Title: My Own Funeral

A/N: My submission for the episode "Skin" in the 2010 Summer of Sam Love Celebration. With love to sendintheklowns, who motivated this fic, and geminigrl11, who is still my beta after all these (wonderful!) years.

Disclaimer: So not mine.

Summary: There had been two Deans. Sam had been so certain the one who had died was the shifter. Dean had been so Dean, but this was not his brother.

-o-

Sam had had enough of lessons.

Lesson one: connections with the outside world are messy. Hearing Becky chew him out, seeing the sadness on her face as he said goodbye: yeah, Sam got the message. Straddling two lives didn't work. When he'd left Stanford behind, he left it all behind, and it was about time he started facing that.

Lesson two: never split up while chasing a shifter. Since, after all, they could change form. Whenever they wanted. Making them especially hard to spot when they donned a familiar skin. The thing had gotten the drop on him once, then twice, and he'd fallen for it both times. Not the smartest moments in his college boy career, but that lesson had been pounding into his skull with the force of a concussion. Literally.

Lesson three: Dean was somehow always right. About Sam's college friends, about the shifter, about everything. In fact, his brother was so exhaustingly right, that Sam didn't even have the energy to be in his presence at the moment. So when Dean had wanted to go out for burgers, Sam had been more than happy to crash at the motel.

After all, they'd been driving all day. St. Louis was behind them, but Sam's head still ached from the hunt all the same. So rest and relaxation and forgetting. Just for a little while longer.

And it was beautiful. Quiet and dim. Sam jacked up the heat and sprawled on the bed, letting himself mellow, drifting for a moment between sleep and awareness, contemplating if he wanted to fall asleep right there, on top of the covers, or take a shower first. Sleep was very compelling, since the only semblance he'd gotten in the last twenty-four hours involved the half-sleep of being in the car and the forced sleep of being knocked the hell out.

But showers-he hadn't showered in over a day. He still had the stink of sewer on him. Ten more minutes of being awake wouldn't kill him, and it might do something to wash away the feeling of failure that permeated this entire situation. Sure, he'd proven Zach's innocence. But he'd exposed his true life to Becky. And Dean's true thoughts had been exposed to Sam. The resentments, the issues.

And that didn't even begin to approach the issues Sam had with himself. Fool him once, shame on the shifter. Fool him twice, and Sam was just a bad hunter.

He sighed. Shower it was. And maybe he could wash away the self-doubt and avoid nightmares for the night.

But then, a rustle came at the door. Someone fumbled with the lock, and the door swung open as he brother stalked in.

Gauging his brother's face, its angry set and grim lines, Sam wondered if there was a lesson number four in all this: be prepared.

Good little hunters were like good little Boy Scouts. Expect the unexpected.

And yeah, he hadn't expected Dean to charge back through so soon, much less empty-handed. Sam was just starting to pull out something clean to put on after a shower when the next thing he knew Dean was in his personal space, just like that.

Sam backed up, a little perplexed, his instincts flaring sluggishly to life. The hunting lessons were great, and all, but the application portion could really wait until his head wasn't throbbing.

"Dude," Sam said, or started to, but never quite got the chance.

Dean came at him with a right hook he saw coming, but just didn't believe. After all, Dean might like to pick a fight with him from time to time, but only in the name of good-natured brotherly sparring. His older brother liked to plant him on his ass just to prove that he could and to smugly remind Sam of the pecking order that sort existed and sort of didn't. And maybe those issues the shifter had talked about were closer to the surface than Sam knew, so maybe he really had a little something coming.

So Sam saw the motion. Saw the bend of his brother's arm, the fingers curling into a fist, and he thought it must be a joke, some kind of passive/aggressive game they were about to play. Maybe truly a lesson in being prepared, just like their dad used to do, landing a glancing blow that was more air than skin, just to remind him of the power of readiness. It would suck, but it wouldn't be totally out of the realm of possibility in the whacked out Winchester way.

But Sam wasn't ready. Not for a lesson, not for a brief foray into therapeutic brotherly sparring, not any of it. Not with this headache (concussion, Dean had told him), not with his throat (bruised and swollen, Dean had pointed out), not with that ache in his back (he was simply too big for the Impala's cramped seats). So whatever this was, whatever reason it was happening, it was a game Sam just did not want to play. Not now. Not until he'd slept and regained some semblance of his pride and managed to let go of the idea of ever returning to Stanford once and for all.

He was about to laugh it off, to deflect his brother with some kid-like sheepishness, maybe appeal to his brother's protective nature, until the fist raked across his face. Not a glancing blow, not a purposeful whiff, but a full-throttled punch to the face that sent Sam reeling, flailing backward with stars exploding behind his eyelids.

Blackness overtook him, just for a moment, but his awareness didn't leave him-not quite. He breathed, his heart pounding in his ears, the rasp of his own breath as it struggled past his bruised throat. He had flipped onto his stomach, hands grappling with the ground as he tried to push himself up even before his vision cleared.

Looking back, he squinted, trying to focus in on his brother's face. Dean was standing over him, something like a snarl on his face.

Sam blinked, trying to focus better, because something was off. Something was very, very off.

"I thought you were going to go to bed," Dean said coldly.

Sam rolled into a sitting position, fingering his already bruised lip. "I thought you went to go get burgers," he said back, trying to reign in his spinning mind. The time between hunts was sacred-their slight reprieve, their time to just take it easy before jumping into the fray again. One night, one week-whatever the time, it wasn't the time for intensity.

And they'd just finished the hunt. It had been messy-too messy, with a body that looked a lot like Dean and too many knocks to the head for Sam to even keep track of-but he'd hugged Becky and closed that chapter of his life, and they'd packed it up and headed out. This was their recovery time, so what the hell was Dean doing hauling off and hitting him?

Maybe his head injury was worse than he'd thought. Things had seemed mostly clear in the car, but he'd been exhausted since they'd left. After all, that was why he'd wanted to stay in tonight, despite Dean's suddenly insatiable need for burgers. So maybe he was dreaming, maybe they were still in Missouri, maybe this was the shifter-

Sam's throat constricted tighter, and a brief second of clarity came to him.

There had been two Deans. He'd been so certain the one who had died was the shifter. Dean had been so Dean, but this was not his brother.

Sam didn't know how it was possible-hell, he didn't even want to know. He just wanted this to be over. Now. These damn things had knocked him out twice, nearly choked him to death, and now it was here, punching him-again. He'd had enough of shapeshifters to last him a lifetime, or at least for the next three months before some other supernatural entity made the top of his must avoid list.

The shifter smirked. "And you're supposed to be the smart one," it said, with a shake of its head. "Those four years at college, and this is the best you can do."

Sam felt a surge of anger, for him, for Dean. "You son of a bitch," he muttered, and flung himself upward, with all he had.

The shifter was ready, though. Supernatural prowess with his brother's hand to hand skills. He had fallen victim to it before. It couldn't happen again.

