First appeared in Blood Brothers 3 (2009), from Gold'n Lily Press. BB4 just debuted; ask me for ordering information, or write Jeanne at TeaJunkie .

Bottled Up
K Hanna Korossy

"So, tell me again why we're going now?"

Dean's hand shifted a little on the steering wheel, skin tight over his knuckles with the pressure. "Gee, I don't know, Sam. Maybe because four people have ended up dead here with their skin peeled off like they were some friggin' piece of fruit?" He spared his brother a disdainful glance.

Sam rubbed his hands against his jeans, a nervous habit Dean didn't remember from when he was a kid. "That's not what I mean."

"Then what do you mean?"

An annoyed huff. That Dean remembered really well. "It's our kind of case, I mean, yeah, obviously. But skin removed, eyes and tongue missing—we don't know anything with exactly that MO, Dean. And going in blind is just—"

"We're not going in blind," he interrupted quickly. "I know what it is."

"Right. A skinwalker." Sam's words were heavy with skepticism.

"Glad you agree." Dean smirked humorlessly at the windshield.

"Don't even… Okay, yeah, so some shapeshifters do literally get inside their victims' skins. But, Dean, I've never heard of any kind that takes the eyes and tongue, too. Why? That doesn't make any sense."

Dean tilted his head, smoothly navigating around a double-parked car. "You've been out of the hunt for more than three years, dude—it is possible there are some things out there you've never heard of or forgot about. I mean, all that information they shoved into your brain at school had to push some other stuff out, right?" More to himself than to Sam, he added, "'S not like you didn't want to forget what we do."

"I wasn't—" Sam slouched into the seat with a frustrated sigh. "Whatever, man. I'm just saying, I don't think this is a skinwalker."

"Oh, that's right, you think it's a—what? A graul?"

"It fits just as much as a shapeshifter."

"Did the autopsies find any paralytics in the bodies? Any sign they were peeled slow while they were still alive?"

Sam's teeth gritted faintly. "No."

"No," echoed Dean. "And correct me if I'm wrong, but grauls don't usually take tongues and eyes, either, right?"

"There was one account—"

"One guy, Sam, with a pretty tall tale."

Sam twisted to face him. "The paralytic isn't confirmed, either, Dean. It makes sense if it eats the victims alive that it might take steps to keep the person subdued."

Dean made a face. "You can still scream without a tongue, Sam."

"It's a lot harder. And besides, we know already the graul likes making its victims suffer. Seems a pretty effective way to me, man."

"Yeah, except for the fact that it's a skinwalker. We got no reason to believe the vic was alive when he was husked."

Sam chuffed with irritation. "Okay, fine, you think it's a skinwalker—about which you're wrong, by the way—and I think it's a graul. Why are we going in if we can't even agree on what we're hunting? Dad always said you should know your prey."

The rush of resulting hurt made Dean's shoulders hunch. Amazing, how Sam could still unerringly hit his weak spots even years out of practice. "Don't tell me what Dad taught, Sam," Dean said coldly. "I'm the one who stayed with the man the last three years."

Sam, thank God, had grown a little wiser in his time away becoming an egghead. He dropped the subject, casting Dean a subdued glance, then tried another angle, voice more persuasive than provoking this time. Because he was still Sam, and Sam never had given up easily. "I'm just saying, I don't think it's a skinwalker."

"Still not offering me any good arguments, dude."

"Okay, so why don't we do a little more research?"

Dean rolled his eyes. They'd spent the whole previous day at the library. Any more reading and Dean would develop narcolepsy. He was pretty sure that was something you could catch from thick, dusty books.

"Fine," Sam snapped with another huff. Some things even school couldn't change, apparently. "What if we're both wrong? There are a lot of other things this might be."

"Name one," Dean growled.

Sam only hesitated a moment. "A Bone-Cleaner."

"Bone-Cleaners take the meat, too, not just the skin."

"Maybe it was interrupted."

"Four times?" Dean asked skeptically.

Sam's lips pressed together. "Okay…demon."

Dean snorted. "Any particular kind?"

Sam shrugged.

"Okay, besides the fact that we don't run into those very often, why would it do that? Not exactly classic demonic behavior there."

His brother's jaw set stubbornly. "Wi-lu-gho-yuks."

"They eat you from the inside out, not the other way around."

Sam shifted in his seat; if they'd been out of the car, he'd have been all agitated movement. "Yeenaaldlooshii."

"Now you're just making things up."

"They're Navajo warlocks," Sam said smugly.

"Then they're probably into animal skins, not people," Dean shot back.

"Maybe it's the urban version of cattle mutilations," Sam suggested.

Dean cast him an incredulous look. "Yeah, now you're starting to creep me out, dude."

"Adlet."

Frigid cold settled into Dean's gut. "No."

"Just—"

"No," he bit off.

