Shifting Balance
K Hanna Korossy

"Sure, Dean, let's trade stories. You first—how was Hell? Don't spare the details."

The words cut; he didn't talk about Hell because he was trying to protect Sam, not keep secrets, and his brother knew it. Then again, Dean hadn't spared the disdain with Sam, either. Following a tip Ruby gave them rubbed Dean the wrong way. Sam trusting the demon bitch like she was some kind of amigo…that stabbed clean through his gut. What had happened while he'd been gone, anyway?

Sam had grieved—Dean got that. He'd been lost: okay. He'd exercised some…questionable judgment with practicing his abilities, but Dean had kinda hoped they were past that. But getting cozy with a demon? That was all kinds of bad. It might've been desperate and last-ditch, but it also meant a step closer to the edge of darkness they'd been trying to pull Sam away from those last two years.

And, deep down where Dean didn't even like to admit it to himself, it felt a little like he'd been replaced. By one of the kind that had made his stay Down Under so memorable.

That hurt. Which had, of course, come out as anger.

Dean threw his brother a wary glance, to see Sam curled up by the door, looking oddly small. Gaze turned inward, he seemed to be less brooding and more thinking, or perhaps remembering. He'd also been irate, hadn't hesitated to go on the offensive at Dean's attack, but maybe…maybe that was something else masquerading as sarcasm, too. Not saying what you really felt was the Winchester way, after all.

Grieving, lost, in pain. Dean knew that feeling well; that was the main reason he hadn't really asked before what had happened while he was gone. But although Sam might've changed in those four-plus months, the better part of him was still the kid Dean had raised. And if he was hurting…

When Sam seemed about to say something, then lapsed back into his broody silence, Dean finally reined in his own hurt feelings and anger to deal with his brother's. Something else he'd also had long years of practice with. He cleared his throat. "You can tell me, you know."

It seemed to take Sam a minute to pull out of wherever he'd gone to inside that ginormous head of his. "What?"

Dean cocked his head. "What happened. You can tell me—I won't get mad."

Sam blinked at him, and for a moment, Dean knew he could go either way: shutting Dean down or accepting the olive branch. Then Sam's mouth twitched. "You sure about that?"

The tightness in Dean's chest eased a fraction. "Uh, not really? But I'll try, okay?" He gave Sam his most winning smile.

Sam took a breath, sitting a little straighter in the seat. But Dean noticed his hand had strayed down to rub absently at his jeans, one of his nervous tells. "Maybe later, all right?" he finally said, sounding almost pleading. And then he looked at Dean and, for once, there was no deceit, no secrets or scorn in his eyes, just…Sam.

It wasn't all right, not by a long shot. But little was those days, and truth be told, Dean wasn't sure he was up for soul-baring that night anyway. Not when he needed a healthy dose of Jack just to get through his own nightmares. So he just silently nodded.

And felt a tiny bit mollified when Sam relaxed and reached for the radio.


One look, a silent agreement, and they jumped.

It wasn't the worst fall they'd ever taken: one story down through a window. Still hurt like a mother, though.

"Son of a bitch," Dean hissed as he staggered to his feet, left arm clenched tight to his chest. Dislocated for sure, hopefully no worse than that. The ribs on that side also felt bruised, but that was nothing. He spat a mouthful of blood out, then forgot his troubles as he looked around and found Sam.

His brother was having a harder time getting up off the ground, on all fours, body weaving a little as he tried to shake his head clear. When Dean dropped his good hand on the crown of Sam's head, only slightly fuzzy hazel eyes peered up at him through tousled bangs.

"You still in one piece?" Dean asked, scanning his brother. Nothing seemed broken, but there was a chunk of glass sticking out of his arm. Dean was pretty sure he could feel a small sliver in his own back.

Sam groaned as he pushed up. "Yeah. You?"

