mouth curl up. "Yeah," he said quietly. "You, too."

Dean gave him an uncomfortable nod and jabbed a button in the elevator. He was still looking at Sam as the doors closed.

Sam stared at the elevator doors, tamping down an irrational moment of panic at the separation. Dean was coming back, and it wasn't like Sam couldn't do this on his own. He had been for some time now.

He was glad Dean was back, of course. Not a minute passed each day since that he hadn't fervently given thanks for that miracle. Even if Dean hadn't been able to return to him, just the fact he wasn't in Hell anymore, suffering eternal torment, would've lifted an incredible burden from Sam's shoulders. But to have him back…it made Sam feel like he could breathe again, like there was some kind of purpose to life besides just making it through another day. He was human again, after months of being a soulless machine.

But it also meant hiding the important work he'd been doing. Keeping secrets from Dean. Adjusting to being a junior partner again instead of being in charge of himself. And dealing with Dean's expectations, his longing for the old Sammy who'd anguished and brooded and cried over his destiny, who'd needed his big brother to feel safe. Sam was pretty sure that guy was gone for good, and it hurt that Dean kept looking for him. He always seemed so troubled when he saw Sam instead.

He had no idea how much Sam wished he could be the brother Dean remembered, too.

00000

He'd let him be all day. Through lunch and dinner, during the gathering dusk. Kept snatching glances out the window, but otherwise gave him his space: a man deserved to grieve in private.

At least, that's what Bobby hoped the kid was doing sitting outside in the dust against the black car's driver-side door.

Sam had torn through Bobby's whole library within a week, tracking down every last crumb, finding things even Bobby didn't know he had. All for nothing: the only ways to bring Dean back were dark magick ones, blood magick, and even those didn't guarantee the return of the person you knew. Bobby had helped Sam run every lead into the ground because he knew the kid needed to know he'd done everything possible, but even Bobby hadn't really thought about what Sam would do with that knowledge afterward. The certainty there was no way he could save his brother.

Sam had gone out the night before, drunk on some of Bobby's best liquor, and Bobby had half-feared the worst. But Sam had just staggered back at dawn, muttering something about even the demons not wanting him, and while the words had chilled Bobby's marrow, he was pretty sure Sam hadn't managed to do something stupid. If not for lack of trying.

Which had left Sam nothing but grief.

Bobby finally intervened when the rain started to fall, cold and sharp in a South Dakota spring night. He went out then under an old tarp, held it over the head that looked like a wet sheepdog, and yelled at Sam to come inside now. The kid didn't seem to hear him. But he didn't fight it when Bobby pulled at him, steered him like a rudderless ship into the house.

He'd plopped Sam on the couch, and cursed as he'd wrestled off wet shirt and jeans and toweled the limp hair. Sam let himself be manipulated, eyes open but unseeing, breath heavy in the spaces between Bobby's mutterings. He didn't say a word as Bobby laid him down and tucked him in, then clumsily dragged a hand through the dark locks. "Aw, kid," Bobby had muttered then, and Sam had slowly blinked, then closed his eyes.

In the morning, the couch was empty and the Impala and Sam were gone.

00000

There were no records of anyone showing up with any kind of bite in the month before the first attack, not at the campus teaching hospital, not at either of the other two area hospitals. The victims didn't seem to have anything in common, and there'd been no witnesses to any of the attacks.

In other words, Dean thought sourly even if Sam wouldn't admit it, they had zilch.

The moon was rising whether they were ready or not, and finally they—Sam—had decided that the best they could do was stake out the likeliest places of attack and keep their eyes open. There was no pattern to where the victims had been killed besides all being at the north end of campus, and so all they could do was concentrate on that general area. They had radios tuned to the campus police band, were armed with silver…and had split up to cover more ground. Also Sam's idea.

Dean was really starting to get tired of the new Sam. Halfhearted jokes about Dean being right because he was older now met with pinched disapproval instead of the exasperated amusement they once had, and suddenly the old gag didn't seem so funny anymore. Nothing seemed to be.

Not that he disagreed with Sam. Splitting up was, unfortunately, the best plan when they had a lot of ground to cover and lives were at stake. But Sam didn't even want to discuss, just decided what was right and gave the orders. He hadn't become like his big brother, Dean thought morosely. He'd become Dad.

The radio crackled. "All units, report of screams in Haydn Circle. Code three."

