First published in Route 666 #6 (2013), from Ashton Press

No "Little" in "Little Brother"
K Hanna Korossy

"Watch me! Watch me, Dean!"

"I'm watching, Sammy," Dean yelled back, rolling his eyes. Sam had made sure he had Dean's attention about twenty times so far, at least twice for each playground apparatus he tackled. It didn't stop the flush of fondness Dean felt as he watched the five-year-old burn off some of his endless energy, or how glad he was that Sam still looked up to him. After the shtriga, after the way Dad had been looking at him since—

"Dean."

Speak of the devil. Dean's spine immediately stiffened, hand stretching automatically toward the switchblade in his pocket, confirming for the millionth time that he was armed and his dad wouldn't be disappointed again in him. He turned to watch John Winchester stride across the small strip of grass between the motel and the playground.

"Caleb called. I need to go to Montana for a few days. I left food money on the table. No school until I get back, and you don't let Sam out of your sight, you hear me?"

His chest went tight as it did every time Dad said he was leaving, but Dean didn't show it, just nodded. "Yeah, Dad."

John stepped up to him, making Dean tilt his head back to see his father's face, and put a heavy hand on Dean's shoulder. "Not one second, Dean. You don't take your eyes off him for a second. What happened in Fort Douglas can't ever happen again, am I clear?"

It was hard to swallow and his eyes stung. Dean clenched his jaw and nodded again. "Yes, sir."

The hand on his shoulder squeezed painfully hard a moment. Then John nodded once, gave Sam a glance, and turned and walked away.

Dean bit his lip hard to keep from being a baby and starting to cry.

"Dean!" Sam whumphed into him like a plump projectile, then started bouncing up and down. "Didja see me on the monkey bars? I was 'some!"

"Yeah." His voice wobbled, and Dean made himself pull it together. "You were awesome."

But Sam had caught sight of John walking off. "Where's Daddy going?"

"To visit Mr. Caleb." Dean absently brushed grass out of Sam's mop of hair. "He'll be back soon."

"Oh."

Sam's face fell, and it felt like something heavy was sitting on Dean's chest again. When Sammy studied his expression, it was all Dean could do to give him a reassuring smile.

Suddenly, a pair of skinny arms wrapped around his middle. "Don't be sad, Dean. I'll stay with you."

His throat hurt a different way, and the crushing feeling eased a little. He patted Sam's curls and swallowed a few times before he could say, "Thanks, Sammy."

It was pretty lame, how much that helped, but Dean didn't care.

00000

Sam emerged from Jake's house and saw Dean step out from behind some honeysuckle bushes. He waved at his big brother, hurrying down to meet him.

Sam quickly fell into step beside Dean as they turned back to the little shack where they were living that month. It was about a tenth the size of the house Sam had just been in, but for once Sam didn't care, happy to be going home with his brother.

"How was the party?" Dean asked, bumping Sam's shoulder just enough to throw him off a step.

Sam playfully bumped him back, even if his head only came up to Dean's shoulder and he didn't budge his older brother at all. "It was great," he enthused. "Jake had this scientist come, and we did all kinds of experiments."

"A science birthday party?" Dean asked skeptically. "Dude, only you and your geek friends would think that's fun."

"It was really cool, Dean—you would have liked it. We made a volcano with baking soda, and glow-in-the-dark paint. Did you know that ammonia and bleach makes poisonous gas?"

Dean frowned. "Poisonous gas? What kind of people you hanging out with, man?"

Sam rolled his eyes; he was eleven, not stupid. "We didn't make any, he was just telling us so we wouldn't do it by mistake."

"Huh." Dean seemed to accept that. And Sam happened to know his brother had checked up on Jake and his family before letting Sam go to the party. "You bring some stuff you made home with you?" He nodded at the plastic bag Sam was swinging from one hand.

"Oh." Sam had almost forgotten. He held the bag up to Dean, excited anew. "No, this is for you."

Puzzled and looking a little wary, Dean took it. "You better not have brought me something poisonous, dude."

