P.S. I changed the name of these chapters because I was just reading an article about how female writers are too self-deprecating, lol. This chapter title is a lot more fitting! :)

And now, without further ado...

"Sammy?" Dean tried again, gently squeezing Sam's arm. "Sam?" He tilted his head down to get a glimpse of his little brother's expression. Sam sniffed again, his eyes watery.

"I thought you'd really gone," Sam croaked quietly, still looking down.

"What?" Dean asked, completely unaware of what Sam was talking about.

"I thought - when you left..." Sam trailed off, hoping that was enough to clue Dean in. Apparently it was and Dean let out a relieved huff of amusement. Sam pursed his lips, not finding anything funny about what he'd said.

"I can't believe you believed me," Dean said reassuringly, coming closer and squeezing Sam's arms. Sam could tell his brother was smiling with the way he spoke... but instead of soothing it just came off condescending. Time seemed to stop as Sam's fury shot from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye. He looked straight up at Dean, his eyes wet, his entire expression was pained as he flipped his hands out sharply, angrily appealing to his brother.

"What the fuck, Dean!?" He yelled, pushing his brother off. Dean backed up, a look of confused hurt on his face. "What the hell is wrong with you?!"

"What? I thought you would've been happy to hear I hadn't left you," Dean asked, slightly annoyed but it didn't hold a candle to his fuming sibling.

"So it was just a ruse? You just wanted me to think you were a total asshole?"

Dean squinted, his eyes fixed somewhere above as he thought about it. It would've been funny in any other circumstance.

"Yeah," Dean dragged the word out, shrugging, then looking back to his brother with an apologetic wince.

"What if I'd died?" Sam's voice boomed, his eyes daggers.

At that, Sam touched a nerve.

"You almost did and I was there, Sam," Dean snarled back.

"No Dean," Sam interrupted, his teeth gritted. That's not the point, was unspoken but Dean read it loud and clear. Sam shook his head and gazed back at where Dean had been. "What if I'd had a heart attack?" Sam murmured then looked back at Dean, his anger dwindling in the face of the disturbing hypothetical. "What if... What if something had happened fast. Too fast before you-" Sam stopped, knowing Dean had gotten the gist and unwilling to finish the thought out loud.

Dean blinked.

"Sam all your symptoms have been relatively slow. And these are all for the trials - so you can live to close the gates - I never thought-"

"No you just didn't think," Sam shot back severely.

"Sam, I was right there the whole time!" Dean yelled, pointing down the hallway. C'mon, Dean thought, I've got to get some points for that.

Instead Sam's expression shifted at his brother's outburst, his eyes plaintive, everything in him wishing Dean would just get it. When Dean had sequestered him he had made Sam so much more vulnerable. And now he finds out that Dean had been playing him the whole time? For what? Psychological torture?

Sam drummed up all the anger he had left in him to respond.

"How-" shit, Sam thought, hearing his own voice betray him: it was threatening to crack at any moment. He kept looping the words 'psychological torture' around and around in his head and it was getting to him that Dean had been the one to do it. "-the fuck," Sam overcompensated, "was I supposed to think you-you-you," Sam stuttered emotionally, waving his hand down the hallway, unable to get his words out as Dean slowly moved into his space. Sam leaned back a little, shaking, his lips quivering, eyes on the brink of tears. "-were just... fucking..." Sam stopped, distracted as Dean started rubbing a hand up and down Sam's arm, his expression brutally sympathetic. Sam would've folded then, his heartbeat clamoring to just give in at the gesture of affection, his lips and words trembling, but with one last burst of outrage he finished: "-fucking camping out in the god damn hallway!" Sam's voice pitched and shaky, his composure lost but at least he'd gotten his sentence out.

"-I'm sorry," Dean followed Sam's last word immediately. It was a calm, honest and collected apology, several notches down on the volume scale Sam had risen to. Sam swallowed roughly, his hurt hazel eyes landing on Dean's. Sam's jaw clenched, overwhelmed, but at least he could see in Dean's eyes that his brother meant the apology. Dean kept up the arm rub and Sam wished he could twist away from it. Instead he looked down the hallway again and stared at where Dean had stationed himself. He'd deliberately quarantined Sam and risked him to a painful death alone. How could Dean have done that?

Sam's eyes were watery, his throat hoarse and raw and as he just stood there thinking about it, staring at the walkie talkie, realizing that Dean had used it to further mess with him by making him think he was going to be consistently absent and in some other location of the bunker... Sam felt a tear roll down his cheek. Dean caught sight of it.

