"You're the one, Sam. You're my vessel. My true vessel."

Sam paced across the room, staggering as Lucifer's words echoed in his mind, over and over again.

Oh god…This wasn't happening. It couldn't happen! He came to a stop in the middle of the room, chewing on a knuckle, frantically trying to think of a way out, a loophole to what Lucifer had told him. Even death wouldn't be an escape, not if Lucifer was telling the truth about being able to bring him back; and Sam had a sick feeling that he was.

He ran a hand through his hair, his eyes falling on the cell phone sitting on the dresser. Dean…

And that was all he needed to think as he reached for the phone. Dean would know what to do. Dean would help. It didn't matter if they'd gone their separate ways, Dean couldn't refuse to help him with this. Not when he himself was facing the same issue with Lucifer's older brother.

"What?" Came Dean's groggy voice, and Sam automatically felt better.

"Dean! Dean, I need your help…"

"Sam?" Dean was a little more alert this time. "What's wrong?"

"I had…a dream, or a hallucination or something. Lucifer…" He broke off, his chest heaving, spots dancing across his eyes.

"Sam! Calm down!"

Sam jerked back, clinging to the obvious worry he heard in Dean's voice. It would be okay. They would be okay. There was no way they wouldn't be when Dean sounded like that.

"What…what about Lucifer?" Dean asked when Sam's ragged breathing had finally calmed.

"He said…Dean, he said I was his vessel."

There was silence on the line after that statement. Sam chewed his lip, waiting for it to sink in. The soft curse that came next freed Sam to continue. "I can't do this by myself, Dean. I…I can't. I need your help. Please. We can…we can look for the Colt and go after the devil. Please."

More silence.


"Sam, I can't…" One simple denial, spoken like it was both the easiest and hardest thing Dean had ever said.

"No. Dean, please…" Dean couldn't turn him down. Not now, not when Lucifer was trying to use him. But when his brother's voice came again, it was tired and hopeless and just as damning.

"Sam, I tried, man. But I can't do it. I can't focus when we hunt together and I just don't trust you to watch my back anymore. I'm sorry, Sam. I just…can't."

It was so easy to picture his brother's expression, to see him shaking his head as he refused to give Sam another chance. His legs gave out at the unexpected loss of support, and he sank to the floor.


And for some reason, Sam started to laugh. Nothing was funny. But he still laughed, a dark chuckle falling from his lips that sounded nothing like him. He shook his head, eyebrows lifting. "So, you stayed by me when I was hopped up on demon blood, giving me second chances that I know I didn't deserve; but when I'm clean, and trying to do the right thing…you say no?" His smile was bitter as he huffed.


And still, he could hear Dean's concern. It just made his rejection that much harder to bear. He cleared his throat, sobering quickly. "No. I got it. It's okay." It wasn't okay. How could it be? Lucifer was targeting Sam, and Dean was refusing to help. They were both being targeted by angels, but they weren't working together. It hit him, with sudden, awful clarity that he was talking to Dean for the last time. His brother had just shut him out when Sam needed him the most. He didn't blame him, couldn't blame him. But it hurt…

There had been hope, when he and Dean had decided to split up, that it wouldn't last forever. That was the only way Sam had been able to leave, knowing that once he put himself back together again, he would get back with his brother. That safety net, that brighter spot at the end of this…this hell…had just been torn from him.

He closed his eyes, gathering his strength. He would give Dean what he needed one last time. "Never mind. I, uh…I'm…" I love you. I'm sorry. He shook his head in frustration as the words he wanted to say refused to come. They would have fallen on deaf ears, anyway. "Just…good luck, Dean." Goodbye.

He hung up, staring across the room blindly. The silence stretched, the ticking of the cheap alarm clock slowly driving him insane. The truth was painfully easy to see now. Sam needed Dean, but Dean…Dean didn't need him. Not anymore.

The only thing Sam had left now was to find the Colt, on his own, and try to kill the devil. It was a long shot and it might not work, but if that were true—well, he wasn't completely out of options. The Colt was a very powerful weapon. It was more than capable of killing one human soul. Lucifer wouldn't be able to bring him back from that.