Sam lashed out with a fury of punches, catching the shifter by its shoulders and ramming a knee into its forehead before ramming his boot hard into its stomach.

It grunted, an oof that sounded so much like Dean, it hurt.

But Sam couldn't stop. He followed up with another punch across the face, but this time the shifter saw him, ducking Sam's blow and smashing a hand into Sam's nose.

The cartilage was already sore from before, and Sam felt warmth trickle down his face. But he could manage it. He ducked a punch, and landing one of his own, but not without taking a kick to the knee that sent him down, leaving him open to a volley of blows to the head.

It left him dazed for a moment, still perched on one knee, and he heard his brother's laugh. "Pathetic," it spat. "I'm glad I chose this skin instead of yours. Yours...would be too weak. Too worthless. Selfish little brat."

Sam swallowed hard, pushing himself to his feet again and flying at the shifter, ignoring Dean's features as he pounded-as hard and as fast he could, leaving no respite.

He slammed it against the wall, pressing hard against it, whipping the pistol still tucked in his pants and ramming it hard into the shifter's head.

The shifter hit the wall, spit blood, and laughed at him. "You kill me, you kill big brother," it said.

Sam's eyes burned as the pounding in his head ratcheted up another notch. The room seemed hazy, the features on his brother's face blurred, even at this close proximity. "If you're here, then Dean's already dead," he said.

It looked at him, eyes soft, just like Dean when he was trying to appeal to his brother's sympathies. "Are you sure?"

Sam wasn't sure about anything because he still couldn't quite clear his vision and he could barely focus over the roaring in his head. And this-this wasn't helping and if ever there was a time to use his reasoning skills, this was probably it, but the idea of it made his stomach turn. Someone had died back in Missouri, someone who looked like Dean. But someone else had driven the Impala due south for two days straight, joked and laughed and watched TV just like Dean. Someone had scarfed down a bag of peanut M&M's and called Sam a bitch and that had to be his brother...didn't it?

But then who was dead back in Missouri?

And what had happened to the brother who had left him not ten minutes ago to pick up burgers?

And who was this?

And his head hurt and his throat was scratchy and he couldn't hardly think straight. "Dean?" he asked, hoping for an answer, for some sign, that maybe this was a joke after all. A lesson, something.

Then the shifter grinned. "Maybe you'll never know," it said, and it jerked forward, head butting Sam hard.

Sam's vision darkened and his body felt loose. Then he was being spun, turned on his feet, the motion loosening his grip on the gun, which fell, impotent, to the floor. And then an arm, hard around his throat, pulling him tight against the body behind him. Pressure came down behind his head, forcing it forward, even as he was anchored tighter by the arm around his neck.

There was a way to get out of this, Sam was sure, but he couldn't remember. Couldn't remember much of anything except the look on Dean's face as he looked at his own corpse. How often do I get to go to my own funeral?

Sam's energy had already been depleted-it had been depleted before they'd left Missouri and he hadn't gotten it back yet-and when the shifter forced him down, he had no choice but to comply. His knees folded, and he sank down, the arms still tight around his neck. Sam's hands were at his sides now, dangling and useless as he was pulled back farther, sliding off his knees and onto his ass, his back cradled against the strong torso behind him.

Sam tried to remember if he'd missed something. If he'd gotten confused. But when Dean had stormed in to save him last time, he'd been too out of it to know. By the time he'd come to, there had been two Deans, one dead on the ground, the other looking grimly at him. He'd assumed, of course. He'd thought-

He should have checked. He should have never let the shifter get the drop on him. Not once, not twice, not three times-

Dean would kick his ass.

Dean just had.

Concussion or not, Sam had messed up but good. No wonder Dean had issues with his sorry ass. They should have talked about it, should have talked about something, and maybe now it was too late. Sam was always too late. Too late for Jessica. Too late for Dean.

A soft chuckle resounded behind his ear. "You really should have gone to bed," it said. "But we can fix that, can't we?"

As the pressure increased, Sam's throat flared in pain a second before darkness overtook him completely and he knew no more.

-o-

The whole idea of fast food was that it was supposed to be, well, fast.

Apparently no one told that to the folks in Ransom, Alabama, since it took the kid behind the counter twenty minutes to put together a simple order for three burgers, a side of fries, and two soft drinks. To go.

After nearly ending up with a breaded fish sandwich and a bowl of chili, Dean had dropped a twenty on the counter and told the kid to keep the change, regardless of whatever mismatched order was in his bag. As long as it was edible, it would do. He could eat what he wanted and leave whatever crummy leftovers there were for Sam. It would serve the kid right for pooping out on him.

Like a concussion and a bruised throat were a good excuse for being too tired to keep Dean company. Okay, so maybe they were good excuses, especially since Sam had seemed unusually exhausted. The concussion seemed to be mild enough-usually those things made Sam loopy as hell-but this time Sam just seemed worn out by the entire thing, which Dean suspected wasn't entirely just about the numerous injuries his little brother had sustained during this hunt.

But Dean had warned him-about the dangers of having connections. It wasn't that Dean necessarily wanted to be anti-social. But it was fairer to everyone else if he was. The hunting life was hard work and it meant there was little permanency except that which could be stuck in a car. That was why Dean had always clung to family like he had-there was nothing else he could cling to. The sooner Sam accepted that, the sooner they'd all settle back into the rhythm of things. Sam could be happy again. Maybe not as happy, but a kind of happy. The kind of happy Dean had settled for a long time ago where all he needed was a gun, a hunt, and his family by his side. It wasn't perfect, but hell, it wasn't without its perks.

He peaked inside the bag as he parked the Impala outside their motel. It wasn't without its drawbacks as well. Crappy food, crappy motels, and crappy shifters stealing his body and driving his car. He could practically smell the thing like it was still around.

Shuddering, Dean pushed himself out, slamming the door shut. He'd have to give the Impala a cleaning soon anyway. Maybe that could be Sam's compensation for nearly getting himself killed twice on the last hunt, which Dean hadn't even wanted to pursue. If they hadn't, his car might not have been violated, Sam's dreams might not have been pushed back, his brother wouldn't have finger bruises coloring his neck, and there wouldn't be a grave marker for one Dean Winchester being erected in some pitiful public cemetery in Missouri.

Sure, so more people would have died, but it drove his car.

And tried to kill Sammy.

So that thing was pretty high on his list of things that deserved to die.

But man, he needed to talk to Sam about all this. Figure out just how much of Joe College was left in his little brother, figure out why Sam had let the thing get the drop on him in the first place. But he'd give the kid the night off-after nearly getting beaten senseless and strangled, Sam had probably earned that much.

Gripping the bag of food in one hand and holding the cups between his arm and his body, he'd started to use his free hand to finagle the motel room key out of his pocket, when he noticed that it didn't matter. The door was open.

Dean's stomach dropped and his mouth went dry.

