A/N: This story is the result of a desperate need for a little comfort in what's been an extremely hurty season. Since I'm between betas right now and this is already later than I'd hoped, I'm flying without a net. All mistakes are mine.


Man, the trouble is

We don't know who we are instead

"Trouble Is" -- Jars of Clay

"Dean."

At the sound of Sam's voice, weak and breathy, Dean's rage evaporated and the red haze cleared from his vision. He dropped the gore-splattered candlestick and moved quickly to the table, pulling his hunting knife on the way.

Crap, there was a lot of blood.

As he sliced through the ropes binding Sam's right arm, then his left, he scanned his brother from head to toe in a quick, down and dirty triage. Sam's eyes were glassy, and he breathed in short, hard pants fueled by adrenaline and pain. Blood from his right wrist pattered into a ceramic bowl, about a quarter full now, and it looked as if an equal amount had spilled from his left onto the floor. The bastards had used vertical cuts, which were going to make clotting a bitch, but the blood was trickling, not spurting, so they hadn't managed to hit an artery.

With a quick glance around the room, Dean spotted a stack of cloth napkins on the buffet behind him. Snatching them up, he laid them beside Sam and moved around the table. Though he could feel the sticky-slickness of blood beneath his boots, he kept his face carefully neutral as he cut the duct tape binding Sam's chest.

He grasped Sam's arm and hauled him upright, slipping a steadying hand behind his back. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon."

Sam was little more than dead weight, too woozy and hurting to be of much help. He held his arms out from his body, rigid with agony and moaning at the slightest movement.

Dean unfolded one of the napkins. "Hang on."

From the time he'd played doctor to Sam's first scraped knee, Dean had discovered the magic in talking him through pain. Not that what he said had to be profound; in fact, it ended up being mostly stream-of-consciousness stuff. The thing was, the words themselves didn't seem to matter--Sam would calm at the sound of his voice, sobs turning to sniffles. And though his now stoic little brother could take a pretty hard beating without so much as a whimper, Dean found the habit hard to break. And he had a sneaking suspicion Sam still drew comfort from his babbling.

"All right, here we go. Here we go. Hang on, buddy," he murmured. He wrapped a napkin around each of Sam's arms from elbow to wrist, pressing firmly despite his brother's gasps of pain. "All right. All right."

"Thank you," Sam said, still breathing raggedly.

Dean cocked an eyebrow. "That's what family's for, right?"

Okay, so now wasn't the best time to get in a dig, but Sam's whole "hunting is life" speech to Adam still pissed him off. Since when did his bleeding heart little brother become Mr. Hardcore? He didn't even talk like Sam anymore. If Dean closed his eyes he'd swear his brother sounded just like--

Refusing to take that thought any further, he patted Sam's back. "Keep pressure on that."

He made quick work of the ropes on Sam's ankles. As if they'd somehow been keeping him upright, Sam swayed drunkenly and would've face-planted on the floor if Dean hadn't caught him. "Easy, Sasquatch."

Cupping Sam's chin in his palm, he steadied his brother's lolling head, not liking what he saw. Skin gray and clammy, eyes that kept drifting out of focus. And though Sam appeared to be trying his best to clamp down on the cuts, the napkins were already soaked through with blood.

"Son of a bitch," Dean muttered before injecting a lightness he didn't feel into his voice. "Okay. Let's get you wrapped to go."

Leaving one hand on Sam's back, Dean began yanking open buffet drawers. His third try unearthed a linen tablecloth. "Now that's what I'm talkin' about."

Keeping Sam from toppling with one hand, while ripping the cloth into strips with his teeth and the other, gave the term multi-tasking a whole new meaning. When he finished, he had two long strips good for doubling as bandages in a pinch.

"This is gonna sting," he warned, waiting for and receiving a bleary nod.

He eased the saturated cloths off Sam's left arm and swallowed hard--blood was still flowing steadily. "You know what? These aren't even that bad," he said, winding one of the strips so it put pressure on the cuts and held the edges together. "Remember that time I got mauled by a black dog? These are just scratches compared to that."

