Summary: In a little bar in Nowhere, New Mexico, Dean Winchester makes a miscalculation. Sam has to survive it. Neither of them knows yet what they've lost.

Notes: Written for summer_sam_love on LJ, where the prompt was: The brothers are in a bar, Dean's hustling pool, and he doesn't perform up to his usual stellar standards. They're outnumbered and Dean doesn't have the cash to settle up the debt. His very scary opponents suggest perhaps Sam could find a way to "compensate" them that doesn't involve money. Pandemonium ensues.

In pool, "massé" refers to putting spin on the cue ball along both the horizontal and the vertical axis of the ball, accomplished by sharply elevating the butt of the cue. The result is a shot where the ball sharply curves and/or reverses direction without ever having to touch a rail, and which is infamously hard to control.

For the record, the last time I was in Cuba, New Mexico, all of the people I encountered there were absolutely lovely. Bar, unincorporated hamlet, and all personnel 100% fictional and not based on real experiences.


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This is the most shittastic dive Sam has ever been in, and he spent three summers searching out the Bay Area's finest. He has never seen the equal of this place. Not even the places with smoky alleys and vomit dried on the stucco come close.

Then again, Palo Alto isn't the middle of nowhere. After more than a year with Dean, Sam is pretty sure that the secret ingredient for a truly seedy bar is rural poverty. This place has it all: seedy backroom, window unit A/C, a sticky bar that makes Sam want to wash his hands just looking at it, splitting red vinyl on the chairs, cigarette butts wedged between the floorboards, and, of all things, a decorative mirror etched with a rifle and the legend Winchester Repeating Arms, 1873, New Haven, Conn. That last has a chip in the lower left corner.

There is, of course, a pool table.

Sam will never tell his brother, but he sort of likes these places. He's not sure why that's a secret. Maybe it's that he likes the way they simultaneously remind him of his roots and don't remind him of Stanford, the way he can feel like he's reinventing himself. Sam likes reinventing himself. Then again, maybe it's just that if he tells, there'll be one less opportunity for Dean to tease him about being a princess.

"Your break."

There's a solid crack, followed by the quieter secondary collisions of colored balls with each other and the felt. Dean looks up from his shot—three balls pocketed, two striped and one solid—and gives his opponent a razor grin. The guy smiles back grimly.

Sam just shakes his head and hides his own grin. His part in this hustle is over. He and Dean have already played a few games where Sam mostly won and neither of them played very well. Medium-stakes bets, all very friendly. In the last match, Sam let Dean win; Dean then crowed loudly and faux-drunkenly, proclaiming to all who could hear that he needed a worthier opponent. Sam played the straight man, rolling his eyes and going off lean against the cigarette machine while someone stepped up to accept Dean's challenge.

Rattle-clunk. "Hey, nice shot! I mean, I'm still gonna kick your ass, but that was a nice shot." Dean. Drunken, over-aggressive and over-friendly.

Click, soft bump. "Thanks. Your turn." Dean's opponent. Flat, stone-cold sober.

Sam allows his gaze to wander over the clientele, walls, and gleaming curves of glass behind the bar, thinking of nothing in particular. He should be watching the game, he supposes, but he already knows how it'll end. Nor is there much excitement anywhere else at hand. It's three in the afternoon and they're in a patch of nothing outside of Cuba, New Mexico, which is a patch of not much to start with. Five people are in this bar, excluding Sam and Dean and including the bartender, a wiry man watching the proceedings with his arms crossed over his chest and this weird, twisted smirk on his face. All of them are back here milling around the pool table.

They're clearly locals and clearly regulars. One is tall and broad with a dark crewcut and a heavy ring; Sam unconsciously tracks his position where he stands drinking with a short man who has Brad and Melinda tattooed on his arm, a few feet to Sam's left. The short guy moves jerkily, occasionally letting out a sharp bark of laughter. To Sam's right, a man who just looks average in every way leans one hand against the wall next to the bartender, watching the pool game and exchanging remarks that aren't audible over the music.

Dean's opponent is a big guy in a sheepskin vest who plays pool reasonably well. He's more laconic than his friends. The bartender calls him Eric; he calls the bartender Carl. Eric orbits around the pool table, sometimes backing right into Sam's personal space to line up a shot.

Each time he comes close, he eyes Sam. Sam's used to people staring at him when he comes into bars like this in a button-down and new Levi's, looking every inch a college student, so he ignores it.