Sam would never leave the door unlocked, much less open. And Dean knew he'd shut it, and he knew this was the right room. Which meant-

Heart pounding, he put the food on the ground, pulling out the pistol tucked in his pants. Licking his lips, he edged the door open, doing a keen sweep. He cleared the door, checking behind it, before moving forward. A sweep of the bathroom showed it to be empty, and then he ventured farther.

There was a lamp on, and Sam's bed was tousled but not slept in. His brother's duffle was on the dresser, open, and a pair of boxers pulled halfway out. But everything else seemed in order-nothing overturned, nothing obviously missing-

Except Sam.

Sam was nowhere to be found.

Then he saw it: Sam's gun, and his brother's knife, too, spread out on the table at the far side of the room. Nervously, Dean moved closer, his gun still tight in his grip.

The gun was fully loaded, but it was the knife that got his attention. The blade was covered with blood, still dripping onto the table.

Dean's breath hitched. Sam's blood. He wasn't sure how he knew, but he knew. There was no other explanation. If Sam had had an altercation and used the knife, he wouldn't have left the knife in the open like this by choice. No, something had taken Sam.

That's when Dean saw the journal.

Open to a blank page, in a scrawl that looked like his own but knew couldn't be: coordinates.

Dean swallowed hard. Coordinates to find Sam.

He glanced around, nervous. He hadn't been gone more than a half hour, so whatever had taken Sam didn't have much of a head start. But, his brother had already been hurt, and if the blood was any indication, had been hurt worse. But by what? And why? And how had it gotten the drop of them less than an hour after they'd pulled into town?

He swore. Dean was getting sick and tired of people beating on his little brother. That was Dean's job, no one else's, and he'd kill every supernatural moron who thought otherwise. He should have made Sam stay in Missouri, forced the kid to talk it out with Becky. Maybe going to his own funeral would have been fun, after all-more fun than this, anyway.

Still, he needed to focus. Sam was missing and he'd already seen the kid nearly get choked to death once-it couldn't happen again.

Steeling himself, he forced himself to look away from the knife, turning his attention to the journal instead. Dean didn't know what he was up against, and he knew the coordinates had to be a trap, but there weren't many other options. Just load up his arsenal, find the coordinates, scope out the place, and kill whatever it was that thought his little brother would make a good bargaining chip.

After all, he's already killed himself once this week for Sam's sake, so whatever this was, it had no idea just what it was messing with.

Resolved, Dean let his eyes only linger for a moment on the bloody knife before picking up the journal and heading for a map.

No time for fear. No time for what if. He had work to do.

-o-

It was the smell that brought Sam back.

Foul and rank, dank and pungent, it found him in his unconsciousness, tickling his nose until he had no choice but to try to turn away from its intrusion.

But as he moved his head to get away, he was pulled back abruptly, something rubbing at his throat, choking off his breath.

He couldn't help it; he coughed. The irritation from the new pressure, conflated with the still-tender injuries, was more than his abused throat could take. The coughing was in vain, trying to create space where there was none, the swelling almost making it impossible to breathe at all.

The coughing fit shook him, but, still, he didn't move. It was more than his throat that was restricted: it was his entire body. Ropes pulled at his chest, his arms, his legs, binding him tight so that his body merely convulsed with the effort.

It took a minute-a long minute of forced breathing and desperate control-before his coughing subsided, dwindling to grating breaths that still racked his entire body with tremors. But he was breathing, at least, and that was an improvement over the coughing.

"You can't even wake up without being pathetic," Dean snorted, and Sam snapped to attention, eyes roaming for his brother.

At first, Sam didn't see much-just that the room was dark and wet, but there was a soft glow from what appeared to be candles. And he was tied down, back pulled uncomfortably against something metal.

The sewers. He was in a lair in the sewers.

The sense of deja vu was strong, and he tried to make sense of how he could be here again when they'd already killed the shifter. They had moved on, left Becky, and he'd been in the motel room when Dean had come back-

And proceeded to beat the crap out of him before choking him the hell out. Which meant-this wasn't Dean.

Either shifters could survive a bullet to the heart or...

"You figured it out yet?" Dean's voice asked.

Sam's eyes darted to the shadows. There was a small movement and Dean saw a glimpse of his brother's face in the flickering candlelight. Shifters couldn't survive a bullet to the heart. So if this wasn't Dean and this wasn't the shifter they'd killed in Missouri, that'd meant-

There had been two.

There had been two of the bastards stalking women from the sewers and they'd missed it. They'd missed it, and worse, let it get the drop on them.

No, Sam had let it get the drop on him, and now he was concussed and tied up, possibly with no one looking for him. And Dean-he could be-

Sam wouldn't let himself think it. It had been hard enough seeing his brother's corpse knowing that it wasn't him. The thought that he'd screwed up and lost Dean for real-it wasn't something Sam was willing to entertain. Not yet. Not ever.

Wetting his lips purposefully, he cleared his throat cautiously, hoping his voice sounded steadier than he felt. "Where's my brother?" he asked.

The figure moved again, stepping into the soft halos of light. It was smirking, Dean's trademark smirk, but there was something cold and sinister in its eyes. "Aw, come on, that hurts," the thing that looked like Dean said. It had Dean's lingo down, but his voice was too deep, and it felt like gravel scraping against Sam's mind. "A lifetime of raising you, of giving you everything, and you can't even recognize your own big brother?"

Sam was not playing the game. He lifted his chin with defiance and bravado he had no means of backing up. "Tell me where he is."

The thing shrugged. "What makes you think he's even alive?"

Because Sam couldn't deal with the fact that Dean might be dead.

But it was more than that. The telepathic link-it needed its victims alive in order to maintain the ruse. Besides, it had followed them from Missouri for a reason. If it was so simple as just to kill them, Sam would have been dead long before he had the chance to ask any questions.

No, it was toying with them. Which was why it had taken Dean's form when it came to the motel room. It made sense suddenly, with newfound clarity coming over his concussed brain.

It wanted both of them. He wasn't sure why, but he knew that much. It had wanted to get to Sam before Dean got back.

The thing smile, sauntering closer. "You putting it together yet?" it asked.

Sam narrowed his eyes, appraising it as best he could. "Why the deception?" he asked. "Why not just kill me in the motel room?"

"What's the fun in that?" it asked with a cavalier shrug. "Winchesters are hunters, right? They like to hunt down monsters. Murder them."

Sam swallowed convulsively. "We protect people."

It loomed closer, its smirk disappearing with a dispassionate glare. "People like you," it said. "What about the rest of us? It's not my fault that I'm like this."

"You were killing people."

At that, it stepped back, sighing a bit. "All in good fun."

Sam struggled against his binds, moving his hands as best he could. He had to retain circulation for when Dean came.

Then it stepped forward again, leaning close to Sam. "Your brother knows how to have a good time," he said. "I would think he could appreciate that."

Sam's stomach turned. "He's nothing like you."

The thing raised its eyebrows. "Really? Are you so sure?"