"Deeean."

"Okay, okay." He undid the knot and peered inside, eyebrows crooking at the two foil-covered plates inside. "What's this?"

"I brought you some of the food. Mrs. Deavers said it was okay."

Dean's brow furrowed again. "Sammy, you should've eaten—"

"I did, Dean, honest." He didn't often get a chance to eat as much as he wanted, and he'd taken full advantage of it. "This was seconds."

He could see Dean's doubts; Sam was always hungry those days and devoured seconds whenever he had them. But he'd also noticed how little Dean sometimes ate, the careful way he counted their money and the sparseness of their cupboards when Dad was away for a while.

So he watched with pleasure and pride as Dean's attention returned to the food. He could see his brother's eyes grow wider as Dean lifted the edge of the foil on the plate holding the still-warm cheeseburger, hearing his stomach growl.

"I put lots of onions on it for you," Sam offered.

Dean cleared his throat. "That's great, Sammy," he said quietly. "Just the way I like it."

Sam felt like he could float. "You can eat it on the way home." He shoved Dean again, once more not moving him an inch. He was really looking forward to being bigger. "And it's 'Sam,' remember?"

"Thanks, Sam," Dean corrected with exaggeration as he dug out the burger. "What's on the other plate?"

Sam's grin was starting to hurt. "Jake doesn't like cake, so guess what his mom made?" He bounced on his toes. "Apple pie."

He wished he had a picture of Dean's face. Then his brother slung an arm around his neck, pulling him close. "Dude, you need to go to geek birthday parties more often."

It was as honest a thank-you as Dean could give, and it was all Sam needed.

00000

The whole school was talking about it. Well, foremost about his humiliating Dirk, but the second top story had been Amanda busting Dean in the janitor's closet with another girl. She'd apparently told him off in front of God and everybody.

Sam wouldn't have thought twice about it—not with Dad pulling them out of school and Barry looking at him like Sam was abandoning him to wolves and Sam still basking in the fame of beating Dirk—except the rumor mill got even nastier when it detailed Dean's reaction. Sam's unflappable big brother, who was as used to being turned down as he was to being turned on, had uncharacteristically lashed back, claiming he saved lives and was a hero. That little bit of gossip was universally followed by derisive snickers.

Sam couldn't get that part out of his mind.

It didn't help that Dean had been withdrawn since they'd departed Truman High, impatient and sullen. Another time, Sam would have teased him for not wanting to leave a girl behind, but he knew better now. This was his big brother nursing wounds. This was Dean hurt by some stupid girl who had no idea whom she'd been talking to.

Sam knew. He just didn't know what to do about it.

They relocated two states over, to another town that could have been Sioux City's twin. Dad promptly left to go hunting, Dean went to the local high school to enroll them, and Sam scouted the closest library, used book store, and thrift shop. Business as usual.

Except…

"Seriously? You're dropping out of school?"

Dean pulled off his jacket, about to toss it onto the sagging couch before he reconsidered, and shrugged. "I'm eighteen, Sam. I can quit if I want."

"Dad's not gonna let you," Sam protested.

Dean was examining the furniture for bedbugs or other vermin. "Dad doesn't care. He'll probably be glad I can hunt full-time now."

That made his stomach twist uncomfortably; Dean and their Dad had left him behind for a day or two alone before, but it always left Sam stressed and worried. "What about me?"

Dean glanced sideways at him at that. "What about you?"

"What if something happens at school? Or what if I need help with my homework? Dean, what if there's a ghost there or something and—"

"Whoa, Sam." Dean was suddenly in front of him, hands on Sam's shoulders and head ducked down a little to meet Sam's eyes. "There won't be a ghost, okay? Millions of kids go to school on their own just fine. And Dad and I are still gonna be here if you need anything." He lightly cuffed the side of Sam's head. "'Sides, you're the one usually helping me with my homework, Poindexter."

He could see Dean's pride for Sam at that. And the shame for himself that lurked just behind it.