Somewhere else, Sam and Dean's positions would probably be reversed so that Dean could work the crowd. Dean is better at poker, and Sam is… well, he isn't actually better at pool yet, but he looks fair to get that way. Dean is the master of playing people and playing people against each other. Sam prefers the physics and geometry of pool, the abstract strategy. Since there's no crowd to work here, Dean plays and Sam waits.

The local Dean's playing rests his cue on the floor and folds his hands over it, blue cube of chalk between two fingers. "Want to make this interesting?"

Dean laughs too loudly. "Thought you'd never ask, you big girl you."

He glances up at Sam as he lines up a shot, fake-wobbling his cue, and gives him a grin so full of shit it could fertilize a farm. It warms Sam; so, of course, he rolls his eyes to be sure Dean knows it.

Dean's playing mostly center ball shots, like he doesn't know how to do anything else. He's still wearing his leather jacket even though the heat's on, and he's throwing everything he's got into the image, swaggering, jutting out his hip, feigning drunkenness and, more importantly, cockiness.

Though he gave up trying when he was twelve, except for a brief and embarrassing experiment in his freshman year at college, it's an image Sam has always wished he could emulate. Dean's façade is near-perfect. Very few people know where to scratch to find the seams. Hell, Sam knows it's bullshit, and he still catches himself falling for it sometimes. He's come to realize that the act is so good because Dean compartmentalizes the hell out of himself. There are things Dean will never let on to knowing, clean-slicing thoughts Dean will never let out, emotions Dean will never admit to having, whole swathes of Dean's vocabulary that he never uses in speech, because he has an image to present and he is committed. None of it is a lie, exactly; it's more that Dean deselects anything inconsistent with his badass image. Renounces it.

It's one way in which Sam has never been able to stop wanting to be like his big brother. He wishes that he could choose his image like that. Every time he tries, he just ends up hemorrhaging himself all over the place, and it's faintly disgusting even to him. Sincerity and Stanford diction and so very much anger get everywhere like bodily fluids, and when it happens, he'll always be humiliated thinking back on it, but at the time he can never seem to stop. Sam has never been any good at renunciation.

"C'mon," says Dean. "Let's make things interesting."

Eric is impassive. "Thought we already did."

"More interesting," Dean persists. He's relaxed his drunk act just slightly. He drains the beer he's been nursing for the past three games and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "Five hundred."

Between the two of them, they've got maybe eighty, max, but it doesn't matter. Apart from the eightball, Dean has three balls left to pocket; Eric has two. Winning this game will be easy for Dean.

Eric's eyes flick up to the bartender's for a moment. "Fine," he says to Dean, smiling. "It's your shot."

"You want another round, there, son?" Carl the bartender drawls, not moving from his stance against the wall and not sounding much interested one way or another.

Dean turns to face him with an easy smile. "Nope. Just want to play."

Sam slips his hands into his pockets and tunes in to see the endgame. Half his attention is still wandering backwards to a string of deaths in Detroit, but studying Dean is too habitual for him not to watch.

The cue ball lies at the end of the table furthest from Sam. Eric's two remaining solids are blocking most of the kick angles on Dean's stripes, and the remaining ones are useless. There's a combination shot that could sink the ten ball, but it's difficult enough to raise suspicion if Dean makes it. The best option Sam can see is a curve shot down about half of the table, bowing toward the side rail and bypassing the seven to sink the nine in the far corner pocket.

That's exactly the shot Dean moves to line up. He makes a firm bridge with his fingers, elevates the butt of his cue by about forty degrees, and strokes.

He misses the shot.

The cue ball's path curves sharply toward the rail instead of gently around the seven, striking the eightball and sending it into the side pocket with five object balls still on the table. Dean has lost the game.

For a fraction of a second, Sam assumes his bone-deep disbelief is down to long-ingrained faith in big brother. The wrongness is deeper than that, though, and when his brain kicks in he knows why. The physics is wrong. He saw the angle of Dean's cue, and after years of living in each other's pockets, he knows just by watching exactly how much force Dean put into the shot. It couldn't have missed. Not like that. His mind tallies up the information and returns the only possible missing element.

The table was tilted.

Slowly Dean looks up from his shot. Sam can see in his eyes that he's reached the same conclusion.

Dean straightens. "How about one more, double or nothing?" he asks.

