Mirror Image

NOW:

Bobby Singer stood at the window, watching silently as a cloud of dust, accompanied by the low, distinctive growl of the Impala, moved up his drive and stopped at his front door. He reached for the doorknob at the same instant as the driver exited the muscle car and bounded up his front steps.

"Bobby, man, I was worried," Dean said as he reached the porch. "I've been calling you all day."

"I know." Bobby stopped in the doorway, effectively blocking the entrance. "It's my phone. I answer it when I feel like it."

Dean paused, a bewildered look crossing his features. "Who pissed in your cornflakes this morning, old man?"

"You wanna just skip the sweet talk and get down to why you're here?"

Dean glanced down to the older hunter's side, where a shotgun gripped in his hand rested against Bobby's right hip. "You wanna tell me why you brought that to the party?"

"I think you know." Bobby raised the weapon, and Dean stepped back off the porch.

Dean frowned, hands raised in submission. "I've been looking for Sam since yesterday. I traced his cell here, but he ain't answering, and then you stop answering your damned phone. I thought something had happened here; been driving all night. And now you pull a gun on me? What the hell, Bobby?"

"I suggest," Bobby growled, "And I do mean strongly suggest, that you convince me you're who you say you are. And you better make it good, 'cause I ain't in the mood to dick around with you."

Dean's eyes widened. "Who I...You think I'm a shifter?"

"Prove me wrong." Bobby raised the gun to his shoulder. "Clock's tickin'."

ONE DAY EARLIER

"God, I could sleep for a week," Sam groaned as he fell back upon the sagging motel bed. "I think I'm getting too old for this crap."

Dean huffed a sarcastic laugh from the doorway as he dragged the weapons bag into the room. "You're out of shape, old man. You're slowing down."

Sam opened one eye as he rolled his head on the pillow. "I was fast enough to save your sorry ass today. Since when do shifters work in pairs?"

"Since now, I guess." Dean frowned at the mud trail from the doorway to the sludge laden boots attached to his brother's feet. "How'd you end up in the ditch, anyway?"

Sam stared at the ceiling, blinking slowly as if simple thoughts processes were too much work at the moment. "I saw the shifter...well, one of them... run out the back door; I followed her. Man, that chick was fast, and she knew the lay of the land. I powered around the barn and almost took a header into the drainage ditch."

"And in the meantime," Dean recalled as he collapsed onto his own bed, "She doubled around. Thank God you're a fairly decent shot."

"You're welcome."

Dean shook his head. "Shifters working in pairs. I hope that's not a hot new trend in the shapeshifting world; one at a time is bad enough."

"Amen, brother, amen."

"And even worse, we only got one of 'em. Gotta do this all over again tomorrow."

"Nah, we blew it." Sam sat up and stared at his boots. "That guy is probably long gone, and who knows who's face he's wearing now?"

When his little brother fell silent, Dean glanced over. He could tell by his distracted expression that something was bothering him. "Okay, let's have it," Dean sighed as he leaned over and kicked his boots into the corner.

"It's just..." Sam shook his head. "Didn't that whole domestic setup seem a little off to you?"

"Sammy, they were shapeshifters pretending to be the all-American family. That's off in any universe."

Sam leaned forward and Dean swore he could hear gears whirring from across the room. Leave it to his mud encrusted little brother to overthink any given situation. "There were men's boots and overalls hanging in the back porch, for a pretty big guy. No way they would fit that scrawny chick that I chased."

"What's your point?"

"We've been tracking this shifter for a month. Now we move in, and not only does he get away, we find he's got a wife? What happened to the real farmer? And his wife?"

"The shifter twins probably had them for lunch," Dean said as he poked through his duffel for clean clothes.

"They're shifters, Dean, not ghouls. So...what? The shifters drained their memories and then tossed the family down the well or something?"

"You know,"Dean said, pausing as the thought occurred to him. "That might have been the shifter you ganked. He might have just morphed into an innocent looking farmwife to throw us off track."

"I don't think so," Sam said wearily. " I think we let one get away, and that family died for nothing."

Dean rolled his eyes in surrender. "I doubt we'll ever know what happened to them. And I'm sorry we didn't get to them in time. But, freaky lady shifter came after me with a butcher knife and got the business end of a silver bullet for her trouble. We got one of the shifters, done and dusted, and I call that a good day."

Sam heaved himself into a semi-upright position on the third try, then stared wistfully at the bathroom door. "I guess so. At least one of them is gone, wherever bad little shifters go, and I really need a shower. This mud stinks to high heaven." He stared at his ruined shoes. "I think there was a cow pasture on the other side of that ditch."

"So that's not your normal manly fragrance I'm gagging on over here?" Dean made a show of holding his nose.

"Fraid not." Sam clogged over to the door, frowning as malodorous clumps of suspicious mudlike substance fell from his shoes. "Gonna see if they have a water hose out here somewhere to spray off. Then I'm going to sleep until Tuesday."

"Thought it was your turn to get dinner," Dean grinned as he started unpacking the weapons for cleaning. Just because his not so little brother had arrived just in time to save his bacon as a frenzied housewife/shifter with a kick ass carving knife closed in...well, that was just another day at the office for them. Why should he go soft now? Show Sam a little compassion, and little brother would start to suspect that he was a shifter. Show no mercy, that was the Winchester creed, whether it be shapeshifters armed with cleavers and butcher knives, living the simple life in the Nebraska heartland, or little brothers that refused to stay out of the line of fire when the fertilizer hit the ventilator. And speaking of fertilizer...

"I'll make you a deal," Dean rose from the bed and put the cleaning cloth aside. "There's no decent diner in town that's gonna let you in, fragrant as you are. So, we'll trade. You clean the weapons and get a shower, and I'll go get..."

"Burgers," they said in unison, and for once Sam didn't complain. The sooner the weapons were cleaned, the sooner he could hit the shower and slip into a well deserved coma. Three nights of squinting at a blue laptop screen, putting together the four county, three year old trail of bodies the shifters left behind, had seriously jacked up his sleep deficit. Now the job was done; hopefully a few days of R & R awaited them at Bobby's place, only a few hours away. Sam nodded gratefully at his brother and sank back down on the bed as Dean gathered his keys and headed to the door. This was Dean's way of saying 'Take a break, you earned it'. Sam would take it anyway he could get it. He just hoped he could stay awake long enough not to drown in the shower.

NOW

"All I know," Dean said, "Is that Sam and I tangled with a shifter in Abbottville. Hunt didn't go exactly as planned, but we settled for one out of two. I called you, told you we were gonna head your way for a couple of days. I was going out for beer and burgers; Sam was gonna take a shower and clean our gear."

"Keep going." Bobby held the bore of the barrel on Dean's chest as the younger hunter continued.

"Somebody jumped me in the parking lot on the way back..."

ONE DAY EARLIER

Cold.

Cold and wet.

Cold and wet and blind.

No, not blind...just blinded by a beam of light through the trees that seared through his brain like a laser.

Trees.

Even in his cold, wet, confused state, Dean was damned sure he hadn't planned to take a nap in the freakin' woods.

Holding his hands against his head, just to make sure his brains didn't spill out on the ground from the canyon in his scalp that was bleeding, for God's sake, he slowly rolled over and crawled to his hands and knees. A sickening jolt of panic twisted his insides, and not all of it was due to his pounding headache. His brains were scrambled, and that's a fact, Jack, but he was alert enough to know one thing:

He had no idea where he was, or how he got there.

"Well, hell," he mumbled as the world spun and he found himself back on the ground once again.

NOW

"I never saw 'em, never heard a damned thing. Woke up in a field on the other side of town with a headache the size of the Impala. Took me four hours to walk back to the motel, and when I got back..." Dean paused, took a shaky breath. "I got back to the room... and Sam was gone. Looked like a hurricane blew through the room, and there was blood..." The barrel of the shotgun shook slightly from its bead on Dean's chest, but held firm. "But you know all that. I found the Impala outside the burger joint, called you, you said you would put some feelers out, try and help me find him."

The two hunters studied each other in silence. Then Bobby spoke: "You still carry that silver knife in your boot?"

"Always."

Bobby inclined his head. " You know what to do."

"Aw, damn it," Dean whined as he reached down and slid out the blade. "I hate this part."

Dean glanced up at Bobby, then with a deep breath, sliced a thin, neat gash across the top of his forearm. He involuntarily winced at the burn that followed, as a thin trail of bright red splattered the dust at his feet. "Satisfied?"

"For now." Bobby lowered the gun, backing into the house as Dean held two bloody fingers against the gash and followed.

"What was that all about?" Dean asked as Bobby leaned the shotgun in the corner and tossed him a roll of gauze from the open first aid kit on the desk.

"I'll show ya," Bobby replied, motioning to Dean to follow him down the dimly lit hallway. They stopped in the doorway to a small bedroom, and Bobby stepped aside.

-Oo- -Oo- -Oo-

The room was dimly lit by a sad excuse for a lamp beside the bed. The curtains were tightly drawn, and the air was heavy and still. A faded quilt covered the huddled shape in the bed; a shape that shifted slightly, then fell still again.

Dean froze in the doorway, then turned to glare at the older hunter at his side. Bobby returned his glare without backing down. "Go on in," he said softly. "You won't wake him."

Three quick steps, and Dean stood at the end of the bed. He recognized the slant of his brother's shoulder, the mop of chestnut hair that lay lank against the pale blue pillowcase, the heavy, steady breathing of well-medicated sleep. Sam was curled on his right side in a fetal position, his back to the doorway. An involuntary shiver slid down Dean's spine; Sam was a back sleeper. The only times he slept this way was when he was either upset or injured.

As he stepped closer, the bruises encircling his left eye, cheekbone and jaw stood out in the dim light. One hand lay curled and limp outside the covers, the fingers swollen and the black thread of hastily applied stitches peeked out from underneath a ragged bandage covering the back of his hand.

Dean stood speechless, unable to catch his breath. Yeah, he figured his brother put up a fight against whatever snatched him from their motel room. But this, this was brutal, and he could only see a small part of his brother's body. Thinking about what possibly lay under the faded covers twisted Dean's insides into a knot.

"What the hell happened to him?" Dean looked up at his own anguish mirrored in Bobby's face. "And how the hell did he get here?"

Bobby inclined his head for Dean to follow him out of the room. Dean stared down at his brother for a moment, then tentatively reached down and rested his hand on the top of his head. Sam remained unresponsive and still; a shudder slithered down Dean's back as he withdrew his hand and stepped away.