Even though the two hunters had promised revenge before they left the bar, Sam couldn't bring himself to take the time to travel more than a few towns away. All he could think about was starting his search, about which avenues he would need to seek out in order to find a lead on the Colt. He was so focused on what he needed to do that his own safety was no longer a concern. He did take the time to make one more personal phone call to Bobby before he settled into his search, however, since the older man needed to know that the rules of the game had changed yet again.

"The hunters came back, too." Sam quickly filled Bobby in on what had happened with the hunters' return. "They tried to get me to drink…" He trailed off when he realized someone was eavesdropping. At first, Sam's eyes had slid right across the man, but as soon as the expression on the man's face registered, his eyes snapped back to him. It was one of those religious fanatics who had camped out on the sidewalk, waving around pamphlets about the end of the world. The man had frozen mid-flourish, pamphlets hanging limply in his hand as he stared at Sam in wide-eyed shock.

"Did you?" Bobby asked when the silence stretched.

"Hold on," Sam murmured, narrowing his eyes at the man until he turned and walked away.


"Uh, sorry." He shook himself before answering Bobby's first question. "No, I didn't drink it. I just spit it out."

"Good." Sam couldn't blame Bobby for the relief he heard in that one word. "I want you to check in with me, Sam. Bad enough you're on your own right now with Lucifer, but with hunters on your tail, too…"

"I'll be fine, Bobby. I'm going to be out of sight for the next few days doing some research anyways. I'm just out getting supplies right now."

"You're gonna call me every day," Bobby reiterated and Sam gave a small smile. It was nice, that Bobby was trying to watch his back for him.

"Yeah, alright."

Wasn't like he had Dean to do it anymore.

"Good. You idjits always do things the hard way," Bobby muttered as he hung up the phone.

This was just like every other hunt, doing research on the monster and on the weapons needed to kill it. Once Sam returned to his motel room and put down his bags, however, he could only stand there, utterly lost as he looked around the empty room. Usually Dean would be puttering around, doing research of his own or cleaning weapons while Sam worked; and if he wasn't there, then he was out talking to witnesses, a simple phone call away from Sam. Dean wasn't there now, and it harked back to those awful months where he hunted on his own because he had to, because he was the last Winchester.

He shoved a hand through his hair as if to push the memories back, turning in a circle as he looked at the empty room again. He came to a stop when he saw his computer, tilting his head as he found himself suddenly focused. The fear and loneliness slid away, and all that was left were the facts. Lucifer was free, Sam needed to kill him, and for that, he needed to find the Colt. It was another job, that was all.

He lost track of time when he settled in to start working. He had always been able to lose himself in research, but Dean had always made sure he stopped to eat or take a nap… He clenched his jaw, fingers flying across the keyboard with more force than was necessary. The sudden ringing of his cell phone startled him. He grabbed it quickly, his heart thudding painfully as hope made a reappearance. Dean…But no, it was Bobby, and Sam tried to swallow his disappointment as he answered the phone. "Bobby? Everything okay?"

"Shouldn't I be asking you that, boy? You didn't call."

Sam looked at the clock in surprise. He hadn't even realized what time it was. Apparently, he'd worked through the night and late into the morning. "Sorry, man. I didn't realize…" He shook his head and trailed off.

Bobby grunted. "Yeah, I figured. Just don't get so caught up in your research that you forget to take care of yourself, alright? I don't feel like coming out there to kick your ass because you worked yourself sick."

Sam snorted. "I won't."

Bobby hummed skeptically. "I'll be expecting your call first thing tomorrow morning, kid. No excuses. And for crying out loud, would you take a break and eat something?"

Sam promised to do both before he hung up, both grateful and annoyed. It wasn't Bobby's job to make sure he ate, it was…

After Dean had died, Sam had resented Bobby for that, too—for checking on him and making sure he was taking care of himself. It was another reminder that Dean wasn't there, that Dean would never watch over him again.