Haydn Circle. Crap, he'd considered that and rejected it because it was well-lit. Dean pushed to his feet and started running, barely slowing as his phone vibrated in his pocket. I know, Sam, I know.

Five minutes later, there was no need to answer the call. He joined his brother in the shadows outside the knot of police officers and huddled college students. Even from there, Dean could see the sprawling body and the blood.

He swore, kicking at a nearby tree.

"There was nothing we could do," Sam said tonelessly next to him. His hands were buried deep in his pockets. "We didn't have enough to go on."

"Try telling that to her," Dean growled.

"We can't save them all."

Dean cast an angry glance at him, but Sam was closed down, nothing reflecting in his face except the red and blue of the campus police car lights. Only his eyes moved, scanning the area, the crowds. Not like the werewolf stick around after the deed.

Long fingers suddenly gripped his arm. "Dean."
Irritation instantly dropped away. Dean followed his brother's gaze to the group of college students, some in robes and pajamas, clustered on a nearby sidewalk. One kid stood a little apart from them, nothing remarkable about his upset expression or his focus on the body…except that he was kinda familiar.

"I saw him," Sam said. "He was at the hospital."

Oh, yeah. Dean vaguely remembered a skinny kid coming out of an elevator, looking like a harried med student with all his textbooks. Dean narrowed his eyes as he took in the kid's bloodless face. "Coincidence? I mean, he does go to school here."

Sam just raised an eyebrow at him. Yeah, Dean knew what he was thinking just fine now.

"Moon's still out."

"If he woke up, he could've changed back."

They rarely talked about Madison, but had in a roundabout way discussed why she'd turned when she did and had decided the key was falling asleep. She hadn't changed the night they'd spent with her because she'd stayed up all night and the transformation hadn't been able to take over. It probably worked the other way around, too.

Looking sickened, the kid turned and briskly started away.

As one, the Winchesters silently followed him.

They crossed a quad and the shadowed knoll between two dorms that Sam had staked out earlier, to see the kid entering the male freshman dorm.

"First attack was over there," Dean noted, chin jutting toward the other side of the building.

Sam nodded tightly.

The dorm doors locked when they shut, but that only slowed them down a few seconds. Sam picked the lock like it was nothing, then Dean slipped inside after him, eyes following the kid's disappearing figure up the stairs.

Sam glanced at him, nodded, and headed upstairs after their suspect. Dean waited casually near the door, skimming bulletin board notices, making sure their quarry didn't double back.

It was less than four minutes before Sam loped down the stairs again.

"Dylan Cross," he reported.

Dean nodded, mustering a smile. He should've felt triumphant.

But seeing that cold gleam of the hunt in Sam's eye, all he felt was apprehension.

00000

He didn't often go on hunts himself anymore, but Bobby was responding to every demon-sighting he could these days, always hoping he'd see a familiar face. And not having a clue what he'd do when he did.

The report of sulfur hanging heavy in the room had been the clue that had drawn his attention this time, and Bobby headed to the local police department after checking in at the morgue. The guy had been stabbed, and there was only one blade he knew that could kill a demon. Maybe this would finally be the one.

The evidence photos confirmed his suspicions. Empty liquor bottles had littered the room, mirror to his own place. A wadded-up plaid shirt had been found under a pillow, and a silver flask of seemingly plain water wedged between bed frame and wall. No weapon had been found, and there was no mention of salt piles nor anything being drawn on the entrances, but that was no surprise. Bobby rather doubted Sam cared much about what came after him these days. Probably even welcomed it.

"What would your brother think of you now, kid?" Bobby said mournfully under his breath.

He broke into the evidence room and took the flask with him, but left behind the shirt he recognized as Dean's.

00000

Dean stood as Sam opened the door and stepped in, and their words overlapped perfectly.

"It's him."

Sam blinked. He couldn't remember the last time they'd done that.

Dean's mouth twitched, then he waved a notebook at Sam. "Guess what all the vics had in common?"

"Dylan Cross?" Sam hazarded, tossing the room key on the table and shrugging out of his jacket. He handed Dean a wrapped sandwich and folded his leg to sit on the bed with his own.

"Not just that—they all had a beef with Dylan. One girl broke up with him, another made fun of him in front of a roomful of sorority chicks…" Dean's eyes glazed over a little. "Dude, sorority chicks…"

"Focus, Dean," Sam said wearily, opening a bag of chips.