"I can tell you the how," Bobby said as they stepped back into the kitchen. He glanced back at Dean who stood, leaning haggardly in the doorway. He pulled a half empty bottle of liquor down from the shelf and poured each of them a shot. "The idjit drove himself here."

"In that condition?" Dean sank into the nearest chair and grabbed the glass.

"Actually, he' s cleaned up pretty good now. Looked a whole lot worse when he got here..."

ONE DAY EARLIER

He heard the approaching car before he saw it. The sound of metal twisting as it collided with his front gate would be hard for anyone to miss.

"What the hell..." Bobby tossed a grease smeared rag in the general direction of his work bench and strode out of the garage. He stopped at the corner of the house, watching with narrowed eyes as an unfamiliar green sedan disengaged itself from the fence and weaved slowly up his drive. The car's mangled front bumper dragged through the dust and finally tore loose, disappearing under the undercarriage as the driver brought the car to a jerking stop, inches from the front porch steps.

Bobby edged back toward the shop and the variety of weapons he had hidden there in case of such unannounced arrivals. The car sat idling, the driver invisible behind a grimy film of midwestern dust coating the windshield. As the older hunter's hand closed around the stock of his favorite shotgun, the driver slowly pushed open his door with a screech of rending metal. The shotgun rose, only to be dropped into the dust as a bloodied hand, followed by a familiar face, appeared.

"Bobby..." a deep, breathless voice called out. "Don't...don't shoot..."

NOW

"Yeah, we were staying in Abbottsville. That's what? Fifty miles from here?" Dean drummed his fingers on the scarred tabletop. "So my super brain trust brother figures he can get the crap beaten out of him and still navigate a car for an hour on the interstate to get here. Figures..." He drained the last dregs of the bitter liquor from his glass and looked around for the bottle. Bobby slid it over to him and sat back.

"Anyways, it was no treat getting the sasquatch out of the car and into the house, me with this bum ankle and all." He gestured to the ace bandage peeking out from under the hem of his grimy jeans.

"How's it doing? Your ankle, I mean." Dean sloshed another couple of fingers into his glass. "How'd you twist it, anyway?"

"Damned gopher hole, hunting a black dog up in Minnesota. I woulda been with you guys on this hunt, being so close to home and all, if it hadn't been for that. Thought it was broke at first, turned out I just tore some ligaments or something. Anyway..." Bobby shifted nervously, uncomfortable with being the focus of Dean's attention. "Sam hung in there long enough to help me get him into the house, then he just kinda collapsed. Couldn't get much out of him as to what happened to him...or where you were."

Dean caught the tentative tone of the older hunter's voice and looked up. "I guess he didn't know I got dumped in a field on the other side of town. What I don't get is why."

"Why separate ya?" Bobby poured the last of the bottle into his glass. " Or why leave you alive?"

"All of the above," Dean said. "And why attack Sam and then let him go?"

"Maybe he wasn't supposed to get away. Kid's a pretty decent fighter, you know." Bobby leaned forward and Dean knew he was about to say something he didn't want to hear. "There's just one thing," Bobby said, and Dean's heart sank. Here we go.

"What's that?"

"Like I said," Bobby reached down to massage his aching leg." I got Gigantor into the house and patched him up best I could. And I noticed..."

"What?" Dean sat forward.

"Somebody used their fists, no doubt, and there were several cuts from a blade. His back is bruised to hell, got me worried about his kidneys. And he's got a nasty lump on the back of his head. But they were all defensive wounds. I didn't see no skinned knuckles, didn't pick up on any gunshot scent on his clothes." Bobby paused, then continued. "It looked to me like somebody beat him nearly to death...and he didn't lift a finger to defend himself at all."

-Oo- -Oo- -Oo-

"Is that what he told you?" Dean shook his head in disbelief. There was no way...no way...his brother would just lay down and take it like that.

"Like I said," Bobby growled. "He didn't tell me much of anything."

The room fell silent; the sound of Dean's constant drumming on the tabletop was punctuated by the screech of the wooden chair as he violently pushed it back and stood. "I don't understand it, Bobby. There were no voicemails on my phone, so he didn't try and call me."

Bobby sat back. "He had his phone on him when he got here, but the battery was dead. So maybe he tried to call and couldn't."

"Maybe." Dean paced the length of the kitchen and back again. "But there's plenty of pay phones between here and Abbottsville."

"He was on the run, boy, and beat to hell. He probably didn't think to stop long enough to make phone calls."

"Yeah, but he wasn't on the run from me." Dean paused at the sink, peering through the dusty windowpanes, his reflection blurred, out of focus. Then he turned, fixing a wide eyed stare on his older friend.

"Or maybe he was."

Bobby slowly lifted his bandaged leg to the chair Dean vacated, absently rubbing the sore tendons as he looked up, puzzled.

"Maybe he was what?"

"On the run from me...or someone he thought was me."

"Boy, you ain't making a lick of sense," Bobby growled.

"It makes sense." Dean sat back down in his chair, easing the older hunter's ankle gently down to the floor. "Sam said something didn't look right at old McEvil's farm. We offed the shifter, but Sam was all bugged out because he said there was clothing and stuff around for two people. I was already trying to deal with the whole family dynamic thing of shifters living together like the Brady Bunch, so I didn't pay him much mind."

"So, you think you missed one."

Dean blew out a long, ragged breath. "It would explain why Sam just let his attacker into our room. I checked the door after I saw he was gone; the lock wasn't tampered with."

"It would also explain why Sam didn't try to defend himself," Bobby said. "He opened the door, thought the shifter was you..."

"Until the thing...wearing my face...jumped him. Damn it..." Dean was on his feet again, pacing from the back door and back to the table. "Still doesn't explain why he didn't call me when he got away."

"Well...there is another explanation for that." Bobby shifted uneasily under Dean's sudden glare. "And you ain't gonna like it."

"I don't like any of this so far. So, go ahead, make my day."

"First of all, just let me have my say before you go all ballistic on me, you hear?" When Dean continued his non-blinking stare, Bobby forged ahead.

"I know you guys have had some knock down, drag outs in the past..."

"Whoa, you can stop right there, old man..."

"Thought you were gonna let me finish."

"That was before you were about to suggest that I beat the crap out of my brother. That is what you were about to say, isn't it?"

Bobby rose to his feet. "I never thought you did it, Dean. But don't go all holier-than-thou on me here. You can't say you've never laid a hand on Sam before."

Dean paled and looked away. " I never told you about that."

"Nope," Bobby growled. "You can thank your brother for that little tidbit. He's a sieve when he gets into my liquor. Everything just flows right outta him. I doubt he even remembers telling me now."

"Is that why you stopped answering your phone? 'Cause you thought I went ballistic on him?"

" I didn't want to think that, but when he was coherent, Sam just acted kinda...squirrely." Bobby rose stiffly from the chair and replaced the bottle back into the cabinet. "I know he was concussed and all, but when I mentioned calling you, he freaked out."

Dean stared back, open jawed. " Are you saying he thought it was me?"

"I'm saying he was confused. Or maybe he wasn't sure which you would answer the phone. I asked him several times where you were, and all he would say was he didn't know. And that scared the crap out of me, let me tell you. For Sam to turn up half dead, and you not be with him..." Bobby paused, shaking his head. " I thought you were dead, boy."

"Well, I'm not, but let me tell you," Dean blew out a ragged breath through gritted teeth. "When I find the son of a bitch that wore my face to do that," he glanced toward the door, "to my brother, he's gonna wish he was dead before I'm through."

"And I'll hold your coat and buy the drinks after," Bobby nodded in solemn, deadly agreement.

-Oo- -Oo-

The glare of midday sun had faded to soft twilight when Sam began to stir, while Dean watched from the shadows of the hallway. Bobby watched them both, wondering how long it would take for Dean to move into the room. He had grudgingly agreed that the face of the man that had damned near put Sam into a coma was not the first thing his concussed and confused brother should see upon awakening. That resolution was fading faster than the South Dakota sun as Sam shifted restlessly in the bed.

"Bobby," Dean's voice was a hoarse whisper. "Check on him."

"You got it." Bobby patted the older brother's shoulder as he limped past him into the room.

Two blackened, swollen eyes blinked slowly as Bobby approached, watching the older hunter with more clarity than Bobby had expected. "Hey, Sam, how ya feelin'?" Bobby asked as he eased stiffly into a ladderback chair next to the bed.

Sam blinked again and Bobby waited, watched as the gears in the younger Winchester's head slowly began to turn. "Okay," he finally whispered. "Long as I don't move."

"Copy that." Bobby reached over, pulling a cold cloth from a pan of half melted ice water and wringing it out before placing it over Sam's swollen cheekbone. " I know, I know," he sympathized as Sam winced. "It'll help with the swelling."

The room fell silent, only the shallow wheezes from the man in the bed breaking the stillness. The tension in the room was an entity of itself, as Bobby carefully checked bandages and rib wraps, wincing in sympathy as Sam lay tense and still, his back still to the door, eyes closed and breaths uneven. Dean's shadow in the doorway shifted, then returned to rivet his dark gaze on his brother. Bobby nodded slowly to him, indicating that he knew what strength of spirit it took for Dean to remain in the hallway. He glanced down again after Dean nodded back, noticing that Sam seemed to have drifted off once again.

"Sam..." he leaned forward and watched as the younger Winchester's eyes opened and focused on him. "We need to talk, son."

"I know."

"Tell me what happened to you. How did you get here like this?"

"I think..." Sam's bruised face drew into a frown. "I think I drove here."

"Idjit...I know that. I wanna know who...or what..." he glanced across the room to meet Dean's dark eyes. "...did this to you."

Sam blinked heavy lids, took a shallow breath, his gaze somewhere over Bobby's shoulder. "I don't remember...much."

"Tell me what you do remember, then. Tell me about the motel room, after the hunt."

Sam's wheezes grew erratic as he shifted on the bed. Bobby saw Dean start to step forward; a raised hand behind Sam's back from the older hunter stopped him just inside the doorway.

"I was...packing up our stuff...Dean...had gone out on a food run..."

ONE DAY EARLIER

Sam packed the last of the weapons away, glancing at his watch and then at the door. How long could it take to grab a couple of burgers? Knowing Dean, he had either run into a coven of witches or a cheerleader convention. Anything less would never take priority over his brother and a date with a take out bag of grease. On the other hand, he could hardly see his infinitely impatient sibling waiting this long for a couple of burgers and fries. The local fast food joint...the only fast food joint in town...was barely ten minutes round trip, and chances were good that any self respecting witch wouldn't be caught within a mile of the place. Yep, the cheerleader scenario is looking better all the time.