Sam eyed him a moment, and Dean couldn't care less. He wasn't going there. His little brother finally sighed. "Dean…"

"Sam, just give it up, okay? It's a skinwalker, we're gonna nail it with silver, end of story."

Sam's hands rose a little, a more muted version of his usual flailing exasperation. "And if it's not? "

Dean's shoulder hitched. "Then we'll get a look at it and know what it is. Fall back and regroup if we have to."

"That's your plan?" Sam said acerbically.

And, yeah, if that didn't make Dean's hackles rise, he didn't know what did. "Yes, Sam, that's my plan. You got a better one? Stanford teach you battlefield strategy or maneuvers? You work with any experienced hunters while you were gone? Rack up any kills of your own?"

"Right. Because that's the only kind of training that matters," Sam said bitterly.

"I never said that—don't put words in my mouth," Dean spat, pointing at him. "I was on your side about school, remember? But this is my classroom, Sam. I'm the one who's been studying here my whole freakin' life. So, yeah, that's my plan and we're going with it."

Sam dropped back into his seat, radiating disgruntlement. But when he spoke, it was with quiet disappointment. "I thought you wanted a partner, not an employee."

Dean cringed inside. This wasn't how he wanted to win this fight, and that so hadn't been his point. Sam had received most of the training Dean had, had easily absorbed several times the book information, and the last few months had gotten him back into fighting shape. And…yeah, Dean wanted a partner badly, someone to share the load with, to watch his back, to bounce things off. But at the end, someone had to make the decisions when there was disagreement. And he wasn't better than Sam, certainly not smarter, just…more experienced. Sam had never been able to see that, though, not when Dad had had the final word, not when Dean claimed it now. Why did everything have to be personal with him?

Sam was picking at his jeans, another new habit. Something about it nagged at Dean, though, and then he abruptly remembered his preschool brother plucking at his blanket, at Dad's jacket, at Dean's hair. Irritation eased. Maybe he was just as frustrated as Dean was by this chasm of years between them. Or maybe that's what grief and having your life turned upside down did to you. Wasn't like Sam was even sleeping much those days.

Dean sighed, unwilling reminders coming to mind of their dad in those early days after the fire. Of the same haunted look that resided now in Sam's eyes in unguarded moments. Everything did probably feel personal when your life had just burned down around you.

Dean grimaced at the windshield, shrugged his shoulders. "Sammy…"

"We're here." Sam nodded at the building up ahead.

Dean pulled the car up to the curb, still considering his words. But Sam jumped out as soon as the Impala stopped moving, leaving Dean only to follow.

Story of his life.

By the time Dean reached the back, Sam had opened the trunk and loaded a gun with silver. He shoved it silently at Dean, who took it and stuck it in the back of his jeans. He let his jacket fall over it, then glanced at Sam again.

Those stupid bangs hid his brother's eyes from him, but Dean recognized the rigid stance, the precise movements, even the way his chin was angled. Dad had also taught them never to go into a hunt with unfinished business distracting you. "Sam," Dean offered.

Sam's long fingers stuttered, and Dean could have sworn he saw the lanky frame tremble a moment. But when Sam's head lifted, his face was hard, eyes opaque. "I'll take the top floor and work my way down. You go up."

Dean frowned at him as he filled his pockets absently with other tools of the trade: EMF meter, holy water—just in case—a silver blade. "Wait, you wanna split up?"

"It's a twelve-story building, Dean. I don't want to be here all night." Sam's mouth twisted. "Why, you don't trust me in the field, either?"

Dean made an exasperated sound. "This isn't about trust, Sam!"

"No, it's about Dad being gone and you immediately jumping in to take his place, Dean!" Sam's arms spread wide. "Well, I've done just fine without a dad the last three years, man—I don't need one now."

That stung on so many levels, Dean couldn't even sort it all out. The default anger was easy, the cold smile and shake of the head. "Funny. And here I was thinking you sounded just like Dad."

Sam's face went dark. "Screw you." He started to turn away.

"Take some silver rounds with you," Dean said tightly after a moment's hesitation, the admission of concern an effort.

His brother paused, every line of his body drawn in rebellion. But Sam finally spun back, anger still sparking in his eyes, and grabbed the rounds from his hand. "Get some iron," he ground in return.

Dean rolled his eyes, but capitulated, hands up, when Sam opened his mouth. "Yeah, fine, whatever."

Sam gave him a disbelieving shake of the head and turned his back again.

Dean watched him go, torn between telling him to check in at the end of each floor and cursing him out. How was it possible to love someone so much who frustrated you so much? Dean snagged a few iron rounds from their armory, then some salt shells for good measure along with his beloved shotgun, and slammed the trunk. Terrific. So much for not going into a hunt with unresolved issues.

