Always at the Other End
K Hanna Korossy

He used to be fun, once.

Dean stared at the open laptop, hands limp on the table. He used to be gleeful when Sam was out of the room for a while like this, jumping at the chance to surf for porn, or catch up on Dr. Sexy, MD, or have some quality time with the magic fingers. He used to enjoy things.

He couldn't even remember when that ended. After Hell? After Sam beat him to a pulp and rushed off to go spring Lucifer? Long before Heaven turned out to be a bust and even Castiel threw in the towel, anyway. The pleasure Dean got from a hot woman, a fresh slice of pie, the Impala flying down an empty stretch of road, or just hanging out with his little brother, seemed further back than he could even remember.

Dean stared at the laptop, a hollowed-out version of the person he'd used to be, and couldn't even seem to muster the energy to care.

The motel room door rattled.

He swung his gaze heavily that way to see Sam fumble his way inside, balancing several paper bags in his arms with his phone pressed between his shoulder and ear. Growing up, just the sight of the kid made some part of Dean sigh in contentment. He was pretty sure that part of him was dead now.

"Yeah… All right, thanks, we'll be there tomorrow." Sam dropped the bags on the far end of the table and retrieved his phone, sliding it into his pocket. "We've got a case."

Dean huffed. "A job, seriously? Something more important than Apocalypse Now?" Or finding those two sons of bitches who'd slaughtered Sam in front of him, not to mention Dean himself.

Sam didn't even bother looking bitchy; neither of them were exactly on their game. "It's a friend of Jim's."

Okay, he felt that one. Pastor Jim's death, four years behind them, was still an unhealed ache. There wasn't much Dean wouldn't have done for the man, and they weren't really any closer to a plan to shut down Lucifer anyway. Dean closed the laptop and got up to pack. "What's the case?"

"Guy runs a shelter. A bunch of homeless men have gone missing lately, all under 40, all just vanished into thin air."

Dean stopped, a rolled-up pair of jeans in his hands. "Homeless guys? Dude, they disappear all the time—probably just moved on or something."

Sam was already shaking his head as he stuffed things into his own duffel. "No, Monty says they weren't the kind—they left friends behind, all their belongings. Something's going on, I can feel it."

"Well, if you can feel it…" Dean muttered, shoving the jeans into his bag. At least it would be something to do. And they did owe Jim. He zipped up the duffel. "I'll be in the car."

"You freeze my laptop again?" Sam asked, half-teasing.

Dean paused, gaze going from the computer in Sam's hand to his face. He looked…hopeful? That couldn't be right. Dean shook his head, uninterested in their usual game. "Didn't even touch it," he said honestly, and shouldered past Sam out the door.

He could feel his brother's eyes on him as he went. And that actually did bother him. Just a little.

00000

Homeless shelters were some of the more depressing places they sometimes visited. Nursing homes housed people who'd lived long, full lives, and hospitals were places you could heal or have a kid. Shelters, even ones that were proactive and well-run like this one, were just full of folks with broken dreams and no other place to be.

It was even more disheartening how much he could relate to them.

Dean gave the place one more covert inspection, then focused on Sam's talk with the shelter director.

Monty Marlowe was about Jim's age and looked like he would have been equally at home in a white collar. He had the rough skin and scruffy look of someone who wasn't afraid to get their hands dirty, and sincere eyes that were a little too sharp. Dean found himself shying his gaze away to his brother instead.

"So they all stayed here in bad weather but had regular spots they slept in otherwise," Sam was summing up.

"Exactly." Marlowe nodded, pulling a folded paper out of his jeans pocket. "I marked off their camps on this map—I thought that might help. I've checked out each spot, but they're abandoned, sometimes scavenged. The others in the area say they haven't seen them in days or weeks."

Dean took the map, giving the pattern of Xs a critical eye. "And you know about when they started disappearing?"

Marlowe focused on him. "People usually think the homeless are these ghosts that no one really notices, but they actually often have a lot of ties to people in the community, the transient population, and people like us who see them regularly in the shelters. I can tell you to the day when each man disappeared."