He's playing it cool, but his demeanor has shifted slightly. Everybody already knows the score: Dean knows he's been cheated; his opponent knows he's been hustled. Judging by the way they're subtly pushing away from their places around the room to drift toward the pool table, all his buddies know it, too. Suddenly Sam's full attention is locked on the room and everybody in it. He edges up onto the balls of his feet. Things are about to get ugly.

Eric takes a couple of steps toward Dean and looks him up and down. "I don't think so."

Dean chuckles, rubs a hand over the back of his neck, and flicks a glance over the room. "Man, you guys are barrels of fun, you know that?"

Eric taps the butt of his cue against the toe of his boot: tap. Tap. Tap. "Glad to hear it. How about you pay up and we part ways?"

Dean smiles tightly. "Yeah, about that."

He makes a move on Eric in the same instant that Sam turns and punches the guy with the crewcut. Crewcut goes down badly over a chair. Sam recovers his stance in time to see Eric land the shaft of his pool cue clean across Dean's face.

"Dean!"

He's expecting it when the man he felled moves in behind him. Hands clamp on Sam's arms and haul them back, huge and hard and far too sure not to have done this before. Before he can break the hold, the shorter one is in his face pulling a switchblade.

Sam tries to wrench an arm free out of sheer pissed-offness—they got the drop on them, the whole goddamned bar, how can the whole bar have gotten the drop on them?—but the short guy pinks him with the switchblade as Crewcut yanks him hard against his body and hisses in his ear, "Hold the hell still." The guy with the switchblade—Brad—scrapes his knife across Sam's stomach under his shirt and grins the grin of the profoundly antisocial.

Like that, the skirmish is over. Dean has gone very still. The average-looking guy has joined Eric in crowding Dean into one end of the backroom, but Dean isn't fighting them anymore, his eyes locked on the switchblade. "Sammy, you okay?" he asks levelly.

Sam grits his teeth. "Fresh as a daisy."

Dean's face darkens. Sam has just told him that he can't reach his own knife. "Let him go," Dean says, doing that thing where he tries to command the whole room whether he has leverage or not.

Brad snorts. "Or what?"

"Way to be a cliché," Dean mutters.

"Could cut your five hundred bucks out of his face, Eric," says Brad, his blade biting meaningly into skin. Sam's skin breaks out in goose pimples. The guy is getting off on this.

Dean looks from one man to another. "Everybody just calm the hell down. Let's talk about this."

"Yeah, sure." Eric smiles. His gaze falls on Sam again and Sam feels it, seemingly palpable and curiously heavy. "Maybe baby brother can find a way to pay up that doesn't involve money."

Sam's mind skips over the words. He hears them fine and understands them, but he can't take them seriously beyond How does he know we're brothers? The only thing that really registers is the look on Dean's face. That's what makes Sam go cold.

Brad laughs somewhere around Sam's collarbone. His breath filters up, damp and cloying.

Oh, God. Dean's face. "Touch him," Dean says, "and I will send each and every one of you to Hell myself. And trust me, you aren't going to like what's down there."

The part of Sam's mind that snarled on that doesn't involve money is spinning in a tight little circle. His heart is beating rapidly and his emotions are far below on the ground.

Dean turns to the bartender, shouting, "Are you just going to stand there and let this happen in your bar?"

The bartender shoves away from the wall. What's on his face is more than anger; it's hate. "You think you got a right to come in, find the people who can't afford to lose anymore, and take them for a ride? You think that's cute and funny? Someone warned us you'd be coming, and you're not getting away with it this time. So hell yes, I'm gonna let this happen in my bar."

Sam narrows his eyes. "Someone warned you about us?"

They've seen no one, talked to no one but waitresses and gas station attendants for days. No one should know that they're here. They didn't even know they were coming themselves until this morning.

Sam clears all of it to the back of his mind and looks over the room, mapping its contents to memory and cataloguing everything that can be used as a weapon. There are two clusters of four chairs. Dean's pinned by two men and the pool table blocks his escape. The cigarette machine behind Sam blocks his access to the pile of spare cues. A plywood-patched partition bottlenecks the backroom off from the front, and he's separated from his brother by a few yards and five guys. The same threat's paralyzing both him and Dean: the switchblade.

Dean looks directly at the man he lost the game to. "You really think this is going to end well for you?"

Eric pushes up his sleeves to expose a crude prison tattoo: an eightball. "I'm thinking that if we hold you down and let you watch us holding him down, you'll learn not to dish out more than you can take."

Yeah, time to be going, as far as Sam's concerned.

