Tactical Withdrawal
K Hanna Korossy

The medical examiner's door slammed with a bang behind Sam, and he flinched away from the noise before shrugging it off and continuing down the walkway. He peered ahead to the parked car to see if Dean had caught his reaction. It would be embarrassing if he had, but Sam would have preferred the teasing if it meant his brother was up to paying attention.

As he got close, however, he saw that wasn't the case. Dean was pretty much how he'd left him, sunglasses firmly in place to fight the headache he'd been sporting all day, sprawled in the passenger seat in a pose that looked relaxed but that Sam easily saw through. The white fingertips pressed into the top of the seat and the window frame, the deep crow's feet visible on either side of the glasses, and the flat press of Dean's mouth showed how miserable he still was.

Sam grimaced in sympathy. They'd both been tossed around when the demon had tried to reclaim Jesse Turner—also known as the antichrist—but Dean, as usual, seemed to have taken the brunt of it. Sam's back was barely sore anymore, while Dean moved like he was arthritic and had a headache that wouldn't quit. The fact Sam was driving and doing the legwork while his brother agreed to stay in the car and rest was all the measure Sam needed for how bad Dean felt.

He hesitated, then tapped on the window before opening the door. Even so, Dean startled upright, hand already reaching inside his jacket for what Sam knew was his Colt. Sam had to school himself not to balk at a threatening move from his brother, but he was getting better at it. It was only when he was sliding into the car that Dean slumped back.

"You take a nap?" Sam had taken extra time with the ME, hoping that Dean would doze off a little.

"No," Dean said tersely, rubbing at the groove between his eyebrows. "Every time I tried, it felt like someone turned the screws a little tighter."

Sam retrieved something from his pocket, then fished out a bottle of water from under the seat. "I snagged you some of the good stuff from the doc's medicine cabinet. Wasn't even locked."

"Dead people don't usually do drug raids," Dean pointed out as he accepted the pair of blue pills and chugged them down with some water.

Sam frowned at how easy a sell that had been, then decided to just be grateful for it. He stuck the key into the ignition and fired up the Impala, not missing how Dean winced, just a tiny bit, at the engine growl he usually savored.

Dean capped the water and slid down enough in the seat to prop his head back. "So, any luck?"

"Depends what you consider luck." Sam smoothly turned the car out of the parking lot and toward their latest motel. "Coligan was definitely a heart attack, and nothing showed up in Foskey's tests to explain why he'd suicide-by-cop."

"Awesome," Dean said tiredly. He tilted his head up so he was looking at the roof of the car. "You still think this is our kind of thing?"

"Maybe?" Sam hedged. He remained on tentative ground with his brother despite Dean's forgiveness, choosing his words carefully. As his brother rolled his head toward him just enough to raise an eyebrow at Sam, he found himself a little more emboldened. "Yeah, I think so. I mean, four deaths on a single block within a week, all apparently healthy, relatively young men? It's not impossible, but the odds are—"

"Yeah, okay," Dean cut him off. He was rubbing at his forehead again. "All right, Sherlock, what next then?"

He wasn't sure if this was Dean giving him more say and an equal partnership, or if Dean just felt lousy enough to leave the reins to Sam, but he wasn't going to waste the opportunity to win back a little more of his brother's trust. Sam licked his lips. "I'm gonna go to the library and look up the history of that block—land usage, suspicious deaths. Seems like it's more geographical than personal, you know?"

He didn't receive an answer, nor expect one.

He did throw Dean a sideways glance. "You wanna go back to the room while I hit the books?" Sam asked cautiously. Dean had never been one to take it easy or sit on the sidelines of a hunt, but they were really out of sync, and Sam was tired of pretending any different.

They weren't balancing each other anymore. Time and events had whittled them down so there were gaps where they'd once fit together smoothly. And Sam knew too well who had done most of the carving.

His brother snorted. "Versus spending the day buried in the library? Is that even a question?"

