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A/N: To Queen Bee: Thank you for the anonymous review! Your kind words are much appreciated and, if you are the same Queen Bee who has commented on my other pieces, your continued support is invaluable to me. Thank you so much!

A/N 2: I apologize for the once-again-delayed update. Things here have been...not great...but I'm doing my best to get caught up on the updates I'm behind on. Thank you all for your patience, and for continuing to read!

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Sam is doing his best. He really is. But if someone had told him that one day he would be stuck in a motel room taking care of a seriously hurt and over-emotional Dean he probably would have died laughing. Or put someone's lights out for talking smack about his brother. Maybe both.

Yet this is exactly where he is. He's a bit confused and way more than a bit overwhelmed by it all. Sam is not stupid or blind. He was not always so clear-sighted, true, but getting to know his brother again after years away he has learned a few things.

Dean's wisecracks and tendency to hold people at arm's length are not any more who he is than the shallow, insensitive persona he uses. Dean, underneath it all, is one of the most sensitive, compassionate people Sam has ever known. He hides it, though, and he hides it well. For a long time, Sam didn't even realize what was hiding beneath the stony wall his brother erects around himself.

Dean deflects when things hit too close to home, he hides behind anger and abrasiveness. These things are not who he is either. But they are what most everyone sees.

To see Dean without these defense mechanisms, to see him laid bare is both worrisome and fraught with revelation.

Sam would never admit it to Dean, but he misses the wisecracks and jokes, the tricks his brother has perfected over the years to set Sam and everyone around himself at ease. He usually complains about Dean keeping him at arm's length, pushing everyone away, refusing help, but when none of these hold true he finds himself wondering if his brother is broken beyond repair.

The thought scares the hell out of him.

Luckily (or unluckily, as it would turn out to be) he is saved from further mental meanderings as Dean stirs on the bed with a sound that falls somewhere between a whimper and a groan. It is a sound Sam has heard far too often of late, and it never fails to lacerate his heart.

This time, though, there is an undercurrent of anger as well.

Dean has been refusing his pain medications all day, even though he's clearly in excruciating pain. Sam just cannot wrap his brain around it.

"Dean, would you please just take the painkillers."

"No, I'm fine, I don't need any stupid drugs." Dean tries to push himself up to sit on the edge of the bed, his left arm still nearly useless with the shoulder-blade wrecked and the right is too shaky to hold him. He manages to lift himself a few inches and then, with a groan, he falls back onto the bed.

Sam feels the anger start to lace through his chest.

"Yeah Dean, you're fine, I can see how fine you are from here." Dean fixes him with a stare that is two parts hurt feelings and one part thoroughly pissed off. Sam sighs. "Dean, why won't you just - "

"No Sam. I don't need the friggin' drugs!I don't like the way they make me feel!"

"Oh yeah, I get that, why the hell would you not want to feel pain? How could that possibly be a good thing?" Sam is dripping sarcasm all over the rug.

"It's not that, it's - " Dean stops and his gaze slides away from Sam's, but before it does Sam catches the deeply haunted look hiding behind the anger.

"Dean?" More gently, worried, coaxing rather then browbeating. "Dean, what happened?"

"I just..." Dean swallows hard and for a moment Sam isn't sure he's going to answer, "I just don't like how disconnected they make me feel." There's something in his eyes, something more to the story that he is not sharing and whatever it is, it hurts.

Any other time, Sam would know exactly how to handle the situation. He knows how to dance around Dean's defenses, he's not always successful but he knows the moves to make that garner him the best chance. But with the recent outbursts of emotion and the random vulnerability Dean has displayed as a side-effect of his injuries, Sam is not exactly sure how to proceed. So he goes on instinct.

Sam makes his way to his brother's bed and gently helps him to sit up, noting every flinch and stifled groan on the way, then sits carefully at Dean's side. They are close enough to be pressed together: shoulder, hip, knee. Sam does not always dare to crowd Dean's personal space this way, but his gut is telling him that his brother may need his support if he is actually going to drag this out of him.

Dean sits for a few moments, his good arm wrapped around his chest as he learns to breathe again after the pain subsides enough to try. While he waits, Sam reaches out and snags the medications and water from the bedside stand. Dean finally submits and Sam has to wonder if he is that desperate to not have to talk that he actually is procrastinating with medication. He almost lets Dean off the hook, but this is too important.

"It was while you were - " Dean breaks off and gets that look on his face, the hurt/lost/scared/abandoned/lonely that only comes out when Stanford is mentioned. Sam's stomach turns and he wonders, not for the first time, if he will ever live long enough to not feel guilty for that particular decision.

Dean clears his throat and looks at the rug between his feet, as if it holds all the answers to the mysteries of the universe.

"Dad and I were hunting a family of werecats."

Sam feels the warm bloom of anger start to fill him. He wants to grab Dean and shake him. He wants to yell what the fuck were you thinking hunting a family of werecats with just the two of you? He is not sure if Dean will start again if he interrupts, so instead he bites his tongue until he tastes the warm tang of copper.

As if he can hear Sam's inner monologue (and, hey, it's Dean so he probably can) he flicks his mossy green eyes up to meet Sam's briefly, then back down to the rug, "We thought there were only three of them," he says, rather sheepishly, "turned out there were five. We managed to take out three that first night, but the other two got the drop on me and clawed me up pretty good. Dad spent the rest of that night stitching my chest and stomach back together."