Sam shuddered and made a soft sound of distress, his muscles going impossible tighter, but he choked, "Bawled like . . . a baby."

"Dude, I was 12," Dean chided, his fingers moving as quickly as possible while still remaining gentle. "And that was sweat."

"Uh-huh."

When he had both arms snugly wrapped, Dean folded them vertically against Sam's chest. "You know the drill, Sammy."

"Elevate to slow bleeding," Sam mumbled.

"That's my boy."

He helped Sam swing his legs off the table and drop his feet to the floor. Knotting two fists in Sam's shirt and hauling upright, he propped him against the table and waited for the inevitable head rush to pass.

"You gonna make it to the car?" he asked. "'Cause there's no way I'm carrying your ass."

"Car?" Sam blinked sluggishly. "Where we goin'?"

Dean's stomach lurched. He'd hoped Sam wasn't as bad off as things appeared--even a little blood could look like a lot--but if the kid was that loopy . . .

"We're taking a little trip to the nearest ER," he said. After a moment of puzzling out how the hell he was going to support 200-odd pounds of wobbly little brother without moving Sam's arms, he slipped one hand under an elbow and the other around Sam's waist. "C'mon, lean on me."

Sam started moving on autopilot, the instinct to follow Dean's lead kicking in. But even as he shuffled forward, he swiveled his head toward the dead ghouls. "We're breaking rule number three."

"First things first," Dean said, keeping him moving. "We'll come back to clean up once you stop looking like an extra from a crappy horror movie."

Sam furrowed his brow. "Huh?"

"Forget it, Jamie Lee. Just let me handle the driving."

"Like I ever get a choice," Sam grumbled.

Dean was encouraged by come-back, lame though it was, until he registered warm stickiness under the fingers curled around his brother's waist. Leaning Sam against the wall beside the back door, he brushed aside the button-down shirt to reveal the bloodstained t-shirt beneath. Cursing under his breath--he seemed to be doing a lot of that lately--he peeled back the t-shirt.

"Something you forgot to tell me, Sammy?"

"Um . . . apparently I'm finger-lickin' good?"

"You mean they . . . ?" Dean mimed the action with a grimace.

Sam nodded, his head falling back to thunk against the wall.

"Okay, that's just sick." Dean jerked open the door and manhandled Sam through it.

By the time he got his brother settled in the front seat of the Impala, blood had soaked through the bandages on Sam's arms and was dripping onto his lap. As Dean slid behind the wheel, he was grateful, and not for the first time, for John Winchester's obsessive hunting strategy, which included pinpointing the nearest hospital as soon as you hit town.

As he drove he kept one hand on Sam, who had sagged against the passenger door, his face pressed to the glass. "Hey! You stay with me, Sam."

"Tired."

"Yeah, well, me too. There's a lot of that going around."

Sam grumbled softly but struggled to sit up straighter. "You get rid of the bodies?"

After a silent count to three, Dean tamped down the frustration and worry and answered in an even voice. "No time right now. We'll go back once you're patched up."

Sam shivered, fine tremors vibrating under Dean's fingers. "Why's it so cold?"

Though the car was already stuffy, Dean bumped up the heat. He quickly returned his hand to Sam's shoulder when his brother's eyes began fluttering shut. "Hey!"

Rather than startling, Sam jjust blinked blearily and looked down at his arms. "'M gettin' blood on the seat."

"You can make it up to me later." The sign for the hospital emerged from the darkness on his left, and Dean turned, following the arrow for the ER.

When Dean pulled the Impala to a stop in front of the covered entrance, Sam furrowed his brow. "This isn't the hotel."

"Right on one, Einstein." Dean hopped out and jogged around the car. Pulling open Sam's door, he leaned inside. "Let's go, Sam."

Sam resisted, leaning away from Dean's tug on his arm and nearly toppling. "Dean, no. Don't need a hospital. You can--"

"Not this time, I can't. Now get your ass out of the car." Dean knew his tone was sharp but blood was everywhere, and Sam's skin felt cool and clammy.