He looks down at Brad. "What's the matter, Brad? Melinda not putting out much these days?" He smiles tightly, flexing his wrist in Crewcut's grasp. "I guess one head's as small as the other."

Brad puts his face in Sam's. "What'd you say?"

"I said," Sam says deliberately, and head-butts him.

Brad reels away cursing. Crewcut's grip breaks with the forward jerk, and Sam follows up by driving his elbow hard backward and levering off the cigarette machine to wrench the man's arm back and up until he hears something tear. He sees Dean brace himself on the pool table and kick out against his opponents. The bartender bolts.

Sam starts after him. They can't take the chance that he doesn't keep a gun behind the bar. Brad steps into his path waving the switchblade. Sam knocks it from his hand with one kick and keeps going.

He sees Dean duck out of the corner of his eye: Eric's pulled a knife. Something cold and acid floods Sam's veins, and he charges Dean's second opponent. He reaches back for the Gerber in his waistband, starts to dip to hamstring the—

Pain crashes across his back, jarring deep. The wind leaves his body and his knees hit the floor. His knife is gone from his grasp, and he whirls to face the attack.

"Sammy!"

Sam hears the crunch of somebody hitting somebody else very hard as he shakes his head, trying to clear the black spots to the back of his vision. Crewcut is raising the thick end of the pool cue again.

John trained them never to lose themselves in a fight. Never to go too far past the event horizon to the point where they'd do anything, to the point where might not be able to stop. Seventy percent fire, thirty percent ice, he told them, and years later Sam heard a concert pianist visiting at Stanford say exactly the same thing. John trained them that way because the things they hunt twine themselves so much into normal human existence, because so many civilians wind up in the crossfire. But for all the emphasis their father placed on that lesson, they never really had a problem with it, except for when they hunted together.

The cue comes down. Sam twists and reaches. His left hand explodes with pain, but he manages to grab the stick and hang on. Astonishment spreads on the man's face. Sam smiles grimly, yanks, surges up, and drives the cue into the man's abdomen.

The scream is awful in its humanness. It's not fatal, but he's down. Distantly, Sam hears the voices: Jesus, oh, Jesus, man, oh, sweet Jesus, what the hell, what the hell? He rolls with the adrenaline surge and turns again toward his brother.

Dean's still trying to beat off Eric, who's Dean's height but far broader. The guy Sam tried to hamstring is shaking himself where he's stunned against the wall. Brad is scrabbling through the chairs, trying to find his switchblade and still saying, Oh, Jesus, what? The bartender comes running toward the backroom with a rifle in his hands. And Dean's in his path.

Sam shouts and vaults over the corner of the pool table before he knows he's moving.

Eric turns to meet Sam's attack. His head still snaps back under Sam's fist, but the force of the blow is compromised and he comes back with a punch of his own. As he goes flying back into one of the clusters of chairs, Sam sees Dean step into the doorway and lay the bartender out flat.

Wood clatters around him. It's stupidly loud.

"Brad, get your ass in here!"

Brad's shoes appear and disappear on the floor, running to assist Eric. Sam catches his foot and tries to flip him, but Brad stomps down on the hand that caught the pool cue and Sam can't hold back his cry. He lashes out blindly with a foot, connects with something that swears. Brad's boot drives into Sam's abdomen in retaliation.

Eric grabs him by the ankles and pulls him from the mess of broken chairs. As he slides over the dusty floor, Sam hears Dean's yell of pain and hears it cut off with the sound of breaking plywood. Dean, Sam tries to cry out, but he can't get his lungs working properly. There's a great crack, and Sam looks up to see Eric tossing aside the slender end of a pool cue, the sharp broken butt in his hand. He throws himself on Sam.

Sam twists away at the last moment. The broken cue scores over his ribs. He can feel a burning pain tear down his side and the deeper, wronger sensation of wood hitting bone. Warmth pours over his shirt—blood. He knocks Eric's hands away with his wrists and smashes his forehead into the man's nose, but Eric stays put. He stabs down with the pool cue again at the same moment that Sam plants his right foot in Eric's hip and tries to pivot out from under his body, and the wood gouges deep into Sam's left thigh.

Adrenaline makes the pain irrelevant and Sam keeps going, using the change in positions to shove Eric off of him and stumble to his feet. He trips over a chair and then Eric is there, checking him up against the cigarette machine.