"Any patterns in the disappearances?" Dean asked, still studying the map. He couldn't help wonder how long it would take someone to realize it if the Winchesters vanished. Bobby would notice, but it could be weeks before he got suspicious, and he would probably have no idea where to start looking. Not to mention the wheelchair that made it a lot harder for him to get around these days.

"Not that I can find," Marlowe was answering as Dean dragged his attention back to the man. "The first was twenty-seven days ago, the last, two days ago. The gaps between the losses are as few as one day and as many as six. All I can tell you is that all of them were relatively young and fit, and all had prospects for finding jobs and housing. Our social workers thought they were all promising."

"The social workers," Sam said, "can we talk to them?"

"Uh…Chris is here now, Sheila comes in at eleven, and Porter swings by after dinner. I can get you their numbers if you want."

"That would be great." Dean gave him a cursory smile. "One more thing—any of the men mention anything weird? People following them, something unusual that had them on edge, anything?"

Marlowe shrugged. "Paranoia isn't unusual around here, but no, nothing stands out with these guys." He leaned in. "You think it's, you know, Jim's kind of job?"

It was Dean's turn to shrug. "Wouldn't be the first time we looked into something that had a normal explanation—serial killer, disease, people just being stupid. Won't know until we do some digging."

Marlowe nodded. "Well, thanks for taking a look. The police haven't been all that interested, and truth be told, I'm not sure how much they could do, anyway. I didn't know who else to call, but Jim always spoke very highly of you two."

Dean saw his brother flush at that and could imagine what he was thinking. Jim hadn't seen them these last few years, and Dean was grateful for that.

"Yeah, we'll get back to you as soon as we have something," he said briskly, tucking the map into his jacket and turning away.

He knew Sam was giving Marlowe an awkward smile before he followed Dean out into the main room of the shelter. "So, social workers first and then some of the other shelter people?"

"Yeah," Dean said with relief, glad to focus on something other than the churning of his gut, and the thoughts in his head. "Sounds good."

Or at least as good as anything did these days.

00000

Three social workers, about two dozen people in the shelter and on the street, and most of one day later, they weren't anywhere close to "good."

Unsurprisingly, most of the people they talked to either didn't know much or didn't want to talk to them. Dean spoke their language a little more than he would've liked to admit, totally getting the transient, outcast vibe, but even so. No one had seen anything suspicious, none of the victims—because Dean was pretty sure now the men hadn't disappeared voluntarily—had seemed unusually worried before they vanished, and there were no clues pointing to any supernatural involvement. Dean's money was on one of the depressing number of serial killers who preyed on the fringe of society. It wouldn't be the first time a hunt had turned out to be inhuman humans—the Benders came sharply to mind—but while they anonymously turned over any evidence they found to the cops, it wasn't their jurisdiction.

"We should still check the sewer run-offs," Sam said, flipping between his notes, Marlowe's map, and something he had pulled up on his phone. "Like you said, most of the missing men were camped around there."

Dean watched the traffic with glazed eyes. "And the park, and the old high school—we gonna check those, too?"

"If we have to." Sam was looking at him with that pinched, worried look Dean was so sick of that he'd worn since they got back from Heaven. "But the park's open land, and the sewer's a lot bigger than the school—that place is a maze. It's our best shot."

Dean snorted softly at the idea of anything being their best shot. "Sam, we've got squat. No sulfur, no EMF, no freaked-out civilians. Just six missing men who were barely there to begin with."

"And, what, six people aren't worth it? Is that where we are, Dean?" Sam's eyes were narrowed, his tone jagged. He still cared, big surprise. "How many victims does it take to be important enough, huh? Ten? A hundred? Or do they have to be horsemen to be important?"

Dean's jaw bunched, eyes darting away from the road to skewer his brother. "How about we focus on saving the world first, and then worry about six missing people who might not even be missing. How does that sound, Sam?"

Sam shrank a little in his seat, chastened. "I'm trying, Dean, all right? I'm looking, and we're gonna find a way. But until then—"

Dean chuffed. "Until then, right." He shook his head.

There was a slow beat. "I'm sorry," Sam said quietly. "But you gotta know that wasn't my Heav—"

"We're not talking about this," Dean cut him off, pulling a tight turn into a side street. He cut the engine and turned to Sam. "Fine, you wanna check out the sewer, here's the sewer. Knock yourself out."