"I'll live." Dean glanced up, to see a shadow approaching the jagged frame of the stained-glass window they'd just plunged through. Alastair, and the very thought made his soul shrink and his legs tremble. "Can you walk? We need to get out of here."

Sam swayed once on his feet, clutching Dean's arm to steady himself. His bad arm, and Dean couldn't stop a groan. Sam let him go immediately. Dean didn't give him the opportunity to ask, just grabbed Sam's shoulder and towed him toward the car, resisting the temptation to look back at the building.

Sam automatically headed for the driver's seat, and Dean felt lousy enough to let him. They jumped into the Impala with soft sounds of pain, and Sam peeled out of the church parking lot.

They went several blocks before Dean nudged him to pull off. Alistair wasn't following…yet.

Finally with a moment to breathe, they did some emergency first aid. Dean plucked the glass from his back and tossed it aside before he finally leaned against the seat, then eased his arm into his half-buttoned jacket. At his side, he could hear Sam grunt as he tied a rag around his arm just above the glass. Sam dug out a bottle of water and half-drained it, then passed it to Dean, who finished it off.

Dean's head was still ringing from Alastair's blows, vision a little whacked. All he wanted to do was lie down for a while, but they'd lingered too long as it was. Sam knew it, too, and soon had them back out on the road. Didn't matter where they went as long as it was away.

"You okay to drive?" Dean asked.

"I'm all right, Dean," Sam answered with an edge, not looking over. "I wasn't the one getting pounded by some über-demon."

"No, you were the one who went down the stairs headfirst." The car wobbled briefly in the lane, and Dean's eyes narrowed when he saw how Sam was squinting at the road. "Pull over, dude—you're gonna wrap us around a tree."

"No, I'm not." But Sam grimaced and steered the Impala onto the gravel shoulder.

Dean climbed out laboriously and went around, opening Sam's door before his brother had even moved. He took hold of Sam's chin and tipped his head back, peering into his eyes. "You seeing double?"

"Two of you?" Sam threw back. "No thanks." He pulled loose of Dean's grip and slowly slid across the bench seat, teeth clenched. "Want me to fix your shoulder now?"

"It can wait." Dean hugged it close as he climbed in, cursing under his breath. "How's the arm?"

"It can wait," Sam echoed, breathing out as he deflated into the corner of the seat.

Dean pulled the door shut, then grabbed Sam's hand and pried it open, pressing the painkillers he'd fished out into a damp palm.

Sam tipped them silently into his mouth, dry-swallowing the painkillers.

"We need to put some miles between us and town," Dean said apologetically, pulling back out onto asphalt. It was probably not a good thing how accustomed he was to driving with only one good arm.

"Yeah," Sam said quietly.

Dean paused, giving him a sidelong look. "We'll figure this out, Sam."

Sam nodded tightly, eyes on his window. Dean wasn't sure his brother believed him, though.

For that matter, he didn't even know if he'd been trying to reassure Sam or himself.


"I need to know more," Dean demanded. "I mean, I deserve to know more."

Sam had thought he'd wanted Dean to ask. He'd waited for it, that first week his brother had returned. Every pause in conversation, every thoughtful look that flitted through Dean's eyes, Sam had braced himself in expectation.

But Dean had never asked. And after a while, hurt had given way to apathy and then maybe even relief. After all, it wasn't like Sam had wanted to relive the summer, or had been proud of what he'd done while Dean was gone. Once he could see it as Dean letting him keep his secrets rather than just not caring, Sam was almost grateful for the reprieve.

Dean had always been interested in everything about Sam, though, from those painful years Sam had been at Stanford, to every appalling detail of his blood-taint. It wasn't that surprising Dean would eventually want to know what had happened to Sam while Dean had been dead, even if he seemed reluctant to hear it.

The liberation of telling the story was unexpected. Sam had braced for the shame, the awkwardness, the pain. But to unburden himself of this skeleton at least, and to see only sympathy and a certain amount of understanding in Dean's eyes—well, besides his disgust over Ruby—was a gift. Dean easing Sam's hurt at a cost to himself yet again, just as he'd done throughout their lives.