"You little shit," Eric breathes against his ear. "You spoiled, thieving little—"

There's a hand on his belt buckle. It's preposterous. Sam's vision grays; Eric's arm is alongside his head and he can just make out the eightball tattoo looking back at him. Sam's hand scrabbles over the cigarette machine. He finds a knob, pulls, pulls hard, and he has something thin and metal in his hand. A spring falls to the floor. Sam reaches between his own legs and shoves the metal pin up into Eric's groin.

Eric's cry is hoarse. It's distant through the throb in Sam's ears, like all sounds are, like his own skin is. Sam twists out from underneath his attacker and laces his fingers in the man's hair. In that moment, he is just a man, just a body, nameless. Sam drives the head into the object in front of him as hard as he can.

A knob goes through Eric's skull.

Sam stares down at the body in his hands. Blood spiders out from the patch of glistening dark in the forehead, and the eyes are wide and rounded. The place seems quiet all of a sudden. As he watches, the lips part in reflex. It looks like some unreal slow motion effect.

"Sam!"

Sam turns to his brother, wide-eyed. Eric's still hanging in his hands. Dean's clutches at the back of his neck as he stumbles toward Sam. The rest of the men are on the floor. Some are moving, some aren't.

Dean's hand closes on Sam's arm, and Sam blanches with nausea. "Come on, Sammy, time to go."

Sam doesn't move.

Dean looks down at the body, and after one blink, his face closes off. He grabs Eric by the collar of his sheepskin vest and tosses him away like garbage. Sam flinches at the thunk he makes when he hits the cigarette machine and flops to the floor.

"Time to go, Sam."

Dean threads his arms under Sam's shoulders and hauls them both through the bar to the door. Dean's bleeding; Sam can smell it. Cold air washes over them and the sky is leaden gray.

Leaving Sam at the passenger door, Dean runs around to the driver's side and wrenches the door open. "We've got to move, we don't know whether the bartender called the cops. Get the hell in!"

Sam is shaking. "I didn't—I didn't mean to kill him," he says, dazed.

Dean slams his palm against the hood, making Sam jump. His eyes are hard. "If you hadn't, I would've. You understand me, Sam?"

"Yeah," Sam whispers.

"Good. Get in the car."

Sam manages to get the door open with his good hand and collapses into the passenger seat. The driver's side door slams shut after his; the Impala's engine roars to life. Gravel sprays under the tires as Dean turns them onto the road.

Dean swipes the sleeve of his leather jacket under his bloody nose and looks over at Sam. "How bad, Sammy?"

Sam swallows. "Could ask you the same question. They knocked you out?"

"Shut up and answer me. How badly did they get you?"

Humiliation burns Sam's face. He looks down at his hands, flexes them. The left one barely moves. "Think they broke my hand. Again."

"Forget that, where are you bleeding from? Is that—? Jesus, Sam!"

Dean's right hand is feeling over Sam's leg while Dean tries to keep his eyes on the road. "Knife?" Dean asks, voice a little high.

"Pool cue," says Sam, and grins irrelevantly.

Dean swears and retracts his hand from Sam's leg to pull instead at his belt buckle. Before Sam can ask what the hell, Dean whips the thing off and dumps it in Sam's lap. "Snap out of it and put a tourniquet on," he says. "We're getting off the road."

The words ground Sam. The contours of the surrounding world sharpen when Dean has a plan, whether Sam agrees with it or not. As he wraps the belt around his upper thigh and cinches it, he asks, "Getting off the road? Where the hell are we going to go, Dean?"

Dean banks left onto a dirt road. "Back the way we came. I saw an abandoned construction site on our way up from Cuba, there's a trailer there. We can hole up for a while."

"What? Dean, no, we've got to keep moving."

"We're not doing jack until you're patched up."

"But—"

"My head's ringing and you're ruining the upholstery. We're getting off the road, Sam."

Sam remembers the site. Off the gravel county route there's a stillborn subdivision, construction halted with one house begun and a lot of pink marker tape fluttering in the wind. Piñon pines dot the sage scrub, dark patches of green against the taupe and gray. Snow whips past the windshield as they drive up the access road in a plume of dust. If they're lucky, enough will fall to obscure their tire tracks. If they're lucky, they'll get away with this. Sam will get away with this.