He pushed to his feet with a groan, sitting in front of the computer for hours on end with no break was never a smart idea, and dug out a granola bar.

"You're the one Sam. You're my vessel. My true vessel."

"I'm sorry, Sam. I just…can't."

A little over a year later, and he was pretty much back in the same place, wasn't he?

He tilted his head when he heard a noise at the door.

It took him a moment to recognize the noise as someone breaking in, but when he did, he was lunging for his gun with a curse. He wasn't fast enough. Two hunters burst through the door before he could reach his weapon and pointed their guns at him. Sam came to a stop, glaring at them.

"Hey there, Sammy-boy. Miss us?"

"Tim. Ritchie." He clenched his hands into fists, jaw working in anger. "You sure you want to do this again? It didn't go so well for you last time."

The two hunters took another step into the room, and Ritchie shut the door.

"It's interesting, Sam. Me and Ritchie were out having a beer last night when we ran into this guy. He said his name was Zachariah."

Sam felt his stomach drop.

"Said the darndest thing—we thought he was lying," Tim said, gesturing between himself and Ritchie. "Who knew that angels really existed? But he kept talking and…we were convinced. Pretty quickly, actually."

"What did he say?" Sam asked, his voice cold as he kept a tight rein on his emotions.

"We won't bore you with all of the details," Ritchie said. "But we did come up with a deal. One that will benefit everyone."

"Do tell," Sam said, shifting a step closer to his gun.

"Don't," Ritchie said, waving his own weapon at Sam in warning.

"Actually, Zachariah said he needed to find your brother. He said Dean was the only one who could stop the Apocalypse, but he was refusing to step up to the plate," Tim said. "Not sure why an angel couldn't find him, but he made us an offer. Get you to tell us where your brother is, and he would bring Steve back."

"Steve wouldn't want that," Sam said quickly.

"Don't!" Ritchie's outburst made Sam flinch. "Don't you tell us what Steve would want. You have no right!"

"He told us where to find you, and all he wants is the location of your brother," Tim said, giving Sam a chilling smile. "And when you tell us, we have another experiment we'd like to try."

He pulled out a vial of red liquid. Demon blood. Again. Sam took an unconscious step back. "Guys…"

"So, Sam. All you have to do is tell us where Dean is and drink a little blood. Think you can manage it?" Ritchie asked, taking a step forward.

There was no question. He would not sell out his brother.

"Walk out now, before you regret this," Sam warned them one last time.

"Oh good, you're not going to make this easy," Tim said, as his smile grew.

Sam jerked, a hand flying to his neck to finger the dart that had just pierced him. It had been a tranq gun...He fell to the floor as he tried to take a step back. The last thing he saw before the blackness covered his vision was a boot coming right toward his face.

Dean fell back on the bed with a weary sigh, eyes closing with fatigue. Another hunt successfully finished, another death of an innocent avoided, and Dean felt just as empty as he did when he watched Sam walk away at the rest stop. His phone started to ring and he pried an eye open to see the screen. Bobby. He stifled a groan. Who wanted to bet the old man was calling because he'd heard about Dean's refusal to partner up with Sam? He was not in the mood to have Bobby try and talk him into joining up with his brother.

Dean had become the consummate hunter in the short time he and Sam had been apart. He didn't have to worry about his little brother getting into trouble, didn't need to worry that Sam was keeping any secrets from him that might jeopardize a hunt…And if it sounded like he was trying to convince himself, well, twenty-some years of hunting together was a hard habit to break, but he would. Dean was nothing if not persistent.

"Hey, Bobby. What's going on?"

"I think your brother's in trouble."

Dean grimaced. "He tell you about Lucifer?"

"Yeah, and about the hunters that came after him."

Dean sat up in the bed, his eyes hard. "What hunters?"

"I sent Richie, Tim, and Steve out on a hunt when your brother called me with some information about a demon hotspot. Turns out Steve didn't make it and that the demons told them a little story about your brother."