"Already wasted too much time," Sam slurred, though he let Dean ease him from the car and walk him through the automatic doors. "Gotta clean up the bodies and get outta here."

"Shut up, Sammy," Dean hissed, then raised his voice when his brother stumbled and nearly went down. "I need some help over here!"

A nurse immediately flanked Sam on the other side. "Get Chambers, stat," she called to the woman behind the desk. "What happened?" she asked Dean, steering them toward a set of double doors.

"We're doing some remodeling," Dean said. "He fell through a window. Glass cut him up pretty bad."

"Did he hit his head?" Once through the doors, she guided Sam to the gurney.

"Uh . . ." Dean fumbled for a moment before remembering the bruise on Sam's cheekbone. "Yeah. He did."

"Did he lose consciousness?" The nurse--her name tag read Angela--fired the question as she seated Sam on the bed.

Damn! Why hadn't he asked Sam about this? "Um--"

"A few minutes," Sam said. "I'll sit," he growled when Angela attempted to get him to lie down.

Though she couldn't have been more than 110 pounds soaking wet, Angela didn't back off. Hands still on Sam's shoulders, she thrust out her chin and raised an eyebrow. "Look, Mr. . . ."

"Brigman," Dean said quickly. "That's Sam, and I'm Dean."

Angela didn't miss a beat. "Sam, your color is bad, your skin is cool and clammy, your respiration is too rapid--and that's just what I've seen without examining you. You're on the verge of hypovolemic shock and you're damn well gonna lie down before you fall down. Got it?"

Sam swallowed hard, then let her gently push him onto his back, either too stunned to argue or, Dean suspected, too close to passing out. Angela wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Sam's bicep, a slight smile curving her lips.

The doors swung inward, admitting a male doctor with another nurse on his heels. "What've we got?"

As Angela began spouting a string of big words that equaled "this guy's lost a crapload of blood," the nurse began ushering Dean toward the doors. "You'll need to wait outside, sir."

After a moment's hesitation, he gave in. He'd been in this position often enough, whether with Dad or Sam, to have learned arguing never got you anywhere, and pissing off a nurse was always a bad idea. Besides, Mr. Tough Guy had made it pretty clear he didn't need Dean holding his hand anymore. He steeled himself against the sting of that truth and, with a last glance at Sam, let the nurse herd him to the waiting room.

Where he proceeded to fill out Sam Brigman's bogus insurance forms, drink a substance posing as coffee, and pace. A little. It wasn't like he was nervous or anything; Sam was fine. Hospital waiting rooms were just so damn boring, and the people were annoying. Dean listened with an inward smirk as some guy whined about the wait to the nurse behind the desk. Dude was bitching and moaning about a busted finger while Sammy had suffered being munched on and nearly bled out without complaint.

The smile faded from Dean's lips and he sank into a chair, elbows propped on his knees. Every time he turned around lately, Sam surprised him. And not in a good way.

It was difficult to believe that he'd actually worried about Sam's ability to survive after he was gone. That he'd actually wished Sam would toughen up, not take things so much to heart. He should've known wishes always come back to bite you on the ass. Sam had toughened up, all right--there was a granite edge just beneath everything he did, every decision he made. While his little brother had always been pragmatic, he'd never been heartless. Yet his treatment of Cole, of Adam, had bordered on ruthless; the only thing that had mattered to him was getting the job done. Just like--

"Mr. Brigman?"

Dean looked up; Angela stood near the front desk. He stood quickly, ignoring the dull ache from ghoul-Adam's pounding. "How is he?"

Angela brushed aside an errant wisp of long brown hair with the back of her hand. "In pretty rough shape. Fortunately the cuts hit muscle and missed the major vessels. But he lost close to one-fifth his blood volume, and though I don't have the final tally, Dr. Chambers is finishing up an impressive number of stitches. Plus, he sustained a puncture wound, about an inch deep, to his side and a mild concussion."