Twenty minutes and a hot shower later, Sam shoved his muddy clothes into a plastic bag. He tossed it into the corner next to the weapons bag and sank down on the bed. This is getting ridiculous. Bring me my dinner and then prowl for chicks. As he reached for his cell phone, the door knob rattled and a loud thump sounded on the metal motel door.

"Let me in, dude. I forgot my key."

Sam shook his head and wearily rose from the bed. He opened the door and turned back into the room, making his way toward the table. "I was beginning to think you forgot to come back."

"Yeah, whatever." Dean pushed past him, dropping a crumpled, soggy bag on Sam's bed as he passed. "Enjoy."

Sam reached for the sack, warily picking it up between two fingers. Not only was it crushed, it was leaking, like it had been dropped in a puddle of...something. "I think I'll pass," he said, depositing the bag and its dubious contents on the counter. "Do I want to know what's pissing you off?"

The bathroom door slamming against the frame was Dean's response.

"I guess not," Sam sighed as he settled back into his chair and wondered if there was a body behind the counter at the local McDonald's in need of a quick salt and burn before the cops arrived.

The bathroom door flew back into the wall, once again shaking the flimsy frame as Dean emerged. "Get your crap together, we're leaving."

Sam glanced up from his keyboard. "Right now?"

"Yes, damnit, right now. Are you hard of hearing or something?" Dean snatched his duffel from the floor and slung it over his shoulder. "Unless you want to walk."

Sam felt his jaw drop as Dean paced the length of the room, anger rolling off him in all but visible waves. What the hell happened to the joking, easy going guy that went out for burgers? "What happened, Dean? They forget your extra onions again?"

"You know what?" Dean growled, tossing his bag onto the bed. "Forget that. Let's just do this right here."

Sam started to rise from his chair, but then Dean was there, and a fist connected with his jaw, knocking him back down across the chair. It flew out from under him and Sam slid to the floor.

"What the hell..." Sam stared up at his brother, stunned and spitting blood onto the grimy carpet. Dean reached for him again, grabbing his shirt, lifting him up and slamming his head against the wall.

Sam heard the plaster crack behind his head, felt the warm shimmer of blood seeping down his neck and under his shirt. Two more slams into the wall, and his vision began to dim. This isn't Dean, fight back, for God's sake. "D-Dean..." he stuttered as another blow across his face sent him face down, gasping for breath.

"You always were a pathetic fighter, Sammy." Dean stood over him, no more than a vague shape in Sam's peripheral vision. "I always had to go easy on you when we sparred...so delicate." Dean aimed a kick at Sam's left side. The first one connected with a sickening crack; the second one was inches from its target when a large, bloodied hand shot out, grabbing Dean's ankle and sweeping his feet out from under him. By the time Dean regained his feet, Sam was standing, swaying in the corner like a boxer too punch drunk to hear the bell.

"Christo," Sam hissed through bloodied teeth, and Dean laughed, a roaring, head back laugh that sent a wave of shivers down the younger brother's spine.

"Wrong again, little brother," Dean sneered as he stepped forward, drawing his beloved hunting knife from its sheath beneath his coat. "You see, unlike you, I don't need demonic powers to beat the crap out of someone who so totally deserves it."

"What's ...wrong with...with you?" Sam stepped back, felt his back against the wall, and knew he had made a grave mistake: always have an exit route, never let yourself get backed into a corner.

A slow, malevolent smile crossed his brother's features, one Sam recognized as Dean's 'going in for the kill' expression. "Nothing that can't be fixed," he said as he swung the blade back and forth, hand to hand.

Even in his battered state, Sam knew Dean's tells. He was the only person on the planet who could read his brother, catch the flicker of an eye, a flexing of a muscle, and know what was coming and when. He blinked rapidly, trying to keep his eyes focused on the flash of the blade, the shifting of weight that foretold an attack. But this version of his brother, stood, looked, felt different, felt off, so Sam went for the Hail Mary and barreled into his brother, throwing his shoulder and considerable weight into Dean's midsection.

The brothers flew back into the center of the room, landing on the floor in a pile. Sam took as deep a breath as his bruised lungs would allow, rising up to aim a blow at the temple of the struggling man beneath him. Even as the blow connected and he drew back to land another, a voice inside his head whispered This is Dean, don't hurt him.

That voice was his undoing. The split second hesitation cost him the advantage as Dean swung the knife up, slashing across the top of Sam's hand.

Fire raced up his arm as Sam rolled away, holding his injured limb against him as blood dripped thick and warm from his elbow. He felt sick, and for a moment lost sight of his assailant. A shadow moved in front of him, and Sam ducked a blow that would have crushed his skull had he been a split second slower.

"Come on, damn you. Get up and fight." Dean stood over him now, trembling with rage, the bloodied knife dangling from his hand. Sam glanced over at his duffle, lying only inches from him underneath the bed. It lay open, the barrel of his sawed-off only inches from his bent knee. He rolled, turning his back to Dean in a suicidal move to hide his actions as he reached for the gun. A kick to his kidneys that he didn't see coming shoved Sam against the bed, and the barrel of the shotgun slid from his bloodied hand. He reached for it again, rising to his knees as he fought to keep his balance and hide his actions from his attacker.

"This is just too easy," Dean's voice was cold and flat. " And you're not even gonna ask me why?"

Sam took a ragged breath as he pulled the gun from the bag. "Don't...have to...ask," he wheezed as he climbed shakily to his feet. "You're...not... my brother..."

Summoning the last of his fading strength, he rose, swinging the shotgun like a baseball bat as he turned. The stock of the gun connected with Dean's skull with a sickening crack, and his eyes widened in shock as he went down. His body fell backwards, landing at Sam's feet, lifeless and still.

The room tilted as Sam dropped the gun, staring down blearily at the body on the floor. His brother's face stared back at him, eyes not quite closed, jaw slack, a grotesque lump already forming on his forehead.

What the hell just happened? He wanted to believe this wasn't his brother, lying unconscious and barely breathing at his feet. They had killed the shifter; there was no doubt about that. This was Dean, wearing the same clothes, holding the same knife he had defended himself with for as long as Sam could remember.

But this version of Dean had returned from his burger run with a murderous rage in his eyes, and Sam knew he was damned lucky to have survived the attack. He had never...never...seen that kind of hatred directed at him before. There was something in the back of Sam's concussed brain that slid in and out of focus, much like his vision was doing now...but try as he might, he could come up with no plausible reason for the attack. There was only thought now that made sense to his muddled brain:

RUN...Before he wakes up and finishes the job...get out NOW.

And Sam did.

-Oo- -Oo- -Oo-

NOW

"I...found a car...outside. Keys in it...I got in and...just drove away."

"You shoulda called me, Sam."

Sam blinked, his eyes swollen and weighted with pain. " I...wasn't thinking about...anything except...getting away." His bandaged hand emerged from under the blanket to grasp Bobby's forearm in a shaky grip. "You gotta do...something for me."

"Just tell me what you need," Bobby said as he leaned forward.

"Go...check on him."

Bobby frowned as he plucked Sam's fingers from his sleeve. " Go check on who, Sam?"

"Dean."

Oh. "You don't have to worry about Dean...he's..."

"No!" Sam attempted to rise from the bed, his hand once again wrapped around Bobby's arm. "I need you to go."

Bobby watched Sam as he paled and curled up on the bed, his arms wrapped around aching ribs. He had seen Sam's blown pupils, watched as he had tried and failed to focus on Bobby's grizzled features. His concussion and low tolerance to pain meds was messing with his head, so Bobby's best bet was to keep him calm and still until the storm passed. If that meant agreeing to anything he asked, well, Bobby could do that, at least until the next, and now overdue dose of pain relief kicked in.

Bobby picked up a syringe from the battered bedside table, checking it automatically before injecting it into Sam's arm. Giving the good stuff was tricky business with a head injury, but letting the young hunter suffer was not an option. Sam blinked heavily, still hanging on to Bobby's arm. "I need you to go," he mumbled, blinking sleepily. " I know you'll tell me...the truth."

"What truth is that, Sam?" Bobby asked as he tossed the syringe into the trash.

"I know you'll tell me...if I killed...my brother."

-oO- -oO- -oO-

In moments, Sam was falling asleep again, limp and still under the threadbare blanket. He lay on his side, eyes closed, as Bobby sat back, speechless. His eyes tracked to the doorway, where Dean stood, eyes wide in shock. He had stepped into the room despite Bobby's warnings to the contrary, staring down at the little brother who was too drugged and pain addled to sense his approach.

"Sam...that's enough for now," Bobby said as he leaned over and touched the younger brother's shoulder. "Get some rest. I'll be just down the hall."

Sam gave no indication of awareness, not when Bobby spoke, nor when he stood and hobbled to the doorway, snagging Dean's sleeve as he passed to pull him into the hallway.

"Let him sleep, boy."

"I need to...'

Bobby shouldered Dean from the doorway and pulled the heavy oak door shut. "You need to give him some time. He ain't going nowhere."

Bobby sensed the storm approaching as he limped into the living room and fell heavily onto the sofa, propping his bad leg on the other end of the couch. He watched Dean pace from one end of the room to the other, jaw tight and fists clenched.

"He thinks it was me, Bobby."

"No, he doesn't. He got his bell rung, his brains are scrambled and he's got enough narcotics in his system right now to give a drug sniffing dog a seizure. When his head clears..."

"He sounded pretty clear headed to me." Dean stood over Bobby, lips drawn into a thin, white line.

"Dean, look..." Bobby wiped his hands over his face in exhaustion. "You haven't slept, I haven't slept. Hell, Sam's the only one getting any rest here. Take the couch, get some shuteye. Everybody'll feel better for it."

Dean glanced toward the door. "What about Sam?"

"What about him?" Bobby rose stiffly, tossing Dean a ratty wool blanket as he passed. "He's not unconscious, just hurting. He's a big boy, been going to the bathroom all by himself and everything."

"Does he need a doctor?" Dean hesitated, the wool throw twisted in his hands.

"Probably," Bobby conceded. "But he said no, and with the targets you guys seem to wear on your backs, I tend to agree with him." Bobby paused on his way down the hallway and looked back over his shoulder. "He's gonna be all right, Dean."

"I know." Dean eased down onto the ancient sofa, its sags and curves welcoming and familiar. He shook out the blanket, tossing over his exhausted body as he lay down and closed his eyes.