"Sam, I'm sorry," Dean repeated in the same serious, consoling tone. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry."

Hearing Dean's genuine apology affected Sam more than he expected. He'd grown up being called the sensitive one, the drama queen, constantly told to suck it up and quit bitching or whining. His emotions dismissed and discarded so often by his father, treated only with tolerance at most by Dean. For Sam, it was practically old hat to receive vague, unfeeling platitudes like, "it's gonna be okay, you'll see."

But now Dean was flat-out apologizing sincerely. Something like that came around so rarely and suddenly instead of mollifying things it just felt like a confirmation that Sam had endured a terrible injustice at the hands of his older brother.

Dean had taken advantage of Sam's condition and used it against him to make him feel worse. He'd been mean and manipulative while Sam could barely raise a hand, much less his voice, against him. Then Dean had let Sam think he was completely on his own, facing the unknown but probably painful future symptoms of the trials without any emotional support or even the bare minimum comfort of knowing his big brother was nearby.

"Sammy?" Dean asked, moving his hand up to Sam's shoulder. Sam cringed away, wincing, looking like he was about to cry. Dean tugged him towards him gently: if Sam wanted a hug all he had to do was lean into it. "Sam? Really. I'm sorry," Dean promised. Sam let out a gasped whimper and finally let Dean pull him in with a small cry. He wrapped shaky arms around his brother and tried to absorb the affection he'd lost. After a few seconds of silence as Dean just held his little brother, he started talking.

"You almost died this morning, Sammy," Dean said, "because I wasn't there. I would've known your temperature if I'd been by your side. We would've caught it before it got as bad as it did."

Objectively, Sam couldn't disagree with his brother on that. The symptoms of hypothermia had started right after the bath: Dean would have caught it. If it hadn't been for their fight, Sam may also have eaten the grilled ham and cheese sandwich Dean had made for him.

None of that was why he was upset though.

"You have no idea... how sorry I am, Sam," Dean struggled to stay even but Sam caught the break in his voice. Sam sniffed and blinked away tears over Dean's shoulder, reaching for a better grip on Dean.

"I don't care that you missed the symptoms, Dean," Sam murmured tiredly. Dean hugged Sam tighter but he stayed silent. "I just didn't want to die without you," he whispered, "on bad terms."

"Listen to me," Dean said quietly, matching Sam's volume, "we are never on bad terms, Sammy."

Sam choked a disbelieving laugh and Dean's hand lifted to the back of his neck. Sam pressed his cheek against Dean's shoulder and felt another tear break free.

"I'm serious. I... Sammy, I'm so sorry that I made you think we were," Dean said solemnly, rubbing Sam's back and Sam hugged his brother, coming very close to breaking but managing to hold it together because in spite of all this, he and his brother were okay.

They kept the embrace for awhile; Dean didn't want to be the one to step back from it. He had to give Sam the time he needed. Finally, his little brother spoke up.

"You should be," Sam croaked and let out a soft chuckle.

Dean closed his eyes in relief, understanding that he'd just been forgiven.

"I know," Dean agreed solemnly but he smiled over Sam's shoulder, feeling like things were going to be all right. He rubbed Sam's shoulders and just as Sam thought they were going to detach, Dean gave a curious relenting sigh over his back.

"And Sammy... if you do die," Dean said calmly and Sam tensed in his arms, "I'm going to be right there with you. You're not going to die alone. I promise," Dean finished, his tone despairing. Somehow this pierced Sam more than anything else. He'd wanted to hear Dean say that all along but the way Dean said it made Sam want to demand that his brother take it back.

"Okay," Sam sniffed. "But I'm not going to die," he said firmly and suddenly Sam nearly gasped at the new-found strength in Dean's grip. Instead he just let out choked-off laughter as he tried to return the embrace.

"That's what I like to hear," Dean murmured, smiling. He loosened his grip to let Sam breath and rubbed his back. "Okay, are you okay?"

"Yeah," Sam said, wiping his eyes, starting to pull away. He'd lost some tears but neither of them had fully broke down. This had been a surface crack that'd had to heal before it hit foundations.

Under any normal circumstances they would've just fumed and gone their own separate ways: Sam to a library or for a walk, Dean to a bar. They'd reconnect the following morning, the previous night's fight easily glossed over, any leftover tension bottoming out with each new discussion over where to eat breakfast or Smurfs versus Fraggle Rock or creating new code words during the drive...