Dean rubbed the tight muscles at the back of his neck. "Damn. I was hoping you weren't gonna say the 'C' word. Sam gets unbelievably pissy when he has a headache."

She quirked her lips, her brown eyes glinting in amusement. "You seem like a tough guy--I'm sure you can handle him."

The good-natured teasing hit him on the raw; lately his attempts to "handle" Sam had failed. Spectacularly. Dean felt his smile turn brittle. "When can he get out of here?"

"Doctor wants to keep him overnight for observation. That way we can give him another unit of blood and IV antibiotics--the wounds were already starting to show signs of infection." She paused. "Has Sam been feeling all right? Before this accident?"

Dean frowned at the barely detectable hesitation before the word accident. "Yeah. Why?"

Angela bit the inside of her lip, appearing to choose her next words carefully. "In the treatment room he seemed a little . . . off."

With a roll of his eyes, Dean snorted. "That's just Sam. Like I said, he's a pain in the ass when he's hurting."

"He was awfully jumpy about anyone touching him," Angela said. "In fact, if he'd been able, I'm pretty sure he'd have walked out of here without treatment."

She was obviously working her way up to something. The first threads of uneasiness wound their way into Dean's gut. "Yeah, well, he's not a big fan of hospitals. Neither am I."

"Were you with him when he had his accident?"

The pointed question increased his disquiet. "Yeah, I was. Why?"

Angela met his gaze squarely, as if she were searching for something. "Your brother's cuts . . . They aren't typical of a construction accident. The placement is odd, for one thing, and there were no glass fragments or debris left in the wounds."

Bet you didn't check for ghoul loogies. He shrugged, forcing a lack of concern, though his Spidey-sense was tingling. "I cleaned him up a bit before I wrapped his arms. What glass there was, I removed."

Though she nodded, the intensity of Angela's gaze didn't diminish. "The thing is, we're trained to look for certain things in the ER. And those cuts to Sam's arms? They raise some alarm bells."

"Alarm--" Dean broke off, speechless for a moment as he realized where she was headed. "Wait a minute. You mean you think Sam . . . that he--"

"The cuts are deep," Angela said. "More important, they're vertical. They fit a pattern, one we see when someone really meant business."

"Sam would never deliberately hurt himself," Dean said sharply, leaning in to emphasize his point. "I was there. I watched him fall. It was a freakin' accident. End of story."

After studying his face a moment longer, Angela nodded. "Okay. I'll tell Dr. Chambers there's no need for a psych consult."

"I'd appreciate that. Now are we done?" He knew Angela didn't deserve his anger but he had his own worries about Sam that had nothing to do with him trying to off himself--at least, not intentionally. And it had been a damn long night.

"Yes." Angela tentatively placed a hand on his arm. "Dean. You understand, I had to ask."

He ran a hand down his face. "Yeah. Can I see my brother now?"

"Of course." Angela motioned him toward the treatment room doors. "If you need anything, just get someone at the front desk to page me."

Dean nodded curtly and pushed through the treatment room doors, pausing just inside. Sam's eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted. Under the harsh fluorescent lighting, he appeared washed of color, as pale as the bandages that wrapped from elbow to wrist--a sharp contrast to the dark red of the blood feeding into his arm. Despite his frail appearance, a heart monitor beeped steady reassurance, loosening the knot in Dean's chest.

Movement to his left caught Dean's eye. The doctor--Angela had called him Chambers--finished writing something on a chart and looked up with a smile.

"I'm Rick Chambers," he said quietly, extending his hand. "You're Sam's brother?"

Dean shook it with a nod. "Dean."

"I'm sure Angela's already given you the rundown," Chambers said. "We'll let Sam rest here a little longer, make sure he's stable, and then send him upstairs."

Dean couldn't stop his gaze from wandering back to Sam's pale face. "I'd like to stay with him, if that's okay."

"No problem." Chambers hung the chart on the end of the bed. "Don't worry if he seems out of it. We gave him something for the pain--despite his protests." He shook his head. "Your brother's tough. And stubborn."