Sam really wanted to return the favor for once.

So in that dimly lit motel room, sitting across from Dean, he dug deep, laying out every humbling detail before his brother's eyes: the drinking, the desperate attempt at a crossroads deal, the suicidal wreck he'd been, the helpless need to be rescued by Ruby—twice. What she said to me…it's what you would have said. Admitting his total inability to live without his brother, and his newfound understanding for why Dean had made the original deal in the first place. Sam had no deal of his own to point to as proof of his love, so he offered every darkest hour and blackest fear instead.

It was as vulnerable as he got. It was as vulnerable as he never let himself be anymore.

The heavy silence that followed was finally broken by…Ruby in a portly black housekeeper's body, telling them where to go meet her.

They were halfway there before Dean finally spoke, after opening and closing his mouth like a fish a few times.

"So, do you…you know, like her?"

Sam's eyebrows arched. Of all the questions Dean could've asked, he hadn't been expecting that one. "What, you mean like…in love with her? Ruby?"

His brother fidgeted in the seat. "Yeah."

"No, Dean," Sam said, exasperated. "I don't love her, all right? It was just sex. I needed…"

"Yeah, I got that," Dean quickly said. He chewed his lip. "And it was just the one time?"

Sam shifted to sit sideways in the seat, ignoring the flare of pain in his newly stitched arm as it pressed against the seat back. "Seriously? Everything I told you, and that's what you're hung up on?"

Dean unexpectedly flinched. "No! It's just…" He shrugged his shoulders, grimacing when his newly reduced dislocation no doubt complained. "It's a lot to process, okay?"

Sam's hackles settled. That was Dean-speak for I'm upset, and this is how I'm trying to deal. It had to be freaking him out how close Sam had come to throwing away the life Dean had sold his soul for, and Ruby was the one part of the story he could focus on. Sam could understand that. "Tell me about it," he mumbled.

Dean sniffed, his leg jogging up and down. "I guess I owe her a thank-you," he finally grumbled.

Sam's mouth ticked upward, a familiar affection filling him.

There was a long pause. Then, "You realize you screwed the same girl who just showed up looking like Madea."

Sam blinked. "Medea? Like, from Euripides?"

Dean barked a laugh, shoulders coming down an inch. "Well, you're still a geek—at least that hasn't changed."

Sam wasn't quite sure what had just happened or what they'd even been talking about. But the mood had lightened, Dean no longer looked like he was waiting for a blow, and something had settled between them.

He wasn't going to argue.


"Then let's find out," Sam suggested.

Dean totally agreed with his brother in theory: they needed to know more about Anna and why the angels wanted her, and they needed to know it yesterday. It was the practical he was just a little vague on. "Okay, I'm all for that, but how?"

Sam turned back to him, and from his pregnant look, Dean already had an inkling before Sam said it. "Pamela."

Dean's "You're kidding me, right?" overlapped with Anna's "Who?"

Sam chose to answer Anna, of course. "She's a psychic we know, really good at what she does. If anyone could see what's going on here and figure this out, it's her."

Dean cuffed him in the shoulder. "Yeah, only problem is, last time she helped us out, she got her eyes melted for her trouble. What makes you think she's gonna want to help us?"

Sam gave a facial shrug. "Wouldn't hurt to ask."

Actually, Dean was thinking, knowing Pamela, yeah, it might.

Sam bit off a smile, the brat. "You want me to talk to her?"

Dean glared at him. "Right. Like you're gonna charm her into this." He held up a finger. "And you're not taking the car."

Sam yielded, palms raised.

Dean was on his way back, Pamela Barnes in the front seat beside him, before he realized how well he'd been played by his brother.