"Dean's not a monster."

"But he is a brother," the thing continued. "A big brother would do anything for his younger brother. Even kill for him. Right, Sammy?"

Sam's heart skipped a beat, his mind scrambling to keep up with the string of conversation. Then the realization came to him. "You were its brother," he said. "You and the shifter back in Missouri. You two were family."

Which was why it had tracked them. Which was why Sam was here. This wasn't just a spur of the moment pursuit for a deranged monster. This was vengeance in its mind. Dean had killed its sibling, and now it had Dean's sibling tied up and vulnerable.

A spike of panic went through Sam, followed quickly by chagrin. He shouldn't have let it get the drop on him. It had played him and then it had beaten the crap out of him. Now Sam had set Dean up for a rigged hunt that would probably get them both killed.

"Four years at Stanford, I would hope you could figure it out," the thing said, smirking again as it pulled away from Sam. It kept an eye on Sam, discerningly. "You know, it's not just that Dean's jealous of you."

Sam's struggles paused, his insides going cold. "What?"

"He doesn't just resent you that you got to have a life, that you left him," it continued. "He resents you because you were always his burden to carry. Take care of Sammy. Sometimes he thinks that his life would be so much easier-so much better-if you hadn't been born."

Sam shook his head tightly, his throat constricting more than it already was. "That's not true."

The thing gave a frown. "Oh, Sam," it said. "Always so blind to the things right in front you. I mean, how many times have you been fooled by one of us? How many times have you seen just what you were supposed to do but didn't do it? You like to say it's because you have your own mind, but we both know the truth. It's because you're selfish. Because you're weak. Your older brother has been following you around, pulling you out of mistakes all your life."

An inexplicable sting of tears made Sam feel like he was choking all over again. He shook his head. "You don't know what you're talking about."

The shifter smiled, tapping one finger to his temple. "I might not," he agreed. "But Dean does. But you see, you're lucky. Big brothers do what they have to do for their younger brother-no matter what. So when Dean comes down here like the good big brother that he is, you can die first with the knowledge that it was all your fault."

Sam clenched his teeth, tension surging through him. He pulled against his bonds with a new intensity. "Dean won't fall for it."

With a laugh, the shifter leaned over, picking up a tarp. "He already has," it said. "He's on his way here as we speak."

"No," Sam said, his voice taut. "You son of a bitch."

It chuckled again. "It's been a fun chat, Sammy," it said. "But I've got some things to attend to and it's time for you to play your part. The pathetic victim, remember?"

Sam cocked his head, momentarily confused, but before he could ask the question, the thing raked a fist across his face and Sam knew no more.

-o-

The coordinates weren't hard to place.

Dean had plotted them quickly on the map, double checking just long enough to ensure that he wasn't about to head off in the wrong direction. He had an innate sense of direction, so even though he'd never been to this town before, navigating the streets was relatively easy. Besides, this was Sam. Dean had never needed a map and coordinates to find his brother.

So, he was pretty sure he was in the right place.

It was a rundown street in the industrialized part of town. There was a lone street light, which cast a faint glow on the trash littered streets below.

The windows in the surrounding buildings were dark and cracked.

There was no one there.

All in all, a pretty good place to hide someone.

But a pretty sucky place to try to find them.

Gun in hand, he gave all the buildings a once over. One looked like it had once served as an apartment complex. Another, maybe a storefront. On the other side, a vacant lot and a warehouse.

Searching them all would take hours-maybe hours Sam didn't have.

Feeling frustrated, he looked at the coordinates again, comparing them to his map.

The thing was, the coordinates were right in the middle of the street. Not to the side, not at either end. Smack in the middle. Like Dean was supposed to be right where he was standing.

Frowning, he looked around. He could see the Impala secured at the far end of the street. There was a junked car not far from him. A bag of trash sat abandoned on the sidewalk. And there was a hiss of steam coming out from the manhole.

His memory stirred and his instincts went on edge.

The sewers.

It made a kind of sense, really, considering the kind of things that they worked with in their life. But that was one hell of a coincidence...

Or not a coincidence at all.

A shapeshifter.

As if he hadn't had enough of those damned things to last a lifetime. First, one steals his car. Then, the thing had had the audacity to steal Dean's brother. And to top it all off? The son of a bitch had stolen his identity, too.

But Dean had put a bullet in the thing's heart. It was dead.

But if it was dead, then what the hell had abducted Sam and dragged him to the sewers?

Dean didn't know, but it was about time to find out.

-o-

Dean had thought the sewers in Missouri had been more than a little disgusting. The smell alone had been enough to turn his stomach, but this one? Took the cake.

The smell was pervasive, lingering with a pungency born of neglect and decay. The pipes were leaky, the walls were smudged, and there were rats.

Dean hated rats. Even more than he hated sewers. But maybe not quite as much as he hated shifters.

He took a lot of crap in the name of the hunt, and that was all well in good when they killed the evil son of a bitch at the end of the day.

But this wasn't a hunt. This was a damn set up. He was like a rabbit chasing a carrot on a string and he knew it.

Worse than that, there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

This kind of crap never ended up well for the rabbit (poor things!) and he couldn't say with total certainty that it was going to go a whole lot better for him.

But this thing had Sam. This damn thing had his brother, and Dean was so not taking any of that kind of crap right now.

So the plan was: find Sam, kill the shifter, get out.

End of story.

Sounded simple enough. He had his gun ready to go and everything. Of course, that didn't account for the fifty other variables at play. Like, did he even have the right coordinates? Was this actually a shifter? Was Sam even still alive?

He swallowed hard. He could scratch that one. He hadn't failed to save Sam yet, and he didn't plan on starting now. Not when he just got the kid back in his life.

So, plan A it was. Rescuing Sam was way better than crashing and burning.

He steadied his pace, holding his flashlight steady on top of his gun. It wasn't easy walking with both, but he had to see. The light was a risk, but traipsing around without one was sure to be futile. He just had to keep it slow and steady, be careful and cautious.

Then, the hairs on the back of his neck rose.

Dean paused, listening.

Beyond the drip of water and scurrying of rats-something else. Something-

Movement.

Something was moving.

Taking another tentative step, Dean pressed his lips together, willing himself to keep it together. If he was close, then he needed to be careful-more than careful. He had to be 100 percent on his game. His tactics had nearly gotten himself and Sam killed in Missouri. That wasn't a mistake he could afford to make this time.

He dropped the beam of his flashlight, giving it less berth. It limited his visibility, but afforded him a bit more surprise. His fingers tensed on the gun, flexing, and he forced himself to ease it off slightly. He had to be ready, but he couldn't be too overzealous. Shooting first was a good policy unless Sam might be there as collateral. He couldn't take the chance of hitting his brother.

Dean edged along the wall. As he reached a corner, he pointed his flashlight all the way down, turning it off as quietly as he could. There was a soft glow from around the other side-probably candlelight, given how it flickered. Listening for a moment, he made out the sound of breathing. Then a small movement.