Sam was silent a moment. "Hey…maybe we should hit the local clinic while we're here, make sure the demon didn't knock something loose in you."

"It's just a headache, Sam—don't make a bigger deal out of it than it is."

"But—"

"Leave it alone!" Dean snapped.

Sam had chewed the inside of his mouth raw by the time they returned to the motel, but he didn't say anything else.

00000

He needed more IDs.

After he and Dean had split up a few weeks before, Sam had brilliantly burned all his fake ID cards, sure that he was done with that life if Dean wouldn't be in it with him. But it had turned out that neither Dean nor hunting was through with him, though his brother had been less than thrilled that Sam needed a new cache of cards. So far all he had was a driver's license for "Keith Darrow" and two Fed IDs with two different rockers' names on them. None of which had impressed the librarian who, she was happy to inform Sam, had protested five different wars and thought federal agents were just a sanitized version of the Gestapo. Sam keenly wished he'd kept at least one of his grad student IDs; he would've gotten a lot farther with that one.

Sighing, he shifted the two bags from his right hand to his left so he could fish out the room key. At least there was a Biggerson's up the street; Dean would love the Biggerson's Big Burger with extra onions Sam had gotten him, and the fried apple pie. They were also at the far corner of the block that had seen the string of unusual deaths, but Sam was pretty sure he was the only one who cared about that.

Dean, to his mild surprise, wasn't napping or resting or even taking advantage of Sam's absence to do inappropriate things with his laptop. Instead, he was sitting on his bed with the knife sharpener and, it seemed, every single blade they owned. He was in the middle of sharpening their demon-killing knife with a vengeance that made Sam wince. It wasn't good for the blade to be honed with that heavy a touch, but he wasn't about to say anything.

He set the food and his satchel down on the table, eyeing his brother as he did. "You feelin' any better?" he asked neutrally.

"Peachy," Dean answered, voice tight with pain and frustration.

"Great," Sam answered with equal sincerity. He sighed, picking up the heavier Biggerson's bag and waving it in front of his brother. "Got you some dinner."

To his surprise, Dean immediately set his task aside and stood, rubbing his hands against his jeans. "Good, I'm starving."

"Well, that's…good." Dean had had no appetite earlier that day when Sam had suggested his favorite breakfast burritos. In fact, he was pretty sure he remembered his brother growling at him for daring to suggest food. Sam handed over the bag, continuing to watch surreptitiously as Dean dropped into a chair and dug in.

He'd barely unwrapped the burger, however, before he recoiled with a grimace and dropped it back on the wrapper. "Dude, this one's gotta be yours—it smells like that fish-barf you like."

Sam frowned, taking the burger. "It's seaweed, Dean, and it's good. But…" He sniffed, lifted the bread to peer at the patties. "Dude, there's nothing wrong with this—it's your usual heart-attack-on-a-bun, extra onion breath."

"Right," Dean snorted, "with a 'special ingredient.' What'd you add, Sam, one of your dirty socks? Transmission fluid? Maybe a little arsenic?"

He didn't let himself react to that, just tossed the burger back onto its wrapper. "Fine, you don't want it, don't eat it."

"I would if you'd gotten something edible," Dean sniped, rising from the table to stalk back to the bed. He grabbed a switchblade and the whet stone and started sharpening again with extreme prejudice.

Sam's whole body jerked when the switchblade suddenly snapped from the stress and Dean threw it across the room with a curse.

His chicken sandwich seemed completely unappetizing now. Sam stared at it a moment, then hastily wrapped it back up when he began to imagine he smelled a hint of bitter almonds on it.

He was sure—well, pretty sure—that Dean didn't really think Sam would try to do him harm. He'd already said he knew Sam had been under demon-blood and demon-bitch influence when he'd come close to choking Dean to death in that hotel room. He'd claimed he knew Sam was sorry, and while they were both well aware that trust had to be re-earned, Sam had been trying. He'd thought things were getting better; they'd actually had a few good talks, and Dean was even letting him drive his baby.

