Wiping the Slate
K Hanna Korossy

"You're sure? It was definitely…" Dean had to cast a quick glance at the open notebook on the seat beside him. "…Trevor you saw?" He nodded, more to himself than the woman on the other end of the line. "Yeah, okay. Yeah. We'll do everything we can, ma'am, I promise. I'll be in touch." Dean snapped the phone shut before she could squeeze another word in. "Or not," he muttered under his breath as he tossed the cell onto the empty passenger seat.

His eyes followed its trajectory to where it landed. Sam was off doing his share of the legwork, checking the two murder scenes and stopping in at the coroner's office. Dean was cheating; he was supposed to do all his interviews in person. But what Sam didn't know wouldn't hurt Dean. And he was just…tired.

Once, they would've done all their investigating together, or Sam would've taken the witnesses and victims' families while Dean did the fact-checking. Somewhere along the way, though—probably sometime after he'd come back from Hell and Sam's tastes had switched from white wine to red demon blood—Dean had become the more sympathetic one, the one people opened up to. Which was wrong on more levels than Dean could count, but he'd given up fighting it. As he had many things.

He turned the Impala into the gravel parking lot of their home-of-the-week and pulled to a stop in front of their room door. Then he turned off the engine and, with no one there to make nice for, let himself sag. His hands dropped into his lap, his shoulders rounded, and the neutral expression sloughed off his face like water. He knew how empty his eyes looked without it, how much of his weariness showed in his face; he'd seen it in the mirror enough. It got so heavy, though, the act, and just for a minute, he let it slip.

There'd been a time, not that long ago but seemed like forever, when Sam was the one with whom he could let it all go. Oh, not completely, because appearances had to be maintained. But his brother had known him inside-out, had his back, was the home where Dean could drop his guard and rest a little, recharging for the fight.

Then Sammy had tried to kill him, and chose that demon tramp over him. And told Dean he was partly to blame for it, that Sam had been trying to get away from him.

Dean drew a ragged breath and ran a hand over his eyes. What was he supposed to do with that? He'd just swallowed it and promised Sam he'd quit trying to be the boss and treating him like a little brother. As angry as he still was at Sam for the whole Ruby betrayal, he needed the guy back, wanted him back. Dean just had no clue how to make this work. He was scared all the friggin' time now that one wrong step would make Sam split again, or fall off the wagon, or, crap, even turn on him. And Dean was just plain tired of it all.

Well, one good thing about the Apocalypse: the way things were going, he wouldn't have to carry this heavy mask much longer. The future wasn't looking too bright for him or Sam, and maybe then he'd have finally earned his rest.

Dean doubted it, though. More likely, a return trip to Hell awaited him in the Great Beyond, and wasn't that something to look forward to? Talk about damned if you do…

He sighed, running a hand over his face, and shoved the door roughly open. Still felt like someone had turned gravity up, but Dean knew from experience that no amount of collecting himself or moments of respite would really help. His last haven was gone, and there would be no rest for the weary.

Sam was sitting at the table across the room, chin propped in one hand as he read something on the laptop. Dean hid his surprise at his brother's presence as he shut the door behind him. "Didn't think you'd be back so soon."

"I got done early. Coroner's office was a bust—nothing unusual in either autopsy—and one of the scenes had already been cleaned up."

"Huh." Dean shrugged out of his jacket and dumped it on his bed, then started rolling up his sleeves. "I talked to everyone on the list except…whathisname's girlfriend. The guy's mom swears she saw him in the house the same time he was supposed to be three blocks over murdering his best friend, and Jackie's BFF was on the phone with her during the whole window of time when her mom was killed. Looks like you were right and we've got a shapeshifter on our hands." Dean finished washing his hands and dried them on the nearest towel, carefully avoiding his reflection in the bathroom mirror.

"Yeah, about that—I don't think this is a hunt, Dean."

He leaned out of the bathroom to quirk an eyebrow at Sam. "Come again?"

Sam's face scrunched up with chagrin. "It's not a case—well, not our kind of case. People were murdered, obviously, but I think it's just…normal human evil."

"'Normal human evil'?" Dean echoed incredulously, stepping all the way out as he tossed the towel back into the bathroom. "Yeah, 'cause it's totally normal for nice, law-abiding folks to suddenly want to kill their loved ones." He winced the moment the words were out of his mouth, wishing he could recall them.

But Sam didn't react at all. "People snap all the time, dude—where do you think 'going postal' came from? The majority of mass murderers were 'nice, law-abiding folks' until they woke up homicidal one day."

"Well, that's reassuring," Dean muttered, hefting the weapons bag onto his bed. "But how do you explain the witnesses who swear Jackie and…Travis—"

"—Trevor—"

"—were someplace else at the time?" He turned away as he slid the demon-killing knife out of the loop on his belt and stashed it in the bag.

"They're lying to cover for their loved ones. Or they're confused. Or in denial. 'S not like the first time we've seen that happen."

Dean stuffed the bag half under the bed's trailing cover. "Dude, why are you so sure this is a bum case? Looks like a classic shapeshifter to me—wanna bet we can find some video footage somewhere and catch an eye flare?" He straightened to find that Sam had stood up and crossed the room to loom over him, and almost startled back a step. Dean forced himself not to react, though. This was Sam, and when he wasn't high on demonic body fluids, he could be a jerk but he wasn't a threat. "You been taking lessons from Cas? Personal space, Sam."

Sam didn't budge, watching him with that unnervingly penetrating stare he seemed to have perfected over the last year. "Dean, there's nothing here—we're wasting our time with this."

Dean's mouth opened and shut. A week—a month, a year—ago he would have just overruled Sam and announced they were staying, period. But that would be bossy. And…God knew things were tense enough between them. So he tried to soften the words instead, ask instead of order. "Okay…look. I'm still not convinced, okay? Let's give it…one more day, try to find some security camera footage, check out the sewer tunnels. We don't find any proof we're dealing with a shifter, and we're gone, all right?"

He expected Sam to get bitchy, or petulant. What he didn't expect was the pure anger he saw. "You want me to spell it out, Dean? Fine. I'm craving it again, okay? I need something, and I'm not gonna find it here on this nothing case." Sam's hands moved with barely curbed violence.

The admission dumped a load of ice water into Dean's veins. He thought he'd been hit by the worst already, but this was it, those words he'd been bracing himself for the last few weeks and yet hoping so badly he'd never hear. The bottom of Dean's stomach dropped out, his lips numb as they tried to form a reply. "We…we'll go to Bobby's then, get-get you—"

Sam sneered at him, his face ugly. "You don't get it, man—I want this. I'm not fighting it anymore. So you can stay on this wild goose chase if you want, but I'm done." There was no conflict in his eyes; he meant it.

And…that was when it clicked. Every time, even when Sam had been so adament he was doing the right thing, even in that damned hotel room with his hands wrapped around Dean's throat, those hazel eyes had still been full of doubt.

This wasn't Sam.

"We can talk about this, dude," Dean said, shifting back toward the head of his bed. He'd tucked a silver blade under his pillow when they'd first hit town. "That doesn't mean—"

The thing wearing Sam's face moved faster. It met him at the head of the bed. "You really should've taken my word for it," it said with a tilt of the head, abruptly calm. "Oh well, it was worth a try."

The last thing Dean saw before his head exploded, was his brother's grin.

00000

He was taking the long way back to the motel, Sam realized, and was honest enough with himself these days to know why.

It was a beautiful day, mild and clear. Even without the car, the three places he'd stopped were all within comfortable walking distance. And while he'd really bulked up that last year or so—Sam still privately wondered if Ruby's blood hadn't helped that along—his endurance wasn't that great, so some cardio was good for him. All good reasons…and all totally excuses.