Pamela had been glad to "see" him again, had even expressed her disappointment there wasn't enough time for a little getting reacquainted before they had to head back. Dean had to admit he was a little disappointed by that one himself. But still, there was something a little more subdued about her as she tapped a toe to "Hells Bells," and it wasn't just the dark glasses she wore now. He could swear she was looking at him sometimes, maybe even seeing more than most. Which was not a happy thought.

"You remember," she finally said, with as much gravity as if she were remarking about the scenery she couldn't see. It wasn't a question, either.

And he didn't have to think about what she meant: Hell. "Yeah," Dean said quietly. "Came back about a month ago." He laughed bleakly. "Can't say I wish it hadn't."

"Yeah, well, life's just full of regrets." Her smile was wry.

"Guess so," Dean agreed.

"That's not what's really yanking your chain, though."

Again with the not asking. Dean frowned at the steering wheel. "Seems to me you still see just fine."

Pamela laughed, uninhibited and contagious. "Honey, I don't have to be psychic to pick up that vibe from you. Is Sam all right?"

That was an interesting question. Dean waffled a moment. Bobby trusted Pamela, but this was something he hadn't even talked to Bobby about, and couldn't seem to discuss with Sam without a lot of yelling. But there was something easy about sharing with Pamela, something that made him want to open up.

Which Sam himself had once observed. And which he knew Dean needed these days.

Man, the kid had gotten sneaky in his old age.

Dean took a breath and told her: about what Sam had been up to during the summer, about Ruby and her unknown agenda, and about Sam's new magic demon-vacuum powers. He left out the shagging Ruby part because, for one thing, gross, and for another, Sam was entitled to some privacy. Besides, knowing Pamela, she probably already knew, anyway.

"So you think he's been messing with fire and got himself a little singed?" Pamela asked at the end.

Dean huffed. "I think he's leaving sulfur fingerprints on everything he touches, and Heaven and Hell both want him to clean up."

She nodded and was silent a moment. "Boy's already tainted—ain't no question about that. But he's trying to do the right thing. Question is, do you trust Sam to know what that is?"

Dean rubbed his eyes with a sigh. "If you'd asked me that last year, I would've said, heck yeah, no hesitation. Now…"

Pamela tilted her head at him, giving him that uncanny feeling again of being watched. "He's got you to reel him back in if he crosses the line, though."

"I'm not going anywhere," Dean said firmly. "I'm just not sure that's enough."

Pamela shifted in the seat to face him, just like Sam often did. "You want the feel-good, paying-client answer, or the hard-truth, if-your-friends-can't-tell-you-who-can answer?"

Dean quirked a smile at her even if she couldn't see it. "We paying you for this?"

She twinkled back at him. "I take payment a lotta different ways, handsome." Pamela shook her head. "I can't promise you anything, Dean, I'm sorry. I don't have that kind of sight. But I can tell you this—Hell's all about actions and results. You sold your soul? You're theirs, doesn't matter why. But Heaven? For all my beef with their 'angelic' side, Heaven's all about intent. If you're trying to do the right thing for the right reasons, even if it doesn't work, you still get credit. Might not be the apple pie-ending you were looking for, but it is happily ever-hereafter. And Sam's got a good heart under those chiseled abs. Might be Hell to pay first, but yeah, I think you two'll still be standing at the end."

Dean swallowed. "So, you think I can save him?" he asked quietly.

Pamela laughed, as gentle as he'd ever heard her. "Maybe you'll save each other."


"We gotta think of something."

And by "we" thinking of some way to save Anna, Dean meant "he." Or maybe him and Bobby. Sam's ideas need not apply those days.

It annoyed and angered Sam as much as it wounded him; he was more than a little tired of being treated with suspicion just because he wanted to fight fire with fire. But he couldn't wholly argue it, either. He wasn't the one the angels were threatening to throw back into Hell if they didn't get Anna, and Sam had heard enough of Dean's nightmares to know how much even the thought terrified his brother.