Sam cast a wild glance around the sad, soiled room, looking for something, anything to get that look off Dean's face.

"So…that means we're gonna start doing more training, right? You can finally show me that move you were talking about when I was gonna fight Dirk?"

Dean's eyes narrowed; no, he wasn't stupid. "Dude, you hate training."

"I hate training with Dad," Sam corrected, which was true. "You're a better teacher." Also true, at least in spirit if not in skill.

"Sammy—"

"I like practicing with you, Dean." Which was starting to push it, but he was desperate.

And…maybe he'd gone too far, because Dean was giving him that calculating look like he could see right through Sam.

Sam gave him a weak smile.

"Yeah, okay," Dean finally said softly. He reached out to muss Sam's hair, Sam deliberately dodging the assault a second too late. "We'll work on some stuff. Although, you've already got some moves, bro."

"And you can always take your GED," Sam went on. "You were almost done, anyway."

"Huh," Dean said noncommittally. He was still watching Sam, and Sam was pretty sure he hadn't fooled him a second. But the unhappy lines around Dean's eyes had smoothed out and the shame was wiped away, replaced by something Sam could see a mile away: love.

"I can help you study for it," Sam added innocently.

And as Dean squashed his face into the couch, Sam exulted that things were getting back to normal.

00000

"Is your watch broken? I think I saw a clock shop off Bowdoin Street."

Jess's voice startled him out of his thoughts. Sam looked up even as he shook his head and tucked the wristwatch into his pocket. "No, it's fine. It's not mine, anyway."

She gave him a questioning look, her usual mix of cautious curiosity whenever she asked about his past. "Family heirloom?"

He forced a smile. "Something like that. Hey, turn the TV up, okay?"

She gave him a look but let it slide, raising the volume, then grabbing his arm and tugging him toward the television. "Enough studying—it's girlfriend time."

He smiled at her. "Girlfriend time, huh?"

She pushed him onto the sofa and curled herself into his right side, fitting perfectly under his arm.

Jess let out a contented sigh as she burrowed closer, and Sam was blindsided again with how much he loved her.

"You know what would be more romantic, though? Watching a movie instead of the news."

It was like a splash of cold water. Sam turned his full attention back to the TV, and the report of the arsonist they'd just arrested in Seattle. "No, I like the news."

"No, you don't," Jess said gently. "But I know you need to watch it every day. And someday you're going to tell me what you're looking for."

He chewed his lip and avoided her eyes.

It was true; he watched every day almost superstitiously. He had no idea, however, how to explain to his girlfriend that he was watching for some sign of his dad's and brother's whereabouts and activities, of unexplained murders that had mysteriously ended or a dangerous wild animal finally killed or an unknown hero who'd saved somebody's life. Or two unidentified corpses found in suspicious circumstances.

So he watched, and worried, and didn't call because the not knowing was a little less painful than knowing the worst. But someone had to keep an eye out for them, to make arrangements if…

Sam tightened his arm around Jess, feeling warm only where she was pressed against his side.

And where Dean's watch was pressed into his palm.

00000

The fact that Dean didn't ask where they were going, let alone handed over the keys without protest, would have told Sam how badly his brother was doing even if he hadn't already known.

He'd kept thinking Dean was getting better, moving on from their dad's death as Sam himself slowly had. There were days, cases, like the shapeshifter in Milwaukee or the trickster in Springfield, when Dean had seemed back to his old self, focused and playful and strong. But then the mask would slip, or Sam would get in trouble, and he was slammed anew with the panic and depression that was hiding just beneath his brother's defenses.

Then the djinn happened, and even that meager cover was stripped away.

Dean had talked to him some, at least, sharing the fantasy world the djinn had dropped him into, his struggle to deal with reality. But that had only helped so far. The fact was, Dean was managing instead of healing, and Sam didn't know how to help him.

So he was starting to get creative.

Their stop earlier that day at LA's House of Pies had broken through even Dean's stupor. They hadn't had his favorite peppermint-chocolate, but he'd buried his disappointment in slices of fresh peach, German chocolate, Dutch apple, and southern pecan. There'd almost been a spring in his step as they'd left the coffee shop, although he still hadn't asked where they were going next.