There was a pause when he could feel how badly Sam wanted to say more, and Dean felt himself wind a tiny bit tighter, bracing for it. But then Sam sighed and climbed out of the car.

Dean took a more measured breath, relief tinged with bitterness, and followed.

The runoff was more like a manmade cave system, a series of dark tunnels branching out from the empty flood channel, disappearing underground. Dean had to admit, it was the perfect place for something that hid in the shadows and liked its takeout fresh and screaming. Behind Sam's back, he pulled out the EMF detector, and felt a little disappointed when it didn't even flutter.

"Here." Sam had been examining the walls close up, and beckoned Dean closer to one of them.

He approached warily, scanning the expanse for blood, ichor, anything that made his brother pick that tunnel. Nothing, not besides the smudge about halfway up the wall that Sam was studying.

Dean gave it an uninterested glance. "You found graffiti on public property—congratulations."

"It's not graffiti." Sam had his phone out and was taking a picture of the mark. "It's a symbol—it looks Greek."

"Well, it's Greek to me," Dean quipped automatically, and scowled at Sam when his brother looked up at him. "Okay, so maybe Zorba the Tagger had some national pride—so what?"

"Not Modern Greek. Ancient Greek."

Okay, now he was paying attention. Ancient symbols were definitely common in their line of work, and rarely good news. "What does it say?" Dean asked less skeptically.

Sam gave him a withering look. "You know I don't have every ancient language memorized, right?"

Dean rolled his eyes. "Fine, do your CSI: Monster bit, and then we'll go hit the books."

"You mean, I'll hit the books, and you'll go have a drink."
Dean shrugged. "Whatever."

Sam sighed, shoulders drooping. "Dude, if you really don't want to do this, we can go, you know? I'll give Monty—"

"Sam," he scraped out between clenched teeth. "I'm here, all right? You didn't hold a gun to my head to make me come. Just…take what I can give and stop pushing for more, okay?"

Sam looked like he was going to say more but, thank God, decided against it. He finally just nodded, a little stiff, but that was okay. Dean watched the back of his head as he returned to the mark on the wall.

He couldn't help remembering the same curls at the nape of the neck of 14-year-old Sam as he danced in the light of the fireworks. That was the Sam who made his heart clench with love; that was the Sam he wanted in his Heaven. This grown-up version…

Dean swallowed and turned away. Well, it hadn't wanted him, and there was nothing more to say.

And neither of them did speak a word all the way back to the motel.

"You're not gonna believe this."

Dean didn't bother lifting his head from the blueprints he was studying. "The Easter Bunny's real," he said absently.

"Close." Off Dean's raised eyebrow, Sam arched one of his own. "It's a minotaur."

Dean frowned, searching his memory. "Like, Greek mythology minotaur? Bull on top, dude on the bottom?"

"Yup. Dad ever encounter one of those before?"

"I don't think anyone's ever seen one of those before," Dean admitted. It had always been cool, being the first to square off with something they hadn't thought existed, but the allure had worn off sometime around when angels turned out to be real. And real jerks. "How'd the guy in the story gank him?"

"Theseus killed him with a sword. Not a mystical sword, either," he preempted Dean's next question. "I think anything should work—bullets, blade…"

"…C-4," Dean mused.

"Right, if you didn't have to worry about the ceiling falling in on you," Sam said wryly.

Dean took a breath, turning back to the scrolls of paper spread out over the table. "He picked a good place for it—you weren't wrong about it being a maze." He tapped the warren of lines crisscrossing the paper.

Sam got up and came over to study the layout with him. He whistled softly. "Yeah, I don't think the labyrinth at Knossos had anything on this place."

Whatever that meant. "It gets better," Dean went on. He traced a corridor with his finger up to a joint where a line crossed it in different color ink. "It looks like they've closed up some shafts since they built the place, and connected a couple of others. What's on this map probably isn't what's down there."

Sam grimaced. "Great. So, what, we have to take the map with us and figure it out as we go?"

Dean shook his head. "Too risky. Soon as we got off the grid, we'd be guessing at best."

Sam studied the map thoughtfully. "GPS?"

"Maybe, although we'd have to get a transmitter 'cause the phones won't have coverage down there. Might not even be able to get a read."