Resolved, Dean inhaled deeply. With a mental count of three, he raised his gun, charging around the side.

He saw the candles first, all sizes and shapes, partially melted around the area. It was a small clearing, with various pieces of trash and makeshift furniture.

Then, he saw himself. His own smiling visage, shaking his head. Even though he'd suspected a shapeshifter, it didn't make the sight any less unnerving. But it made all kinds of sense-the only way something could have gotten the drop on Sam was if it tricked him.

The shifter was leaned against a metal support beam, posture relaxed as it twirled a knife in its hands, slipping the blade up and down loosely through its familiar fingers.

This son of a bitch had to die.

"Dean," it said. "You really are so predictable."

Dean resisted the urge to shoot. This was a trap, and he had to keep that in mind. For now, Sam's life could depend on what this thing said or did. Dean couldn't take any chances. "Where's Sam?"

The shifter rolled its eyes. "Same old questions," it said. "You and Sam are alike in that way. For all your differences, you're both rather single-minded."

Dean took a step closer. "Tell me where he is or I will kill you right now."

The shifter didn't look afraid. It gave a shrug. "That might make it rather hard for you to find your brother."

Dean's anger flared and he fired wide, the bullet hitting the cement wall with a wet thunk.

Then, Dean heard something.

Not from the shifter, who was still leaned against the beam, nonplussed. But from somewhere nearby.

Then, movement. A shifting in the tarp thrown over the debris in front of the beam.

A groan followed, then more pronounced movement.

"Dean," the shifter said, shaking his head with an air of condescension. "Sam was taking a much needed nap. Now look what you've done."

Dean's impulses screamed to rush to Sam, but his hunting instinct prevailed. He raised his gun at the shifter, prepared to shoot.

The thing was faster than Dean anticipated. In easy movements, he had shifted behind the beam, the knife pushing away the tarp and poised precariously at Sam's throat, slicing before Dean even had a chance to blink.

Dean fired anyway, but had to go wide again. The shifter's proximity to Sam was an issue now, and the column made an apt shield even where his brother's flesh wasn't concerned. The shifter's head poked around, eyes alive with sadistic thrill, but Dean couldn't trust his aim with Sam so close to the crosshairs.

Sam wasn't bleeding-not from his throat. Thank God.

The sense of relief was palpable. The shifter had sliced the ropes around Sam's neck. They were hanging limply around Sam's slumped shoulders.

Sam seemed to flinch at the shot, his bruised face scrunching up at the noise. Even if Sam's throat wasn't bleeding, the damage his brother had incurred was worse than Dean had anticipated. There were fresh bruises now, and Sam's lip was split. The other eye was black and there was a cut with dried blood smeared around it across Sam's cheek. The vivid bruises from the strangulation stood out more now, even though Sam's head was drooped forward in unconsciousness.

If Sam had been through the wringer before, it was clear that this latest altercation with a shifter had left Sam much worse for wear. Dean couldn't be sure if there was anything else wrong-there was no telling what this sick SOB might have done to his brother-but Sam was alive. He had to focus on keeping it that way.

The shifter grinned, tsking slightly. The knife caressed Sam's neck, tracing invisible lines on his brother's skin. "You know what this is like," it said to Dean, eyes on him. "You've been here before. Where the only thing between your brother and an untimely death is you."

"He's still alive," Dean said, watching as his brother seemed to twitch again. Sam seemed to be coming to and Dean couldn't decide if that was a good thing or not. "Which is more than I can say for your friend back in Missouri."

That hit a nerve, and the shifter's face hardened. "He was more than my friend," it said. "Which is why I think you can understand that. Winchesters, of all people, should understand revenge. The things we'd do for family."

Dean balked a little, surprise taking his attention from Sam for the moment. "Family? You've got to be kidding me," he said, unable to control his incredulity. "That murdering asshole up there was your family?"

"My one and only little brother," it said. "All I had left."

The idea that shifters had families was a new one to him. He didn't humanize the things he hunted-they were evil, so they had to die. It was really pretty simple.

But the protecting family, looking out for a little brother-that was something Dean could understand. Hell, it was something Dean lived.

Of course, his family wasn't full of freakish shapeshifters. Sam was certainly freaky sometimes, but shedding skin? Fortunately was not a Winchester trait.

And Sam, for all his quirks and issues, wasn't a sick murderer. No, for all the issues Dean had with Sam-for the resentments and the pain-Sam was still a good person who deserved to be saved not just because he was Dean's brother, but because he made the world a better place.

Sam had saved people. Sam had nearly been killed by these sons of bitches. He did not deserve this. He didn't deserve any of this crap, not from getting kicked out at 18 to losing his girlfriend just a few months ago. Because whatever issues Dean may have had, none of them meant anything when Sam was in danger. Never had and never would.

He sneered, meeting the shifter's eyes once again. "Then maybe your brother should have picked better hobbies," he said.

The shifter tensed his knife, digging it deeper into the flesh on Sam's neck. "Maybe yours should, too," it said. "Little brothers never really listen. I told mine not to be so reckless. Not to kill so blatantly. But he did it anyway. And you know that feeling. Trying to keep Sam in line. But little brothers never do what they should. All I wanted was a chance to protect my brother, but you took that from me."

"I'd say that I'm sorry," Dean said. "But don't forget that your brother was killing mine."

"Oh, I totally get that," the shifter said. "So I get why you pulled the trigger. Which is why I'm sure you'll understand why I have to do this."

The shifter moved, drawing the blade across Sam's neck, hard and deep before Dean even had a chance to move.

At the sight of blood, Dean fired-it was too late to play it safe.

And then, Sam twitched again, body convulsing from it all as he came to full awareness, eyes wide and terrified.

The movement was wild and sudden, and though the shifter had good position, it did not have a good grip, and the knife lost its contact.

Briefly, but enough.

Dean fired again, closer this time, and the shifter ducked, trying to melt into the shadows.

Then, the thing wearing Dean's face sprawled ungracefully to the floor. It was a stroke of luck Dean hadn't counted on and couldn't really account for yet. But, at the moment, it didn't really matter. It was scrambling to find its feet again, and that was all the opportunity Dean needed to finish this, once and for all.

He hit the thing in the back, causing it to fall forward. Dean fired once more-twice, three times for good measure.

Standing over it, he looked for some sign of life, for any movement.

It had been weird enough to kill himself in Missouri. It was more so now. It seemed ironic, in a painfully self flagellating way. To save Sam meant to kill himself.

And really, it sort of made sense. He had resentments. He had issues with Sam. He'd spent three years being mad at Sam for walking out the door, three years feeling like his brother had abandoned him.

But that wasn't really it, and Dean knew it. Not that Sam hadn't hurt him, but that it wasn't so simple. The simple things in life that mattered were nothing more than family. They could hate each other, they could be pissed off at each other, but in the end, nothing-supernatural, human, or otherwise-would stand in the way of protecting each other. Not even their own selfish needs and wants.