But it was back to this now, one step forward, one step back. And it wasn't like he didn't deserve it: he'd nearly killed his brother, not to mention starting the friggin' Apocalypse. Dean had every right to be furious. But Sam had also meant it when he said he couldn't live in a constant state of apology, that if Dean wanted to hunt together, he had to back off and stop rubbing Sam's face in the past all the time. It was the only hope they had of saving the world, and the only reason Sam had to crawl out of bed each morning.

He blinked away the sting in his eyes. But what choice did he have, really? They had an apocalypse to stop. Lucifer continued to tempt him in his dreams most nights. And Sam had an awful track record for whenever he struck out on his own and made decisions alone. Dean couldn't trust him? Sam couldn't trust himself. He was stuck between a misery and a desolate place.

But the utter hopelessness when Dean had let him walk off and then told him they should stay apart… That had been even worse. And the memory, with the knowledge that he'd have to fix what he'd broken, was what kept Sam from lying down and never getting up again. Even when he felt like he was bleeding from open wounds, he had to suck it up and keep going.

Grimly, he unwrapped the chicken sandwich again and took a bite, chewing with determination even though it tasted rotted and sludgy. He swallowed with difficulty and took another bite. One of them had to be functioning, at least, and Sam was the one in debt.

The salty tang of his despair didn't make the rest of the sandwich go down any easier.

00000

Sam woke without memory of his dream, just the uneasy coil in his stomach that it hadn't been anything good.

On the other hand, maybe that wasn't what was bothering him, he realized, as he got his bearings in the dark room and saw the darting figure across the room.

"Dean?" he croaked, rubbing his eyes with one hand as he reached for the bedside lamp with the other.

Neither the call nor the illumination seemed to have any effect on his brother, who continued to do…something with wild, choppy movements.

Sam climbed out of bed, advancing warily. His eyebrows climbed as he saw what had gotten Dean up in the middle of the night. Apparently, taking every single thing they owned and spreading it around the room was so urgent. Sam absorbed the sight of jumbled clothes, toiletries, and weapons with stunned silence, pausing when he reached the table where Dean had just finished upending Sam's satchel.

"Uh…you lose something?"

"Yeah, my marbles." Dean flicked a glance at him. "Where'd you put it?"

Sam blinked in confusion. "Your marbles?" Maybe he was still asleep and dreaming this?

Dean slammed down Sam's journal. "Dude, you know what I'm talking about."

Sam hesitated, then stepped up beside him. "Dude, I really don't. Tell me what you're looking for so I can find it before you…well, kinda too late to keep you from messing up our stuff…"

"Oh, I'm sorry," Dean sneered sideways at him, "am I being too messy for you? I thought this was what you wanted, Sam—my stuff is your stuff, sharing everything down the line? Isn't that what you were throwing a hissy fit about before?"

Sam cricked his neck, pinching his lips together to swallow the angry retort that wanted out. Instead, he tried reason again. "Fine. What's so important that you had to get up at oh-dark-thirty to go through my shaving kit and," he leaned down to snag something off the floor and made a face, "my underwear, man? Really?"

"I don't know where you hid it." Dean cursed as he gave up the search of Sam's papers and swept the whole pile off the table. "I never should've trusted you again—I knew better than that. You just…" His voice fell to an unintelligible mutter as he moved on to stripping Sam's bed.

Sam watched him, frozen in place, dumbfounded and devastated. He knew Dean felt that way, but hearing it spoken out loud was terrible. It was nothing he didn't deserve, but that didn't mean it wasn't more than he could bear, especially with the weight of the guilt he'd already heaped on himself.

He shifted stiffly from one foot to another and cleared his throat. "Dean. What're you looking for?"