The fact was, he was reluctant to go back to Dean.

Not that he didn't want to be with his brother—God, no. It felt like he'd started breathing again when Dean had called and said he wanted to reunite with Sam. Truth be told, even Sam's recent threat to leave if Dean didn't treat him as an equal was a total bluff, because he was too scared—grateful, weak, lonely—to go it alone. But that didn't mean it wasn't…really, really hard.

Dean thought he covered it so well, but he was still transparent to Sam: he was struggling. Badly. And it got worse every time he looked at Sam, the constant living reminder of the source of all his misery.

He'd tried, swear to God. He'd tried to say he didn't want a big brother so much as simply a brother. He'd tried to explain that he was scared of falling into the old traps of resentment and dulled judgment if he returned to the role of follower. He'd tried to tell Dean how scared he was of having someone else call the shots for him. How he was just plain terrified all the time. But…he was pretty sure he'd botched that, too. Because for all Dean's acceptance and even a rare offer to drive his car, it was obvious Sam had managed to hurt him deeply yet again. And his brother was already perilously walking wounded.

So, yeah. It wasn't enough that Sam was the initiator of the Apocalypse. No, he had to completely tear down his brother, the best man he knew, while he was at it. Because he wasn't drowning in guilt already.

Sam dashed a hand across his eyes so he could see to cross the street. He wasn't sure how long he could keep doing this. Every minute with Dean was another careful step on thin ice, trying to be the partner Dean needed and the brother he wanted, and seeing his own failure in Dean's every expression. Sam was just…he was tired. And there was no end in sight, no big brother who would fix everything this time. Sam had nothing left.

Except penance. And that was why he squared his shoulders, took a breath, and crunched across the gravel to their door.

The Impala was there, so he expected Dean to be, too. Sam frowned when he stepped into an empty room. "Dean?" A few steps revealed a bare bathroom, and a quick glance out the window showed no one standing at the vending machine. Weirder still, Sam suddenly realized his brother's duffel was gone. No dirty socks or empty bottles littered the floor. And…there was a piece of paper on the bed.

He stalked over to it, feeling the first real chill of foreboding as he saw several lines in his brother's block print. Dean left scrawled Gone for coffee, or Don't wait up notes. He didn't leave letters in emptied rooms.

But there it was, in terse black and white: We both know this isn't working—we're better off on our own. Call Bobby if you need help. Take care of yourself and my wheels. There was no signature, none needed.

Sam's legs dropped out from under him, plopping him onto the bed. "No," he moaned, eyes stinging and chest tight. He thought…he'd tried so hard to do this right, to try to make things up to Dean and not let him be sorry he'd taken Sam back. Things weren't good and Dean was miserable, Sam knew that, but he'd still thought…

It was only when he started to get dizzy that he realized how fast he was breathing. Sam bent over, hands wrapping around his ankles, and made himself slow his panting. Dean was gone. Dean was gone, but…he hadn't said he hated Sam, or never wanted to see him again. He just needed some space; he was probably as worn out as Sam from pretending everything was fine. This was just temporary, it was just…

Wrong. Sam swallowed. It was wrong. Something—everything—about it was screaming that to him, now that he took a moment to listen. Dean was running on empty, but he would work himself into the ground before he'd quit. And a letter? He'd told Sam to his face every time he was done in; it was Sam who snuck out in dead of night. Not to mention that they were in the middle of a case, and Dean would never abandon innocent victims. No, something was really off about this, and it wasn't just that Dean was gone.

But there was the letter. Sam smoothed out the paper he'd inadvertently wrinkled in his fist and read it again with as objective an eye as he could manage. It was Dean's handwriting; he'd know it anywhere. Written under duress? Maybe, if Sam's well-being had been the threat. Or maybe it was a trick, although that seemed like a long shot. Who would have the…

Oh, God. Sam pushed to his feet. The shapeshifter. Everything he'd found that day: the homes near sewer entrances, the signs the victims knew their killer, and the shred of what looked like melted gelatinous skin, all pointed to a shapeshifter in town, just as Sam had suspected. And shifters could duplicate their sources right down to their handwriting.

Having a plan put Sam in motion, even as he continued the train of thought. A shapeshifter had taken and doubled Dean. There were silver bullets in the trunk for the handgun he slipped into his jacket. It wanted Sam to think Dean was gone and apparently expected him to just leave town now. The silver blade he thought he remembered Dean putting under his pillow was gone, but there was another buried at the bottom of the weapons' bag. Shapeshifters had to keep their prey alive if they wanted to continue feeding off their knowledge and memories.

Sam paused, then grabbed his phone and dialed Dean. Unsurprisingly, it went straight to voicemail.

"Dean? It's me. I got your note but…you gotta say it to my face, man. I know you're still in town—I'm not leaving until we talk. Call me."

There, maybe that would give the shapeshifter a little more incentive to keep Dean around. God, please.

Sam put the risks and stakes out of his mind as he grabbed a flashlight and strode out the door. He could be a brother later; right now he was a hunter, and he had a sewer to go search.

00000

Dean woke to pain and blindness.

No, not blindness; it was just dark. Really dark. But the pain was real.

It throbbed through his head in slow waves, a sharp stab spiking into his skull with each crest. He groaned as it made his guts lurch sympathetically and brought a rush of saliva to his mouth in preparation for emptying his stomach.

Dean swallowed it down. No way was he puking when he didn't know where he was or who or what had him. He wasn't giving anything that sick satisfaction. He shifted, trying to bring his hand up to rub his mouth, and discovered the second source of his discomfort.

His hands were shackled. Not just cuffed; honest-to-God iron manacles encircled his wrists and anchored his arms above his head. He was in an awkward crouch, as far down as he could sit with his hands bound so high, and most of his weight was on his wrists, jamming unyielding metal into the base of his thumb and the soft flesh of his palm.

Well, that he could fix at least. Dean pushed up from his feet, only to find his legs weren't quite with the program yet. He fell back with a thick grunt, his thumbs about ready to pop out of their sockets. He took a breath and tried again, this time managing to more or less stand. Still bent over like an old dude, but the strain on his arms had eased, and he could lean some of his weight back against the stone wall beside him.

Stone wall?

Dean's swollen hands gingerly explored to the limits of his chains. Yup, rough-hewn stone, embedded with a solid iron ring that held his manacles' chains. No amount of tugging or pushing made it shift even minutely, and his bindings seemed welded shut, without a lock he could pick. Not that he seemed to have anything left in his pockets, he discovered next. Even the blade strapped to his lower leg felt like it was gone. Dean couldn't reach the floor, but as he scuffed it with his boot, it felt like more stone, or maybe really hard-packed earth. Light would've been awesome; in the dark, it felt like a small rocky cage, getting ever smaller, even though his senses told him he was in a large space. Dean shivered and pressed back against the wall, trying to collect his wits and figure out what was going on.

"Comfy, big brother?"

The voice echoed eerily, twisting Sam's soft tenor into something more menacing. Dean had a feeling it didn't need a lot of help, though, because it wasn't Sam and it had intended to be menacing. Because he remembered now.

A shapeshifter, pretending to be Sam. And he'd fallen for it like a total rookie.

"I've had worse," he shot back, trying to peer through the darkness. He'd aimed for confident and unruffled but, to his chagrin, came out more weak and pained.

"I bet."

A small light appeared across the room—maybe 20 feet away?—dazzling Dean's eyes after the darkness. It was a candle, flame flickering and tiny, but it brought Dean a swell of comfort…even as the man—thing—behind it dismayed him.