"Plus it would make sense to coordinate with the map." Sam was silent a moment. "You know what would work best?" he finally hedged.

Dean had reached the same conclusion a few seconds before and was already shaking his head. "No."
"Why not?" Sam asked, all Voice of Reason as he turned to Dean. "You said it yourself: any kind of reception's going to be tricky down there, but the walkie-talkies should work. If one of us is up here with the map and the GPS, he can direct the other one—"

"And who do you suggest be the one to go down there, huh?" Dean asked hotly. The only thing that made him sicker right now than being with Sam was the thought of being without Sam. "You want to go down, on your own, while I just sit here on my ass reading the map like some five-year-old?" Like a five-year-old him had done sometimes for Dad.

Sam's face drooped. "I don't mind going," he said softly. "Hey, I've got a lot to make up for, right? But you're a better shot. I mean, if you'd trust me to…" He chewed on his lip.

Crap, there it was. A year ago the of course I trust you would've been automatic and true. But that had been before Lucifer, and then Heaven and Joshua and the spectacular crash and burn of just about everything Dean had left to believe in. Right now, Dean wasn't even sure Sam would be there each time he turned around.

But… Yes, he didn't trust Sam with his heart, or what he'd been considering recently about Michael, or that Sam would keep saying no to Lucifer. But that didn't mean he didn't trust Sam to watch his back. God help him, it wasn't the literal wolves Dean feared Sam throwing him to. It was the metaphorical ones that were the problem.

The despair was growing so deep in Sam's eyes during the silence, even Dean wasn't immune. "Yes," he said gruffly. "I trust you to sherpa me through the maze, Sam. You'd probably whack your gigantor head against the ceiling and knock yourself out," he added in a grumble.

It was weak. But damned if Sam's smile didn't make him feel a little bit better.

00000

"Okay," he announced, and took a breath. "I'm here."

The sewer entrance loomed in front of him, even blacker at night. If he hadn't've counted off earlier that day which tunnel Sam had spied, Dean would've had trouble finding the small minotaur mark. But there it was, barely discernible even in his head lamp's beam, and Dean underscored it with a slash of spray paint just because.

The walkie-talkie in his other hand crackled. "You have the spray paint and the pack?"

Dean glared at the device. "Contrary to what some of you believe, I'm not an idiot, Sam."

"I wasn't—" There was a huff of frustration that wasn't as satisfying as Dean would've expected. "All right, first intersection's about forty feet in. Then you turn left…"

He moved carefully, listening with each step. His rifle was slung over one shoulder, shotgun sticking out of his backpack in easy reach, but for the moment it was the walkie-talkie and can of spray paint he kept in hand. At each turn, he left a swath of orange, marking his way far more effectively than the ball of string Sam said the original minotaur-killer had used.

"The GPS coming through okay?" he asked as he went.

"Signal's clear," Sam answered, subdued.

It was after the third turn that they ran into the first obstacle.

"Tunnel's blocked," he said tersely into the walkie-talkie, lifting his thumb from the button to let Sam respond.

"Okay, uh…back up to the last corner and turn right."

Dean silently backtracked. "Is that, right if I'm going back or, right when I first got here."

"Uh…" Great, Sam sounded distracted already. "Your right."

Dean didn't bother responding, making the turn and advancing in the dark.

Rats squeaked by his boots occasionally, making him recoil. He wasn't about to let the vermin distract him from his mission, but, crap, he was with Indiana's dad on this one: why did it have to be rats? His hand clenched tighter on the walkie-talkie, and Dean suddenly felt the absence of his amulet around his neck. He hadn't realized how much it grounded him before, reminded him…

Dean's mind darkened. Yeah, not going there. Gritting his teeth, he moved on.

"Okay, got a three-way turn here. Which way, Sam?"

Nothing. He counted off a three-beat, then toggled the switch again.

"Dude, you fall asleep? Where'm I supposed to go?"

Silence. He counted the seconds, anger ramping higher and lips getting tighter at each one. His thumb had just started to press down on the button when the walkie-talkie came to life.