It made it easier to keep the secret.

At least until now. Sam had pulled into a gas station and then ducked into the trunk to retrieve what they needed. He returned now to the car with suit bags in hand, holding Dean's out to him.

"Go change."

Dean frowned at him. "We have a case?"

"Not exactly," Sam hedged.

"Dude—"

"Just go change, okay?" He gave the bag a shake for emphasis.

Dean looked at him like he was losing his mind, which Sam couldn't have sworn was wrong, but he snatched the garment bag out of Sam's hand and stomped to the restroom.

Sam sighed in relief and headed for the gas station mart to buy a conciliatory cup of coffee.

Twenty-five minutes later, both of them suited up and Dean barely mollified, they turned onto a crowded street. There was obviously something going on up the block, a throng of people on the sidewalk and flashes of photographer's lights brightening the early evening dusk. Even as Dean craned to see what was going on, Sam turned into a parking lot with an exorbitant hourly fee and found a space.

"Where are we, Sam?" Dean was making no move to get out of the car.

"You'll see," Sam promised, and swung his door open.

"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on."

His brother's steely voice stopped him in place. Sam turned back. "It's a surprise, okay? A good one, I promise. Just, please? Do it for me."

He watched Dean's jaw work, knew how much his brother felt pushed up against the wall. But Dean could never say no to him, and Sam was counting on that this time. "Fine," Dean finally spat. "But this better be as awesome as the pie place."

"It will be," Sam promised with a smile, and led the way out of the car and off the lot.

He could feel Dean's curiosity warring with his temper and melancholy. He was interested in spite of himself, even more so when they finally got close enough to see that the crowd was in front of a movie theater. Dean's muttered, "What the…?" wasn't meant for Sam, and he ignored it gleefully as they drew closer.

The marquee signs in front of the theater came into view, lurid posters of a cabin and a screaming girl and Hell Hazers II: The Reckoning splashed across the top.

He began grinning when he heard Dean's startled inhale.

Martin Flagg was waiting for them by the red carpet as he'd promised, and after the screenwriter's typically over-enthusiastic welcome, he walked them around the flashing lights and shouting throng, around to the back door as Sam also had discussed with him. Considering Dean's face had been plastered across every TV and newspaper just a few months before, low-key would have to be the word. Dean didn't seem to mind, still in shock that he was going to a movie premiere, a movie he himself had worked on.

It didn't hurt that they sat behind Tara Benchley, who gave Dean a very appreciative kiss hello.

The movie was total garbage, as Sam had expected, but Dean sat wide-eyed and enthralled throughout, sometimes even nudging Sam at parts they'd watched film or had even influenced. His brother's chortle when a kid in the movie used a cell phone camera to see the ghosts, alone made the trip worthwhile.

And even Sam hadn't been expecting "Dean Willis" to show up in the credits as a P.A. Dean nearly cracked his rib with the excited shove he got for that.

They snuck out just before the lights came up. They'd barely cleared the door before Dean was turning back to Sam, face alight and animated. "Dude, did you see that? I was in the credits."

"Yeah, man, I saw."

"And the movie was freakin' awesome. You see the one-handed shotgun rack Mitch did? He totally got that from me."

Sam shoved his hands in his pockets and tried to keep pace with Dean's excited stride. "Yep, I did."

"Dude, that was…" Dean stopped and looked at him. "That was great, thanks."

Sam smiled back. "Glad to hear it."

Dean ducked his head, scratching the back of his neck, then turned toward the street again, talking over his shoulder. "I'll see you in the morning, okay?"

Sam blinked. "Wait, what?"

His brother dangled a key on a chain over his shoulder without looking back. "Tara slipped me her hotel key. Don't wait up."

Sam stood there, watching as Dean disappeared out the mouth of the alley into the night. "Huh." Okay, so that wasn't quite how he'd planned things. But considering the jaunt in his brother's step, he'd take it.