Dean huffed. "Runs in the family."

Chambers raised an eyebrow but simply said, "I'll stop by to check on him once he's settled in a room."

"Thanks," Dean said, knowing they'd be long gone before that happened. The insurance info, while good enough for a first pass, wouldn't hold up under scrutiny.

He waited for Chambers to exit the room, then walked slowly to the gurney. Sam's breathing was slow and steady, his face open and vulnerable in a way Dean only saw these days if he was sleeping. He swallowed hard against the lump in his throat and the sudden, sharp longing to turn back time and reclaim his little brother.

He found a chair and placed it beside the bed, sinking down with a soft sigh. The staff had stuffed the shreds of Sam's bloodied t-shirt into a plastic bag beneath the gurney. The metallic bite of blood triggered an abrupt sense-memory: cradling the warm weight of Sam's body, one hand pressed uselessly against the flow of lifeblood pumping from his back.

A shudder vibrated through Dean, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. It was all burned into Dean's brain in high-def, 3-dimensional clarity: feeling the soft puff of Sam's breath against his neck as it stuttered and stilled, his body suddenly looser, heavier, his blood turning tacky and cool . . . Watching Sam die, being helpless to stop it--Dean had been certain nothing in his life could ever be worse.

Now . . . Now he wasn't so sure.

In Cold Oak he'd lost Sam's body. These days it seemed he was losing Sam's soul. Everything that made his little brother good and real and Sam was slipping away. And the more he tightened his grip, tried to hold on, the more Sam slipped through his fingers. Hell, half the time it didn't even feel like it was Sam beside him anymore. It felt a lot more like--

"Dean!" Sam bolted upright--or tried. Bandaged arms flailing, he made it halfway before dropping back with a groan.

"Hey, hey. Take it easy." Dean placed his hand on Sam's chest, felt rapid, shallow breaths as the heart monitor picked up the beat. "Hospital, Sammy. You're safe."

At the sound of his voice, Sam's gaze--which had been darting around the room--locked onto Dean's face. He sucked in a deep breath and the beeping dropped to a more normal pace. With a frown he lifted his arms and blinked at them.

"Arms hurt?" Dean asked, amused by the confused, pupil-dilated gaze. Sam on painkillers was always worth the price of admission.

"Dude, I can't even tell I've got arms." Sam's eyelids drifted shut and he popped them open, comically wide. "You okay?"

Dean fought a grin--Sam got pissy if he thought he was being laughed at. Normally that was all good fun, but the kid deserved a break, at least for now. "Me? I'm not the one who was mistaken for an all-you-can-eat buffet."

He regretted the words when Sam shivered and swallowed hard, looking nauseous. "She had her mouth on me, man. For a minute there I really thought . . ."

"Not on my watch," he growled, anger at what little he'd seen surging afresh. "Anyway, she's toast. They both are."

The tension drained from Sam, and one corner of his mouth turned up. "Thanks for having my back."

"Always, Sammy," he said, voice rough. "You know that."

After a moment of silence, Sam cleared his throat. "He really was our brother you know."

"Yeah." Dean scrubbed both hands over his face, the exhaustion he'd managed to hold at bay crashing abruptly through him. "Kid was dead before we knew he existed. I know I didn't exactly jump on the Adam bandwagon, but . . . I'm sorry we couldn't save him."

"Me too." Sam yawned, eyelids fluttering. "Might be for the best, though."

Like a splash of freezing water, the words brought Dean fully awake. "What?"

"No skills . . . training," Sam mumbled. "He'd've been liability . . . can't afford now. Have to stay focused . . . find Lilith . . ." He trailed off with a soft sigh, asleep.

Dean stared, his throat dry and tight. Shaggy brown hair. Eyes that tilted at the corners. Mole on the cheek. He knew every line and angle. A face so familiar. So loved. So Sam.

Yet suddenly, no matter how hard he looked, he couldn't see his brother.

Suddenly, he could only see Dad.

End