"Don't tell me you don't know," Dean growled. He grabbed his Ka-Bar from the sheath at his hip—had he ever even gone to bed?—and, even as Sam stumbled back a step, slashed through the top of the mattress. "You did something to me, gave me something. Feels like my head's gonna…" More muttering. "Gotta… Goin' out of my freakin' mind here." With a snarl, he shoved the mattress clear off the bed frame.

Sam stared at him, every sentence adding to a sick, dawning awareness. He recognized this; he'd felt this before. This wasn't just Dean mad at him. This sounded like…

He charged forward and grabbed his brother's arm, knocking the knife from his hand and whipping him around.

Dean turned like a coiled snake. His fist was already coming up for a punch.

Sam deflected it too easily, grabbed Dean by both—trembling—arms this time, trying to meet his thrashing sibling's eyes. His very green, wild eyes.

"Dean," he whispered, shocked, "what's wrong with you?"

Cursing a blue streak, Dean fought a grip he should've been able to free himself from in a second flat. "Get off me, you double-crossing son of a bitch. Get—"

Sam let him go, stepping back with both hands upraised. "I'm not touching you, all right? I'm not gonna hurt you."

"Right. That's what I thought a couple of months ago," Dean seethed. He was squared off with Sam, balanced on the balls of his feet and fists curled. On a hair trigger to launch an attack.

The insult slid off him this time, almost powerless now that Sam knew where it came from. Well, sort of. Maybe. He lowered his voice, slouched, smoothed out his expression: everything possible to lower Dean's hackles. "Something's wrong with you, man. I think you've been drugged."

Dean's eyes narrowed.

"Not by me," Sam hastily added. "God, Dean, you really think I'd do that after the last few months? After what happened?" He was pretty sure he didn't need to be more specific than that; those few minutes in the honeymoon suite were never far from his thoughts nor, it was obvious, from Dean's.

Dean was frowning now. He was thinking about it, Sam saw with relief, but his pupils were practically non-existent, his pulse visibly pounding in his neck, and his face was flushed and shiny with sweat. Whatever he was on, it had its claws in him deep, and Sam wasn't sure any kind of logic could counteract that. Especially coming from him right now.

"Can I just—?" He started to reach toward Dean, quickly dropping his arm at the growl he received. "Just…pull up your sleeves, okay? We need to make sure…"

Dean was glaring at him. As much as Sam didn't want to hear more poisoned words, he wished his brother would say something, just so Sam knew what he was thinking. But even as he searched for more convincing words, Dean slowly reached up and pushed the sleeve of his right arm up.

"Okay," Sam soothed. "Just a little higher, okay? Up to your elbow, Dean."

His brothers lips went a little tighter, but he complied.

No ladder of needle marks. Sam felt more relieved than surprised. "Okay, other arm."

Unsurprisingly also clean, albeit bruised from the demon's attack.

Sam's eyes darted as he thought frantically. The burger could have been doctored, but Dean had barely had one bite, and Sam had filled the drinks himself. And something environmental would have affected him, too. It didn't leave a lot of options. He pulled in a breath. "You haven't smoked anything, right? Eaten anything weird, snorted anything?"

Dean flared up at that. "This is bull—"

"The case!" Sam startled them both with his outburst. He hadn't even put it together until he said it.

"Dean, man, listen," he said with fresh animation, "it makes sense—what does a heart attack, two suicides, and a violent freak-out have in common?"

Dean's eyes were stormy, his body still balanced on the edge of hostility, but he was listening.

"Drugs!" Sam spread his hands. "Paranoia, out-of-control anger, heart palpitations, lashing out—they're all drug reactions."

"I didn't take any drugs, Sam," Dean argued. "So unless you're saying you—"

"I'm saying 'it,'" Sam rushed on. "There-there was a drug-related death, in the records I found, a homeless guy living on the corner. What do you wanna bet he was mad at all his better-off neighbors for not helping him?"

A few beats passed. Then Dean slumped a little, washing a hand down his face. Something was getting through. "Vengeful spirit?" he said hoarsely.