His vision was blurred and weaving, but he could still see the creature with Sam's face as it smiled at him, the mocking grin less foreign than Dean would have wished. "How's the head, Dean? I didn't want to damage you too hard—yet."

He forced a smile. "Oh, I'm peachy. Come on over here and I'll show you." The chains clanked as he slowly straightened, even as the nausea ramped up exponentially.

Sam looked almost genial. "Oh, I believe you. I mean, that's what brothers do, right? Trust each other?" He tilted the candle he held, lighting another that sat in a holder by the wall.

It illuminated enough of the room to confirm Dean's suspicions: an old-fashioned stone prison cell without windows and only one gaping doorway. Not like he was going to make a break for it anytime soon.

"Of course," the Sam-shifter continued, "things haven't been that smooth between us lately, I know. When was the last time you really even trusted me, big brother?"

"You're not Sam," Dean growled. Their problems were just that: theirs. And for all the issues he had with Sam, it still galled him something could think even for a second that it could be his little brother. "You don't even know the meaning of the word 'trust.'"

The first candle went into a holder on the other side of the door, leaving the shifter's hands free. It crossed them over its chest, then eyed Dean intently. "Right. Because you've been so worthy of trust since you got back from Hell. Face it, Dean: you've been too scared to fight the fight. You never wanted me to use my abilities, but you weren't exactly offering a Plan B, were you?"

Dean snorted. "Hey, Mystique, listen up—you're not him."

The shapeshifter continued as if Dean hadn't spoken, pacing a half-dozen feet away. Just out of kicking range, even if Dean had been up for it. "So I risked everything, everything, to do what I thought was the right thing and save the world—my soul, my life, even my brother's love—just hoping you could forgive me afterward when you saw why I'd done it, and what did I get?"

Dean turned his face away, throat tight. He'd already lived this nightmare; he wasn't interested in a rerun.

Sam laughed hollowly. "And you talk about trust? Seriously, dude? I'd say your brother's trust in you was seriously misplaced. Sam—I mean I—actually thought you'd love me enough to be my brother and forgive me for doing what I felt I had to. I mean, you know what that feels like, right? Making a devil's bargain because you felt like you had no choice?"

"It's not the same thing," Dean protested despite himself.

The laugh didn't sound even remotely like Sam. "Right, right. Because you did that for Sam, right? Doesn't matter that he was at peace, or that you dragged him back to this miserable, hopeless existence, for what, so you could spend one more year with him, with me? Maybe your deal didn't end the world, Dean, but it ended mine."

"No," Dean whispered.

The shifter came in closer, volume lowering to a despairing, angry hiss. "Do you know what my life is like now, Dean? How I have to live with this crushing guilt every. Single. Day. How I've gotta fight against this hunger all the time, and I'm constantly terrified I'm going to lose control? How I can't trust myself anymore, and I know you don't trust me. You can't even look me in the eye, man. Do you know how lonely that is? And even if I wanted to quit, Lucifer's not gonna let me, so there's no end in sight. This, this is Hell, Dean."

He wasn't thinking about this. He couldn't think about this, not now. Not if he wanted to keep it together. Dean pulled his arms tighter into himself, rattling the heavy chains. His head was killing him, his hands were stiff and tingling, and he wore shackles he had no hope of shedding. But he had to get out of there. Cas couldn't find him and Sam wouldn't know where to look, if he was even looking, so it was up to him.

Unless…

The shapeshifter suddenly laughed. "Poor big brother. The truth hurts, doesn't it? If you'd just listened to me and left town, we could have avoided all this, but no, you always have to do things the hard way."

Dean huffed a laugh, fresh energy momentarily clearing the cloud of pain and depression. "Oh yeah? And what do you get out of this, Chuckles?"

Sam's mouth stretched unnaturally. "You haven't figured it out yet, really? I guess Sam is the smart one. I have just isolated my master's vessel and left him at our mercy."

And the shapeshifter's eyes turned completely black.

00000

The sewers contained a lot of nasty things, including a boggle that hadn't liked the invasion of its turf. But there'd been no shapeshifter. Sam had searched for hours before admitting defeat.

He chewed on his knuckle now as he paced the room and listened to the phone ring.

"Sam."

The familiar voice, even if it was that of an angel who didn't especially like him, helped settle Sam's churning insides a little. "Castiel. It's Dean. I mean, he's gone. I think a shapeshifter got him."

There was a pause. "I am sorry to hear that."

And he sounded like he meant it, but then, Dean and Castiel were friends, while Sam…wasn't. "You can't…you can't find him somehow, right? I mean, there's nothing you can do?"

A longer silence. Then, "He remains hidden from my sight."

"Great," Sam sighed. "Would that, uh, still be true if he were…?"

"What?"

"You know. Dead?" Sam said quietly.

"Yes." No hesitation this time, no softening of the blow.

"Oh." Dean and he had carefully not talked about it—just like everything else—but if the demons knew Dean was Michael's sword, they would probably be just as keen on finding Dean as the angels were…and with far less benevolent motives. A shapeshifter could have its own malicious reasons for taking off with Dean—two bodies in the local morgue said as much—but if it knew Dean's true identity…

"Where are you?"

Sam jolted, returning to the conversation he'd drifted away from. "Uh, the Merry Inn, room 24—"

And there Castiel was, two feet away, phone to his ear.

Sam closed his, giving the angel an uncertain look. "I thought you couldn't help?"

Castiel's arm also lowered, phone disappearing into the recesses of his trench coat. "I cannot sense him. That does not mean I cannot help look."

Sam nodded and offered him a small smile. "Thanks. That's…thanks."

"You're welcome." Castiel paused, head tilting thoughtfully. "Many things have been freed to walk the earth since the breaking of the final seal; it is difficult to sort out all those I sense in the area. But I will go…look into them."

Sam's wan smile grew a few degrees. "That's a good idea." Better than anything he had. And he couldn't help warming a little at Castiel not making a point of just who'd broken the final seal.

Castiel didn't move for a moment longer, eyebrows drawn together. Then, as Sam began to squirm under his gaze, he said solemnly, "You should bathe."

Sam blinked down at himself. Oh, right: sewer. "Yeah. Tha—"

He was alone again in the room.

"—nks," Sam finished weakly. Then shook his head and put in his next call.

Bobby sounded irritated, as he always did these days; Sam guessed that landing in a wheelchair took a lot of adjustment, especially for someone who had always been on the front lines of fighting evil. Singer's gruffness softened when Sam outlined the situation, however, and the concern and sympathy in the older man's voice made Sam's eyes prickle again.

"I hate to be the one to say it, Sam, but…are you sure he didn't write that note?"

Sam breathed out, folding down onto the edge of his bed. "Yeah, Bobby. I'm sure. This isn't Dean."

"He is a mite…agitated these days, you know."

Sam's mouth curled humorlessly. "Yeah. I know what he said to you about my starting the Apocalypse."

"He didn't say that."

Sam shook his head. "I heard him, Bobby, all right? And…I know. I just—"

"Boy, you listen to me—Dean wasn't talking about you. Or he was, but not just you. He blames himself just as much for those seals as he does you."

Sam felt like he'd shrunk about five feet. Dean had said as much just the other day, but Sam had thought his brother was simply trying to placate him. "He does?" he said in a small voice.

"Yeah, genius, he does. You can ask him yourself when you find him, so get on it. I'll do what I can from this end."

Sam cleared his throat. "Yeah. Okay."

Bobby hung up.