It was why Sam had come with him that night when Dean came to get him at Stanford. It was why Dean was willing to kill his own doppleganger to save his brother's life. Because whatever hurt and resentment there was, it didn't matter when push came to shove. It was true for Dean, and it was true for Sam.

Sam-

Pocketing his gun, Dean turned his attention back to his brother. Sam had been alive and aware-Dean knew that much-but the shifter had been slicing Sam's throat. And the cut hadn't been for show-it had been to kill.

But Sam had stopped it. Dean had stopped it. They had to be in time.

Dropping to his knees, he looked up into his brother's face. Sam's head was sagging forward, and for a second, Dean couldn't tell if Sam were conscious or not. Sam's front was a gory mess, blood staining his throat almost entirely and wetting his shirt. Wincing, Dean probed closer, trying to get a better look, but it was almost impossible at this angle. He needed to get Sam untied, get him on the ground to give him the thorough once over the situation warranted.

But first he had to do something to stem the bleeding. Fumbling, he grabbed the first thing he could find-the abandoned tarp. He couldn't be sure it was sanitary, but at this point, with the blood Sam was losing, it didn't matter.

With one hand, he pressed it tentatively against Sam's neck-it was a hard place to apply pressure. Too much force and he could risk choking his brother. Not enough and Sam would continue to bleed.

At the contact, Sam's body trembled, his eyes twitching behind closed lids.

"Hey," Dean said, using his free hand to move Sam's hair out of the way. "Sammy. Look at me."

He was rewarded with a faint groan. Sam's eyes blinked, his head rolling into Dean's touch ever so slightly. "Dean," he murmured.

Dean grinned, a moment of relief spreading over him. Bruised and bloodied-but Sam was alive. "I can't trust you alone at all, can I?" he quipped.

Sam's eyes focused, clearing just for a second. "It was a shifter," he scratched out.

Dean swallowed hard, nodded, trying not to let his trepidation show. "Apparently there were two back in Missouri."

Sam nodded distantly, letting his eyes glaze over a bit. "You got him?"

"Yeah, Sammy," Dean said quickly, and it wasn't hard to be sure about that. "I don't know how, but I got him."

Sam looked at him, a smile tugging at his bruised face, his split lip looking painfully cracked. "It's hard to get far when you trip," he said, his voice weaker this time, his breathing strained.

Dean adjusted his grip, shifting a little to get better leverage against Sam's weeping throat. "You tripped him?" he asked, letting his eyes look to the floor. Though Sam's upper body was secure, his legs were relatively free. And Dean knew never to underestimate the sheer length of his brother's legs-he'd been taken down by them more than once in his life.

It was something to think about. How Sam, bruised and bleeding, had had the presence of mind to trip the shifter as he made his escape.

He shook his head, a small smile of pride on his face. "Well, I'll be damned," he said. Then he brushed Sam's bangs away again, looking seriously into Sam's eyes. "You did good, little brother. You did good."

Sam blinked slowly, his head lolling forward a bit. He mumbled something before his eyes slipped closed.

"Whoa," Dean said, propping Sam's head up again. "Stay with me, okay? Stay with me."

Sam's eyes cracked open again. "'s it really you?" he asked, and the hint of hope in his little brother's eyes was unmistakable.

Dean wet his lips, nodding tightly. "I'd tell you the one and only, but I'd hate to have another shifter come out of the woodwork and prove me wrong," he said. "We'll just say that nothing beats the original."

Sam smiled faintly at that, before his eyes shut again, the tension dissipating from Sam's body altogether.

"Sam?" Dean asked, tapping Sam's face lightly. "Sammy."

This time, however, there was no response.

Without Sam to anchor him, Dean felt himself slipping. His control was precarious as it was lately-with Dad being gone, with the mysterious fire that had killed Sam's girlfriend-all of it. It was why he'd gone to Sam in the first place: Dean, for all his bravado, didn't always know what to do. He didn't really like being in control, not when the world was a mess of powerful forces working against him.

And this was Sam. The brother he'd carried out of the house when he was just four years old. The one he'd dragged out of an apartment of Stanford no more than three months ago. Sam. Dean had come to him as a last resort before losing it completely.

But it was more than that. It wasn't just that Sam was his sanity or that Sam was his reason for fighting. It was Sam. His brother.

That meant something. Hell, it meant something to run of the mill monsters. But it meant more to him. It meant more to Winchesters.

Dean could resent. He could wish things were different. He could order Sam around, he could make fun of him. Yet, in the end, they were more than that, and they always would be. Because family mattered to most people on earth. But to Winchesters? It was more than important. It was everything.

And Dean would be damned if some low life scum of a shapeshifter would take that from him. Not now, after all this. Not ever.

Just like that, it didn't matter how hurt Sam was. It didn't matter how much Sam was bleeding. It only mattered that Dean saved him.

With one hand still pressing the tarp to Sam's throat, he used the other to work his knife out. Then, he carefully and efficiently worked at the ropes that tied Sam down. It was slow work with one hand, but without knowing the slice on Sam's throat, he couldn't afford to ease off the pressure. He just had to believe that he could afford the extra time.

When the ropes gave way, Sam sagged forward, nearly catching Dean off guard as he tried to grapple with Sam's sizable weight. It was awkward, but he twisted, lowering Sam to the ground on his back and going to his knees next to his brother's prone form.

The candlelight illuminated the scene, but sparsely and dim, and Dean fumbled quickly in his pocket to find his flashlight. Turning it on, he braced himself, and removed the tarp.

Leaning close, he fingered Sam's neck, gauging the slice opened there. At first, it was hard to see with the blood, which continued to flow, but he forced himself to look closer. It was a few inches long, which wasn't so much the problem-it was the depth Dean needed to be worried about.

The neck was a messy place to be injured-the number of blood vessels and arteries in the neck were astounding and it didn't take too much to access them. Beyond that, the sensitive areas such as the throat and larynx were nothing to mess around with, as Sam was already well aware of from his previous encounter with this shifter's wayward little brother.

Probing the wound, it was deeper than a scratch, perhaps almost getting to the muscle. It had clearly done a number on a handful of blood vessels, but the placement was good, Dean realized. It had missed the major ones.

Which made sense. If the shifter had as much as nicked Sam's jugular, his little brother probably would have been dead by now.

Still, without closing the wound up and staunching the flow of blood, Sam was still at risk. He couldn't gauge exactly how much Sam had lost, and even if it probably looked like more than it was, Dean still knew it wasn't anything to mess around with. Sam needed to be fixed up-and fast.

With a grimace, Dean bunched the tarp, applying a careful amount of pressure once again. Looking up, he eyed the place, trying to see what it had to offer.

Beyond candles and run down furniture-not much. Whatever help Sam needed, Dean couldn't do it here.

He looked at Sam again, taking in the lax, pale features. Sam looked young like this-so vulnerable. But Dean knew even in that lost innocence, Sam was strong.