"Maybe." Sam tilted his head persuasively. "Wouldn't be the first time we saw a spirit inflict its own experiences on other people. Hell of a way to punish those it was angry with, right?"

"Like other guys who had it better than he did." Dean gave a brittle laugh. "Shows how much it knows." He breathed a sudden curse, pressing his arm against his stomach and curling forward over it.

"Hey, hey." Sam didn't hesitate this time, just jumped forward to hold Dean up with one hand, the other splayed against his chest. He could feel the racing heart through his brother's ribs. "C'mon, sit down." He eased Dean toward his unmutilated mattress, a tiny bit gratified there was no resistance.

"Crap," Dean said breathlessly as he sank down, then rolled forward once more. "Didn't really wanna do this again."

A couple of hunter friends of Steve Wandell had captured and drugged Dean once, Sam immediately remembered, as well as the cold turkey his brother had subsequently gone through. He cleared his throat. "That was just after a couple of days, Dean. This guy was a longtime user—if you're going through whatever he did before he died, it's gonna get a lot worse than that time with Wandell's buddies."

Dean's breathing had turned ragged, muscles clenched in Sam's grip. "You're just a…regular ray of sunshine…you know that, Sam?" His flicker of a smile quickly contorted with pain.

"Yeah, I do," Sam said under his breath. "Okay, lie back here. I'm gonna get you some painkillers while you can still keep 'em down."

Dean rolled back, then to the side to start retching over the edge of the bed.

"Or not." Sam blew out a breath and grabbed his phone from the nightstand.

"Who you…calling?" Dean puffed out between coughs.

"Bobby. He's gonna have to find someone to do the salt-and-burn on this guy, fast."

"You…do it."

"I'm not leaving you," Sam said flatly. The phone was ringing, but it took Bobby longer to get to it now, chair and all. Something else that sat squarely on Sam's shoulders. "We don't know how bad this thing's gonna get, and it's worse on your own." He flashed back for a moment to the panic room, to the awful clank as the iron door shut him in alone with his suffering.

The phone picked up. "What do you want?"

He filled Bobby in, ending with a plea for help that was more raw than he liked.

And felt Dean's eyes on him the whole time.

00000

Dean had little to throw up because he hadn't eaten much that last day. Ever since they'd hit town.

He'd also been achier, slower since they got there. Sam had chalked it up to muscles stiffening after the injuries the demon inflicted, but Dean was usually doing better by the third day, not worse. Sam should've figured this out before.

He should have figured out a lot of things before they blew up in his face.

"Feels…feels like my skin's peelin'…" Dean murmured. Sam had a sinking feeling his brother knew just what that felt like, too, but before he could say anything, Dean snatched his hands away from where they'd been clawed into Sam's arms, wrapping them around his middle instead. "Crap. Sam, gotta…"

"Got it." Sam hauled him up from the bed and dragged him into the bathroom. He let Dean weakly shove him away once he was convinced his brother could handle it from there, and went back to the room to mix another mug of too-sweet coffee. He still wasn't sure how much physical remedies would help, given they weren't facing a physical problem, but if nothing else the warmth and hydration would do him good.

Dean groaned in the bathroom.

Sam didn't know or want to know which end Dean was purging from this time, but liquids would be important in either case. He glanced at the clock as he crushed pills into the coffee, tamping down the desire once more to call Bobby and find out what the heck was taking so long. It had only been a little over three hours, and it would take time for someone to get there, look up the dead guy, and go take care of him.

Another pained sound from the bathroom, then a thump.

Sam set the coffee down and hurried back, just barely able to make himself pause to knock and warn "I'm coming in," before he pushed the door open.

Halfway in, it hit Dean's jerking legs.

Sam swore softly as he edged through the door, then went down to his knees. "Dean. Hey."

Dean's face was ashen and sweat-soaked, his eyes screwed shut as he tried to fold himself into the smallest possible ball. There were little wounded-animal sounds squeezing out through his clenched jaw, and he stank.