Grinning, Sam shook his head and headed back to the car, alone.

00000

About the only good thing in all this—and even that word he used loosely—was that Dean had been unconscious when Sam found him.

The shifter had tied him up instead of killing him so it could borrow from Dean's memories, apparently not borrowing enough to know that he and Sam had been down this route before, before they'd even gotten too reacquainted with each other. This time it only took Sam about five seconds to figure out the guy who walked out of the subway tunnel wasn't Dean, and another two to take the creature out permanently. Add maybe ten minutes since he'd last seen his brother and another five to find where it'd stashed Dean, and Dean hadn't been strung up there for long.

It was long enough. Sam's arms ached just from seeing his brother dangling from the limbs that were tied behind his back. Already Sam could see that Dean's bad left shoulder was out of joint, and it was possible the right one was, too. It had been painful enough to knock Dean out, which was saying something.

He cut the rope awkwardly with one hand while trying to hold up his swaying brother with the other. Sam grunted as he took Dean's full weight, trying to let him down without putting more pressure on the stressed shoulders. He ended up on the floor, Dean awkwardly tucked against him forehead to chest, breathing hot irregular pants into Sam's shirt.

"All right, man, gonna fix you up, just hang on." Sam knew he was babbling, and probably unheard, but that was fine, that was cool, anything to keep from losing it now when Dean needed him. Five months left of his year to live, and a stupid shapeshifter took him down? Wasn't happening. This, at least, Sam could fix.

He cut the rope from Dean's wrists, trying to be as gentle as possible but still making Dean groan as it jogged his shoulder. The right one at least seemed intact, although it was doubtless strained and would be sore for a while. The left… Sam focused, making sure he had it in just the right position and…

Snap.

Dean came to howling and flailing, deadly in his confusion. Sam grabbed him once to keep him from falling over, then let go out of self-preservation when a jab threatened to take his eye out.

"Dean. Dean! It's—"

Dean was still blind with rage and unexplained pain, bad arm curled tight against his stomach, good arm propelling him back only to buckle as abused muscles complained. He quickly switched to kicking instead, and it was probably only the fact that the shifter had taken his boots, too, that saved Sam's knee from being capped.

He picked his moment and lunged forward again, lower body pinning Dean's legs, hands trying to gently secure his brother's elbows. Dean still mewled with pain when his left arm was forced down, but Sam held on, firm and careful.

"Hey, hey. It's me, Dean, it's me. Look at me, man. You're fine, okay? You're good."

The crazed look faded from Dean's eyes, replaced by recognition. Another few seconds while he made sense of things, then the fight washed out of his body, leaving him panting and limp under Sam's weight.

Sam eased back, hand remaining on Dean's good—well, better—right arm to ground him. "The shapeshifter got you, remember? Hung you up Palestine-style. I'm gonna tie your arm off, okay?"

Dean, still breathing hard, just watched him, permissive in his silent stillness. He closed his eyes as Sam crooked his left arm back against his body, securing it close with Sam's own jacket pulled over Dean's torso and zipped up.

"You hurt anywhere else?" Sam finally asked as he sat back on his heels.

Dean's head rolled from side to side against the cement floor. "You?" he rasped back.

"I'm fine—got it before it got me."

Dean nodded, eyes still closed.

"Ready to get up?"

"Jus…give me a minute, okay?" Dean breathed.

"Yeah, sure." Sam settled in beside him, only now noting how dark the maintenance tunnel was, lit only with a lantern. It gave him the creeps, honestly, even without the memory of seeing Dean hanging from the ceiling, but he would wait as long as Dean needed. His brother had recently admitted to Sam that he was scared of going to Hell, and it'd made Sam try even harder to stay close, tacitly promising him he wasn't facing this alone.

There was a rustle of fabric. Dean's right hand fell open on the ground between them.

It was dark, just the two of them, Dean hurt, both of them scared.

Sam didn't hesitate to take it and hold on tight.