Sam cast a helpless look around the room. He'd thought it'd been suffocating those last few weeks with Dean, first looking for the Colt, then dealing with the Leshi, but that was nothing compared to being truly alone. Yeah, so they'd been tiptoeing around each other, but so what? Dean wasn't any madder at him than Sam was at himself. And Dean was alive, out of Hell, there. It still beat hands down every alternative Sam had ever faced.

Like now, Dean in some shapeshifter's hands, being tortured yet again. Shapeshifters liked to inflict pain, and not just physically. Add to that the way they could tap a person's mind and heart, and there was no limit to the devastation it could draw out of and throw back at Dean.

And for all Sam knew, Dean wasn't even expecting anyone to come after him.

It didn't help that the last real, heartfelt thing he'd said to Dean was that he couldn't do this, he couldn't stay with Dean if they weren't equals. Sam had meant he needed to reclaim some control over his life after being used, that blindly following Dad and Dean and Ruby had led to disaster. But he knew what Dean would've heard: I might leave again.

So much for trusting him, Sam snorted. Dean's bossing him around, pushing him so far, made sense now: he'd been seeing if Sam would really bolt or if he was finally in it to stay.

Sam's jaw set, and he reached for his laptop with new determination. Fine. Trust had to be won back; faith had to be earned. He could do that. He would do that. He'd show Dean.

Starting right now.

00000

As far as plans went, this wasn't one of his best.

He was alone now; Dean was carefully not thinking about what his captor—a friggin' possessed shapeshifter, like a shifter alone wasn't bad enough—was up to. The candles were mercifully still there, at least. The light helped Dean breathe a little easier, and allowed him see what he was about to do. Because it was crazy enough without trying to do it blind.

Dean had folded and tucked back his plaid shirt and lifted up his tee, stretching it over his shoulder. It bared his left side almost to his armpit, which should be enough. It would've been easier if he'd just taken off his shirts, of course, but the manacles wouldn't have allowed it, and he wasn't sure he could get his clothes back on after, anyway. He needed to hide what he was doing from the shifter. So, Dean took a deep breath and lifted his wrist, here went nothing.

He'd found the sharpest edge of the right shackle, but it was still pretty dull. He had to almost saw it to break the skin, then clamped down on his lip as he pressed even deeper, slicing the thin band of muscle underneath.

The etchings that hid them from the sight of both angels and demons weren't easy to break; Sam's cracked rib, thanks to "Paris Hilton's" manhandling, had proven as much. But Dean was betting that they had to all be there to be effective. Rub part of it out and maybe the mojo would be lifted and Cas could find him. So, all he had to do was cut down to the bone and sandpaper part of it smooth with a filthy, blunt iron shackle, no anesthetic, only candlelight to work by. Right, piece of cake.

Dean sucked in a breath as his makeshift scalpel reached bone. He'd chosen his lowest rib, where the bone was closest to the skin and where he could see better. Blood had already trickled down to the waistband of his jeans, and he mopped it halfheartedly with the edge of his shirt, knowing he was stalling.

"Suck it up, Dean," he muttered to himself. He'd sewed himself up before, taken shrapnel out of his own body, put an IV into his vein. He could do this. He had to do this; the demon had plans for Sam.

Clamping his jaw tight against any escaping sound, he began to scrape iron against bone.

Red filled his vision. A flush of heat prickled across his skin, followed by a wave of cold, and his head swam. Dean pressed a clammy cheek against the cold of the stone wall, anchoring himself to the sensation to keep his knees locked and his hand moving. It sounded like a knife against the whetstone, a familiar echo that usually brought comfort. His mind shied away from the here and now of pain, drifting…

I actually thought you'd love me enough to be my brother and forgive me for doing what I felt I had to. The shapeshifter's voice, sounding so much like Sam's, whispered hotly in his ear. Maybe your deal didn't end the world, Dean, but it ended mine. A small strangled sound forced its way out, and Dean bit his tongue until he tasted blood. I have to fight against this hunger all the time, and I'm constantly terrified I'm going to lose control…I can't trust myself anymore, and I know you don't trust me. You can't even look me in the eye, man. Do you know how lonely that is? He squeezed his eyes shut.

Shapeshifters lied. Demons were even worse. They were cruel and sadistic and knew how to best inflict pain. But shapeshifters could also tap into those they were mimicking, peeking into their minds and souls and dragging out the darkest truths they found there. Was all that really inside Sam?

Every line had been a blow, but they'd also resonated with Dean. Yeah, of course he knew Sam felt guilty, and sick, and afraid. Of course he was still struggling with temptation, and the gulf between them. But…was he really hurting as badly as Dean, as uncertain and alone and trapped? Longing just as much to have his brother back and someone standing at his side once more? Still needing him?

Was it possible they could still help fix each other?

Slippery wet, the manacle slipped, gouging flesh. Dean cursed breathlessly. His legs were shaky and his head was light. His side was painted with blood, his hand also coated with it, and it felt like someone was stabbing him in the side with every breath. He raised a trembling left hand to slide it over the exposed bone, groaning softly when he still felt the indentations of Castiel's brand. Did the angel have to cut them so deep? Dean would be through the bone before he rubbed it out.

Sinking his forehead back against the wall, Dean braced himself and began scraping again.

It hurt like…well, he never said Hell anymore, because been there, done that, and nothing else even came close. But it still sucked big time. There wasn't even a guarantee Cas would think to look, or feel, or whatever he did to find Dean, after he broke the sigils' protection. Maybe Sam had let the angel know Dean was missing, or maybe Sam was even long gone by now. If the shifter could mimic Sam, it could easily have Dean, too, told Sammy God knew what.

Dean flinched. Right, because they needed one more thing between them right now.

He keened under his breath as nerves flayed under the blunt edge of the shackle. It was getting harder to stay on his feet, the room swaying uncertainly around him and his muscles weak and shivery. Probably was sliding a little into shock, should put his feet up, and yeah, he'd get on that right away. Maybe if Sam wasn't too disappointed with him, too broken to bother looking for him, he'd bring water. Dean licked a dry tongue over even drier lips. A sip would taste amazing now. He'd sworn after Hell, after he remembered Hell, that he'd never go anywhere without water again. Must've forgotten to tell the shifter that. The thought made Dean's mouth twitch.

He almost didn't hear the footsteps until it was too late. Something snapped his mind back, though, just in time to jerk his shirts down to hide his work. The t-shirt immediately stuck to his bloody side, but hopefully the flannel overshirt would hide the stain. Dean tried to straighten up but that wasn't happening, so he just watched the doorway from where he was slumped against the wall, hoping his weakness and pain would be taken as dejection. And that his impromptu surgery had been enough.

Because it was showtime.

00000

Shapeshifters liked dark, underground lairs.

In the past, that had meant caves and subterranean caverns and even the occasional cellar. In modern times, shapeshifters had adapted to sewers, gas mains, maintenance tunnels…and subways.

Sam shot up in his seat, reaching for the map with the two crime scenes marked. If they overlaid the subway tunnels…

But the first one already didn't. With a growl, Sam shoved the map away and dropped his head into his hands, scrubbing them through his hair.

He was good at this. He could track almost as well as Dean now, knew the weaknesses of every thing they hunted, and could research the crap out of any case. One shapeshifter shouldn't be hard to find.

Even worse, Dean had been gone—Sam checked his watch—over nine hours now. Plenty of time for whatever sadistic games the shifter had planned, or for Zachariah and his feather squad to get their hands on Dean, or about a dozen other really unappealing possibilities. And Sam was just sitting there, letting his brother down, again.

Swearing venomously, he grabbed his cell phone off the table and wound his arm back, ready to slam it against the wall.

It rang in his hand.