Not surprisingly, it was Dean who came up with the plan, or at least as much as they had of one. And also not surprisingly, it meant him kowtowing to that son of a bitch Uriel, because if anyone was gonna sacrifice, it would be Dean. And Ruby, which, okay, Dean wouldn't exactly be losing sleep over, but…yeah. Bottom line, it was always Dean who gave at the office.

Sam had had enough. It was time someone else looked after Dean.

"You care for him a lot, don't you?"

Anna's voice, pitched soft and meek, didn't make him start. Some part of him had been aware of her coming up behind him as he stood at the window, watching the figure bent over the hood of the car. "He's m'brother," Sam said tiredly. Maybe it wasn't an answer, but it should've been.

"Cain and Abel were brothers, too," she said with a touch of humor.

Sam met her reflection's eyes in the window but didn't turn, just uncrossed his arms and dug them into his jeans pockets. "He's been through a lot, and…I just wish he'd let me help him."

Her gaze moved to Dean. "Maybe he's not ready yet."

The corners of Sam's mouth turned up. "Trust me, Dean will never be ready to talk about this."

"Are you?"

The question took him aback, and he did face her then. "Yeah, I'd like to think so. I mean, I don't know everything he went through, of course, but I have some idea—"

"No," she said, gently but finally. "You don't."

Sam narrowed his eyes at her. "Did…he…?"

She smiled, shaking her head. "He didn't have to. Angel radio, remember?"

That nonplussed him, that this girl knew more about what his brother had been through than Sam did. And he was surprised at how much he ached inside for Dean to trust him enough to share it with him. Sam rounded his shoulders, pulled out a hand to rub the back of his head. "Hey, Anna… You think you could go talk to him? I mean, not about this or anything, just…you know, talk." Dean liked her, a lot, Sam could see. Like Pamela, maybe she could bring him some kind of comfort that Sam…couldn't.

She looked past him at Dean, still hunched outside where he'd escaped to after they were done talking. "Of course." Her eyes moved back to Sam. "But as a friend, Sam, not as a replacement for you."

He still hadn't found a reply when she glided past him and outside.

Sam watched from the window as she approached Dean and they talked. Even from twenty feet away and in the dark, Sam could see when his brother's head dropped, his body bent with defeat. He saw when Dean looked up again, and when talking became soft kisses. He stopped watching when they moved to the car, not really wanting to see what he knew would come next.

Okay, not exactly what he'd had in mind…but comfort came in many forms. Sam was well-acquainted with that one himself.

And if this was all Dean would allow himself right now, so be it.

Maybe Sam didn't have a lot of experience taking care of Dean, but he did in humoring him.


"I wish I couldn't feel anything, Sammy. I wish I couldn't feel a damn thing."

There really wasn't anything he could say after that, even if his heart was full to bursting.

After a minute, Dean got back into the car, and Sam followed him. They drove another hundred miles until it was dinnertime and they found a motel. All of it in total silence, Dean's confession of his actions in Hell an invisible crushing weight.

He wanted to touch Dean. To embrace him like Dean had done so many times during the course of Sam's life when he'd brought his hurts to his brother, and tell him it was okay, they'd fix it, it didn't change anything, he'd be all right.

That wouldn't have helped his big brother, though. Not then, and definitely not now. Dean's pride was shattered, and any kind of empathy at this point would only be a confirmation of his utter weakness. Forty years in Hell—even if it just seemed like forty years in Hell—wouldn't be eased by any words or contact.

So Sam didn't try. Even if he'd bitten his lip bloody holding back the support he wanted to give.

Dean, not surprisingly, wasn't interested in dinner. Sam wasn't either. He dropped his bag on his bed, and tried not to watch as Dean immediately headed into the bathroom, the lock clicking shut behind him. Humiliation now over his exposed "failure" on top of his trauma; Sam couldn't bear to let him struggle with that, too.

He went back out into the parking lot, making sure the door slammed loudly behind him. Offering the privacy of the room to his brother and a chance for Dean to not worry, just for a little bit, about keeping up appearances.