Sam didn't hesitate a second in scooping him up, leaning Dean's shaking body against his own, damp hair just brushing the underside of Sam's chin.

"S-Sss—"

"Yeah, I'm here. I have you."

Dean's teeth were chattering.

He'd grab blankets in a minute; they were spending more time in the bathroom than the bed, anyway. For now, Sam snatched the one clean towel that was left and wrapped it around Dean's shoulders, crumpling it together in the front.

"S-sss-sucks."

Sam laughed humorlessly. "Yeah, it does. Should be over soon, all right? Bobby said that guy Norris was just an hour out."

"N-norr… Think…met him onc-ce."

"Yeah?" Sam said absently, trying to figure out how to get the coffee and blankets without moving. Too bad his powers hadn't proved useful for anything but letting Lucifer out of his cage. "You work with him?"

"C-cas…"

He held Dean closer, rubbing a hand up and down his brother's arms. He knew logically it wasn't cold that was making Dean shake like that, but the instinct ran deep. "You want me to try to call Castiel?" The angel had no power to heal, but he was a friend Dean trusted, and Sam would do anything that might comfort his brother even if he himself was uncomfortable around Castiel these days.

"N-nuh." Dean flinched, moaned, and gagged on a string of bile. Sam didn't even bother trying to turn him toward the toilet, just wiped his mouth with the corner of the towel. "C-c-cas wasn'… S-sucked… Wasn' par'ner… You…"

Sam's thoughts ground to a halt. Was he just hearing what he wanted, or was Dean really saying—?

"No' you…S-s-sammm. He—"

Dean bit off with a curse and what sounded distressingly like a sob, shoving into Sam's chest like he was trying to burrow in. His legs were still scrabbling at nothing and Sam was pushing up before he realized it. Dean really needed the coffee—

Dean grabbed at the arm Sam had wrapped around him, digging in with spasming fingers. "Look for Jess-s-seee. Not losin' you…'gain…"

Sam's eyes filmed over with tears, his throat clotted. Every time he thought he'd reached the painful bottom of his humbling, he found a new layer: in Bobby's forgiveness, in Dean's broken inability to forgive yet still taking Sam back, in his brother offering the equal partnership Sam knew he didn't deserve but so badly needed. "Hold on a second, man," he finally whispered and peeled himself off his brother with reluctance to rush into the other room.

Blankets, coffee doctored with the strongest painkillers he dared use. Sam paused, looking wildly around the room for something, anything else that could help Dean feel better.

There was a cough from the bathroom, another heave, then a whimper of his name that he knew wasn't a call so much as a longing that wasn't meant to be vocalized.

Him. He was what Dean needed and wanted.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Sam returned to the bathroom.

Dean was stiff with muscle cramps and shakes, but otherwise he put up no resistance to Sam wrapping him in blankets, then in himself.

"S-sss. Need…need s-sss'methin'…"

"Yeah, here." He molded Dean's hands around the warm mug, keeping it steady with his own. A little splashed over the edge, but neither of them cared about that. "Drink this."

Dean gulped the first swallow, groaning in his throat when Sam made him ease off. He sipped after that, teeth rattling against the ceramic rim. Then he shoved it away.

"Dean—"

"Not gonnna fall… Alisss—"

Alistair. Sam closed his eyes. He'd so hoped they'd avoid this, that Dean's scrambled and misfiring brain wouldn't mix his current suffering with memories of Hell. But he wasn't surprised; the situation was tailor-made for traumatic flashbacks. "No, no, listen to me." Sam pulled back enough so Dean could see his face, if Dean could see anything; his pinprick pupils made his eyes look wide and blank, focused inward on his misery. "Look at me, man, look at me. You're here, with me, not down there. Alistair's dead."