"And we're gonna find the thing that did this to him and kick its ass." Bobby's voice filtered through the haze of almost-sleep as he shuffled down the hall, and Dean smiled.

"I know that too," Dean mumbled as he sank into the cushions. "It'll never know what hit 'em," he said wearily as he removed his knife from his boot, slipped it under the lumpy pillow and drifted off to sleep.

-oO- -oO- -oO-

The soft cushions that had seemed so inviting the night before now seemed to be driving stakes through Dean's back as the early morning sun peeked through Bobby's threadbare curtains. The scent of freshly brewed coffee was almost erotic as Dean rose stiffly from the couch and followed its lure into the kitchen.

With one cup under his belt and another in hand, Dean wandered the house, looking for signs of life. He paused in the hallway as soft voices drifted from the doorway of Sam's room.

"You ready?"

"Yeah," came the breathless reply as bedsprings creaked and a pained gasp froze Dean in his tracks.

"Take it slow, Sam. Ain't no marathon here." A shadow filled the doorway and for a moment, Dean considered slipping back into the kitchen. Screw that, he decided, and stood his ground as first Bobby and then a bruised and hunchbacked version of his brother emerged from the room.

Dean wasn't sure which of them looked the more pathetic: Bobby, hobbling on a bad leg while trying to support his charge, or Sam, pale and sweating, hanging on to Bobby's shoulder with one arm while hugging his battered ribcage with the other. Bobby saw Dean first, his eyes narrowing as he halted their progress. Sam raised his head, his breath catching as he spied his brother standing at the end of the hall.

"Oh, by the way," Bobby noted drily. "Your brother's here." He shot Dean a look that would have shattered glass, but Dean ignored it.

"Hey, Sammy." He smiled at his wide eyed brother, but made no move to approach him.

Bobby shifted his weight as the sasquatch draped around him stiffened and froze. "Talk about deja vu all over again, but Sam?" He waited until the younger hunter glanced his way before continuing. "I did all the checks. It's him, Sam. It's really him."

"You sure?" Dean heard Sam whisper. Bobby rolled his eyes and tightened his grip.

"He wouldn't have gotten in the front door otherwise. Now, can we get going here? I got better things to do than babysit, you know." Sam nodded, pushed away from Bobby's support and shakily stepped across the hall and into the bathroom, shutting the door softly behind him.

"You just couldn't wait, could ya?" Bobby grumbled as he limped past Dean toward the kitchen.

"And just when did you plan to tell him I was here? Next week? Besides," Dean stepped aside to let Bobby pass. "Like you said, he's a big boy. Didn't freak out, or pull a knife like before, or anything."

"I was gonna tell him," Bobby replied a bit sheepishly. "Just wanted to make sure his head was screwed on straight this morning, that's all. Maybe he's getting used to seeing you come back from the dead by now."

"Very funny." Dean leaned in the doorway. "But seriously, how's he doing, Bobby?"

"Well, he's walkin' and talkin' a little better today." Bobby leaned into the refrigerator and pulled out a slab of cold ham. "I still think he's got a couple of busted ribs, so he needs to take it easy. And his head's still killing him, but that's gonna take some time."

"Time I got," Dean sighed, relief evident in his voice. "All the time he needs."

-oO- -oO- -oO-

The makings of ham sandwiches, chips and coffee were scattered about Bobby's kitchen when a bedraggled Sam appeared in the doorway. Dean stood, unsure whether to approach his battered brother or give him some space. Sam shook his head, a shy smile crossing his bruised features, as he slowly crossed the room on his own and sat down in the chair Bobby pulled out for him. Bobby hid a smile of his own as he watched the fear and anxiety on Dean's face drain away.

"You hungry?" Bobby asked as he pushed the bread and meat toward him.

" A little, I guess." He reached for the plate, only to have his older brother get there first.

"Double meat, light on the mayo, right?" Dean asked as he began assembling Sam's sandwich. He proceeded without looking up for confirmation and Bobby smothered another smile; big brother was back and reporting for duty. Sam propped his arms on the table as Dean pushed the assembled sandwich toward him and got up to fetch another cup of coffee for himself and a bottle of water for the invalid.

Bobby stood and dusted crumbs from his lap. "Well, some of us have to work around here. Anything you need before I go, Sam?"

Sam lifted the sandwich and took a bite. "I'm good, thanks."

"Well, good you ain't," Bobby growled as he limped to the back door. "But you're better than you were." Their eyes met, and both men heard the hidden meaning behind the words. Sam had turned to Bobby in Dean's absence, but now that his older brother was here, Bobby knew when to step aside. He also knew there was a conversation brewing between the brothers that didn't require his presence.

"Dean knows where your pain meds are. If you need 'em, take 'em." With that comment, he grabbed his weathered hat from the hook behind the door and lumbered out of the room.

"Florence Nightingale he ain't," Dean observed as he swept crumbs from the table onto the floor. He smiled as he heard a huffed snicker from the table. "So," he turned, leaning against the counter to observed his brother, who had pushed his half eaten sandwich aside and now sat leaning forward like an old man. "I guess we need to catch up.'

"Yeah." Sam started to straighten up, then thought better of it. His head, hands, ribs, hell, everything ached. He longed to just go back to bed, take another dose of pain killers and let the world drift on without him for a while. But they both needed to get up to speed on what happened after they were separated. It was still out there somewhere, and curling up in the corner wasn't gonna get the job done.

"What happened to you?" Sam asked. "You went out and didn't come back."

Dean studied him, wondering if he was making a statement, or asking for confirmation. He'd been attacked more than once by his younger brother while possessed or otherwise under the influence of something demonic or unnatural. Knowing it wasn't really his brother trying to kill him didn't ease the memory of seeing his brother's face behind the gun or the fists. He was sure Sam was having the same transition problems, and that wasn't figuring in the concussion factor. But Sam seemed convinced that Dean was the real deal, standing here before him now, and that eased the tension that had been knotted up inside his chest ever since he had arrived at Bobby's the day before.

Dean returned to the table and sat down across from his brother. He studied his swollen features, his pain slitted eyes, and wondered if it was too soon for this. Sam seemed to read his mind, because he blew out a ragged breath and did the best eye roll he could manage under the circumstances.

"I'm okay, Dean."

"No, you're not," Dean shot back.

"I will be."

"Okay." Dean leaned forward in his chair. "It was a shifter, wearing my face, right?"

Sam reached for Dean's coffee, and Dean allowed it, saw it for the stalling tactic that it was. He nodded and took a sip, his hand shaking slightly as he sat the cup down. Not totally over it yet, Dean observed.

"Well, as to why I didn't come back? I got our food, then got jumped in the parking lot. Woke up in the woods with a killer headache and no freaking idea where I was or how I got there."

"No sewers this time," Sam said.

"Yeah, podunk country town, no sewer system, lucky us, eh?"

Sam frowned, then looked up. "He took your jacket, didn't he? 'Cause he was dressed just like you when he came back to our room."

"Yeah, he did. Had it all planned out, I guess. He took my knife, too."

Sam glanced down at his swollen, bandaged hand. "Yeah, he did."

"But why?"

Sam looked up, puzzled. "Why what?"

"Why separate us? Why leave me out in the woods and then go after you? He had me, he could have finished me off right there."

Sam felt a shiver down his spine that had nothing to do with the draftiness of the kitchen. "He had to keep you alive to download your memories, your speech patterns, stuff like that. Maybe he planned to kill me, then keep on going in your skin."

"So, how did you get away?" Dean asked.

"Lucky shot, I guess," Sam said, massaging his aching temples.

"You shot him?"

"Nope. Hit him with my gun, right between the eyes."

"Well," Dean grinned, rising to place his coffee cup in the sink. "That should have told you right there that it wasn't me. No way you would have gotten the best of me in a fight."

The memory of Dean standing over him, knife in hand and murder in his eyes, slid into Sam's brain like a blade:

"You always were a pathetic fighter, Sammy." Dean stood over him, no more than a vague shape in Sam's peripheral vision. "I always had to go easy on you when we sparred...so delicate."

"I kicked your ass this time," Sam said, his eyes unfocused and his voice low. Dean turned and studied him with a frown.

"Yeah, but it wasn't me, Sammy."

Sam blinked and looked up. "I know. I was just having a little trouble processing it then."

"Well, you've processed enough for now." Dean was at Sam's elbow before he had time to blink. "Time to get some rest."

The urge to argue came automatically, but as he rose, lethargy swept over Sam like a shroud, and he decided to bow to his brother's wishes. The brothers fell silent as they slowly made their way back to the bedroom, Dean no more than a step behind. Sam eased himself slowly onto the bed with a sigh. Pills and a glass of water appeared, and Sam accepted them wordlessly, turning with a barely smothered groan to lie down on the sagging mattress as Dean turned out the light. He was aware of his brother's silent presence in the doorway as the meds took effect and his body gave in to the pull of sleep. For some reason that strong, silent presence watching over him failed to give Sam the peace of mind he was accustomed to. He was too tired and in too much pain to figure out just what that meant.

-oO- -oO- -oO-

With Bobby banging on his clunker of the week, and Sam deep in the sleep of the near-dead, there was little for Dean to do except pace the floor and think. There was a rage burning inside him that was reaching the boiling point, fueled by the frustration of knowing they had well and truly lost this round.

The shifter may have needed to keep Dean alive, at least until he changed meat suits, but that mercy wasn't supposed to be extended to Sam. The fact that his brother had escaped with his life and skin intact was a miracle, and a testament to his skill at thinking on his feet. And now that the creature had lost both of them, it could have morphed into any one of a million people by now. The truth, as painful as it was to accept, was that it was gone, and the Winchesters had little to no chance of ever finding it again.

Dean stood silently in the hallway, watching his little brother toss restlessly, fighting monsters even in his sleep. He wasn't naïve; the man before him, who had fought off the latest in a series of deviant freaks and lived to tell about it, wasn't the same innocent little boy he had raised and protected. He had done too much, seen too much, changed too much. But the protective instinct was still there, to shelter his younger brother and pound the crap out of anyone or anything who dared to touch him. It was ingrained, both by nature of blood and circumstances beyond their control since the day Sam was born. There was nothing...nothing...that would extinguish that flame burning inside him. Sure, it had flickered and come dangerously close to going out more than once: Stanford, demon blood, Ruby, angels and demons, secrets and lies on both sides of the table, all had blown through their souls and tried to push them off their path.