This was where that son of a bitch had gotten it wrong. Sam wasn't some screw up kid who Dean had to pick up after. Sam was his partner-his brother and his friend-and together they could do anything.

Even this.

Jaw clenched, Dean reached for one of the ropes. Carefully, he wrapped it around Sam's neck, tying it snugly but not too tight. To be sure, he leaned close, moving the excess tarp out of the way, to check Sam's breathing.

It was shallow and strained, but puffed against Dean's check consistently.

Giving one more look at his brother, Dean steeled himself. It was his job to get Sam out of here and someplace safe. Dean needed to fix Sam up and make sure he recovered.

All Sam had to do was stay alive.

With steady movements, Dean hoisted Sam up, pulling his younger brother over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. He paused long enough to feel Sam's chest press against his back, and then made his way out of the sewers.

-o-

It was a hard trip back. Carrying Sam was a task no matter what, and trying to navigate the dark and slippery conditions of the sewers was more than a little difficult. Dean still wasn't sure how he hefted his unconscious brother up the ladder, but in the end, it didn't matter. All that mattered was that Sam was out of there. Safe.

Or as safe as he could be, Dean thought grimly, looking around the disorderly motel room. The room still bore witness to Sam's abduction. Dean would have ditched it, but their things were still there, and Dean didn't have time to set up camp someplace else.

Besides, the place was already trashed. Fixing Sam up was going to be messy, and there was no sense ruining two motel rooms.

He moved quickly and efficiently, feeling numb as he laid out what he needed. Their first aid kit was well stocked and Dean picked out the needle and thread he'd need and the pressure bandages to get the job done. They still had some antiseptic, which would be a huge plus, but they were low on painkillers.

Sparing a glance at Sam, Dean knew that no matter how deeply Sam was out, this would hurt-a lot. Sam's throat had been a mess before this latest incident, and Dean knew that a needle working in and out of the tender skin would be no picnic for either of them.

Still, Sam's life was worth the pain.

No matter how sure he was in that resolve, it didn't make the task any easier.

Swallowing hard, he moved toward the rope around Sam's neck. With fluid movements, he sliced through it, quickly pulling away the tarp. Without pressure, time was of the essence, and Dean knew it.

The tarp was bloody, and fresh blood continued to leak from the wound, but Dean thought it might be less than before-but still enough to be a problem.

Quickly, he grabbed a wet washcloth from the ice bucket of water he'd set up nearby. He washed it over the wound, wiping away the blood as best he could. Then, he poured antiseptic liberally over the cut, forcing himself to squirt some directly into the slice.

Sam's body tensed at that, a low moan escaping from his brother's lips.

"Sorry, kiddo," Dean murmured. "But we don't need an infection on top of everything else."

Sam seemed to settle at his voice, and Dean moved on.

The needle was threaded and ready, but stitches were slow, no matter how prepared or efficient Dean could be. It had to be done right, with small, tight stitches, or the time would be wasted and Sam would continue to bleed.

The fact that this was on Sam's neck was an added precaution-if Dean went too deep, he could easily nick something himself and a sloppy line would be visible and uncomfortable scar for both of them.

His brother flinched under his ministrations, bucking once in protest, but he never found his way to consciousness again. Whether it was blood loss or a concussion or just pain alone, Dean couldn't be sure-and at this point, he wasn't sure he wanted to know. He had to focus on the task at hand. If he thought about all the rest, his concentration would be shattered and the only person that would hurt would be Sam.

He had to dab away the blood periodically, and he kept one hand closed over the wound to stem the flow as he proceeded. Stitch by stitch, he closed up the slice, until the neat row of black stitches was completed.

Dean checked his work, looking for any blood flow or spots that he may have missed. But it seemed secure and snug and, most importantly, effective.

Sitting back, Dean gave his brother another look. Sam had settled into stillness again, his mouth open as he breathed. His body still seemed tense, as if ready for more pain or loss, and Dean rubbed a hand over Sam's brow.

"You can relax now," he said. "It's okay now."

Sam shifted at that, sighing softly before he seemed to relax completely, letting go into deep unconsciousness.

Dean let his hand linger, tracing his fingers on his brother's brow. They didn't do this-affection was not a Winchester thing. They grew up in a house of orders and punishments. Praise was sparse and they showed their love by obeying more than anything.

It had been different when Sam was younger-before he knew the truth. Back then, Sam had clung to Dean, as a best friend and big brother. Dean had served as confidant and jungle gym, and he'd treated Sam's boo-boos and nightmares with as much of a gentle touch as a child could muster.

But when Sam learned the truth about hunting, he seemed to pull back into himself. Though Dean could always sense his little brother's needs, Sam never sought affection that way again, even if Dean knew deep down Sam always wanted it.

Over time, the training had gotten more encompassing. The hunts more important. Family was survival, and all other affections were sacrificed to the greater good.

Dean pulled his hand away, feeling hollow somehow. It was easy to pretend like the problem had been Sam and Dad, always fighting. That somehow this was still Sam's fault for walking out that door and not looking back. But it ran deeper than that-it ran all the way back to the loss of a mother's touch that they had all needed and no longer had.

Dean didn't want another life. He didn't want some Joe College experience. He just wanted the life he should have had, the life they all should have had, before that night in November had taken everything away.

His eyes stayed on Sam. Almost everything.

This is where their father had been wrong. It wasn't an all or nothing. It wasn't about ultimatums. It was about doing anything and everything to stay together, to keep each other human, because it was all they had. Sometimes that meant being wrong. Sometimes that meant letting the other person win.

And yet, there Dean had been. Trying to order Sam around, giving his brother false promises and risking Sam's life.

It couldn't be like that-it couldn't. Not when it ended up with Sam lying unconscious on a bloody motel room bed.

Dean blinked hard, forcing the tears back. He would make this right. For Sam. For Dad. For all of them. And nothing-not a shifter, not Dean himself-would get in the way of that.

-o-

There was something wrong with his throat.

Though, all things considered, that probably shouldn't have been much of a surprise. After all, he'd nearly been choked to death in St. Louis and then he'd been handily choked out in his motel room. But still-he's almost gotten used to the slight wheeze of his breathing due to the swelling in his throat. And this was-different.

Different how, he wasn't sure.

More than that, he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to find out. Because, really, how much good had waking up done for him recently? He couldn't remember going to sleep, which probably meant that he'd either been bashed on the head (again) or choked (again), and at this point, even if his body could take it, his ego was really past its prime.

Being the black sheep younger brother was one thing, but playing the family weakling? Had gotten old when he was fourteen.

So letting himself drift away, just for awhile longer, sounded rather enticing. His plans to avoid reality, however, were thwarted by a familiar voice.

"Sam?"