Dean's eyes darted back and forth across his face, but Sam still didn't know what he was seeing. "No." Dean shook his head, but less vehemently. "No, S'mmeee." And, God, his eyes filled with tears.

He had no idea what his brother's mind had latched on to now: there was a cornucopia of bad to choose from including Sam's betrayal, his death that had started this all, the horrors of Hell, and the apparently bleak future Dean had seen but still hadn't been able to bring himself to talk to Sam about.

The last few hours, Dean had swung violently between rage and panic, depression and naked hurt. He'd begged for relief and cursed Sam for not giving it, shoved him away and clung to him. He'd rambled about Sam leaving him, and about his failing Sam. But always, always at the center of Dean's little psychopharmacologic Hell had been Sam, Sam, Sam.

He'd hurt his brother, more than he could think about, because of how much he meant to Dean. But that power over his brother was also how he could help him, uniquely among anyone else on Earth.

"Hey," Sam said quietly, maneuvering Dean against him so his brother's head was tucked into the crux of his shoulder and neck. He cocooned Dean again, dampening his shivering and twitches, and rocked him side to side. "We're good, okay? We're here, we're together, no one's goin' anywhere. Worst's gonna be over soon and then we're still gonna be here and you'll be okay. We'll be okay, all right? I need my big brother, so…we're just gonna stay here and get through this. I'm gonna get you through this. You hear that, jerk?"

There was a pause. Then Dean clumsily shifted in the blankets, an elbow jabbing Sam's ribs before he either found a more comfortable spot or gave up trying. But his voice, even wrecked and weak, was vintage Dean. "Friggin' oct'pus-s…bitch."

Sam was shocked at how much he meant the laugh that broke out of him. They might just make it through this in one piece, after all.

Forty minutes later, Dean suddenly went still. Then he melted soundlessly against Sam.

It took a frantic few seconds to confirm what Sam had hoped and dispel what he'd feared: Dean wasn't dead. On the contrary, his heartbeat was slowing, the flush of his skin receding in front of Sam's eyes. He thumbed an eyelid up and watched Dean's normal-sized pupil contract. He was sleeping, already breathing long and deep instead of the harsh pants of a minute before. The ghost must have gone up in smoke, its influence vanishing.

Sam buried his face in Dean's damp hair, just for a minute, overwhelmed and thankful.

Then with a deep sigh, he got started on moving them back into the room on legs that were full of pins and needles. He was exhausted, but he had to clean up Dean and put him to bed before even thinking about succumbing to sleep. Probably should call Bobby, too, confirm the job was done even though it seemed obvious. He wasn't going to let this one turn back and bite them, too, because he'd made another bad assumption.

Dean mumbled something about pie as Sam got him up, and Sam grinned. He'd have to add that to the to-do list, too. It felt like old times.

Like forgiveness.

00000

The knock startled Sam awake.

He pushed up on an elbow, knuckling his eyes open to see Dean standing at the door, conferring quietly with someone. When he shut the door and turned back, he was holding a box and a tray of drinks.

Sam yawned and sat up, rubbing a hand through hair that, if Dean's quirk of a smile was any indication, was sporting a pretty impressive case of bedhead. Sam couldn't bring himself to care.

"What's going on?"

Dean had turned to set his new acquisitions on the table, and he answered over his shoulder, "I slipped the dude at the front desk a twenty to get us some donuts."

"And coffee," Sam said reverently, reaching for one of the paper cups. He just raised an eyebrow as Dean turned the tray so the farther beverage was in front of him. He grabbed it and took a sip, smiling as he realized why that one was his: it was sweet with caramel and whipped cream, just the way he liked.

They dug into the pastries like two men who hadn't eaten in over half a day, which they were. Sam was especially gratified to see Dean inhaling three before he even paused for more coffee, and hoarding the remaining jelly-filled without remorse. Sam reached for one anyway because it was expected of him, glowering when he got a smacked hand for his troubles. Oh well, it left the chocolate glazed and Boston cream for him, a hardship he'd just have to live with.