Sam almost dropped it, he was so startled. Then he was lifting it breathlessly to his ear. "Dean?"

"Sam. Quit calling me, man, I mean it. I said all I've got to say. You owe me this much—leave it alone. Bye, Sam."

"De—"

The line went dead.

Sam's mouth gaped until he closed it. Then his face hardened. Okay, if he hadn't been sure before, he was now: they were dealing with a shapeshifter, because that wasn't Dean. Not because of the words or the voice, because both were perfect, no doubt downloaded straight from the source. But because Sam knew his brother. No betrayal, Apocalypse, or rift between them would change that. And that wasn't Dean. He'd stake both their lives on it.

But…that didn't totally make sense, either. The previous two victims, the shifter had copied someone so it could kill those closest to him or her. It was trying to get rid of Sam, though, not lure him in. Why would…?

A shiver of realization went down his spine. There was only one reason Sam could think of. If the shifter was mimicking Dean, it knew all about him, including what the angels wanted him for. Even a shapeshifter wouldn't want the world to end; probably wouldn't take much to convince it to make a deal with Zachariah. If it promised to get rid of Sam and deliver Dean—

Castiel suddenly appeared in the chair next to Sam.

"I know where Dean is."

Sam stared at him a moment, nonplussed, then shook himself. "What? You found the shapeshifter?"

"No." Castiel's face darkened. "Dean is no longer hidden."

"Oh, God." Sam felt the blood drain from his face at the implication. "Take me there. Now," he barked.

Castiel didn't argue, just stretched an arm out toward Sam. And then they were both gone.

00000

"It won't be long now," the shapeshifter said.

"Good," Dean said with far less bite than he would've liked. "At least I won't have to listen to you talk anymore."

Because the shifter wasn't Sam anymore. It wore Dean's face now, and it was more than a little weird seeing and hearing yourself. He'd only gotten a glimpse of that shapeshifter pretending to be him in St. Louis before he'd ganked it, and even that had been unsettling.

Far more worrisome, however, was why it was mimicking Dean now. It knew Sam's form got under Dean's skin, so it wasn't just to taunt him. And the only other person in town who'd know who Dean was, was…Sam.

Yeah, that was a reassuring thought. Sam had recognized the other shapeshifter in a minute flat, but they weren't nearly so close these days. What if…?

"I talked to your brother just now."

Dean kept his expression neutral with effort, refusing to bite.

"He didn't sound too happy about it, but he didn't argue much when I—you—told him you wanted to solo again. My guess is he's halfway to the next town by now."

Dean hid his flinch. He could just imagine how Sam had felt at hearing that. So much for fresh starts.

"As for you… You don't even want to know what the plan is? Dude, you disappoint me."

Dean huffed a tired laugh, feeling his side pull uncomfortably at the movement. His head was still buzzing, too. "Yeah? Well, get used to it."

His double mournfully shook its head. "Self-hatred doesn't become you, Dean. Or, should I say, me." It turned its hands over, studying them. "You know, I really like this skin. Maybe I'll keep it. You're not gonna need it after Lucifer's done with you, anyway."

Dean couldn't help his startle at that, turning his head away from the wall where he was leaning.

The shapeshifter laughed. "Oh, yeah, didn't mention that part, did I? The Big Man himself is on his way, wanted to meet you in person. Guess he likes to do his smiting up close and personal, you know? Then with you out of the way and Sam out there all alone…"

Dean scoffed. "You think Sam's just gonna give in because he's on his own?" He shook his head, setting the black spots in his vision dancing. "You don't know jack about my brother. He's strong—he's never gonna say yes to your boss."

"Like you didn't?" his voice immediately taunted back.

Dean's face tightened. He curled back into the rough stone, away from eyes that knew him too well. "Sam's a better man than I am."

"He started the end of the world."

"He didn't know," Dean said doggedly. "He thought…he thought he was doing the right thing." It surprised him a little to find he really believed that now. Dean had known he was caving in to evil when he'd stepped down off the rack, he'd just been too far gone to care. Sam, though…Sam had thought he was saving the world. "When it comes down to it, he'll make the right choice."

The other Dean—no, the shapeshifter, the imposter—clucked at him, shuffling into Dean's line of sight. "Seriously, man? Since when did you start trusting Sam? You and your dad, you were always making decisions for him, protecting him from himself, keeping things from him. He tried to break away and go to school, but you dragged him right back in. Then he finds out about his destiny, Heaven and Hell's both calling dibs on him, and you're still telling him what he should do. Are you seriously surprised he went with Ruby to get away from you? Who was the one who was telling him he was strong enough to make the right choice, huh? 'Cause, boy, it wasn't you."

Dean's head sunk to his chest in defeat.

"Guess you don't know jack about my brother, either."

Sam's voice. Dean frowned, wondering if he was starting to lose it, and looked up.

There was the sound of a shot, and his double staggered, then turned. To face Sam, who was standing in the doorway, gun raised and retribution in his eyes.

There'd be time for disbelief and questions later. Right now, Dean was pretty sure his brother had just shown up, and they had a hunt to finish. "Sam," he croaked. "It's possessed."

He had to give his brother credit, Sam barely missed a beat. Before the shapeshifter could collect itself, Sam had traded out gun for the demon-killing knife and stalked forward. Dean couldn't see the blade go in, but he saw the flare of light even from behind that was the demon's last hurrah. And Sam's stone cold fury as he twisted the knife just to make sure.

Dean wondered, just for a second, if it was a demon his brother was seeing or the face it wore.

And then the body crumpled to the floor, and Sam dragged his eyes away from it to Dean, and all that rage and darkness evaporated away like it was nothing. It was just Sammy staring at him now with those huge, scared Bambi eyes, like he was kinda overwhelmed by what had just happened, and Dean sagged back against the wall in relief.

Because, you know what? He was amazingly okay with that.

00000

Sometimes he forgot that Castiel was a warrior, and probably one awesome tactician. Instead of beaming them directly to Dean, he popped them out in a stone hall just outside a softly lit doorway. From which Dean's voice drifted out.

"…he likes to do his smiting up close and personal..."

It took his eyes a few seconds to adjust to the meager light, and Sam used the time to listen and assess. It didn't take long to realize it wasn't Dean he was hearing, no matter how much it sounded like him.

Another voice answered, faded and hoarse but with a thread of steel in it. "You think Sam's just gonna give in because he's on his own?" Dean. The real deal this time. And…was that a clink of metal shifting? "You don't know jack about my brother. He's strong—he's never gonna say yes to your boss."

The faith in his brother's words, though, gave Sam a moment of doubt that he'd gotten it right.

"Where are we?" he whispered almost inaudibly to Castiel.

"An abandoned house of corrections from what you would call your country's colonial period." Castiel's gaze swept up across the carved stones. "Methods of punishment then were more…primitive."

Sam bit back a laugh. Yeah, you could say that. The place was practically a dungeon, and if it wasn't underground, it was close enough to satisfy a shapeshifter's tastes.

He'd missed the shifter's response while Castiel spoke, but heard the words that followed despite how quiet Dean had gotten. "Sam's a better man than I am." Another clank of metal on metal.

"He started the end of the world," the shapeshifter argued, relentless, echoing Sam's own thoughts.

"He didn't know. He thought…he thought he was doing the right thing."

A chunk of something lodged in Sam's throat. He thought maybe it was yet another serving of humble pie. He'd been having that a lot lately.

Dean was sounding fainter with every line, though, and enough was enough. Sam pulled out his handgun, double-checking it, then glanced sideways at Castiel. "I'll take the shifter. You protect Dean if that thing so much as looks at him, got it?"