00000

He'd woken to a soft murmur and the sounds of restless sleep. Even as Sam lay half-asleep and tried to piece those clues together, he heard Dean gasp a sharp breath in and shoot up in bed. In the gloom of the dark motel room, he could see his brother's silhouette drop his legs over the side of the bed, head in hands.

Sam kept his breathing even, not saying a word even though he so badly wanted to. But he knew from experience it would not be taken well.

A minute ticked by. Breathing under control, Dean pushed himself up from the bed with a sigh and stumbled to the bathroom.

Sam echoed him, out of ear shot.

A year ago, he would have stayed silent out of pity, an almost patronizing sympathy for his Hell-traumatized brother. A year ago he'd been so sure he knew the answers: trust Ruby, kill Lilith, do some unsavory things for the greater good, and avenge his poor, broken brother.

A year ago, he'd been a proud, misguided, addicted moron.

He could hear the water go on in the bathroom. That usually meant Dean was washing off sweat and tears. At least he wasn't throwing up tonight as he did sometimes when the nightmares were especially bad. Small mercies.

In the last year, Lucifer had risen, Bobby had fallen into a wheelchair, Dean had cut Sam loose and then taken him back, and Sam knew now he was as broken as his brother. He'd lost any grounds for trying to make Dean feel better. But that didn't mean he didn't want to, more than anything.

From the bathroom came the sound of Dean clearing his throat, coughing. The light disappeared under the bathroom door, and quiet steps crossed the room, back to Dean's bed. There they paused, hesitating to climb back into that island of suffering.

"You wanna watch a movie?" Sam surprised himself by speaking up.

From Dean's lack of reaction, he wasn't. "Not really," he answered, low and startlingly honest. He sat down on the bed, and Sam's eyes had adjusted enough that he could see Dean draw a hand down his face. "Sorry I woke you up."

"Don't be an idiot," Sam said without heat, sitting up to mirror Dean. All he could see of his brother's face was the shine of his eyes. "Maybe we should head up to Bobby's tomorrow, see how he's doing."

"Get all the screwed-up people in one place? Good plan," Dean said, his bitterness oddly flat.

"I was gonna say strength in numbers," Sam amended. He also had a half-baked idea he wanted to run by Bobby, but he wasn't ready to mention that to Dean yet. "But if you wanna stick around here…?"

Another tired wash of the hand down his face. Dean's body language, especially in the thick shadows of the room, reminded Sam of their dad. "No, that's fine. Maybe he'll have something new on how to take down Lucifer."

Now he was really taking a stab in the dark and they both knew it, but Sam wasn't about to call him on it. His brother had precious little hope those days as it was. He just nodded. Paused. "Dean…"

The other figure waited in silence.

Sam wanted to say it would be fine. That he had faith in Dean. That they would find a way as they always had, together. That he was sorry and grateful and worried.

"Go back to sleep," Dean said gently, and fitted action to words as he rolled back into the bed.

Sam copied him, eyes on the streak of light that had escaped the blinds to paint the ceiling. Nothing he said right now would make a difference, but he could show Dean. Be here for him right now, let him be the big brother he needed to be. And eventually… Sam would stop Lucifer. Save his brother, save the world.

He just wished Dean had opened up to him about Hell at some point, so Sam could try to prepare himself.

00000

"Got a new one for you to try." Dean set the steaming mug on the table in front of Sam and tried not to look hopeful.

Sam eyed it warily. "Yeah? What kind you get this time?" He picked it up and took a delicate sniff, the big baby.

"'Yucky-Nasty.' Supposed to be good for sore throats and coughs." And boosting the immune system, but Sam didn't need to know how much research Dean had done on this.

Sam quickly set the mug down, face screwed up in disgust. "'Yucky-Nasty'? What is that, truth in advertising?"

Grimacing, Dean went and fetched the box from the bunker kitchen, returning to toss it in front of Sam. "I figured it's reverse psychology. Like…mud pie. Make something great sound gross so people wanna try it."