"Okay…sorry…um, give me a second…"

He sounded winded, Dean registered with irritation. Probably ran out to the car for one of his books. He trusted Sam to do this, yeah, but that didn't mean Dean wasn't sure the guy had his head completely in the job. "Sorry if I interrupted something more important," Dean couldn't resist the scathing remark. "Thanksgiving dinner with a normal family or something?"

"Go left." Sam didn't rise to the bait, sounding just resigned and tired.

Dean shook his head, irritation draining away into the far easier apathy. "Whatever,"he mumbled, and turned left.

Sam's voice got quieter as Dean advanced into the maze of the sewer; they both knew Dean had to be getting close, and there was no telling how sensitive the minotaur's hearing was. Still, Dean turned the walkie-talkie's volume down until Sam was a bare whisper and didn't speak unless he needed direction. The soft hiss of the paint can and the squeak and scurry of the rats were the only sounds he could hear above his breathing, the light of the flashlight the only thing he saw.

And then…

It took him a few seconds to realize the red glow ahead wasn't just his eyes playing tricks on him. Dean experimentally flicked his flashlight off, eyebrows rising at the realization that there was still enough illumination by which to see the walls. He clicked his radio button three times—radio silence—and crept forward, switching out walkie-talkie for rifle as he went.

He reached the corner that the light spilled around and inched his face past it.

The beast was a huddle on the floor, only the shadow of its sharp horns and its sheer size marking it as inhuman. The light source was hidden in front of it, but there were dull gleams on the floor around it: light bouncing off a fork, a metal plate, tin foil, a mirror. The belongings of its victims.

A scrape of sound to the right had Dean craning a little farther in, adrenaline jumping at the thought of a second minotaur. But no, the figure was too small, its head rounded, and its limbs seemingly bound. The last victim, probably, unexpectedly still alive. Beyond him were the shadowy remainders of his predecessors, if the smell coming from that direction was any indication, but the place didn't stink as much as Dean would have expected. He guessed the minotaur ate most of its prey pretty efficiently.

Senses peaking in the thrill of the hunt, Dean slipped forward a step and raised his rifle.

The minotaur moved faster than he would have believed it could with that bulk. It was on its feet and facing Dean before he could pull the trigger. The red light suddenly blinded him, and Dean lost another second blinking and shying away from the beam.

It was the minotaur's eyes that were glowing. And even without the red, they looked angry.

With a roar, it charged him.

Dean pulled the trigger without even finishing the conscious thought. Two bullets center mass, then one to the head that he was pretty sure missed as the creature lurched to the side.

The bellow was deafening in the enclosed space. The minotaur was injured, its movements less powerful and smooth, but it continued to advance, close enough that its hands—hooves—almost reached…

Dean whipped out the Colt from where it had been holstered under his jacket and shot the creature in one red eye.

Momentum carried the huge form forward. It was still shrieking, a dying wail of rage, as it hit Dean and the corner of the wall. The blow was enough to knock him back on his rear, but the wall saved him from having the dead mass crush him. Instead it toppled on its side just inches from Dean's startled face.

The one red eye fluttered and dimmed to nothing.

He took a pair of deep breaths before clumsily retrieving his flashlight, flicking it on, then pushing slowly to his feet. The whole battle had probably lasted less than five seconds, but it felt like a hundred times that. Sam had been right about any weapon being able to kill the creature, but Dean hadn't been fully prepared for the sheer size of the thing.

He kicked a boot out, barely budging the carcass. "Bet you'd make an awesome barbeque," he muttered. The thing was a doornail, no sign of life, and Dean finally dared put the guns away and step around.

The vic was bloody and unconscious, but alive and not in immediate danger. Dean debated a second about carrying him out, and decided neither of them were up to it. He took the GPS from his pack instead, wiped it off and set it on the floor by the guy, then backtracked to Big Ugly.

Burning the thing would fill the place with smoke. Science would just have to have a field day with this one; they would no doubt find something to explain away the carcass as they always did. Disfigured serial killer found or something, Dean snorted. He edged around it again and started on his way back, fishing out the walkie-talkie as he went.

"I got him."

Silence.

Dean growled under his breath. "Sam!"

A long pause, then a crackle. Oh, right, the volume. Dean turned it up, to hear Sam was still whispering. "…okay?"