But in the end, when the dust settled, they were still standing. Bruised and battered, bloodied but never bowed, sometimes running perilously close to running on fumes, but still side by side. That was why Sam's panicked expression upon seeing Dean in Bobby's hallway had almost broken his heart. If Sam could believe that Dean wanted him dead, there was no coming back from that. Seeing Sam's weak but open and trusting smile in the kitchen, the way his little brother sat down across from him with no hesitation, was worth more than any words Sam could say in easing Dean's fears. Having his brother afraid of him was one of the worst things Dean could think of.

Dean leaned against the door with a sigh. No reason why I can't get a little shuteye, too, he mused as he slipped into the room and eased into the chair next to the bed, leaning it up against the wall. In seconds, lulled by the even, deep breaths of the soul that had accompanied him into sleep his entire life, Dean's eyes slid shut as well.

-Oo- -Oo- -Oo-

A few hours later, Dean ambled back into the kitchen, where Bobby stood at the sink, scrubbing grease from his hands.

"How's he doin'?"

"Sleeping, off and on. He's okay." Dean stared out the window, pensive and still.

"You look like you need to get out of here for a while," Bobby said, drying his hands on a faded kitchen towel. "Think you could take a look at that Mustang out back? Tried everything I can think of, and it's still running pretty ragged."

"Now?"

"No, idjit, next week."

Dean grinned back at the older man. "Don't get your panties in a twist. I guess I could use a break." He glanced back at the hallway, then turned back to Bobby with a nod.

"You'll call me..."

"Go."

"Yes sir." Dean saluted briskly, grabbed his jacket off the chair as he passed. Bobby waited until he disappeared into the junkyard, then reached over and shut the door.

"Thought he'd never leave," Bobby said as he strode down the hallway and into the bedroom where Sam lay.

The room was stuffy, the air heavy with the pall of dust and neglect. The Winchesters were the only ones to use the room; sometimes months went by and the room would sit, closed up between visits. Bobby glanced around distastefully at the shabby furniture, covered by dust of indeterminate age. Then he leaned over the bed, studying the bruised and swollen features of the younger Winchester as he slept on, curled on his side, unaware of the older hunter's presence.

After a moment, Bobby reached over and lightly shook Sam's shoulder. Sam opened his eyes, blinking blearily in the dim light before focusing on Bobby's features.

"Hey," Sam said, as he started to roll over and then thought better of it as his ribcage contracted in a spasm that took his breath.

"Sam," Bobby scooted the chair over and sat down, hands on his thighs. "We need to talk, figure this thing out."

"Okay." Sam took a ragged breath but otherwise lay still. "What do you wanna know? I think I told you most everything I remember."

"Maybe you did, but I got some questions."

Sam blinked slowly, fighting the effects of the pills in his system. "Okay," he said again.

"Tell me about the shifter."

Sam closed his eyes and attempted to focus on the question. "Which one?"

"Tell me about the woman. Why'd you kill her?"

"She went after Dean... with a butcher knife. What was I supposed to do? Stand there and let her filet him?"

Bobby studied him a moment, his expression unreadable. "But are you sure she was a shifter?"

Now it was Sam's turn to study his friend, confusion in his eyes. "What?"

Sam moved slightly on the bed, biting his lip as his ribs shifted and every bruise on his back fired up at once. "What are you saying, Bobby? You think that sick freak had a human wife? Come on..."

"Why not?"

"You don't think that's...wrong?" Sam rolled his head on the pillow in disbelief. "Why would a normal person want to live with a monster?" Sam stopped to take a shallow breath. " No, Dean and I both agreed on this. The whole family is probably at the bottom of a well somewhere and these sick twists just emptied their brains, moved in and took over their lives." Sam was wide awake now, and totally in the dark at the strange turn this conversation had taken. "They were monsters, both of them."

"And you're sure about this," Bobby continued as he rose from his chair, paced to the window and back again. Their eyes met for several seconds before Bobby walked to the other side of the bed, out of Sam's line of sight.

"Yes, I'm sure." Sam tried to look over his shoulder, but turning onto his back was too painful an undertaking to contemplate at the moment, pills or no. "Why are you questioning what we did?"

"Because," Bobby said as he opened the drawer of the nightstand and withdrew a syringe, tapping it to check the contents before leaning over Sam again. "Because you're wrong."

Something in the timbre of Bobby's voice sent a shiver down Sam's spine. And there was something else...something about Bobby...about the way he moved when he rose from the chair and circled the bed. Something was off, but Sam just couldn't seem to focus on what it was. Bobby's shadow fell over the bed as he roughly grabbed Sam's arm and plunged the needle in his bicep.

"Bobby, wait...I don't need..."

A rush of warmth flooded Sam's body as his vision blurred and his voice failed him. Before he lost awareness altogether, he felt hot, stagnant breath on his cheek as Bobby...or the thinghe thought was Bobby, leaned over him and hissed in his ear:

"She wasn't a monster. She was my wife...and you killed her."

-Oo- -Oo- -Oo-

"Bobby?" Dean had returned from the junkyard to find the older hunter leaning over a sleeping Sam. "Is he okay?" He moved into the bedroom, glancing down at his brother and then up at his friend.

Bobby straightened, obviously startled. He turned suddenly, an empty syringe gripped in his hand. "He was hurtin', and bein' his usual stubborn self. He ain't gonna get better unless he stays in bed and gets some rest."

Dean moved closer, reaching out to brush the hair away from his brother's bruised features. "Be careful how much happy juice you give him. He's a lightweight when it comes to painkillers."

Bobby pushed past Dean and strode across the room. "Don't tell me my business, boy."

Dean glanced up, startled by the venom in the older hunter's voice. He waited for the grin, the joking expression that always softened Bobby's gruff proclamations, but it never came. Dean finally sat down next to the bed with a shrug and watched Bobby as he tossed the syringe into the trash and turned to face him again.

"Thought you were working outside."

"You never gave me the keys. Hard to listen to the engine if I can't start it."

Bobby's eyes narrowed as if he was going to contradict him. Several seconds passed before he blinked and nodded absently. "Oh yeah...the keys. They're on the hook behind the back door. I'll get 'em."

As Bobby left the room, Dean felt something brush against his hand. He looked down to see Sam weakly gripping his forearm, his eyes dilated and unfocused.

"Go back to sleep," Dean said, pausing when Sam's nails gripped his skin.

"No..."

"Sam..." Dean leaned closer and attempted to pry his brother's fingers from his arm.

"Not..."

"Don't tell me you're not hurting. I know you are. Just..."

"Listen...to me..." Sam hissed, pulling himself up in the bed. "That's..not...Bobby..."

"What? Now I know you've had too much of the good stuff." Dean's attempt at pushing Sam back on the bed was thwarted by his brother's iron grip on his arm.

"Look...watch him..." Sam whispered. "Not...limping... Gave me...shot...said I...killed...his wife..."

Sam fell back limply onto the pillow, his eyes closed and his breathing ragged and unsteady. Dean stared down at him, his eyes wide and mouth suddenly gone dry. Sam's tendency to get loopy on pain meds was the stuff of countless hours of ribbing on Dean's part over the years, but this...this didn't fit the pattern. He could get silly, maudlin at times, but paranoid? It just didn't fit.

Bobby reappeared in the doorway, a sheepish expression on his scruffy face. "I assumed the keys were in it, sorry," he said as he crossed the room and tossed the keyring across the bed. He paused to study Sam, now deeply asleep, a pained expression still frozen on his bruised features.

"He'll be okay, Dean. I'll take care of him."

Dean sat frozen, the seemingly innocent words hanging like ice crystals in the drafty room. He blinked, then stood slowly, nodding as he stepped to the door and looked back again. "I'll get back to work, then." He wondered if the words sounded as stiff and artificial to Bobby's ears as they did to his own.

Because he had seen it, too. He had seen how Bobby crossed the room with no trace of the debilitating limp that he had shown only a few hours before. He had heard the cold indifference in his voice, had seen the lack of compassion in his eyes when he stopped to stare down at his brother's oblivious form. He now understood the total lack of concern in his expression when Dean had arrived, seconds after giving his helpless brother an injection of god-knows-what. And he saw the challenge in his expression now, as Dean stood in the doorway, fighting the urge to return to his brother's side and protect him from this monster wearing their best friend's skin.

Because finding the creature that had almost killed his brother was no longer an issue. The...thing... had found them... again.

-oO- -oO- -oO-

Dean could almost feel the eyes of the creature boring into his back as he left the room. He forced himself to walk at his usual leisurely pace until he rounded the corner. Once out of sight, he clenched his fists, fighting the urge to punch a hole through the ancient drywall.

Every instinct, every muscle in his body, screamed at him to go back down the hall, back into the room where he had left his injured, helpless brother at the mercy of a monster. He leaned against the wall, bile rising in his chest like lava. He had never...never...intentionally put Sam in harm's way like this. But he was unarmed; Bobby's house was the only safe haven they had ever known, and the only place on the planet where Dean felt protected enough to lay down his weapons. What would his dad think of him now, if he knew Dean had carelessly left his gun in a room on the other side of the house? With Bobby crippled...and now missing...and Sam incapacitated? What the hell was he thinking?

Dean strode quickly to the back door, opening and closing it again with just enough noise to make it sound as if he had gone back to his work. Then he slipped quickly into the library, with John Winchester's voice ringing in his ears as if he were still there, still alive, drilling the basics of staying alive into his young sons' heads:

Take care of the threat first, then take care of the injured.

It had been his father's cardinal rule of staying alive when a hunt went sideways, and if this effed-up scenario didn't qualify, nothing did. He approached Bobby's cluttered desk, sweeping papers aside as he searched for his weapon. "Damn it, I know I left it here..." he growled to himself as his eyes scanned the room in vain.

"Looking for this?"

Dean turned just in time to see the silver barrel of his own gun slicing through the air toward his head. The last thing he heard was Bobby's deep throated laugh as he fell, unconscious before he hit the floor.

-oO- -oO- -oO-

"So... You gonna wake up or not?"

"Hmmm?" Sam recognized the tone of his brother's voice, knew he should be doing...something. His brain wasn't making the right connection to his eyes, however, and he felt the lure of sleep overcoming him again.

"I can wake you up if you want me to," the deep voice continued, a hiss in his right ear. "You probably won't like the way I do it, though."

All it took was one involuntary shift in the bed, and Sam was suddenly wide awake. He remembered being propped on his side with a pillow, to keep pressure off his bruised kidneys and the golf ball sized lump on the back of his head. He was lying flat on his back now, blinking heavily as he tried to focus on the water stained ceiling above him while trying not to lose his lunch.