Dean closed his eyes and shook his head. Unbelievable…

"They went back to find your brother, a little too keen on testing the demon blood theory. Sam fought 'em off, but they promised they'd return."

"Bobby…" Dean broke off, rubbing at his face in exhaustion. He was so tired of this—of Sam getting into trouble and Dean having to fix it. He didn't have it in him to fix anything anymore. But this was Sam, Dean's little brother, and no matter what the kid did, he would always love him, always try to make things better for him. Even their separation right now was Dean's way of giving Sam what he thought the kid needed to heal.

"Don't you 'Bobby' me!" he shot back. "I told your brother to check in with me once a day. I talked to him yesterday morning, but I haven't heard peep from him all day today. He's not answering his phone and I've got a bad feeling about this."

Dean looked at the clock, wincing when he saw how late it was. Yeah, Dean had a bad feeling about this now, too. "Alright. I'll-"

The sudden arrival of Cas made Dean jump. "Jeez, Cas!"

"I have bad news."

"Yeah? When don't you have bad news?"

The angel ignored the question. "Zachariah has your brother," he replied.

"What? How?" He surged to his feet, and then hesitated. He was ready to leave, to find Sam...but he didn't know where to go. He didn't even know where Sam had been.

The angel dipped his head. "I should amend my statement. Zachariah found your brother and made a deal with two hunters to get your location out of him."

Dean floundered, mouth opening and closing, staring at Cas as the words sunk in. Sam had been taken because of him?

"Dean, what the hell is going on?" Bobby demanded over the phone, pushing Dean into action.

"Bobby, I'm going to have to call you back." Ignoring the older man's protest, he hung up the phone. "How did he find him?" He demanded, glaring at Cas.

"An evangelist caught sight of your brother and prayed to Zachariah."


"From what I am hearing, your brother was taken yesterday."

"Do you know where he is?"

Cas shook his head. "No, I do not."

And with that, he ran out of questions, his mind going blank for one immeasurably long, fear-filled moment. Dean paced the small room, hands clenching and unclenching as he forced himself to think. His brother hadn't been taken because of Lucifer. He'd been taken because of Dean. If Dean had just said yes to his brother when he called freaking out about being Lucifer's meat suit, Sam would be safe.

"Okay." He rubbed his face again as he pushed aside his worry to focus on the problem. "Okay, we need a plan."

It didn't take long to come up with one. What took time, almost sixteen hours of time, was putting that plan into action. Tracking Sam's cell phone was useless. It just pointed them to the same motel that Bobby had already told them Sam was staying in. A visit to the motel was equally useless, since it only proved that Sam, and the hunters, were no longer there. That, and someone had left the room bleeding. Dean crouched beside the droplets of blood, his head bowing as his fears were confirmed. It might not belong to Sammy, but Dean wasn't holding out hope.

If it wasn't Sam's now…it would be.


"Sam, I can't…"

"No." There was absolute devastation in that one word. Like all of Sam's hope had been ripped away with Dean's denial.

"Dean, please." He had been begging. Begging. And still Dean said 'no.'

"We shouldn't linger," Cas said from his position near the door. "Not if Zachariah thinks you will come looking for your brother."

It was a gamble, him being in the same town Sam had disappeared from, but it was a risk Dean was willing to take, at least until they had an idea of where Sam was.

Dean nodded at the comment and pushed to his feet. "The motel has video surveillance. Maybe it caught what vehicle they left in."

It had, and Dean was able to piece together which direction the hunters had traveled in from that video and a few stoplight images. The local police station had been more than willing to work with two out-of-town detectives looking for a lucky break on their case.

Getting the videos and photos was the easiest part of the plan, but they only provided a general direction in which to begin searching. It took much longer for Dean and Cas to find where Tim and Ritchie might have holed up with Sam. Dean was thanking…Somebody…that Zachariah had used the hunters, because Dean could track them. If Zachariah had decided to get his already soiled angel wings even dirtier and take Sam himself, then there was no telling where Sam might have disappeared to.