Castiel's eyebrow rose. "Wouldn't it make more sense if I—?" Sam's glare shut him up and he dipped his head once. "Understood."

The shapeshifter had started rambling on about how Dean never trusted Sam—whatever—and nicely covered the sounds of their preparation. But Sam did catch the tail end: "…the one who was telling him he was strong enough to make the right choice, huh? 'Cause, boy, it wasn't you."

Sounded like a cue to him. He stepped into the doorway, aiming as easily as breathing. "Guess you don't know jack about my brother, either."

He caught a glimpse of Dean out of the corner of his eye, huddled against the far wall, looking hurt and beaten down. It just made it easier to ignore the face the imposter standing before him wore and pull the trigger.

"Sam," Dean rasped and, crap, he sounded bad. "It's possessed."

Possess— oh. Explained why the thing hadn't gone down. Sam smoothly switched out gun for blade and sprang forward to drive Ruby's knife up into the shapeshifter's chest.

"Dean's" eyes flickered silver, then went black before the glow of a dying soul lit them from within. The shapeshifter's face twisted until it bore no resemblance to Dean at all, and Sam sneered and screwed the knife in a little farther just to make sure. One more fading burst of light, and then it was just a shell. He let it drop to the floor.

Then looked up to stare at Dean, who almost looked like he was cowering away, pressed against the cell wall as if it were the only thing holding him up. His eyes were wide and bruised as he stared back at Sam.

And Sam still felt like the weaker one, small and broken, as he had so often those last few weeks.

Dean wasn't looking at him with contempt, though. Yeah, there was still wariness in his eyes; that probably wouldn't be going away anytime soon. But it was relief and…and love that shone most brightly from him.

Sam swallowed, eyes filling.

"Hey," Dean murmured.

"Hey," Sam echoed dumbly.

Dean lifted his hands a little and the shackles—friggin' shackles—on his wrists clunked together. "So, you wanna get these off, or did you just stop in to say hi?"

"Oh." Sam blinked. "Yeah, sorry." He shook off his torpor and hurried forward, absently tucking his gun into his coat. "Let me see what—"

Sam stopped mid-reach for the heavy iron manacles, and, shocked, skimmed a hand instead over Dean's shirt. Pressed against the wall as he was, the shadows had hidden what Sam could see clearly now: Dean's whole left side was dark and tacky with blood.

He felt the blood drain from his own face even as his nostrils flared. "Dean, what…what did it—?"

"It wasn't him. It. Whatever," Dean said tiredly. Sam didn't miss the way he seemed to be resting most of his weight against the cell wall, but the chains looked too short to let him sit down. "Figured Cas couldn't find me with his little arts-and-crafts project on my ribs, so…" He lifted one shoulder in a feeble shrug.

Oh, God. Had Dean seriously…? Sam tried to peel up the edge of his shirt, grimacing when he found it was glued to the skin with blood. He'd have to soak it off just to see the damage Dean had inflicted on himself. The strength of will it would take just to do something like that to yourself…

"Sam."

Dean sounded so…mournful. Sam's eyes darted up to his face, seeing the unvoiced plea, and collected himself. He jerked a nod, Adam's apple bobbing. "Okay. Yeah. Let's get out of here." He took Dean's hands in his own, carefully examining the iron bonds. They seemed to be welded on, nothing he could get off without some serious equipment, but— "Castiel," he remembered suddenly, half turning back.

The angel, watching silently from beside the doorway, came forward.

"Hey, Cas," Dean said tiredly, shifting as if he were trying to straighten up and failing.

"Dean." Castiel nodded. "It is good to see you."

"Good to be seen," was Dean's wry, and clearly automatic, answer. Sam knew he had to be running on fumes by now.

"Get him out of these and back to the room," Sam interrupted impatiently, addressing the angel.

Castiel didn't acknowledge the order, just reached out—

—and they were back at the motel. Dean's dusky, puffy hands, now shackle-free, were still cradled in Sam's palms.

He quickly let go of them as Dean's eyes rolled back and knees buckled, grabbing him instead around the waist to break his fall. "I've gotcha," Sam promised under his breath as he towed him toward the nearest bed. "I've gotcha now, man."

But Dean couldn't hear him any longer.

00000

Castiel was sitting in the chair next to the bed, staring at nothing.

Dean closed his eyes and opened them again, making sure he was awake and really seeing what he thought he was seeing. Yup, still an angel by his side, seated stiffly, hands resting on his thighs, eyes on the wall.

"Dean." Cas's inscrutable gaze slid down to him. "How are you feeling?"

Good question. Dean ran a quick self-diagnostic. His head was pounding, and he hid a flinch when something that felt like stitches and bandages tugged on his chest. "Like crap. You?"

"I am well." Good old Cas, literal as always.

"Awesome." Dean glanced around the room, an inadvertent tremor of anxiety building in him at what he didn't find. "Where's Sam?"

"He went out to get food and medical supplies. I offered to go in his place, but I believe he planned to…misappropriate what was needed, and felt I would be more suited to remaining here and watching over you."

"Yeah, that's probably a good call," Dean mused, mouth curling. Cas had a long way to go before he mastered even the simplest of human vices. Dean pulled in a breath, then threw the blankets back and started to slide his legs toward the edge of the mattress.

The angel's cool grip stopped him. "I was told I am not to let you move."

Dean snorted. "Well, I'm telling you, screw that. Who're you gonna listen to, Pandora or me?"

Castiel's head tilted. "I understand this reference. Greek mythology." He withdrew his restraining hand.

The joke suddenly wasn't that funny. "Yeah, well, don't read too much into it," Dean muttered, sucking in a breath as he eased himself upright. His head hurt worse than his chest, and a determined old granny could've wrestled him back down to the bed, but in all, he'd felt worse. Which probably wasn't much of a bragging point.

Cas still watched him intently as Dean sat up and leaned gingerly forward, ghosting a hand over his chest. "I restored the protection sigil you removed. My brothers did not find you in time."

"'S good," Dean agreed vaguely, shifting up to massage his aching head. There was a thin layer of gauze around his wrists, but his hands felt fine, warm and flexible. Looked like Sam got an A for doctoring yet again. Dean couldn't even remember when the shackles had come off. Nor, for that matter, how he'd even gotten out of his little prison.

The reminder ran a shiver through him, and next thing he knew, Castiel was wrapping a blanket around his shoulders. Dean wanted to bitch about it but couldn't seem to muster the irritation even for show, just gave the angel a wan smile. "Thanks."

Castiel resettled in the chair, as ramrod stiff as before. "You're welcome."

Dean rubbed at his forehead again. "Sam been gone long?"

"He should be returning soon. He's been extremely...concerned about you."

That didn't surprise him as much as it maybe should have. Dean nodded, staring at the floor. The carpet was dark brown shag, hiding God-knew-what in its depths, but it felt soft against his bare feet. "Hey," he said quietly, then cleared his throat. "You think…I mean, when I die again, you think I'm heading back…you know, downstairs?"

There was a small, puzzled beat. "Only God can see the heart, Dean."

"That's not what…" He rolled his eyes. "You know what, never mind. Forget I asked."

The pause was much louder this time, Cas's eyes a weight on the back of Dean's head. "You think you're still bound by the deal you made," the angel suddenly realized, sounding kinda…horrified. "Dean, you fulfilled your portion of the devil's bargain. It no longer has any claim over you. When you die again, you will be judged only on the basis of which side you have given your soul to since then, Good or Evil, the same as every other human being."