"Where's Bobby?" Sam mumbled. His last clear memory was of Bobby forcing a shot on him and saying something about family. The rest of the conversation had faded into the fog of narcotic sleep.

"Oh, he's around somewhere."

Sam puzzled over the cold, detached tone in his brother's voice. Bobby must be giving him hell about something and Dean is pissed. And what the hell did he give me, anyway? I can't think straight.

"Man, you are one massive screw up, you know that?"

That one stopped him cold. He turned his head on the sweaty pillow, blinking until the familiar silhouette of his brother, sitting on the chair next to him, came into focus.

"What did I...do now?" Sam winced at the rasp in his voice, trying to get moisture into a throat dehydrated from too many drugs and not enough real nourishment.

"Well," Dean said, looking up at the ceiling. "Let's see. How about this one? You ran off and left my ass in Abbottsville. You got scared and ran to Bobby's house, knowing there was a shifter loose out there. You had no idea where I was or if I was even still alive, but you didn't care. How about that for starters?"

"That's not..."

"That's what Bobby told me. Said you showed up, running like the scared little girl that you are, and you had no idea...no idea...where I was or what happened to me." Dean was leaning forward now, fists clenched on the mattress. "But then again, that's just what you do, isn't it?"

"Dean," Sam flinched back in spite of himself. " I don't even remember driving to Bobby's. I had to get away from the shifter. If I hadn't," he stopped to take a ragged breath. "He would have killed me."

Dean shook his head and rose from the chair. "I wake up in a freakin' field, and when I get back to the room, you're gone. I got my ass handed to me, too, but did I go running off to hide and lick my wounds? No..." He leaned over the bed again, his face inches from his brother's. "I had to track you down, because I couldn't trust you enough to spare a thought for looking for me."

Sam blinked, then looked away. Dean was right; he had been more concerned with his own safety than that of his missing brother. He should have looked for Dean, found out what happened to him, instead of crawling into the first unlocked car he found and driving away. Dean had every right to be angry with him; evidently he had been tempering his rage until Sam was on the road to recovery.

"You're right," he said, looking back to meet the fire in Dean's eyes. "We've never left each other behind like that, and I shouldn't have done it."

Dean's eyes narrowed as he stared down at Sam. "But that's just it. Running away? It's a pattern with you, and frankly? I'm damned tired of it."

"What?" Sam painfully eased himself up in the bed until his head was lying sideways against the battered headboard. He watched as Dean rose from the chair, kicking it aside as he strode across the room to stare out the window, and even through a narcotic haze, suddenly everything came into focus. "Dean...where's Bobby?" he asked again.

Dean continued talking, almost to himself, as if he hadn't heard the question. "You know, I should have just kept on going, back in Abbottsville. Hit the road, start over...should have left your sorry ass behind like you left me. Maybe find me a partner I could trust."

"Maybe find you a new family?"

Dean turned slowly from the window, his face cloaked in shadow. Then he stepped forward into the dim light, a malevolent sneer on his face. "You're getting better at this. Didn't take you nearly as long to figure it out this time." He held his arms out, palms up in the universal gesture of confusion. "But tell me... why would I need a new family, Sammy? I got you."

Sam forced himself to maintain eye contact as Dean stepped closer. "Because you're not my brother."

The thing wearing Dean's face leaned over him and smiled.

"I am now."

-oO- -oO- -oO-

...wake up...come on, boy...damnit, Dean, wake the hell up...

The voice was gruff and demanding and oh so familiar. It also sounded strained and had a hollow, echoing sound to it. But it was Bobby's voice, and it demanded an immediate response, so Dean did his best to comply. Something cold and grainy ground against his cheek; it took several long seconds to focus on just what it was: the dirt encrusted floor of Bobby's basement.

"Sonofabitch" slid reflexively from Dean's lips as he rolled painfully onto his left side. "What the hell hit me?"

"Same thing that hit me, genius." Bobby's voice sounded from the corner. "Every freakin' step on the way down, face first. Your dive was a bit more graceful than mine, though."

A low groan escaped him as Dean pushed to his hands and knees, falling none too gracefully on his butt before finding his center of gravity. His gaze finally landed on Bobby, sitting propped in the corner near an old wood stove. "How long was I out?"

"About twenty minutes, give or take," Bobby said.

"How'd you end up down here?" Dean asked, brushing dirt from the side of his face and grimacing as he struck a particularly tender spot on his cheek.

"I was out back with my head under the hood of that Mustang. I heard someone behind me...thought it was you. Next thing I know I'm doing a somersault down the stairs."

Dean cradled his aching...and bleeding again, damn it...head for a moment before glancing up to the top of the rickety stairs. "Okay then...what's the odds of us getting through that door?"

"Slim to none."

"It's up there with Sam, Bobby."

"Don't you think I know that?" Bobby blew out a disgusted breath as he leaned back against the wall. "I don't have to tell you how bad this is, Dean."

Dean frowned for a moment as recent memory slowly came back online. "Bobby, how potent is that stuff you had loaded in those syringes?"

"Top shelf. It'll even put someone Sam's size down for a nice nap. I save it for special occasions." The older hunter grimaced as he shifted around on the cold, dusty floor. " Why do you ask?"

"'Cause that thing wearing your face just shot him up again."

"Damn it."

"Yeah."

Bobby watched as the younger hunter's eyes scanned the cluttered room, looking for anything to pry open the door that stood between them and freedom. "You won't be getting out that way. I reinforced it myself. There is a way out, though."

"Well, let's go, then." Dean levered to his feet, swaying precariously as the room swam and tilted. Finally he paused, glancing down at his friend, who had yet to move from his seat on the grimy floor. The other shoe dropped like a punch to the gut.

"Is it...?" he asked, gesturing to the denim encased leg that Bobby held with a white knuckle grip.

"Let me put it this way," Bobby grimaced as he leaned back against the wall. "It's not just sprained anymore. I rewrapped it; that'll have to do for now."

"Can you walk?"

"Doubt it."

Dean leaned over and extended his hand. "Well, try. I'm not leaving you here."

Bobby was already shaking his head before the words left Dean's mouth. "I told you... I can get you out. I ain't gonna be able to go the same way."

"And just how do you expect me to get out? Walk through the wall?"

"More like the ceiling," Bobby hissed as he allowed Dean to pull him to his feet, leaning heavily on the younger man until he could balance on his one good leg. He pointed to the far end of the basement, where a massive iron door hung open. "That way."

"The panic room?"

"Yep," Bobby leaned on the younger hunter as they slowly limped into the iron encased room. "Prop me over there and go get a ladder."

Bobby leaned against the wall as Dean stepped back into the basement and returned with a rickety step ladder. "What I am gonna do with this?"

"You remember when your soulless brother was on a mission to contaminate his physical body so you couldn't cram his soul back down his throat?"

Dean dragged the ladder into the room and stopped to catch his breath. "How could I forget? I got here just in time to keep him from turning you into sushi."

"Well," Bobby shifted his weight to take pressure off his injured leg. "We played a dandy little game of hide-and-seek before you got here. I had him trapped down here, thought I had the upper hand. He outsmarted me, though." Bobby gestured to the exhaust fan over their heads and the light bulb came on for Dean.

"He always was a slippery guy, even when he was little." Dean positioned the ladder under the fan, grabbing a screwdriver from a nearby bench before starting to climb.

"Now you see why I ain't gonna be able to go with you."

Dean paused halfway to the ceiling. "I am not leaving you here. I'll come back down and unlock the basement door after I get back into the house."

"No, you ain't," Bobby growled, leaning forward to steady the ladder as Dean neared the top. "You're gonna go get your brother and send that bastard wearing my face to hell. That's what you're gonna do."

Dean glanced down as he strained against the rusted bolts holding the fan plate against the ceiling. "Nope, that's not how this is going down." The metal screeched as the bolts slowly began to loosen. "If I don't get this thing, you're Sam's only chance at getting out alive. We're depending on you; don't tell me a little limp is gonna take you down."

"More than a little limp now," Bobby grumbled, wincing at the fan came loose with a metallic scream that set his teeth on edge. "Look, I got guns down here, already loaded with silver bullets. You just take one, get back in there and..."

Dean gave a mighty heave, and the fan gave way, landing somewhere outside with a muted thump. He jumped back down to the basement floor, took the loaded gun from Bobby's hand and stared him down.

"I said no. You just get your ass up those stairs and be waiting when I unlock the door. Then we go after that sonofabitch together." Without waiting for the inevitable argument, Dean climbed the ladder again and swung himself through the opening, snagging his sleeve on the way out. With a quick glance back, he gave a thumbs up and disappeared into the night.

"Damned idjit," Bobby growled as he slid a second weapon into his waistband and slowly limped toward the basement stairs.

-oO- -oO- -oO-

"You know," the shifter said. "You and I have a lot in common."

Sam stared back at the thing wearing Dean's face, too stunned to reply. Between the concussion and the multiple doses of painkillers, he had lost track of recent events several miles back. Dean had been with him, back in Abbottsville, then he wasn't. The shifter had first appeared in their motel room as his brother, and had summarily beaten the crap out of him. Bobby had taken care of him when he had arrived, bloody and beaten...but then he morphed into a stranger, rambling on about family before shooting him full of drugs.

Now, here it was, wearing Dean's face once more. And to make matters worse, he had no idea where Bobby and Dean were at the moment. Something drastic must have happened for both of them to be absent. Fear for his brother and surrogate father burned like acid in his throat, but a newborn babe would be more of a threat to the monster than Sam was right now. On any other normal day...or what passed for normal in their world...he could hold his own in a fight with Dean. But a whopping dose of Bobby's joy juice was singing in his veins now. Just keeping his eyes open and focused on the creature hovering over him was almost more than he could handle.

The shifter studied Sam, obviously disappointed in the young hunter's lack of participation in the conversation. "Yeah, you and I, Sam...We both just wanted what other people had: normal lives, a normal family. I understand you, you know."

"You don't know...anything," Sam hissed, flinching when the thing slid a familiar blade from its sheath and held it up for Sam to see. "I don't...murder...people."

Sam expected a vehement response, but instead, the shifter sat back, a pensive expression on his brother's stolen face.

"You know why I did it, Sam? Why I killed all those people?"

Sam stared back, revolted by the cool, unrepentant killer casually stroking the blade of his brother's knife as he sat by his bedside. Finally, Sam shook his head.

"Because they deserved it." The shifter studied the glint of the blade as he turned it back and forth in his hand. " You should have checked out the victims a little more closely. Bastards, all of 'em." He leaned forward, placing the razor sharp point of the knife against Sam's cheek.