"Yeah, I don't think that's exactly how reverse psychology works. And it's 'Echinacea,' Dean, not 'Yucky-Nasty.'"

Whatever it was, Dean was glad to see that Sam seemed reassured and took a sip from the mug, then another. Besides the succession of healthy foods and meds he'd been plying Sam with, he'd also been trying to find teas Sam would like. The kid had always been a pansy-ass drinker, but if it made him feel better and was good for him to boot, Dean was all for it. He settled down across from Sam with his own cup of coffee to enjoy the sight of Sam actually enjoying something.

Another sip, then Sam paused to cough. Dean wordlessly handed him a tissue, and they both pretended not to see the blood on it when he was done.

"My throat's not sore," Sam quietly added.

"Right, because that would be the less-Typhoid Mary reason for coughing," Dean shot back, regretting it immediately when he saw Sam's eyes drop. Dean sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "Look, Sammy—"

"You're not taking over the trials, Dean, okay?" Sam said tersely, tea sloshing over the edge of the mug.

Dean frowned, leaning forward to mop the hot tea from Sam's hands with the cuff of his shirt before it could burn. God knew the kid had enough to deal with without adding even minor injuries to the mix. "I wasn't gonna say that," he said defensively.

Not that the thought hadn't crossed his mind, oh, about a billion times. And not for the reason he knew Sam was thinking. He trusted Sam's ability to do the three trials more than even his own. The kid was tough, smarter than Dean would ever be, and driven like their Dad; if anyone could do the impossible three times over, it was Sam. What Dean didn't have faith in, however, was Sam coming out intact at the end, not because of any shortcoming in him, but just because it seemed to be one of the curses of their life that every year or so, one or both of them would lose the other—or someone else they cared deeply about—and Dean was done with that being Sam. No more Hell or Purgatory or Heaven. If anyone would be checking out, it had to be him, the one of them who couldn't keep going it alone.

But he wasn't going to try to take the burden over from Sam again. Even that wasn't worth the look of betrayal and humiliation on his brother's face.

"Oh." Sam looked abashed, the fatigue and pain he lived with these days making him more transparent than usual. As if he'd ever been a mystery to Dean. Contritely, he drank more of his tea. "So…"

"So, I was thinking…maybe it's not such a hot idea to board up Hell for good."

Sam's eyes shot to his, startled.

"I mean," Dean hurried on, "we don't even know if that's one way or both, right? What if it means nobody else goes to Hell, either, not the demons we track down after, not the monsters who take sick pictures of kids or beat up their wives. I mean, for all we know, Crowley's part of the tablet's got all the fine print about the warnings and possible side effects."

Sam had recovered enough to watch him with hooded eyes over the edge of the mug. "Right. And that's the only reason you wanna stop the trials."

It was Dean's turn to dodge his brother's too-knowing gaze. "I'm just sayin', maybe we should think about this first before we keep going."

Sam's mouth twisted into a tiny, bitter smile. "You really don't think I can do this, do you?"

That did it. Dean stared him in the eye, dead serious. "You wanna know the truth, Sam? I know you can do this. And that scares the crap out of me."

Sam was actually speechless. Dean should've been enjoying that way more than he was.

"It's not worth it, okay? It's not worth it if…" He didn't want to, couldn't say it, biting the inside of his mouth so hard he tasted blood. Like Sam was every day now.

"I thought you were gonna make sure that didn't happen?" Sam finally said. "You know, the whole Lord of the Rings bit—you can't carry it for me but you can carry me?" And the rat bastard was actually smiling a little.

Dean stared at him, seesawing between annoyed and awed, and, man, was that a familiar feeling when it came to Sam. It had been hard to get over the whole not-looking-for-him thing, but this? This was why he always wanted his brother back. Because in between the moments of stupidity or weakness, of all-too-human failing, the kid was kind of awesome. "Drink your tea," Dean growled at last.

Sam did, still smiling, albeit softly. He held up his mug. "I kinda like this one."

"Shut up," Dean muttered.

And damn it all if it didn't still sound like I love you, too.

The End