They finally narrowed it down to the forest west of the small town. It sported several hunting cabins that offered Ritchie and Tim all the seclusion that they needed. Now came the tricky part, and the part that Dean fought against the most. If Zachariah had done this to find Dean, then there was every possibility that he was watching over the cabin, waiting for Dean to come looking for his brother. Dean could not go anywhere near those cabins, couldn't even stay in the same town, because Zachariah might be able to track him down. And he needed to go with Cas, because Sam…because Sam had been taken. Because Sam needed him.

"We've been over this," Cas said, the slightest hint of exasperation in his voice. "I have a better chance of checking each of the cabins in that area, finding Sam, and getting him out without Zachariah stopping me."

"I know," Dean said, trying to convince himself. He turned away from the angel, running his hands through his hair in frustration, pacing the motel room that he'd checked into. It was five towns away from where Sam had been taken and the first room he'd gotten in the last couple of weeks that had a double bed. "I just—" he turned back around to explain his hesitation, to argue against being left behind, and froze when he realized the angel had already left. "Guess I'll wait here," he finished to himself.

He checked his watch as he started to pace again. "Any moment now…" Each second that went by felt like an eternity, because each second was another chance that he and Cas might not find Sam, that they were looking in the wrong place for him. If they came up empty here, Dean had no clue where to begin looking again. As crappy of a lead as this was, it was the only one they had.

"Dean," Cas called a long three minutes after Dean had restarted his frantic pacing.

Dean spun around to see Cas supporting a bound, bleeding, unconscious Sam. "Sammy," he ground out, immediately reaching for his brother to help Cas settle him on the bed. Dean cast a critical eye over his brother, assessing his injuries before he spoke to the waiting angel. "I've got this."

The angel nodded at Dean before disappearing again. He would be keeping track of Tim and Ritchie, per Dean's request. They wouldn't be getting away with this.

Dean turned back to his brother, sorrow turning the corners of his mouth down. A surprising amount of damage had been done to him in a short amount of time. He cut the rope that bound Sam's wrists and ankles together, stomach clenching as he carefully peeled it away from the bleeding, torn skin. He was bruised, cut, and burned, and—Dean swallowed, brushing his fingers gently across the next injury—there were rope burns around his neck.

Hunters had done this. People that he and Sam had been friendly with in the past. They had hurt his brother. His brother.

Dean carefully began cleaning and bandaging the wounds, his blood boiling a little more with each injury he took care of. Sam's breathing hitched and Dean paused, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder and calling for him.


Sam flinched, trying to pull away from Dean and lacking the strength to do so. His face twisted with the agony that came with a return to consciousness. "I won't," came his hoarse, broken whisper. "I won't. I won't."

"Won't what?" Dean asked, pitching his voice lower and softer in hopes of calming his brother. He already had a good idea what Sam was refusing to do.

"I won't tell you where he is. I won't. You'll never…never make me talk. Never."

Sam didn't know where Dean had been. They hadn't been talking and Bobby would only have been able to give Sam a rough idea of what area Dean was in. Sam would not have been able to tell the hunters where Dean was. But his answer to the two men was I won't. Not I can't, but I won't.

"Sammy," Dean said, needing to clear his throat several times before he could even get the name out. "Sammy, it's me. It's Dean. It's okay, man. You're safe now."

But Sam was already gone, his face smoothing once more with oblivion. Dean let his hand ghost across the top of his brother's head. The apology he wanted to give him never got past the lump in his throat. Instead, he returned to bandaging his little brother, fixing him the only way he could.

It took Sam a long time to find his way to consciousness, but Dean knew the exact moment he slipped from sleep to semi-awareness. He stayed silent, knowing how confusing it would be for Sam to wake up and not wanting to startle him. Sam's ability to sense things would probably return first, like feeling a soft bed beneath him instead of whatever surface he had gotten used to in the cabin, or the warm weight of a blanket covering him. Memory would be slow to return, since the mind tended to try and protect itself by pushing away any unpleasant memories for a later time. The pain he would most likely not be aware of until he tried to move.