"Two drug dealers, a petty thief and a child molester. I took 'em all out. Course, I couldn't hang around too long in their meat suits, them being criminals and all." He sat back, a self satisfied look on his...on Dean's face...that made Sam sick to his stomach. " But I made sure they'll never hurt anybody again."

"So," Sam swallowed around the dry lump in his throat. "You're some kind of hero now?"

Come on, guys..this SOB is seriously unhinged...where the hell are you?

Sam realized a second too late two cardinal facts about shapeshifters: the first: don't antagonize them and the second: don't underestimate how fast and strong they can be. One slow, heavy lidded blink later, and the shifter was in his face again; hot, moist breath against his cheek and the knife blade pressed painfully under his chin. He lifted his face involuntarily, hoping to relieve the pressure, only to have the shifter press the point in and slice a thin line carefully down his jaw line. Sam froze, his eyes meeting those of his assailant: familiar green eyes that glittered with madness as they followed the thin line of blood that snaked down Sam's throat. After a long moment, the shifter sat back, taking the blade with him and Sam released a shaky breath.

"I was taking out the trash," he continued as if his sudden attack on Sam had never happened. "I get a new face and the world's a little safer. Win-win, you see. But I got tired of living like that...no family, no friends."

"You're breaking my heart," Sam said.

He leaned forward again and Sam blinked but refused to flinch back this time. "Then I found that farm. Straight out of a storybook, you know? Quiet, isolated, living off the land. So, I camped out, watched the family for a while...and decided to stay."

Sam took a shallow breath, suddenly nauseous from the scent of his own blood as it dripped sluggishly down his neck, and from the awakening pain of his injuries as the painkillers slowly began to wear off. He shifted in the bed, unable to stifle a quiet groan as he met the madman's eyes. Keep him talking; psycho loves the sound of his own voice and where the hell are Dean and Bobby, anyway?

"And the wife...she never knew?"

The shifter frowned, Dean's familiar features twisted with confusion. "Man, and I thought you were the smart one. The farmer, he was a real blue ribbon bastard. Alcoholic, beat his wife on a regular basis. And so..." the thing wearing his brother's face smiled grimly and Sam fought down nausea once again. "He had to go."

-oO- -oO- -oO-

"Don't you see, Sam? He had what I wanted...what you've always wanted...a family, a life. And instead of appreciating it, he abused it, took it for granted." The shifter leaned back, studying the hazy sheen on the blade of the knife. "Just like you."

The shifter wearing Dean's face leaned over Sam's bed again, but this time his expression was cold and vicious. "So, anyway... one day, the farmer goes out to the fields...and he doesn't come back again."

"And you stepped right in?"

"Damn straight," the shifter said with a shit eating grin that was so much like Dean's that Sam felt his heart flutter in his chest. For the first time since he had awakened, imprisoned in this room with a monster, Sam began to feel gut churning fear, not only for himself but for his brother and friend, as well. He knew Dean would have attempted a rescue by now if he were able. But the house was deathly quiet as the night settled in; no voices outside the room, no pounding on the door, nothing.

"Her name was Rachel."

"What?" Sam stuttered, his unfocused gaze shifting back to the creature whose facial expression had shifted once again.

"Rachel. I gave her what she wanted: a kind, caring husband, someone who would appreciate her." The knife was back in Sam's line of vision now and, try as he might, he was unable to take his eyes from it and the copper streaks that lined the blade. "I told her I'd had a change of heart and was gonna change my ways, and she believed me. No more drinking, no more abuse. She never questioned it, and I got what I wanted, too. A wonderful woman, a life of my own."

"You murdered her husband...stole his life." Sam knew he was feeding the growing anger he could see in the shifter's demeanor , but life as a Winchester meant standing your ground, no matter what.

"I killed a monster, a human monster but a monster just the same. But you..." The blade flashed again, this time opening up a precise cut just under Sam's right eye before he could shift away. "You killed her. The only good thing I've ever had. She was just trying to protect me and you shot her down like a dog."

Sam tried to move away from the hand that suddenly grasped a handful of his hair and pulled his head back, but drugs and pain had drained his strength like a sieve.

"I was in the basement the whole time, Sam." The creature hovered so closely now that foul spittle landed on Sam's cheek. "I knew you guys were coming; it was only a matter of time. So when you two bastards came out of the woods behind the house, armed to the teeth, I knew you were there for me."

The blade rested against Sam's bloody cheek, its finely hone edge painting a macabre symbol on his face. "So, you hid in the basement like a beaten dog? If you really loved her..." Sam wondered what goading the monster was going to do for his chances of getting out of this alive, but it was too late to back out now. "You should have protected her."

White hot agony screamed from Sam's battered ribcage as the shifter rose over him and shoved one knee into his chest. "Like you protected Jessica?" he snarled, one hand still tangled in Sam's hair and the other one wrapped around his throat, the knife blade scraping skin in the monster's grip. "You knew she was in danger and you abandoned her. You knew what was out there and you lied to her for years. She died screaming, burning alive with your name on her lips and what did you do? What you always do, little brother. You ran."

Sam flailed weakly at the hands that held him pinned to the bed, but between the shifting bones in his chest, the drugs and the iron clad grip on his throat, it was no contest. With lungs burning and explosions going off behind his eyelids, he felt the world slipping away as the knife slid like ice across his throat and the shifter spoke again into his ear.

"Eye for an eye, Sam. You took away my life...now I'm gonna take away yours."

-oO- -oO- -oO-

Dean had heard and seen enough.

Getting back into the house was easy. Too easy, he thought as he checked the load in his weapon and slipped silently down the hallway to the cellar door. Bobby stood scowling on the other side as he shoved back the lock and released him from his prison, hobbling on a screwed up ankle that was sure to give him hell later when he had time to dwell on it.

The house was eerily quiet as Dean crept down the hallway, too impatient and freaked out by the tomblike quality of the rooms to wait for his crippled companion. The door was partially open to Sam's bedroom; Dean could hear muted voices and he relaxed slightly, his back pressed to the wall near the door. Psychos loved to monologue, but they enjoyed an audience. If the sonofabitch was talking, then Sam must still be alive. Anything else was unacceptable.

One voice, raised in anger, drifted out of the room and Dean froze. It wasn't Bobby's voice, from the body of a shifter that he heard. It was his own, and Dean winced, anger tightening his jaw and the grip on his gun. That...thing...had morphed once again, and was now wearing his own face to taunt and threaten his incapacitated brother.

"She died screaming, burning alive with your name on her lips and what did you do? What you always do, little brother. You ran."

Dean ground his teeth together, anger singing in his veins. That...thing...was using Dean's own memories to torture his brother, saying things that Dean would never say, twisting events and memories in a way that a semi-coherent Sam would take to heart.

"Eye for an eye, Sam. You took away my life...now I'm gonna take away yours."

Dean had well and truly heard enough. He kicked the door open and stepped through, gun raised as he entered. The scene before him took his breath.

Sam lay, limp and bloody, in the shifter's grip, his eyes half open and unfocused. His blood soaked shirt clung to his chest, and from his angle at the door, Dean couldn't tell where the blood was coming from.

Dean stared for a second at his own image, deja vu from a similar scene years past flashing through his brain. A shifter wearing his skin had damned near beaten his brother to death that time, too, before Dean had put a silver bullet through its heart. His hesitation cost him dearly this time, as the shifter immediately sensed the danger behind him, and pulled the unconscious body of his brother across his chest like a shield, the bloody blade of Dean's own knife lodged against his throat.

"Well, well, well, look who's here, Sam." The shifter shook Sam's limp body, his arm cranked around his neck in a chokehold.

"Let him go." Dean knew the command was useless, but he needed time. Time for Bobby to catch up and come up with some kind of plan that didn't include shooting through his unconscious brother in order to put a fatal load in the shifter's heart.

The shifter smiled and Dean cringed at the madness reflected back to him from his own eyes. "You know I ain't gonna do that, so you might as well put the gun down and slide it over here to me, just like in the movies, Dean."

"Now why would I do that?"

"Because if you don't..." the shifter moved the knife ever so slightly, and Sam groaned as a new line of fresh trail trailed down his chest.

"Stop." The words left Dean's lips before he was conscious of the thought. "Put the knife down and I'll do it."

"You first," the shifter growled.

Dean slowly lowered the gun, placing it on the floor and kicking it into the room. It slid under Sam's bed and out of sight and the shifter moved, faster than Dean would have believed possible. It dropped Sam back onto the bed and leapt across him, tackling Dean and bringing him to the floor.

Blows rained down upon Dean's unprotected face, reminding him that the shifter was damned strong and that he was still impaired from his earlier flight down the basement stairs. He landed a few of his own, but they seemed weak and ineffective against the superior strength and madness fueled fury of the shifter wearing his skin. A lucky punch put the shifter down momentarily, his hand holding crushed cartilege from a broken nose. Dean rose to his knees, shaking his head to clear it and wondering where the hell his back up was. Suddenly the shifter was on him again, straddling his chest with his own finely hone knife pressed to his throat.

"Dean?'

Both men froze as the pain addled voice of Dean's younger brother sounded from across the room. The shifter smiled down at Dean, whispering as he raised his fist.

"Looks like little brother is back. Time to finish what I started."

With one final, desperate burst of adrenaline, Dean caught the fist descending toward his face and gave the arm a vicious twist. The shifter howled as the bone snapped and he sagged to the side. Dean slid out from under his attacker and rose to his knees just as a explosion and flash of light sent his senses into overload and both men slid bonelessly to the floor.

-oO- -oO- -oO-

"Damn it to hell, boy," Bobby fumed as he leaned against the kitchen doorway, struggling to catch his breath against the blinding pain from his mangled ankle. He had seriously downplayed the injury to Dean, not wanting to distract the young man from his primary mission of rescuing his brother. Dean had disappeared from sight as soon as Bobby had limped from the basement stairwell, fully expecting Bobby to follow and back him up. And he was trying, God knows he was. It was just going to take him a bit longer than either of them had planned.

He had made it as far as the living room when voices raised in anger carried to him from down the hall. Bobby, paused, wiping sweat from his brow and fighting back nausea as he shifted to his good leg and listened. It sounded as if Dean was talking to himself, but that didn't make any sense. Unless...

"Balls," he growled as he slid his weapon from his waistband and released the safety. The shifter must have morphed back into Dean's form again, Bobby mused as he once again began his hobbling gait through the house. Must be confusing the hell out of Sam, he thought grimly. I just hope to hell he's still alive to witness it.