Dean. He sounded tired and worried, like he was frayed beyond his edges. Though Dean put up a convincing facade, Sam knew his brother well enough to know that the last few months had been hard on him, with Dad missing and Sam's mood rather hit or miss. And cavalier comments aside, the hunt in Missouri had taken its toll-on both of them. If Dean had sounded relieved to leave St. Louis, he sounded downright weary now.

Despite the fact that waking up would take work and probably bring about a host of unpleasant revelations, he couldn't willingly leave Dean sounding like that.

Thinking it was one thing, though; doing it was another. Awareness came back to him in degrees, as his hearing cleared and his sense came back to life. He realized he was lying in a bed. He was only half dressed and covered with a sheet. And his throat didn't just feel weird-it hurt.

The shock of it made him suck in a ragged breath, which he promptly choked on.

The action ripped through him, and he tried to curl in on himself. Dean's steady hands were on him in an instant, steadying him and rolling him on his side. Dean's presence didn't waver, not until Sam's coughing at settled and he lay gasping for air.

"You okay?" Dean asked.

With his eyes still closed against the pain, Sam managed to nod. Carefully, he swallowed, trying to wet his dry lips. "Just...give me a minute," he croaked, and even he was surprised at how awful his voice sounded.

"You might need more than a minute, dude," Dean said. "I need to check your stitches, make sure you didn't pull one out."

Then Dean's hand were at his neck.

Sam couldn't help it-he flinched.

"Easy," Dean said, pulling away. "That thing sure did a number on you."

That much Sam had guessed, though the details were still fuzzy. He remembered the altercation in the motel room-how it had been Dean but not and Sam's hesitation had nearly cost him everything.

"I'm just going to look," Dean said. "Just for a second, okay?"

Sam didn't nod, but didn't protest either. After a moment, he felt Dean's touch on his throat, gentle but probing along a tender line. Then, Sam could made out the familiar the pull of the stitches in his flesh.

It was enough of a shock for him to open his eyes. He blinked blearily, trying to focus on Dean's face.

Dean grinned at him. "About time you woke up, Francis," he said.

Sam swallowed gingerly again. "It...," he tried to say, but the pain and emotion was too much. "My throat?"

Dean's face fell grimly, though he tried to hide it. "It's not a big deal," Dean said. "I took care of it."

Sam worked to lift his arm, frustrated at how much work it took. Clumsily, he felt for his throat, ignoring the tenderness. His fingers felt rubbery, but he could make it out all the same: a row of stitches, about three inches long on the left side of his throat toward his Adam's apple.

"Careful," Dean chastised, moving his hand away. "I spent a lot of time on that."

"My throat," Sam tried again, trying to regain some semblance of his voice. "Cut?"

At that, Dean's humor couldn't keep up the act. He looked down. "It didn't get too far," Dean said. "You lost some blood, which is why you probably feel like crap right now, but I got it under control."

Sam's brow furrowed as he tried to think, tried to remember. After passing out in the motel room, he'd woken up in the sewers. The shifter had had a penchant for dialoguing, like most bad guys did-something about its brother, something about Sam's brother. "A trap," he said suddenly. "It was...a trap."

Dean nodded. "Yeah, I figured that out before I got there," he said. Then he shook his head dismissively. "It tried to use you as bait, to get revenge on us for killing its partner up in St. Louis."

"Brother," Sam interjected.

"Sam, it was a monster," Dean told him. "It didn't have a brother. Not in a way that mattered."

Dean was good at that-at drawing his lines in the sand and sticking to them. Hunting was black and white, good and evil. Sometimes Sam wished it were that easy for him.

But nothing was easy from Sam. Nothing since the day he was six months old and his mother died. Everything in his life had been a complicated mess, from learning the truth when he was eight to walking out the door when he was eighteen with orders never to come back.

And here he was. He couldn't even follow that order through. All his good intentions, and where did it get him? Going to college cost him Jess. Going to St. Louis had nearly cost him his life. And leaving St. Louis had almost cost him Dean. People around Sam seemed to have a habit of dying, and though Sam didn't want to admit it, he was scared the same thing would happen to Dean. That one night he'd wake up to find Dean on the ceiling asking why, Sam, why?

He let his eyes close. Dean didn't have to be burning alive for the questions to be the same. Why did Sam leave Dean for Stanford? Why did Sam not realize his brother had dreams, too? It wasn't that simple, and Sam knew it, but it didn't change the fact that there were a lot of things he'd never considered.

If losing Jessica had taught him anything, it was that he couldn't take it for granted. His family had been difficult growing up, that much was true. He'd been ignored and belittled and generally disregarded. He'd been expected to fall in line with no qualms or questions, even when it made him feel like he was dying inside. He'd left just for a chance to feel alive and not even Dean grasped that yet.

But, his family was more than that. There were motives behind their actions. There were doubts and fears, and Sam had never known that better than the look in his brother's eyes when he'd woken up. Dean had charged in after Sam, walked willing into a trap, and pulled Sam out. He'd stitched Sam's throat and sat by Sam's bedside, because they were family. They were brothers.

Opening his eyes, he found his brother's face. "Thank you," he said.

Dean looked quizzical. "It wasn't like I was going to leave you there," Dean said. "You'd have done the same for me."

That much was true, but it didn't change Sam's gratitude. He held Dean's gaze, making sure his brother really understood. "For everything."

Dean fidgeted skittishly, looking away. He shook his head. "I didn't do it alone," he said, meeting Sam's eyes again. "Back there, in the sewers, it was going to get away, but you stopped it."

Sam cocked his head, uncertain.

Dean nodded readily. "I don't know how you knew-you were barely conscious-but you tripped him as he was running."

"Fluke," Sam said.

But Dean shook his head. "More than a fluke," he said. Then, he hesitated. "We work better as a team."

The thing was, Dean meant it. He meant it in a way Sam wasn't sure he could. Because, to Dean, the ultimate dream had never been about college or safety or normal. It had just been family. Sometimes, Sam envied such simple wants.

For Sam, though, it was bittersweet. Cutting ties with the people he used to know, giving up on the life he'd once had-he wasn't sure he could. Sometimes he wasn't sure he had a choice, but it was a dream he needed if he was going to get through this.

But Dean-hunting together-made it bearable. Made it worthwhile.

Finally, Sam nodded. "Yeah," he said, his voice still grating. "We do."

Dean grinned a little, "Okay, you think you feel ready to get up, yet? Maybe try drinking something? Going to the bathroom?" he asked. "Because I may have stitched you up, but I am not changing the sheets if you piss yourself."

Sam groaned a little, his body feeling heavy. Part of him wanted to protest, to sleep a little longer, to avoid the reality of his injuries while he could. But Dean's voice was as encouraging as it was supportive, and Sam could never deny his brother anything when he asked.

"Come on," Dean cajoled, putting a supportive hand on Sam's arm and helping him sit up.

The room spun a little and his head felt light. He had the urge to cough again, and he closed his eyes against it.

But Dean's hand was steady and his brother's presence was enough to get him through this.

For now, it was enough.

end