The construction office trailer is at the top of a ridge, visible from the road. Dean parks behind it, leaves Sam in the car as he goes to the trunk for sleeping bags and their duffles, and jogs up the wooden steps built to the trailer. He bends to pick the lock rather than forcing it, dumps the bags inside, and heads back for Sam. He stumbles on his way there, catching himself on the hood of the Impala and puking right on the ground next to the wheel. Sam means to get out and help him, he does, but the world is syrupy-slow and Dean's wiping his mouth and staggering to his feet by the time Sam's right leg figures out how to work independently of his left.

Creak. The passenger door opens to admit the ozone smell of the snow and there's Dean crouching there. "C'mon, I gotcha, I gotcha." Sam grunts as Dean wraps an arm around his waist and pulls him out of the car.

He's sweating in the snow. Hypovolemia, his brain supplies. His limbs feel heavy as he navigates the steps.

Dean pushes the door open and fumbles for a light switch. Miraculously, it's hooked up to something. Overhead illumination shows a couch, bits of equipment, and a broad plywood desk still littered with schematics. Dean lets Sam down on the couch and reaches into an inner pocket of his jacket for a bandana. For the first time, Sam can see the blood darkening a patch of Dean's tee shirt.

"Stay here, keep pressure on that other thing. I'll be right back."

"Gimme a look at your wound first," Sam says, holding the bandana to his side and pushing unsteadily to his feet. Pain flares from his ribs at every movement.

Dean catches his wrists. "Trust me, it's on my to-do list. Now lie the hell down and put your feet up."

Sam hasn't got the energy to waste on arguments. He obeys.

Outside, there's a sound he can't readily identify and he looks out the trailer's back window to see Dean pulling a tarp over the Impala. There's a few more bumps and rattles, and then Dean comes back through the door hauling pieces of dust-caked plywood, favoring his left arm way too much. He covers the back window and the two on the front, drags a file cabinet in front of the door, and starts methodically unpacking their stuff.

There's a long silence. Sam doesn't really notice it, trying to focus on breathing around the pain in his ribs, until Dean looks up from the items spread on the floor.

"Where's Dad's journal?" Dean asks.

"What?"

"Dad's journal, Sam, where the hell is it?"

Sam pushes himself up on his elbows. "You had it. You always carry it."

"You didn't—?"

"No!"

Sam stares at his brother as Dean sits back on his haunches. "Those guys," Sam says. "They knew we were coming, they even knew we were brothers. They said—"

"Someone warned them. Someone set us up." Dean stands, turns in a circle, and throws his fist into the wall.

The world tilts as Sam puts his feet on the floor. "The guys in the bar, they have to know something. We might get to them before the cops do."

Dean whips around. "Are you nuts? We're not going back there. Hell, you're not going anywhere!"

"We can't just leave the thing out there. Dad had notes about the yellow-eyed demon in there, about all kinds of things. We need it and God knows what whoever took it wants it for!"

Dean comes over and plants Sam back on the couch. "You think I'm planning to leave it?" His mouth is a grim line. "Later, Sam." His face softens slightly, and Sam can see the fear circulating under his anger. "Just… let me take care of you first, all right? Okay?"

Involuntarily Sam's muscles are relaxing, letting him sink into the couch. It's way too short for him. "Promise you'll take care of yourself, too."

"Yeah, I promise. Now, c'mon, help me out."

Dean tugs at his clothes and Sam manages to get out of his shirts, hissing at the protest from his ribs and as the fabric comes away from the gash down his side. Dean gets him stripped down to his boxers and resecures the tourniquet. Sam shivers.

"Don't suppose there's heat?"

Dean shakes his head and draws one of the sleeping bags over the right side of Sam's body. The slick fabric sticks to the clammy sweat on Sam's skin, but it's soft and starts to warm.

Out come the medical gloves. Sam reaches over and snags the first aid bag, extracting the rubbing alcohol squeeze bottle of saline.

"You know this is going to suck, right?" Dean asks conversationally. He's wiping at the wound on Sam's leg with gentleness that belies the gruffness of his tone.

Sam holds his head up and glares at him. "I got stabbed with a pool cue, Dean. I know."

"Just checking." Sam hears him draw his breath in. "This is nasty, Sam."

"Tell me about it."

Dean hesitates with the forceps and gauze in his hands. "You want a drink first?"

"Do we have anything to drink?"

"Not really, no."

Sam laughs despite himself and then regrets it as the pain in his back and ribs makes his eyes water. Dean reaches out to palpate gently over his torso, opening his mouth as if to say something. But he doesn't. There's just his hands moving carefully over Sam's skin. Apparently satisfied that there are no compound fractures, Dean wordlessly moves on.