Dean fidgeted in the chair when Sam seemed to settle into the in-between stage of unconsciousness and awareness for too long. "You gonna open your eyes anytime soon?" He finally asked, impatience getting the better of him. He spoke softly, but he still startled his brother, who flinched and groaned. Dean stood from his chair, his hands hovering uselessly over Sam's body. He didn't know where he could touch the kid that wouldn't hurt, and besides that, he wasn't sure Sam would recognize the hands touching him as being friendly and non-threatening, of being Dean. Not yet, anyway.

Sam shook his head frantically. "I'm never gonna tell you."

The words were whisper soft, but there was no missing their steely undertones. It reached Dean in a way little else had the last few weeks.

"Sammy-" Dean started, pulling his hands away before he became too tempted to touch his brother.

"You don't get to call me that!" Sam spat, and Dean grimaced at the implications. It wasn't surprising that Sam felt he was still with Tim and Ritchie, but he needed to show Sam he was safe.

"Sammy, kiddo, open your eyes," he replied gently.

Sam's hands had been alternately clenching and unclenching the bedding, but the anxious movements stopped as confusion slid over his face. "Dean?"

Dean's face broke into the first real smile he had given in too long. "Yeah, man—it's me." Exhaustion and pain made it even easier for Dean to read Sam. His joy, when he opened his eyes and saw Dean, was undeniable, and Dean felt his heart twist a little.

"What…what are you doing here?" He asked, breathless and stunned, the beginnings of a smile gracing his lips.

It was wrong that Sam sounded so surprised to see him.

Dean avoided the question for the moment, reaching instead for the glass of water he'd put on the nightstand. He tilted the cup to Sam's lips, but Sam's trembling fingers grasped the cup and, after making sure he wouldn't spill it, Dean retreated, sitting back down in the chair.

"Bobby called me," he finally said as he took the cup and set it back down on the table. "Told me he thought you might be in trouble." He leaned his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together. He hesitated before asking the next question, not sure he wanted to know the answer. "You didn't tell me about the hunters."

Sam flinched again, and Dean's eyes narrowed, comprehension dawning too late.

"Right," he pursed his lips and looked away. Of course. He had told Dean about Lucifer and Dean hadn't given in to Sam's pleas to partner up again. Why would Sam believe that two rogue hunters would change his mind?

"How did you find me?" Sam asked after shifting uncomfortably.

Dean worked his jaw, torn between letting Sam change the subject and telling him he'd…what? Thought wrong? That Dean would have changed his mind?

He wasn't sure he would have.

For so long, Dean's priorities had been to watch over Sam and keep him safe. It had never been a one-way street though. Sam was just as protective of him as Dean was. This past year, however, had changed things between them.

His uncertainty over what he would have done made up his mind for him, and he answered Sam's question. "Bobby knew where you were staying," he said as he turned back to Sam. "Cas and I pulled video surveillance from the motel and traffic cams. We tracked you west of town and found a likely place where Tim and Ritchie might have holed up with you. Cas popped by each of the cabins in the area until he found you."

Sam frowned, squinting at Dean as if he were forgetting something important. He suddenly sat up, and then promptly folded over his stomach with a gasp. Dean winced, moving forward to push Sam back down on the bed.

"Dean!" Sam grabbed his shoulder. "You have to get out of here! Zachariah, h-he would have been watching! You have to go! He'll know you were the one to find me!"

This was unforgiveable to Sam, Dean knew, especially after Sam had gone to all of the trouble to not tell the hunters anything.

"It's okay, Sam. We're safe here," Dean soothed, feeling his heart twist even more as Sam continued to fight for him.

"Dean, they were looking for you!" Sam said, squeezing his shoulder. "You have to go!" Half of his words were cracking with the force with which he pushed them past his abused throat.

Dean stared, surprised by the level of urgency Sam was showing. When had Dean begun to believe the norm for both Sam and himself was giving up on the other? The question irritated him, and he responded a little more sharply than he intended. "Sam, it's okay!"