Dean cleared his throat. "Anyway, the two ex-football players? One stole the first girl from our Dylan, the other showed him up in some class. Got Dylan so worked up, he flunked out for the semester." Dean bit into his sandwich with satisfaction.

"Huh." Sam chewed thoughtfully on sauerkraut and Russian dressing. Food hadn't had much taste for a long time, but seeing Dean's enthusiastic enjoyment made his own mouth water just a little. "Okay, so, Dylan gets bitten, wolfs out with the full moon, and, consciously or not, starts going after everyone he has a grudge against."

"Yahtzee. Question is, how'd he get turned?"

Sam held up a finger and reached into his pocket for a folded sheaf of papers. He swallowed his bite, something Dean didn't usually bother with, and offered the paperwork. "Six weeks ago, Dylan showed up at the walk-in clinic asking for supplies to self-treat a 'dog bite.' The hospital didn't have a record of the bite since they didn't see or treat it personally." He finished his sandwich and dug into his chips, only to find Dean's hand already in the bag.

His brother ignored the withering look, flipping through the photocopies. "Hey, didn't Colby take down a were' across the state line a while back?" He tilted his head at Sam. "Wanna bet that was the source?"

"No bet," Sam said, wiping his mouth and standing. He pulled the gun from the back of his waistband and checked the silver rounds. "So, let's go talk to Dylan Cross."

Dean raised an eyebrow. "Talk, or, you know, talk."

Sam frowned. "He's turned, Dean, and he's killed people. It's not like we have any options here. He's not human anymore."

"Yeah, I know that." Dean gave him a long sideways look. "Just wasn't sure you were on board. I mean, for all we know, he doesn't even know about his new night gig."

Sam set his jaw. "Doesn't change what we have to do."

Dean looked at him a moment longer, then his eyes trailed down to the remainder of his sandwich, which he set down on the wrapper. "Yeah."

Sam didn't know what his brother was thinking half the time now, and he wondered halfheartedly sometimes which of them had changed. Probably both. Couldn't expect to come back from four months of death and Hell—remembered or not—and be the same. For either of them.

He snapped his gun together again and straightened. "Let's go."

Dean still moved with his familiar old stealth, and there was something comforting about following in those well-worn footsteps. True, Dean was still healing from the attack by Henriksen's ghost, but Sam felt better having him in sight rather than behind his back. He was close enough to deflect any attack against Dean, and to see if his brother faltered.

They made their way to the north campus section of dorms, sticking to the shadows as they went. With four deaths in as many weeks, security was on high alert and would be suspicious of any strangers. And both of them were getting a little too old to pass for college students. The thought didn't upset Sam as it once would have.

There was no need to pick the lock this time, as it was early enough that the traffic was steady in and out of the building. Two slender blonde girls in shorts held the door for them with a smile that Sam stiffly returned. He didn't even need to see Dean's expression.

They had to wait a minute until the hallway outside Dylan's room temporarily cleared. Then Dean nodded at him, and Sam darted forward to try the door knob. It turned in his hand, and he opened it and rushed inside, his brother on his heels, both of them armed.

The room was empty. Either side, the one made up to look like a sixties acid trip and the other that was decorated in darks and plaids and a Led Zeppelin poster. Even as Dean paused to admire the last, Sam was already stepping back out of the room, craning both ways until he caught sight of a guy in flannel pajama pants and a t-shirt coming out of his room.

"Hey." He tried for a non-threatening grin as he moved out into the hallway, gun hastily tucked into the back of his jeans. "I'm a friend of Dylan's—we were supposed to meet here. Any idea where he is?"

The kid shrugged, unsuspicious to the point of total disinterest. "Got me."

Sam heaved a breath. Right. It wasn't like he'd kept tabs on his two dozen dormmates at Stanford. He glanced up the hallway, seeing Dean emerge from Dylan's room, face guarded.

"Although," the kid drawled behind him. Sam turned back, forehead smoothing. "He might be hangin' with his brother. They're pretty tight."

"His brother?" Sam echoed. Had they even checked Dylan's family history? He hadn't.

"Yeah. Teaches chem or something. He lives on campus in staff housing. Dylan talked about him one night over beers. Sounded like a cool guy, for a prof."

"Yeah. His brother, of course. Thanks." Sam nodded, then turned, hustling Dean down the hallway in front of him.

"Brother?" Dean repeated doubtfully. "You don't think…?"