The first squirt of saline in the stab wound feels like acid. Sam makes no sound because no matter what Dean might say he's never been a goddamned pussy, and even Dean hasn't meant it the times he's said it. Sam's faintly aware that he's checking out a bit.

Dean picks up the forceps with his right hand and tries to hold the leg wound open with his left, but it trembles. "They wing you?" Sam asks softly.

He gets one of Dean's tense, I'm-invincible-but-not-really smiles. "Got my wrist stomped on; starting to stiffen up. I'll get it looked at in a state or two and we'll get your hand x-rayed. Give me your right for now and hold this thing open. You're gonna to have to pull your weight, here. Some of it, anyway, you freak of nature."

Sam smiles a little, not because he feels like it but because he knows it's his cue, and he can see a little of the tension run out of Dean as soon as he does. He parts the edges of his wound with his good hand and grits his teeth.

Really, it isn't the pain that gets you with wounds like these. He and Dean agreed on this one rainy night while lying under musty quilts in the loft of the cabin they squatted in when Sam was sixteen. Passing the coveted flask Dean had snuck up there between them, talking in hushed voices while John slept, they established beyond a doubt that it was additional sensations that came with somebody digging around in your flesh that were the kicker: the pressure, the prodding, the friction of removing foreign bodies, the forceps slipping and jabbing you in a deep bit that didn't need jabbing. Dean was the one who'd just been through the routine that night, sipping the whiskey on top of a Vicodin to numb the ache that usually sets in a couple hours after stitching a wound like that closed, and he was magnanimous, sharing with Sam swig for swig.

Sam watches Dean work now. The watery yellow sodium light softens his face, smudging his eyes with shadow as he works, completely absorbed in his task. The set of his mouth is loose and faintly unhappy.

Not quite a perfect façade, Sam reminds himself.

The wound on the outside of his thigh gets closed up. Sam and Dean move their good hands in slow concert to draw and tie off each knot. The instant the tourniquet comes off, the wound begins to throb. Sam's shaking. Dean lets him have some water, then pretends to drink his fair share and gives Sam the rest. The whole laborious process begins again with the gash scored down Sam's left side. Irrigation, disinfection, splinter removal, more irrigation, more disinfection, and then sutures, lots of them. Sam loses count….

Dean smacks him. Pretty hard, damn it. Sam shakes himself. "The hell did you do that for?" he asks, bewildered.

Dean cups Sam's cheek in his hand, fingers pressing hard and eyes serious. "Stay awake, Sammy. I know you're in shock, but I need your help with this. Sleep after, man."

With—? Oh, right. Sam blinks, and the sluggishness and nausea retreat slightly.

They tie off another knot. Black sutures look so ugly, Sam has always thought. Like decay or super-dark scabs.

"What do they want it for, do you think?" he asks quietly. "Whoever took it?"

Dean looks up. "No idea, Sam." He threads the curved needle through.

"It'd have to be another hunter, right? Maybe somebody saw us with it at the Roadhouse."

Dean's attention is wholly on the stitches. "That'd be my guess."

Silence for a few. "Do you think someone would pay for something like that?"

"I don't know, Sam."

Dean has his own theory; Sam can see it in his eyes. Why Dean won't tell him, he doesn't know, and he's too drained to guess. His mouth is parched, his bones feel like gelatin, everything hurts, and he's dimly aware of the fact that he's breathing more shallowly and rapidly than healthy people generally do. But these things will pass: he's been here before. They both have.

Dean's fingers press gently but firmly into his neck, shockingly warm. Sam hears him breathe out in relief. "Okay, Sleeping Beauty, gimme a hand splinting this so we can both call it a night. It's frigging cold and I want my damned sleeping bag."

Sam sits up very slowly, following the pressure of Dean's hands as he has all his life. He leans forward with his head between his knees while Dean sits Indian-style on the floor and, between the two of them, they get the livid blue of Dean's left wrist bound and splinted under white. Dean strips off his shirt with a grimace, craning his neck for a look at the knife graze on his forearm. It's shallow enough to clean out and bandage as-is, but it's not what Sam's worried about. There's an ugly goose egg on Dean's forehead, mottled purple and still oozing blood. Dean jumps about half a mile when Sam reaches out and swipes it with an alcohol-soaked bit of gauze.

Laughing hurts his ribs, but Sam can't help himself. It's survivor's euphoria as much as anything else. Dean scowls at him and snatches the gauze back. "Dude, not funny."