The matter-of-factness, the utter certainty of Cas's answer loosened a weight Dean hadn't even recognized was in his chest. He took a deep breath, then nodded, closing his eyes briefly. "Thanks. That's…that's good to know," he said roughly. Another breath, and he pushed himself to his feet. "I'm gonna, uh, go sit outside for a little while, wait for Sam out there."

Castiel looked like he was about to argue but didn't say a word. He was learning.

The sun was out and the air only had a slight chill to it. Dean gathered the blanket around him and sank down on the bench by their door, relieved to be out of the stuffy room. It beat the claustrophobic stone cell by a long shot, but it'd still felt like it was shrinking on him.

Dean tilted his face up into the warm light. It was weird, but he'd missed this in Hell. The only light down there had been fire, sulphurous and burning. He'd almost forgotten what good heat felt like, how cleansing sunlight could be. Dean inhaled deeply, ignoring the pull of his stitches, and was surprised by the peace he actually felt at that moment. Maybe the world was going down in a handbasket, but right now it was pretty good. Only thing that was missing was—

His baby's purr approached from the right, and Dean tracked it with his eyes closed. Turn into the lot, gravel popping under her wheels, then pull up to just a few feet away. There were no catches in the engine's rumble, no noises that didn't belong, and she sang right on key. At least his car was in good shape.

The door creaked open, and Dean reluctantly cracked an eye to watch Sam get out. He looked okay, too, if frowning at the sight of Dean outside. Dean sighed a little and closed his eyes once more, wearily bracing himself for the lecture.

Sam didn't say anything, though. There was no sound of movement for a few seconds after the door shut. Then those huge clodhoppers crossed the few feet of gravel and stepped up onto the concrete porch…and Sam silently sat down next to Dean, stowing a crinkly brown bag underneath the bench.

Slowly, like a spring thaw, Dean's muscles relaxed one by one, standing down. He hadn't even consciously been aware of how much he was on guard all the time with Sam, but the contrast was startling.

When Sam finally spoke, his voice was so soft, it completely slipped under Dean's defenses.

"Y'all right?"

Dean shrugged. "Been worse."

Sam nodded, eyes on the Impala, hands loose between his knees. A few beats passed, then, "You know, I kinda miss that stupid amulet."

Okay, left field. But he was pretty sure he got it. "Yeah, me, too. And it's not stupid." It'd always been a reminder of his brother's love, but he hadn't considered that the fact he always wore it probably did the same thing for Sam.

Sam laughed. "Yeah, whatever."

Dean missed that even more: Sam laughing. He needed to try to make the kid do it more often. He shifted on the bench, sitting up a little out of the blankets. Probably looked like an enchilada, all wrapped up like that. It wasn't exactly the image he usually tried to cultivate, but it would've been hard to care less just now. "So, Cas did his etch-a-skeleton bit again, so I'm back under the radar."

"Good." He could feel Sam's whole body bobbing with his head. "You know what you did was insane, right?"

Dean smirked at him. "Worked, didn't it?"

Sam smiled at the sidewalk, shaking his head.

Silence. Not tense, not even uncomfortable, just…uncertain.

Sam's turn to fidget, and Dean could sense him winding up to say something.

He found himself beating Sam to the punch. "I'm sorry."

Sam recoiled, just a little. "For what?" He sounded completely baffled.

Dean opened his eyes and gave him a calm sideways look. "For making you feel like you had to join up with Ruby just to have some control over your life. Dad and I, we were trying to protect you, but maybe we went too far."

Sam groaned. "I knew it—the shapeshifter was doubling me for a while, wasn't it. But whatever it said, Dean, it wasn't me—you know that, right?" He gave Dean a pinched look.

Dean chuckled without mirth. "It wasn't the shapeshifter, Sam. I mean, yeah, it said some things, made me think. But you were the one who told me what we had before wasn't working, so I'm just…I'm sorry. Maybe if I hadn't—"

"God, Dean, just…stop." Sam's obvious anguish shut him up before the plea even registered. "It wasn't— What I did, it wasn't your fault, all right? I didn't mean…" He jammed a knuckle into his mouth, worrying it with his teeth, an agitated childhood habit that had made a return those last few weeks. Sam spit it out just as fast. "Look, I shouldn't have said that. I mean, yeah, some things need to change, but…" Sam laughed, and it just sounded hollow this time. "You were just looking out for me, I know that, and I appreciate it. Man, if you hadn't been there, God only knows how much more I would've…" He trailed off with a miserable shake of the head. "I just…I need to learn to trust myself, you know? And…I know I don't deserve it, but maybe…you could trust me a little, too?" he finished almost hopelessly, peering up at Dean through a fringe of hair.

Dean just looked at him. Examined every inch of the face he knew so much better than his own. The sight of him still elicited a wave of sadness, but the bitterness, the deep wrench of pain wasn't there this time.

I thought you'd love me enough to be my brother and forgive me…

He still remembered the odd relief he'd felt when he'd realized Sam was an addict. It meant he hadn't changed, hadn't stopped caring, just was being influenced. It hadn't been him, not the guy who'd snuck around behind Dean's back, not the one who'd chosen Ruby over him, and not even remotely the one who'd wrapped his hands around Dean's neck and squeezed. Even that guy had thought he'd been doing the wrong things for the right reasons, unable to completely shake Sam's moral code. But it hadn't been Sam.

This was, the kid—the man—beside him. The one who'd showed far more fear at Dean's bloody state than at facing down the possessed shapeshifter that had inflicted it. The one who carried the burden of the world's fate on his shoulders, but was collapsing under the weight of his big brother's disappointment. This was the guy Dean actually wanted to be with, not just stayed with out of duty or need. His Sam. His brother.

He held out his hand to shake.

Sam didn't seem to be breathing as he stared at the peace offering a moment. Then he hesitantly grasped it.

Dean pulled him in, throwing an arm around his back and closing his eyes. He didn't care how many stitches he might be busting, he had to do this, for Sammy…and for him.

Sam made a soft breaking sound and leaned into him, face burrowing in Dean's shoulder.

He couldn't forgive himself, not now and probably not ever. But he could forgive Sam. And if Sam could do the same for him…

Maybe they might just manage that fresh start, after all.

00000

Sam lay in bed staring at the watermarked ceiling, amazed at the simple comfort of hearing another person breathing next to him.

It had been one of the first things to hit him when he'd reunited with his brother, even with things so fragile between them and Sam avoiding sleep for fear of another visit from Lucifer and Dean almost seeming reluctant to let his guard down enough to sleep next to Sam. But lying there listening to him made Sam feel safe and comforted in a way nothing else could, an instinct engraved since infancy.

Sam had tried to run away a lot in his life. Attempts that had lasted a whole block when he was little. Those two weeks on his own in Flagstaff once he was old enough. To college as a teen. Away from the hunting life and his destiny and their representative—Dean—more than once after that. But Dean had always come after him. Sam could shoot him, sneak out on him, choke him, get possessed, get addicted, get mad. Didn't matter; Dean still followed. Deep down, Sam had always counted on that.

But then, finally, Dean hadn't. And it had hit Sam hard how much he'd relied on the knowledge that his brother wanted him, even when Sam was dead, even when Dean went to Hell. Lucifer's little revelation had been a shock, but really? Sam had been looking for a reason to come back. Because if Dean wouldn't come after him anymore, Sam would swallow his pride and go after Dean.

Until earlier that day, though, he hadn't been completely sure that Dean would always take him back. But what Dean had forgiven him this time, what he'd set aside to pull Sam into that clumsy embrace…

Dean had saved his life many, many times over the years. But it never felt as incredible a gift before.