"I'm fine. Dude, it's dead, it's not gonna hear you anymore. I found a survivor, too—left the GPS with him."

Again with the delay. Sam was in a snit, and Dean didn't have enough will to deal with it. "You find your way out…" Static. "…okay?"

"Yeah, I'm good. Just stay close if I get turned around."

Sam didn't answer.

Dean didn't care.

The way back was a lot faster. There was no need for stealth, and he'd done a good job marking the passageways. He even remembered a few of the turns, blowing past them with barely a glance. He might have used some of the extra time to blast some of the rats away, except he was anxious to get out. The tunnels hadn't set off his claustrophobia too badly despite the dark and quiet because he knew the way out and had a purpose for going in, but they were starting to close in on him now. It was with a gasp of relief that he finally burst out into fresh air and a smattering of stars above, and several more deep breaths after that.

Dean finally brought the walkie-talkie up and hit the switch. "Okay, I'm out. You wanna call the cops, give them the GPS frequency?" It would also give closure to anyone else who might've been looking for the other missing men, an opportunity their job didn't often afford.

Sam didn't answer.

He wanted to be mad; Sam had said he'd be there. But the lack of response was just deflating. The adrenaline was sluicing away, leaving his muscles limp, and he hadn't had a good night's sleep in, oh, a couple of years. All Dean wanted was to climb into bed and pull the covers over his head until the Apocalypse had passed.

He tried again, halfheartedly. "Dude, you better not be in the john or something." Then he shoved the radio into his pocket, dropped into the car seat, and headed back.

The niggling started before he'd gone a block. Yeah, Sam had known Dean was pretty much in the clear once he killed the minotaur, but still. One thing Dean didn't doubt was that his brother felt deeply guilty for the whole Lucifer thing—and now the whole Heaven crapfest—and would do anything to try to make up for it. Seemed strange that he would leave his post before Dean was completely out, even to hit the head or get Dean a conciliatory piece of pie. This was the Sam who'd once peed in a water bottle rather than leave the car where he'd promised he'd meet Dean.

Uneasiness slid down Dean's spine. He set the walkie-talkie on the empty passenger seat and dug out the phone he had buried in his jeans pocket. He'd turned it off before venturing into the sewer, and there were no messages waiting. Lips compressed, he dialed Sam.

It rang four times, went to voicemail.

Dean nudged the car up to ten above the speed limit, tried again.

Voicemail.

"Frickin'…" Dean slammed a palm on the steering wheel, not even sure what he was cursing out. Sam for apparently having somehow gotten in trouble again when he'd been the one with the safe and easy job? Dean himself for not being able to quit worrying about him no matter how much he tried? Cas or Zach or Lucifer or Michael or, hey, here was an idea: whatever it was that had gotten to Sam, because Dean would rip it a new one as soon as he got his hands on it.

Two more unanswered calls and he was skidding into the motel parking lot. Motor still running, Dean jumped out, auromatically noting that the door to their room stood ajar.

It was blocked by a body.

It took only a half-second for him to realize it wasn't Sam, too short and stocky to be Dean's Sasquatch. Dean flipped him over anyway, blinking when he realized the guy was familiar. Porter, the social worker at the shelter. Even more surprising: he was breathing, but there was a bloody dent on the side of his head. He'd been put down with the intention of his not getting back up anytime soon.

And there was a gun in his hand.

Heart pressing up into his throat, Dean stepped over him, gaze sweeping the room. It didn't take long to land on the figure slumped over the table.

"Sam!" He rushed forward, one hand pressing under Sam's jaw, the other resting on the back of his head. "No, no, no, no…" There was a pulse, but it was weak and fast, and Sam didn't react at all to being touched. Dean swore softly as he looked him over.

The walkie-talkie was still in the hand resting on the table. The other one was lax around the towel that was twisted once over his shoulder and under his arm. The cloth was soaked with blood, more dripping in slow drops from the bottom of the table into a pool on the floor, and the top surface was congealed, Sam's shirt stiff with dried maroon.