Somewhere around the fifth donut, Dean cleared his throat, licking powdered sugar off his lips as he examined the remaining donuts. "So. That sucked."

Sam knew he wasn't talking about the donuts. "Yeah," he agreed. He couldn't imagine how long the four victims had suffered through withdrawals without apparent cause before they freaked out or took their own lives. He wondered if any of them had had loved ones trying to help them through it, because facing that alone… Sam shook himself free of the memory. "How're you doin'?" he asked, looking up at Dean from under his mess of hair.

"Great. Fine." Dean shrugged one-shouldered. "You know, little stiff and sore, but no more reefer madness."
"Good." Sam nodded. "That's good." He bit half-heartedly into a donut just to have something to do, but the custard tasted oddly bitter.

"Bobby called before. You nailed it with the dead guy—he said Norris got hit with symptoms just before he torched the dude, so he was definitely the one."

Sam's mouth curled sadly. "Let me guess—at eight thirty-three this morning?"

"You gotta ask?"

Sam shook his head, sipping his coffee and staring at the table.

Dean shifted in his chair. "I'm sorry, Sam," he said suddenly.

Sam stared at him with confusion. "For what?"

A disgusted shake of the head, but it wasn't disgust with him this time. "I didn't really get it before, you know? I mean, there was that time with Wandell's buddies, but that was nothing compared to last night. But that's what it was like for you, wasn't it."

It wasn't really a question, but Sam answered slowly, picking out each painful word. "Not a lot. I mean, most of the time, Ruby wouldn't let it get that bad." He huffed a laugh. "Functioning addict, you know?" He traced the scarred wood grain with his thumb. "But it was a reason to keep drinking. And then in the panic room, it…" He didn't want to be saying this, but he could feel Dean listening in a way he hadn't before when Sam had tried to explain, and he couldn't waste that. "It felt like I was losing my mind, you know? Like I was drowning, and you an' Bobby were just pushing me under."

Silence. Then, quietly, "I'm sorry we left you alone for it."

Sam chuffed again, shook his head. "No. I would've gone right through you to get out of there. I guess I did kinda go crazy for a while."

"Dude, I could've handled you," Dean said dismissively.

Sam looked up at him. "No. You couldn't have." Bobby had told him about his powers going haywire, and while Sam didn't remember that, he couldn't forget the consuming rage and need and the taunts of his imaginary visitors. Maybe a real Dean could've drowned out their poisoned words, but Sam doubted it. The fight had taken place inside him, not in the panic room, and he'd lost.

"You didn't kill Bobby," Dean said seriously. "You could have, but you just knocked him out. And…you didn't kill me."

Sam drew in a wet breath. They'd barely talked about that night, the memory too raw even now, weeks later, but Dean's anger and betrayal had been clear each time it came up. There was none of that in his tone now, nor in his face, just a cautious sympathy. "I almost did," Sam whispered. "I was close, man. And what I did do to you…"

"—was not cool, and I still owe you a beatdown for that." Dean leaned in. "But you reined it in, Sam. You were all hopped up on something that makes Leaving Las Vegas look like a sugar rush, but you pulled it back, on your own. That's not nothing, bro."

Sam clamped his jaw together to keep it from wobbling, gave a short nod.

"So, just…thanks for yesterday. And I'm sorry. I kinda get it now."

Sam's teeth were starting to ache. "Thanks. Thank you," he said hoarsely.

"And we're not bringing it up again, not Cold Spring, not last night, you hear me?" Dean was waving a stern finger at him when Sam peered up at him, startled. "You're still my little brother, which means no way did you take me down, and there was definitely no cuddling on the bathroom floor. We clear?"

He gave a meek nod. Honestly, he was too stunned to do more.

"Good. Now finish your donut and then go comb your hair, dude. You look like a porcupine."

The last bite of his breakfast was salty and damp, but it was the sweetest thing Sam had ever had.

The End