"We should've figured that out," Sam said through gritted teeth. "It makes sense—the choice of victims, Dylan's research, his showing up at the scene last night…"

"Yeah, well, Dylan's still a pretty solid candidate, too. There's a reason we were so focused on him, Sam."

"It's the brother," he repeated firmly.

"How—?"

"I just know, all right?" Sam snapped.

Dean shut up and let himself be herded outside with uncommon submissiveness.

Sam ground his teeth until they hurt. Everything was screwed up. Brother protecting brother from something he couldn't save him from. An innocent guy doomed without any choice in the matter. Dean swinging between fighting Sam over little things Sam knew, and letting him take the lead on the big ones he was floundering on. Dean looking at him like he didn't know him.

When had things gotten so messed up?

One call netted them the professor's address, and as they approached the row houses, they split without discussion, Sam heading for the door, Dean the window. There'd be no going around back without circling the long way around the sprawling building, but hopefully they wouldn't need it. The windows of the home were lit, and the moon was only just starting to rise.

Sam watched as Dean disappeared into the thick bushes below the window, then started up the cement steps.

"Sam!"

It was a hiss, and he spun, eyes widening at the sight of Dean backing out of the shrubbery, pulling a struggling smaller form with him.

"Guess who I found?"

He hurried around the railing and over the small lawn, to meet Dean and Dylan halfway. The college student was almost a head shorter than Dean, but he stared at them pugnaciously, clearly ready to take off as soon as Dean loosened his grip.

"Dylan," Sam said more calmly than he felt. "We're not going to hurt you."

"No," the kid spit back, "you're here to hurt him."

Sam automatically glanced toward the cheerfully lit and still-silent house. "You know why," he said quietly, not un-gently.

Dylan squirmed again, but Dean's grip was steel. "It's not his fault! He doesn't even know—"

"That's not the point, kid," Dean murmured. "It's not his fault and he can't help it, but he's gonna keep killing people until he's stopped."

"No! I won't let him. I'll-I'll figure out a way to fix him."

Dean's eyes shone with regret. "You can't," he said carefully. "There's no cure."

"No, there's…" The kid heaved again, then slumped, looking to Sam for support. "There's gotta be something. I've been reading—"

Sam swallowed, remembering this argument, another pair of pleading eyes, the gun pressed into his hands. And a clawed open chest, the screams, helpless to do anything to stop the life bleeding out of green eyes. Seeing my brother—

"Dylan," Dean began, haltingly. Then stopped as a low growl sounded from behind him.

Sam's mind snapped back to the hunt as everything sped up.

Dylan gave a wordless cry, throwing himself toward the growl. He knocked Dean off-balance, twisting his arm across his chest, and Dean blanched at what had to be an agonizing pull on his stitches.

Sam pulled his gun, aiming with one arm while reaching for Dean with the other. Too late, too late as the hirsute figure of Morgan Cross rushed past Dylan without a glance and knocked Dean over, crouching over him.

Sam emptied six rounds of silver into its body and head, making sure at least two got it in the chest.

There was a moment of silence, Dylan and Dean panting on the ground, the werewolf motionless between them. Then the coarse hair receded, the face becoming fully human once more, the resemblance of the Cross brothers striking.

Dylan let out a wail and half-crawled, half-threw himself at the corpse.

Sam remembered that sound.

He walked over to Dean almost steadily, pulling his brother's shirt up to check his stitches while Dean watched him with wide eyes in a stark white face. Satisfied, Sam offered his hand, and Dean numbly took it, letting himself be hauled to his feet. Then they just stood, shoulder to shoulder, watching Dylan sob over his brother.

"You had no choice," Dean finally mumbled.

"I know."

Maybe Dylan knew that, too, because there were no recriminations, no hurled words of anger. He seemed to have forgotten they were even there. It was just one broken sibling mourning another.

Sam did know there was nothing else he could've done. But that didn't make his own broken heart feel any better.

00000

The two of them watched the bathroom door click shut after Dean, still marveling at the sight of the walking miracle. Then Bobby turned to Sam.

Sam's eyes slipped to the floor. "Bobby…I, uh, I'm—"

"I missed him, too, ya know," Bobby said with less heat than he'd intended.

"I know." Hushed, embarrassed.

"And on top of that, I had to worry about you losing your fool head and joining him."