"Stupid…moron," Dean muttered as he pieced it together. From the amount and condition of the blood, Sam had to have been bleeding out for at least an hour. Sickly he remembered Sam's disappearance from the walkie-talkie and winded return when Dean had been heading into the sewer. Sam could have called him back to the motel, could've bandaged himself up at the least, but no, he'd just grabbed a towel and kept going, staying silent even when Dean lambasted him for the pause. Because he didn't want to let his brother down again. Because Dean needed him.

Dean needed him.

He swallowed. "Okay, kiddo, let's see what you got yourself into this time." His voice broke, eyes burning as he tilted Sam's pale face back, propped him up against one arm as he unwound the towel with the other.

There was a bullet hole, unsurprisingly, right under the collarbone and…an exit wound just beyond the curve of the shoulder. Unusual angle; they must've been fighting over the gun. Even with the element of surprise on Porter's side, Sam hadn't gone down easy and had still managed to subdue his attacker.

"That's my boy," Dean muttered, leaning Sam carefully back in the chair so he could run out to the car. He probably left bloody fingerprints on the Impala's trunk, but he couldn't care less right now. First aid kit in hand, Dean was flying back into the room, over Porter, to Sam.

"Okay, this is gonna hurt, so just…don't wake up yet, huh?" There was no way he could treat this himself, not without risking nerve damage to Sam's arm, or worse. But he had to stop the bleeding or Sam wouldn't even make it to the hospital. Dean applied first one pressure bandage, then another, tying them off expertly. The way Sam would have maybe managed to do if he hadn't been too busy not letting Dean down.

Sam didn't even stir through the process. His silence was frightening, and Dean's mind raced as he looked over the room and Porter, and tried to figure out what to do.

There was really only one option. He called 9-1-1.

"You're gonna be okay, Sammy." He moved his brother carefully to the floor, lifting his legs up on the chair and covering him with a blanket whipped off the nearest bed. "Hang in there for me." He wiped off the blood he'd accidentally smeared onto Sam's face, tucked the blanket in around him. "You promised you'd be there for me, right?" Gently, he tried to take the walkie-talkie from Sam's hand, only to find it was gripped more tightly than Dean would have thought possible. He finally pressed the base of Sam's thumb to get him to let go…then hurled the device against the far wall. "Hold on, I'll be right back. Hold on for me, Sam." He quickly cleaned out what he needed to from the room, then knelt again by his brother's body, hearing faint sirens in the distance.

Sam was still breathing, heart still laboring, face drawn and utterly still.

Dean bowed his head, hopelessness so heavy on his shoulders, he was buckling under the weight. He thought he'd reached the limits of loss with the betrayal of everyone he'd loved and trusted, but this grief was so much more. For all Sam's mistakes, he was still trying, still loving and supporting Dean even when Dean didn't want to let him, and without that… If he lost that…

The paramedics had to pry his hand free from Sam's just like he'd had to pry the radio free from his brother's.

00000

The deep sigh from the bed brought Dean's head up out of the newspaper.

Sam had roused a few times—twice to hurl spectacularly—but he was always so groggy and confused, Dean doubted he'd remember any of it. The tiny stirrings, the sigh, and now the flutter of eyelids were all promising signs that Sam was really waking up this time.

He set the paper aside with its lurid headlines about the "Sewer Savage" and its human accomplice that he'd been reading aloud to Sam, and dropped his boots from where they'd been propped on the edge of the bed. He leaned forward, fingers curling around the arm just under the IV. "Sam?"

"Mmm," Sam hummed, smacking his lips a little.

Dean's mouth curled in spite of itself. He could remember a tiny Sammy waking the same way, nose wrinkling and hands contracting as if he were sampling the world around him before he decided to emerge. "C'mon, Sleeping Beauty, wake up."

"Don' kiss me," Sam mumbled.

"Yeah, no worries there." As Sam moved wrong and winced, Dean pressed his other hand against his brother's chest. "Take it easy, dude. You've got some extra holes in you and you're still getting refilled."

Sam's eyes opened into squinty slits, roaming the ceiling above him before angling down to find Dean. "Wha—?"

"You were shot, Einstein." He managed to say it lightly, even though the thought, the memory of Sam slumped over the table, still made his own chest seize. "Porter the social worker didn't like that we were messing with his pet minotaur."

"Oh." Sam still sounded exhausted despite being unconscious most of the last two days, and his eyes slid shut as he slid back into sleep.