Besides, Sam had his own appearances to worry about.

He gave himself a minute of tears, pressing his eyes shut, squeezing the bridge of his nose, then throwing a punch at the wooden strut of the porch. It wasn't fair, it wasn't right, and it was because of him. Dean was busted, perhaps beyond repair, because of him.

Self-pity would do jack-squat to help either of them, though. Sam sucked back the tears after the minute was over, rubbing his face dry and clearing his throat. Okay, they were screwed. Things were bad, more so than usual, but still, that was situation normal for them. So what could he do about it?

The answer, as it turned out, was sitting right in front of him.

He'd been at it about ten minutes, not bothering to be quiet, when he heard the motel door open behind him and felt the weight of his brother's eyes. Maybe another two minutes before Dean finally spoke up, voice rough-shod. "What're you doing?"

Sam smiled into the engine. "Dude, you're the one who showed me how to do this—I'm bleeding the brakes."

"By yourself? You got a—?"

"Cinder block's already on the pedal."

There was another long pause. Dean wasn't as proprietary about the car since he'd gotten back, but the Impala always would be his baby. The idea of Sam doing maintenance on her, by himself, on a task that was so much easier with two people… He gave it another five, four, three, two—

"I'll do it—get behind the wheel, Sam."

He looked back then, not letting himself linger on Dean's red eyes or haggard face. "You sure? 'Cause I can—"

"You'll never get it done before dark by yourself, Earnhardt. Now get in the car." And Dean was next to him, nudging up against Sam's shoulder.

He let himself be pushed out of the way and climbed in, tossing the cinder block out and pressing the brake pedal each time Dean told him to. When the drain was done, Sam circled back to the side of the car and silently began passing tools as needed, like a nurse assisting with surgery.

Dean was the one to slam the hood lid down when they were done, then pass the shop rag over to Sam after wiping his hands. Sam reciprocated with a sweating beer. Then they just leaned against the side of the car and watched the colors began to spread as the sun sank into the horizon. It was an echo of a few hours before on the side of the road, but Dean's shoulders remained relaxed and his hands steady. His eyes had cleared, and color had crept back into his cheeks even under the smudge of dirt across one cheekbone.

"I'm not proud of everything I did while you were gone, either," Sam finally said.

Dean shifted, snorting softly under his breath, but he didn't walk away or tell him to shut up, which was a tiny good sign.

Sam had practiced his argument in his head. The lawyer in him was not quite dead, and this was too important to screw up. But now that he had the floor, it was all instinct, and twenty-five years of knowing Dean. "And I'm not saying what you did was nothing, or that it shouldn't bother you. But…that's kinda the point, man. It hurts because you're a good person. You were in a situation that sucked unbelievably, where there were no good choices. And you did what you could, held out longer than most people would've been able to…but you're only human, Dean. You have to forgive yourself for the rest. Dude, even God's not holding it against you."

"You don't know all of it," Dean whispered.

Sam looked at him then, and saw not his big brother nor his parent nor the guy he'd always leaned on and looked up to. Just his brother, the person he loved most in the world and for whom he'd do anything, literally. "I know you did this for me. And no matter what happened down there, it's not gonna change what I think of you."

They watched the sunset in silence until there was only a streak of light left. Dean's throat bobbed occasionally, but otherwise he was still, and Sam with him.

Dean finally shifted, took a breath, and made a perfect toss of the empty bottle into the trashcan by the edge of the lot. "You comin' in?" His eyes skipped sideways toward Sam. "I'm gonna order a pizza, and Simpsons is on."

Sam straightened. "Yeah, just gotta put the tools away first."

Dean nodded and headed for the door. Then stopped at the threshold, head turning in profile. "You did a good job with the car, Sammy," he said quietly. He disappeared inside.

Sam smiled sadly after him. "You're welcome."


But for now, he carefully put his brother's tools away and followed him in.

The End