The rhythm of Dean's sleep broke into a sleepy mumble, and Sam turned on his side, hand tucked under his cheek. He watched as the silhouette of his brother shifted, head rolling on the pillow. He murmured something again, and Sam's mouth twitched. Dean had always been a vivid dreamer, sometimes embarrassingly so.

His smile dissolved at the first tiny sound of pain.

Sam was out of bed by the third one, wounded animal noises so small, they seemed to have just slipped past Dean's defenses. Dreaming about the shapeshifter? Up close, Sam could see the sheen of sweat on his brother's face, the deep lines grooved in his face, his balled-up fists. And the mutters clarified into naked pleas. No. No. That was all. No please or invectives or promises. No hope. Just fruitless denial. No.

This wasn't fallout from the shifter. Besides a crack on the head, most of the damage inflicted on Dean had been by his own hands. This was far, far heavier than that. And Sam knew exactly what it was.

He rubbed his grainy eyes. He wanted to grab Dean, wake him up. But Sam knew how much it had cost his brother to bare his soul like that to Sam that afternoon, and if he forced this vulnerability on his brother, too… Well, fresh starts were fragile things. And he didn't think he could bear to see that dead look stealing back into Dean's eyes when he looked at Sam.

He made himself get up instead, closing his eyes against the horrible moans coming from the other bed, and went into the bathroom. His hands shook as he unwrapped one of the complimentary glasses on the sink. Then he lifted it high and smashed it to the tile floor in a shatter of glass shards.

In the other room, Dean gasped. The bed creaked as he sat up.

"Sam?"

Sam stepped out of the bathroom, trying to avoid the slivers in the carpet but not really caring if he succeeded. "Yeah, sorry. I dropped a glass. Go back to sleep."

Dean breathed noisily a moment, the square bandage low on his chest and the whites of his eyes the only thing visible in the dark room. "You okay?" he finally asked. "It didn't cut you?"

Sam's throat felt tight. "No. It didn't cut me."

"Butterfingers," Dean muttered automatically and sank back into bed. His breathing hadn't quite returned to normal, his voice still a little high-pitched. No hiding that he was shaken up, although they'd both pretend nothing was wrong.

Usually. When they'd still been able to afford some untruths between them.

Sam cleared his throat as he bent to gather the larger pieces that glinted in the bathroom nightlight's glow. "I didn't think you still dreamed about Hell."

Dean was a room away, in the dark. No chance of seeing his expression, for which Sam was grateful. Dean could always ignore him if he felt trapped. What Sam didn't expect was the anger. "What, you think I'd just forget it?"

He paused, frowning. "No, I… No."

There was a rustle of bedclothes as Dean sat up, throwing his legs over to sit on the edge of the bed. His tone was frigid, disgusted. "So, it's been long enough—you think it's time to move on? You moved on from Jessica yet, Sam?"

Jess. Sam abandoned the broken glass, sinking onto his rear on the bathroom floor. The question unexpectedly flooded his eyes, and he rubbed at them, mortified even if Dean couldn't see him.

There was a pause. Dean moved. And light suddenly filled the room, catching Sam in mid-swipe of his wet face. He immediately dropped his gaze, like a humbled dog.

"What's wrong with you?"

He couldn't see Dean's face, but he could hear the concern that was overriding the defensiveness. Dean always attacked first and only considered afterward when he felt cornered.

Sam shook his head. "Nothing. It's nothing."

"Right." The worry vanished in a disgusted snort. "Should've known."

Dean was withdrawing and, God, Sam couldn't go back to the way things had been. "No, it's just…" He scrambled to his feet, stepping over the worst of the mess but still feeling the sharp edges of a few pieces of glass as he moved back into the room. Facing Dean, head rising to meet his brother's glare, full disclosure. "Lucifer, when he came to see me. He pretended to be Jess, all right?"

Dean's expression altered, thawing through levels of disbelief and anger, to comprehension and finally cautious empathy. "Oh. That's…okay, yeah, that sounds like the kind of crappy thing the Devil would do." He studied Sam's face again, and this time it didn't seem like he was looking for flaws. "That why you haven't been sleeping?"

Sam blinked. "How did you…?"

"Dude," Dean waved a hand at him, "you haven't changed that much."

Sam's face fell. He'd hoped… But yeah, forgiving didn't mean forgetting, did it. Come to think of it, Dean had been apologizing to him that afternoon, not forgiving Sam. What had he been thinking, assuming they were back to being brothers again, with full rights and privileges thereof? Maybe he—

Dean was suddenly next to him, patting his shoulder. "Get out of that glass. You get any in your feet?"

Sam automatically stepped free of the blast zone, sliding his feet along the shag carpet to dislodge any remaining splinters. Nothing cut or stabbed, and he shook his head. He sank onto his bed and numbly watched as Dean, his bare feet shoved into his boots, retrieved a couple of towels from the bathroom to toss over the mess. They could leave it for housekeeping in the morning.

Dean paused then, and Sam could feel eyes on him again. But he felt no judgment, just…assessment.

"I'm okay," he said quietly. "Well, you know, as much as I can be as the site of Lucifer's future home, anyway." The humor was bitter in his mouth.

Dean scoffed. "Dude, you think you're special? Michael's had dibs on me from the start."

That didn't exactly make him feel any better.

Another awkward pause. Dean was the one to break it once again, moving determinedly toward him.

Sam made himself not shrink away as his brother reached for…his feet, lifting up each and inspecting the soles before brushing them off and dumping Sam's legs on the bed.

"Next time you're gonna break something, wear shoes," he said knowingly.

Sam just stared at him in confusion.

Dean pushed slowly back to his feet, face briefly creasing as his concussion no doubt reminded him it was there. Another grimace followed, this time of chagrin. "Or…whatever. That's not an order or anything." He rubbed the back of his head awkwardly, gaze flitting to and then away again from Sam.

And that was when it hit him like a punch. Dean was struggling with this just as much as Sam was, risking just as much, just as uncertain about where he stood. Maybe even just as scared. But he was still trying.

Sam's a better man than I am…he thought he was doing the right thing.

It was on Sam now to step out into the dark and meet him halfway.

"Shoes, right. I can do that." Sam licked his lips, trying to think like his brother. It wasn't too hard, actually. "Uh," he glanced sideways up at Dean, "you wanna see what's on TV?"

Dean's whole expression melted with relief. "Absolutely. We can still catch the end of the 2 A.M. Creature Feature."

Sam smiled, small but genuine. Okay, not exactly what he'd been thinking, but it sounded surprisingly good.

Dean climbed back into bed and grabbed the remote. A little channel surfing, and he settled on something with a screaming, scantily-clad woman and what looked like a guy covered in papier-mâché. With a sigh of contentment, Dean tossed the remote down and leaned against the headboard to watch.

Sam lay back in his own bed, eyes on the TV but mind distant.

They were both so screwed up. Dean never talked about his nightmares, or what Sam had done, but Sam knew his brother was haunted by both. And Sam thought he'd collapse sometimes under the weight of all his failures and losses. They'd each made mistakes, hurt people, fallen a little in the other's eyes. But they were still together, still wanted to be. Sam was even starting to believe they were finding home in each other again.

Dean huffed a laugh, quietly as if he didn't want to disturb Sam. Sam realized his eyes had closed somewhere along the way, his thoughts starting to drift. He struggled to rouse himself, but his body felt rock-heavy, his eyelids glued shut.

The volume on the TV notched lower, and after a shuffle of movement, a blanket was thrown lightly over his body. Then Dean returned to bed and movie-watching, the small sounds of his presence still audible over the muted organ music.

Sam relaxed, letting himself drift to sleep, soothed by the simple comfort of his brother being nearby.

The End