"Oh," Dean echoed quietly.

It had worked out better than he'd dared hope. Porter had been the one with the gun, and Dean made sure it was the only one to be found at the motel. He was also the one who was in their room. And Marlowe had backed Dean up about their going to the shelter looking for someone—Dean had picked one of the missing men at random to be their beloved uncle—and meeting Porter then. That, the GPS receiver Dean hid in Porter's car, and the shrine to the minotaur that was apparently in the guy's house, implicated him nicely in the other disappearances, not to mention the victim who looked like he'd pull through. Porter still hadn't woken up to give his side of the story—and considering how hard Sam had clocked him, he might never—but it wouldn't matter at this point. He was clearly the bad guy, neither of the Winchesters more than sympathetic victims from the start, and that meant no hard questions, background checks, or looking over their shoulder.

"How bad'zit?" Sam surprised him by suddenly mumbling, eyes still closed.

"And he speaks. Again." Dean huffed a laugh. "Through-and-through to the shoulder. Gonna need a little PT, Gimpy, but it looks good." Maybe a little too good; Dean had sworn at the time that the scapula was shattered, but the x-rays showed everything amazingly intact. The doctor said something about bullets at just the right angle skating along the bone, but Dean wondered: Lucifer had promised to restore Sam if needed, and Michael had already done so once. But Sam would only be told he'd been lucky. "You were a couple quarts low, but your awesome brother helped top you off. So you're gonna feel like a crap for a few days, but you'll be fine."

Sam's free arm made its shaky way up to his face, and he brushed it over his eyes into his hair. Dean hoped the grimace came from the greasiness of his mane rather than his injuries. "Don' know if I should be…worried or flattered you're…usin' car t'rm'nology."

He hadn't even thought about it, but cars he got, cars he could fix. Even the wrecked Impala was a lot less scary than Sam shot and bleeding. Dean shrugged, looking for words that wouldn't say as much.

"Good thing it was you givin' me blood…not other way 'round," Sam continued softly before Dean spoke. He wheezed an unfunny laugh, eyes pressed tightly shut. "Demon blood n'all."

"I never thought that," Dean said quickly.

"Yeah," Sam said with a twist of the mouth.

"Sam, seriously. That never mattered to me, I swear. Now, you drinkin' it, that's another matter…"

Sam nodded sharply once. But damned if his chin wasn't wobbling.

Dean took a breath, rubbing his own face tiredly before edging forward on his seat. He hadn't had the desire or energy to deal with this before, and, frankly, hadn't felt all that motivated to relieve Sam's misery. But sitting beside his little brother's hospital bed was perspective-changing, not to mention knowing why Sam was there in the first place. "Look, I know we've got our issues…" He chose to ignore Sam's incredulous snort. "…but I don't hate you. Okay, I hate you a little bit for making me say this, but…I've never really hated you, Sam. You've made me mad—like, every day—scared the hell out of me, screwed with my head, and made me feel like crap. But no matter how miserable you make me, bitch, I'm more miserable without you. Because when you were born, I became a big brother, and I can't just…stop that."

There were a few beats of silence before he reluctantly raised his head. And found Sam watching him with glittering eyes.

Dean turned away. "Why don't you get some more—"

"You know it goes both ways, right?" Sam whispered. "That wasn' my Heaven, Dean."

"Okay, Sam," he placated, because the last thing he needed was Sam getting worked up. Dean wasn't sure he believed it. He'd always accepted that he needed Sam more than Sam needed him, and was mostly okay with it, although having it rubbed in his face still hurt. But…Mary and John hadn't been up there, either, and Dean was pretty sure Zach had been pulling some strings. So…maybe. He'd have to think about it some more, but… Maybe. "That's not important right now. Get some rest so we can get out of here."

Pinch-faced and pale, Sam nodded, eyes fluttering back shut. But his body was still tense, held tight.

Dean made a face, hesitated, then dropped his hand back on Sam's arm beneath the IV, grasp warm and firm against Sam's chilled skin.

His brother sighed and sank into the mattress, breath soon evening out.

"Big girl," Dean murmured. But he didn't let Sam go as he reached again for the newspaper. And he didn't even pretend it didn't make him feel better, too.

The End