Sam peered up at him, hair unfamiliarly slicked back, face lined with sleepless nights and days of pain. "I'm sorry. I tried, Bobby, I just…" He swallowed, eyes bright.

He nodded slowly, chucked the kid—man's—shoulder in absolution and too much understanding. "Yeah, kid. I know."

00000

Sam had a tendency to slip out late at night now when he thought Dean was sleeping. Dean guessed it was to take a walk, or a drive in the car that was now Sam's, too, and think. Sam had always needed time to think, and Dean tried to give it to him, tried not to freak out when he woke in a nightmare rush to an empty and silent room.

But Sam had been subdued since they'd killed Morgan Cross—well, more subdued than even this new Sam usually was—and it was still early in the evening, at least for them. So when Sam didn't return after a while, Dean shoved his feet back into his boots and grabbed his jacket.

He paused at the door. Was he doing the right thing? Sam hadn't reacted all that well to being pushed those last few weeks, shutting down even more when Dean tried to talk about anything other than hunting or the weather. In the past, Sam always reached a point where he was finally ready to share the load with his brother, but Dean had been looking for the signs this time and hadn't seen a one. Maybe that had changed, too. Maybe Sam had gotten as used to corking up his feelings as Dean had when he'd hunted solo.

But Dean had only had an absent brother then, not a dead one. And the longing had always been there, to talk, to find someone who knew him, to have simple human contact. And he hadn't even been the emo one.

No, Sam couldn't have changed that much. That would've meant losing his humanity just as Dean had always sworn he never could. No, Sam was still there under the whole Rambo act. Dean just had to learn the new cues to pull him out.

He swung the door open and stepped outside. And stopped.

Sam hadn't gone far. He stood in back of the Impala by the open trunk, sorting through the contents.

Well, okay. That was a relief, actually. Sammy had a tendency to OCD at the best of times, and this was far from. If reorganizing the trunk—yet again—made him feel better, hey, at least it kept him close to home. Dean started to turn around and go back inside, leaving him to it, when something else caught his attention.

The light was glinting off Sam's face.

Brow drawing together, Dean eased the door shut behind him and moved soundlessly around the car. His chest still hurt from the earlier fall, but he had never let a few stitches slow him down. Definitely not when Sam needed him.

Because up close, Sam's face was wet with tears. Even as Dean watched, stunned, another tear welled and rolled silently down his face. Sam ignored it—and Dean—checking a box of ammo before settling it into a corner of their hidden armory.

"Sam."

Nothing. Not a flicker or a gasp, not a tremor of the hand. Sam was the same carved-from-stone, no-nonsense hunter of the last few weeks…except for the grief flowing unchecked—or maybe beyond control—down his face.

"Sammy," Dean whispered, and stretched out to stop Sam's arm as it reached for the next item in the trunk.

There was a moment when he wasn't sure which way this would break, whether Sam would shake him off or break down completely or even just punch him in the jaw. Dean was sorta braced for them all. But not for the low, raw voice that confided to the trunk, "You were gone."

"What?"

More tears rolled out, one balancing on the end of Sam's nose, another trailing into the crease of his mouth. His eyes were rimmed with red; God only knew how long he'd been standing there silently dripping salt water all over the guns—crying—while Dean had debated inside if his brother still needed him.

"Sam, hey."

The long throat worked, Sam's muscles bunching in Dean's grip but still not breaking free. "You were gone," he breathed again, eyes nailed to the trunk, voice deep and lost. "You were gone."

And then his shoulders began to silently shake.

Not a second after Sam sank to his knees, Dean was sliding onto the rear bumper, legs framing his trembling kid brother. Dean didn't hesitate to pull him in, tucking his chin over the mop of soft hair, feeling Sam's cheek press against his stitches. Sam's back and shoulders were quaking so hard, Dean had to wrap both arms around him to keep him close.

So much for Sammy not having missed him. It was hurt and relief and recognition all in one, and Dean screwed his eyes shut before they started spilling, too.

He didn't say anything, didn't try to make light of a midnight parking-lot catharsis, didn't try to coax Sam into talking about it, didn't even murmur any comfort. That wasn't what Sam needed, not anymore; Dean got that now. He just held on, thumb rubbing against Sam's shuddering spine, jaw pressed against the curve of his little brother's head. Just was there.

Maybe Sam was different, and maybe Dean was. But they still needed each other. And maybe, if they tried hard enough, they could change together.

The End