"You only say that because you couldn't see the look on your face." Sam sobers. "You have a concussion."

"Brilliant deduction, Dr. House."

"So you don't think we should do something about that?"

Dean just looks tired and irritable. "Unless you've got a hospital crammed up your ass somewhere, there's nothing to do, Sammy. I'll be fine. Had plenty of concussions before."

Sam knows it well; he just doesn't like being reminded of it. He has a momentary vision of his brother years from now, eyes dimmed and palsied like Muhammad Ali, and it's all he can do to hold back the bile that creeps up his throat.

It's still better than thinking about the fact that he killed a civilian today. No—not a civilian. "Civilian" is what his father would have said. He killed a person.

Dean spreads their sleeping bags out on the big plywood table; it's far too cold to risk sleeping on the floor and neither of them fits on the couch. Sam fidgets. Then he tries to quell his fidgeting.

He sags forward, eyes on the floor. "What are we going to do when we find out who took Dad's journal?" he bursts out finally.

The rustle of sleeping bags stops. After a moment's silence, Dean crosses to the couch, crouches down, wraps long fingers around Sam's jaw, and makes him look up. The cold anger on his face is almost a physical shock.

"When I find the son of a bitch who tried to feed us to those animals, I'm going to make sure that screwing with us was the last event of his life. That's just how it's going to be."

He's still holding Sam's gaze, and Sam feels pinned and spread open. The intensity of Dean's looking frightens him sometimes. Dean has always been the guy who showers all his attention on his dorky little brother, and Sam has always been at a loss as to why. It makes him feel awkward and small. Sam's an all right guy, he knows that. It's just that never in his life has he done anything to merit the kind of interest Dean fixes on him. While Sam loves his brother and would do things for him that he doesn't like to think about, when it comes to Dean, familial devotion is a whole other ball game. Some ball game Sam sucks at. It's like there's a part of Dean whose inner workings are cloaked to Sam, maybe forever, and for all the times he's tried to pull away and make them both some space of their own, that possibility scares him.

Since it seems to be the only thing to do, Sam just nods.

Dean helps him back into clothing and onto the pallet he's made up on the table, coaxing him to curl up on his right side in the recovery position. It's got to be early still, but there's no sense of time in the trailer with the windows blocked and Sam's exhausted. Dean, too. It's all there in the slope of his back.

Warmth is at a premium, so there's really no question about sharing blankets. The weight of a thousand childhood memories of sleeping next to Dean press down on Sam in the dimness as Dean slips his .45 under the cushion he stole from the couch and joins him.

They lie side by side for a long while, each silently nursing his own wounds. Sam feels like he's sinking down into the table, draining away through the floor and into the soil. He can tell Dean's still awake by his breathing.

"We shouldn't hustle people who don't have anything left," Sam says to the ceiling.

It's a few moments before Dean shifts and turns over to face Sam. "Don't you even goddamn start that."

He looks angry, and Sam isn't naïve enough to think that some of that anger isn't for him even if the deeper fury has a different object. They can both piss each other off like no one else on Earth. "Do what?" Sam says through his teeth.

"Start with the blaming yourself or the guilt or the rationalizing it or whatever pop psych trauma crap this is. It wasn't your fault. You were defending yourself."

Sam clenches his jaw and looks anywhere but at Dean. Some ex-cons tried to gang rape him, he killed someone, and he can't work out whose is the greater sin and the moral calculus is making him dizzy. He needs to know, too. He needs to be able to tote up his failings against those inherent in the circumstances and know where he stands. He doesn't know why. He just does.

Anyway, Dean's wrong. It isn't that he feels guilty, or even bad, really. Eric was the kind of human being whose takeaway lesson from prison had been that rape is how to punish someone and bring them to heel, and Sam can't bring himself to be sorry that he's no longer in the world. It's more a sense somewhere in him that a line has been crossed and that however subtle the differences on the other side, there's no reversing them.

Dean's eyes search his face for a few moments longer. There's a whisper against the sleeping bag fabric as Dean starts to reach out under the covers, but draws back. "Go to sleep, Sammy." He turns back over, away from Sam.

Sam lets his eyes slip shut and tries to let his mind slip into white noise. Dean's back is a warm barrier before him. Even when they're sleeping on a damned table, Dean still puts himself between Sam and the door. Most of the time, that annoys Sam—rather, it annoys him on the rare occasions when he thinks about it. Tonight, he's grateful.