Sam is grinding his teeth so hard he's sure he is going to break one. He knows what is coming, and it's already pissing him off.

"He didn't want to lose the trail, but I passed out while he was stitching me and ended up out cold for most of the day. He dosed me up that night with some oxy he'd lifted from somewhere so we could track and kill the last two. Yes I know, you don't just 'lift' oxycodone from anywhere, I don't know where he got it from Sam." His brother's mouth is hanging open in astonishment, Dean can see it from the corner of his eye. He refuses to look up, though, as though he might lose his nerve and not finish.

Dean takes a breath, blinking slow and heavy against memories he does not want to relive, against tears he does not want to fall. "Christ, Sammy, I was hurting so damn bad. Even with the oxy, I just wanted to curl up and die somewhere. I had lost so much blood I didn't even know where we were anymore. I was dizzy, my head hurt, the fuckin' nausea alone was enough to make me wish the damn things had just killed me outright. I knew Dad wouldn't wait, though, and I just couldn't take the thought of him going out there without backup. Turns out he would have been better off without me."

Sam can hear the waver in Dean's voice, sees the all too familiar it's all my fault, can see the pain in his eyes as they look back through the years. As badly as he wants to hug Dean and protect him from that pain, he knows full well how tenuous his brother's grip on his self-control is at this moment. Instead, he reaches out one hand and presses it gently against the good shoulder and rubs small, soothing strokes along the shoulder-blade. He is not surprised to feel Dean trembling under his palm.

"We thought we had them cornered, but they had doubled back around," Dean flinches, remembering, his arm tightening around his aching chest. This is the most he's spoken since the first time he was hurt and Sam can see the toll it is taking on Dean to go on. His eyes are dark and bruised-looking, freckles standing out in sharp contrast to his parchment-pale skin. His breathing is shallow, Sam can hear a faint wheeze with every breath and he wants to tell Dean to stop, let it go, but he knows it's already too far gone for that. Dean has to finish or he will be locked inside this memory for who knows how long.

"They knew I was hurt, knew they had to take Dad out first but I was between him and them. I'm still not positive what exactly happened, I was so out of it I could barely stand up, but I think one of them must have slammed into me on the way by. It was just too much, I..." (was weak) "...folded up. I was unconscious before I even hit the ground. By the time I came around, they were both dead but Dad was clawed halfway to hell and back. Honest to Christ, Sammy, I don't know how we made it out of there. By the time we got back to the motel we were both half dead. I couldn't tell you if I helped him patch up or if he stitched himself, it's just a blur of blood and pain and struggling to breathe." The tears are sliding down his face now as his sense of failure overwhelms him.

Sam is speechless for a moment. Oh, he has plenty of things vying for his voice, but none of them would be overly productive right now. He takes a moment to swallow down the white-hot fury burning in his chest - John isn't here and for once Sam thanks whatever higher power is listening for that fact. Once again John Fucking Winchester has managed to wrench away any sense of self-worth Dean may have somehow mustered. Sam wonders for half a second whether Dean will ever realize how incredible he really is.

"Dean," his voice is still strangled, holding back tears of his own, "Jesus Dean, that was not your fault! You really think it was the medication that knocked you on your ass? Seriously? You shouldn't have been out there in the first place! You were suffering from blood loss, probably exhaustion and hunger if I know you, you probably should have been in a hospital. What the hell was he thinking?"

"He was thinking more people were going to die, Sammy. We had to get them." Sam expects anger, resentment that Sam is once again furious with their father, but what he gets is quiet resignation and somehow that's worse.

"It's not worth your life, Dean, and even if it was - dude, don't you get it?" That earns him a blank stare through tear-filled eyes, "Man, if you're dead, how can you save anyone else? If you're so gung-ho to save every life out there, whether they are your responsibility or not, who is going to do it if you're not here?"

"There are other hunters out there, there will always be someone to take over."

Sam feels the thrill of victory, it's exactly what he was hoping to hear. "That's right. There are others out there who can take over once you're gone. So why the hell can't they do it while you're still alive? Why does it always have to be you? And what would I do without you?"

Something like fear passes through Dean's eyes at that last question and he squeezes his eyelids shut for a moment. When he opens them again, Sam can see the bone-deep exhaustion weighing him down. He stands and shifts Dean carefully back down onto the bed, pulling the covers up over his shivering form. Dean sniffs, flinching against some sudden pain, and then he's out.

Sam sits on the edge of the bed for hours, watching over Dean as he sleeps.

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Four weeks and two motels later, Dean is finally breathing almost normally again. He has taken the medications with minimal fuss since the talk, but has not broached the subject again. Sam has not forgotten, nor has he forgiven his father for this latest insight into his brother's damaged psyche.

They are almost ready to start hunting again and Dean is chomping at the bit. Sam knows he cannot keep them idle much longer and pretends to look for hunts, hoping he can drag it out just a little bit. Just enough to make sure Dean is alright. Make sure he is ready for the dangers of another hunt.

Make sure he does not make the same mistake his father made and let Dean loose before he is truly ready.

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A/N I think that's it - thank you for reading and I hope I didn't disappoint!