"No, Dean! You have to go!" He wrapped a hand around his ribs, face creased with pain but earnestly pleading for Dean to listen, for Dean to leave when Sam couldn't protect himself, because he was more concerned with Dean's safety than his own, and Dean snapped.

"Damn it, Sam! Would you just stop it?"

He went too far, he knew he had as soon as the words came out of his mouth. All emotion drained from Sam's face and his hand fell limply from Dean's shoulder. His eyes slowly lost their intense focus to become blank, empty, as he looked away from his brother.

"I don't know…" Sam started before trailing off, and Dean easily filled in the rest. What you want from me…what I did wrong this time…how to fix this.

Everything had been stripped from Sam. His brother—who had pulled away even as Sam finally asked for help; his control—by two hunters and an angel who had taken him to bend him to their will; and his self-assurance—from demon blood and Lucifer himself. He had nothing left. No pride, no one to lean on, no hope, nothing.

Sam's words had sounded empty, desolate, and it tore at Dean. He couldn't take anymore. Sam was his brother, his responsibility. His family. Dean would not let him slip away any further. He would not.

"Damn it, Sammy," he murmured, tossing away the last of his reservations. He was sitting on the edge of Sam's bed in the next instant, pulling him into an embrace. He tucked Sam's head into his neck and circled his arms around Sam's back, embracing him with careful desperation, because it was finally beginning to dawn on him what he had been so close to losing, to his own stubborn pride, to the hunters, to Zachariah, to Lucifer.

When Sam called him, he had offered Dean a way to bridge the gap between them without Dean actually having to do any work. He had been offering, in a way, another chance for them to become each other's priorities again. By refusing, Dean had turned his back on the very thing he wanted.

Sam remained limp in his grasp, either from shock or weariness, Dean didn't know. What he did know, was that it was time for him to offer to fill that gap between them.

"You listen to me, Sammy," he said, voice rough with all of the emotions that he had tried to hold at bay the last few weeks. Fear, anger, hurt, love. "I was wrong. I should never have turned my back on you. I told you before that I would always be there for you; I promised I would be, and I broke my promise. I'm sorry you got hurt, I'm sorry that they took you to find me, and I'm sorry…Sammy, I'm sorry." We both had to remember what was important. But not like this, not at the cost of one another. Never at the cost of one another.

Dean held his breath as he waited for Sam to say or do something, hoping he had managed to reach him. It took time, a long time, but when Sam finally wrapped his arms around him slowly, something inside him unclenched, the missing puzzle piece found at last, and he sighed in relief.

"It wasn't your fault," Sam whispered. "It never was. I didn't…I didn't even blame you for saying no. Everything you told me…I understood."

He still sounded hopeless, accepting all the blame for something he hadn't even started; and at the same time, forgiving Dean and forgetting his rejection. Dean moved his hand to the nape of Sam's neck and squeezed it gently, his eyes closing as his brother granted him absolution. "Neither of us was blameless," he said, because he couldn't accept it as freely as Sam offered it.

"I'm sorry, Dean. I…I don't know…" Again he trailed off, but this time Dean answered him.

"I know, man. I know. We'll figure it out."

It took a moment, his brother's usually quick mind slow with fatigue and pain, but when he gave a shuddering breath of gratefulness and tightened his grasp on the back of Dean's shirt, he knew Sam had caught his promise. They would figure it out. Together.

Dean held on to him as Sam grew heavy against him in slumber, but when his hands slipped free from their desperate grip, Dean slowly lowered him back down to the bed. He drew the blanket over him, smoothing out the wrinkles before he settled back down in the chair to keep watch.

It was his turn to protect his brother.

AN: Yes, I know it's AU as of the next episode. My excuse is that I watched these seasons after they came out, so any ideas that I had became moot as soon as I popped in the next dvd! :) I can't resist writing out my ideas, though, and I hope you all enjoyed. I would love hearing your feedback on this story! My thanks again to TotallyLosingIt for reading this over for me. Have a happy Labor Day weekend!