Sounds of a violent struggle followed, and Bobby grimaced against the pain as he lurched down the hall, weapon in hand. He was within sight of the bedroom door when a gunshot rang out and the house fell silent.

"Oh, hell," Bobby breathed as he staggered to the end of the hallway, his heart in his throat at what might lay beyond the door. He took a deep breath, then stepped into the room, weapon raised, eyes searching.

The sight before him took his breath: Two bodies lay on the floor, one face down and the other on its side, face to the wall. Bobby stared wordlessly at the identical forms, mirror images of the older Winchester, unable to determine which was the real deal and which was the fiendish clone. One step into the room brought him closer, close enough to see a thick, macabre pool of blood slowing seeping out from underneath the body lying face down on the floor. A quick glance at the other body, and Bobby blew out a long, relieved breath as he recognized the torn sleeve of the jacket Dean...the real Dean...had been wearing during their confinement in the basement. Relief swept over him like a wave as that body began to stir, soft profanities hissed as he rolled over and stared up at Bobby with a frown.

"What the hell took you so long, old man?" Dean growled as he extended a hand to the older hunter.

"Oh my God..."

Dean was on his feet, staggering slightly but upright, at the pained sound of his younger brother's voice. Sam was on the floor beside the bed, on his knees, leaning against the mattress with Dean's gun hanging lax from his hand. He was staring down at the bloody corpse in front of him, eyes wide and face pale as death.

Dean looked over his shoulder as he approached his brother's swaying form. "Bobby, I thought..."

"It wasn't me," Bobby said as he gave the shifter's body a harsh shove with his booted foot, grimacing at the pain. " I got here as fast as I could. By the time I got here, Sam had already took him out."

Dean knelt next to his brother, frowning at the perspiration that dripped from Sam's bloody cheek and the dazed disconnection in his eyes. "But how did he know..."

"Which one of you was which? Damned if I know." Bobby hobbled across the room to lean against the dresser with a pained sigh.

Sam chose that moment to blink heavily, his gaze shifting from the body on the floor to the brother staring anxiously at him at his side. Swollen, blackened eyes widened, then slid closed as Sam began to list to the side, tremors shaking his frame as he fell. Dean caught him, felt his head fall limply upon his shoulder as Sam lost consciousness.

"Jesus, Bobby," Dean said as he rose, bringing his brother's limp form with him and feeling his weight lighten as the older hunter assisted from the other side. "What did that sonofabitch give him?"

"Don't think the drugs got much to do with this," Bobby replied as they returned Sam to the bed. "This is just stress and pain and adrenaline, all catching up to him. Give him a few minutes to catch up."

Dean turned Sam's head to the side, frowning at the shallow cuts on his throat that still seeped blood but didn't seem as life threatening as they had a few moments before. Only one even appeared to require stitches, and for that Dean blew out a long, relieved breath. A few seconds later, Sam blinked sluggishly and turned his head instinctively toward his brother.

"He said...we killed his wife." Sam's voice was slurred but amazingly lucid. " She wasn't a shifter, Dean...and we killed her."

Damn him and his soft heart. Dean shook his head and caught Sam's eye. " Sam, what exactly was she doing when you ganked her?"

"She was...going after you...with a knife."

"A damned big butcher knife, and I have no doubt she was gonna use it. She was willing to kill me...to kill both of us...to protect that freak of nature. She had nothing to lose, and you did what you had to. End of story."

Sam frowned, and Dean waited. He knew killing a person...for any reason...went against the grain of Sam's compassionate nature, but sometimes evil came in human form. The woman had come at him from behind the kitchen door and had him dead to rights before Sam had appeared and put a bullet in her heart. Whether she was a shifter or not became a mute point when it was kill or be killed. In time, Sam would just have to accept that and move on.

"Thanks for saving my ass with that guy, by the way..." Dean gestured to the body on the floor, grimacing as a shiver went through his brother's frame.

"I didn't know."

"Okay, random boy," Dean smiled down at his brother as he continued to check out Sam's other injuries. Obviously Sam was not as out of it as Dean had originally thought. "You wanna elaborate on that?" And then the other shoe dropped and Dean's hands stilled.

"You mean...you didn't know which one of us was the real deal?"

Sam met Dean's eyes and slowly nodded.

"And you shot anyway." It was more of a statement than a question. Sam responded by looking away, refusing to meet his brother's eyes.

Bobby cleared his throat and inclined his head toward the shifter's body. "Gonna go find a tarp to haul this piece of trash outta my house. Be back in a few."

Dean waited until Bobby had hobbled from the room before turning back to his brother. " I heard some of what he said to you."

Sam nodded, his eyes still averted and half closed.

"We've been here before, Sam. Shifters know how to twist stuff, turn it around to inflict the most damage possible. You know that. So...you wanna talk about it?'

"Actually, I don't, if it's all the same to you," Sam said, his voice rough and barely audible.

"Well, it's not." Dean dropped onto the side of Sam's bed and studied the side of his brother's face that he could see. "When you lock your jaw like that, I know we're about to have an Oprah moment, so we might as well get it over with before Bobby comes back."

Sam remained silent and Dean sighed. "Look, I haven't had a stellar week either, but you're gonna listen anyway, 'cause I got some things I wanna say."

Sam turned his head at that, and Dean figured it was as much as he could hope for under the circumstances. Hell, he was surprised that his little brother was still conscious, much less ready for a totally out of character monologue from him.

"You know as much about shapeshifters as I do, Sam. Hell, I taught you everything you know, right?"

Sam offered a weak smile, and Dean took that as a yes. "They download their victim's memories and emotions. That's how they fool people. But they don't always get it right."

Sam remained silent, but focused on Dean's words. "You said, after St. Louis, that you knew almost right away that the shifter wearing my face wasn't really me, right?" When Sam nodded, Dean continued. "How did you know?"

" I just...had a feeling." Sam frowned, as if he had never considered the how before.

"You didn't know for sure?"

Sam swallowed audibly. " No."

Dean shook his head and leaned back. "That's where you screwed up back then, Sam. Because you hesitated. You didn't trust your gut and take him down when you had the chance. And that's how you ended up in the sewer, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey."

"I seem to recall...you were 'trussed up' down there, too," Sam said with a crooked smile.

"Who's telling this story?"

"Sorry."

" The point is, you trusted your gut feelings this time, you made the right decision and saved both our asses. Bobby's, too. I trust your hunches more than anyone else's facts, any day of the week and twice on Sunday."

Sam looked away, doubt still clouding his eyes.

"That stuff the shifter was saying? He got just enough right to fool the guy on the street. It was the fine details that tripped him up." He leaned forward and caught his brother's eye.

"Bobby told me some of what the shifter said to you back at the motel. Sure, I have issues with you. You have issues with me. We deal, we always have. But the rest of it? That was dragged up and twisted around from old issues that are dead and buried, literally. I trust you to watch my back, every freaking day, every single time. I don't worry about that and that's the truth."

Dean watched his brother's expression as he absorbed Dean's words. But there was more Dean needed to say, something his brother needed to hear.

"And Sam?" He waited until Sam glanced his way before continuing. " I don't blame you for Jessica. I never did. You're the only one that seems to want to carry that load."

Sam's breath caught in his throat, but after a long moment, he blinked,, then shifted to face his brother again. "What if I'd made the wrong choice this time?"

Dean paused, a glib reply on his lips. The issue here was all too clear now. It was trust, sure, but it wasn't Dean's trust in Sam that was in question, not really. It was Sam's trust in himself, to make the right decision in a life or death situation when his recent history was scarred and pebbled by a laundry list of wrong decisions. Second guessing was becoming second nature to Sam now, and that could prove fatal out there in the field. Dean knew his next words were too important to toss out lightly, and he chose his words carefully.

Dean sighed loudly and looked up at the ceiling. "Remember that night in the cabin, after we rescued Dad? You came out of the back room and I was holding a gun on him, remember?"

"Kinda hard to forget," Sam said. "I thought you'd lost your mind."

"But when I told you Dad was possessed, you believed me. You stood by me, you didn't question me. You trusted me, right?"

"Of course," Sam answered immediately.

"What if I'd made the wrong choice?"

Sam blinked heavily, fighting in vain against the pull of exhaustion as the fight or flight response faded away. "You didn't have a choice, Dean."

"But you did," Dean paused for effect. " You had to make a split second decision, and you made the right one. Sometimes you just gotta stop thinking and just do."

"That would explain some of your more questionable bar hookups," Bobby said as he limped back into the room, dragging a muddy tarp behind him. Dean rose from the bed and helped the older hunter spread the tarp over the body of his double, rolling it up like a rug.

"You know," Dean said as they lifted the bundle and dragged it into the hallway. " This is getting to be a habit. Of course, you can't blame anyone for wanting to steal these stunning good looks."

"Not to mention your humble personality," Bobby shot back and Dean grinned. Then he glanced back into the room, studying his now sleeping brother with a frown.

"Level with me, Bobby. Does he need a hospital?"

Bobby sighed and scratched his head. " I think he'll be okay. Won't happen overnight." He looked pointedly at Dean, the double meaning of his words not lost on either of them.

"How about you?" Dean glanced down at Bobby's leg, now freshly rewrapped and held out stiffly in front of the older hunter.

"Hell, boy, I've had worse than this. A little ice and some Jack therapy, I'll be good as new."

"Jack?" Dean asked as he returned to the room, frowning at the blood stains marring the floor.

"Daniels, you idjit."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Dean sagged onto the bed next to Sam's, suddenly exhausted beyond belief.

"Well, you need sleep more than you need alcohol right now," Bobby said as he turned to leave the room. "Sam's still gonna need some help for a while while he heals up and …."

Bobby fell silent as he looked over his shoulder, smiling fondly at his two charges. Sam slept on, battered and bruised but alive and wasn't that always a win in their books at the end of the day? And Dean had finally stepped down from guard duty and given in to his weariness, already asleep, head barely on the faded pillow, his face turned toward his brother even in exhausted sleep.

Bobby turned off the light and stepped gingerly over the hastily wrapped body in the hallway. "You poor, stupid bastard," he said, looking down and shaking his head. "Family is a gift. You can't steal it." He glanced back at the room where the two most important people in his life slept on. They weren't Bobby's family in the traditional sense, but nothing in their screwed up lives was traditional. At this point in his life, he would take whatever he could get.

"Family is a gift, and ain't nobody got the right to take that away." He hobbled down the hallway, in search of the comfort of an ice pack and a bottle of amber painkiller, and the quiet peace of the night that would soon lull him to sleep as well.