But in this case with what they were going through, neither one of them could afford the luxury of being too far apart. Sam's condition - these trials - had been taking a toll on the brothers' normal coping mechanisms from the start but if Sam's near-death experience had proven anything it was that the only right thing to do was to stick together. Both of them were stressed and exhausted. Anger required energy they were slowly losing and it left them both just plainly emotional.

Anything between them that would've had them huffing away to get over alone normally would be coming fast and quick now in the bunker from here on out. They'd have to just confront it, hug it out - because fuck words when you're this tired - and move on.

Through this embrace, this new standard was set solid. In order to be so close, they'd have to adapt and so, at a very basic level of awareness, the two of them, in their own minds yet at the same time, understood and accepted the terms as they pulled away from each other.

Dean kept his hand on Sam's back, watching with a guilty, crooked smile as Sam rubbed his eyes out.

"You sure, now-? You're okay-?" Dean asked and Sam gave a wet laugh. Blinking up at Dean he gave a weary yet pointed thumbs up.

"Elated," he deadpanned and Dean smiled softly, still rubbing his little brother's back. "You?"

"Yeah. Awesome."

Dean pulled his arm away from Sam to rub his eyes. When he finished he looked openly at his brother.

"You still feel okay? Should I get the wheelchair?"

"No-no-no- don't get the wheelchair, I can do it."

"You sure?"

"Yeah just..." Sam reached out, "help me," he murmured, leaning forward into Dean as Dean grasped his arms under bent elbows and took his weight. Sam took a step forward with relative ease.

"Hey all right awesome," Dean said, impressed, and just like that they were back to it, shuffling down the hallway, Sam as focused as ever while Dean resumed his role as personal trainer slash human walker frame.

A couple of minutes later they were still at it.

"Almost there, tiger, you're doing great," Dean said. Sam grunted in acknowledgement.

"Feel like an old lady," Sam said, still looking down, his posture hunched forward over their arms.

"Y'look like one too," Dean offered. Sam huffed a laugh and kept moving.

Sam had broken the stream of Dean's coaching in favor of banter so Dean changed tack accordingly.

"Dude your hair's a fuckin' mess, man."

"S'what... happens when... you don't use... conditioner," Sam managed. Dean wasn't concerned about his brother's halted response: he could tell the kid's strength wasn't depleting; he was just out of breath from sore muscles and lack of exercise.

"You realize that's a product only sold to women, right?"

"Bite me," Sam huffed. Dean smiled. They were getting closer to his bedroom. The banter was quickening Sam's pace.

"No, but I could give you a haircut in your sleep."

"Don't you dare," Sam whispered as if Dean had just said some unspeakable evil. Dean snickered.

"Okay," Dean finally said calmly, looking over his shoulder to gauge the doorway of his bedroom. "We're almost there."

"'Kay," Sam breathed.

"So what do you want to do after we get you set up?" Dean asked genuinely. Sam shook his head.

"I dunno."




"Not really."

"Uhhh..." Dean hummed in thought, "oh shit, stop, hold on," Dean said suddenly, realizing he'd almost taken them past the doorway. He squeezed Sam's arms and angled him in. "You good?"

"Uh huh," Sam replied, still focusing properly and coordinating his movements well. They stepped into Dean's room and Sam glanced up to check out the familiar surroundings. His eyes landed on the mattress.

"Did you make your bed?" Sam asked in disbelief.

"Yeah, what, you don't?"

"You don't!"

"Well I don't give a shit about motel beds," Dean answered dismissively, leading Sam over to the side of the bed. "Nobody cares about motel beds-" he muttered then shouted, "Don't - no - don't sit down yet!"

Sam had been about to collapse onto the mattress.

"What, why?" Sam flat-out whined over his brother, having lost all sense of his age and causing Dean to actually laugh aloud at the sound as he pulled the sheets down.

"Okay you're good," Dean said, still smiling. He tried to spot Sam's descent but Sam just belly-flopped onto the bed and laid still, appreciating the feel of the memory foam contouring to his body. He closed his eyes, trying to bliss out on at least this one good thing.

"Dude your bed is awesome," Sam said, his voice muffled but the genuine awe was unmistakable. Dean walked to the foot of the bed as he unfolded a second, heavier comforter he'd grabbed from a shelf.

"Dude, I know right?" Dean said just before he flipped it out. With a quick whoosh-phumph, Dean blanketed all six foot four of his brother. The startled and helpless ah! sound from Sam underneath the heavy cover managed to get Dean laughing again.

Writer's Note: Thank you so much for reading! Please comment/review if you can spare the time! ~ Alex