Partner, follower, whatever—what Dean had wanted most of all was just a brother. He should've been more careful what he wished for.

Dean blew out a breath, squared his shoulders, and headed inside after Sam.

00000

Sam Winchester hated his life.

He unsealed the police tape on the building door with a flick of a blade, and picked the lock before Dean's footsteps could catch up behind him. Then he darted inside, alert but also anxious to be alone.

Yes, he'd missed Dean. More than he could articulate, and even so he hadn't realized quite how much until he was reunited with his brother and memories came flooding back. It was like finding a missing piece of himself again.

But even Dean couldn't make up for all Sam had lost. He'd worked hard to forge a new life for himself: a home, a circle of friends, a job, plans for the future. And Jess. His lover, friend, and partner. The one he'd hoped to make his wife. Everything, lost in the flames of a past he thought he'd left behind.

The fire had dragged him back into that very past he'd tried so hard to shake. And while slipping again into his old role with Dean had provided some comfort, especially in Sam's rawest grief, it also deeply rankled to regress from protector to protected, man of the house to little brother. Equal to…less than.

He knew Dean didn't mean it like that. It was concern and love in his older brother's eyes, his actions, not condescension. And it certainly wasn't Dean's fault their old life refused to let Sam go. But that didn't make the change any easier, nor left Sam feeling any less diminished or out of control. And Dean was right there next to him while Dad, the thing that killed Jess, God, wasn't, and he was so easy to blame.

Sam felt a hot flush of shame as he found the stairwell door, went in, and started climbing; elevators were too risky when there was an unknown supernatural loose. Okay, yeah, so Dean could be a pompous ass sometimes, reveling in putting his little brother into his place. They had always measured themselves against each other, and what Sam gained in height, he lacked in experience and age. Sometimes he wanted nothing more than to beat his brother at something and wipe that smirk off Dean's smug face.

But then there were also those late nights when Sam had woken utterly lost in grief, when he'd dampened a countless number of Dean's shirts. Those patient, worried looks when he grew too quiet, and wordless offerings of small treats to try to coax a smile from him. That was all Dean, too, and, frankly, the only thing that kept Sam from lying down in traffic sometimes. The only one who was right there with him.

Five floors below him now, Sam was barely winded. He'd been working with Dean, getting back into hunting shape. He was good; he almost won when they sparred now. Well, sometimes. But he still should have more say in the hunts. Dean had four years on him, not forty, and even Dad was occasionally wrong. All right, not often, but still. Dean didn't know everything. Skinwalker? Please. It was obviously a graul. Sam was pretty sure.

Dean better have taken some iron rounds with him.

Nine floors. Sam kept climbing at an even pace. The police had taken the unusual step of clearing out the whole apartment building, but four horribly mutilated bodies had been too much for even them to ignore. The whole building was a locked-down crime scene. It would make searching it easier, anyway.

At the twelfth floor, Sam cracked the door open, listening and scanning a long moment before slipping into the hallway.

There were twelve apartments on each floor. Their doors were locked, but Sam's lockpick skills weren't rusty, and he made quick work of all twelve. Grauls were normally cave-dwellers, but they liked any small, dark space, so Sam checked heating vents, closets, behind appliances. He searched for odd smells or tiny sounds, anything unusual. Including, yes, shapeshifter skin. Dean didn't have to know that part.

He was nearly at the end of the hall when his cell vibrated. Wary, Sam pulled it out. The text window said 1 DN, and Sam smiled a little, the subtle clench of tension in his stomach easing. He sent back 12 CLR, then slid the phone away and headed back to the stairs.

Eleven was likewise clear, as, the message came soon after, was Two. The last murder had happened four days before, and police were pretty much done with the building, not releasing it back to the residents only because they had nothing to show for their investigation. Funny how grauls never came up in police training, Sam snorted. They should do something about that. He sent Dean an all-clear on Eleven and descended another floor.

Something twigged his senses the moment he stepped through the door on Ten. Sam paused, frown gathering on his brow, and concentrated on what it was. The air seemed cooler here, albeit not a ghostly frost, and there was a slight odor to it. Grauls didn't affect temperature, did they? And this wasn't the earthy, rancid smell Sam had expected. It seemed more…chemical, somehow.

His hand slipped into his pocket, and he blindly tapped one of the buttons twice: Standby. Then, blade in one hand, handgun in the other, he crept down the hall.

As the smell got stronger, a soft buzz joined it. Indistinct at first, it soon separated and cleared into something Sam recognized: conversation. Human conversation.

The building was supposed to be empty. They'd even hacked into police records to make sure no team was scheduled to be in the place that morning. So if it wasn't cops… The chemical smell was unmistakable now, and Sam tightened his grip on his gun, suspicions forming.

The door to 1004 was closed, but it was hollow metal, good for slowing fires but not so much for muting sound. Sam pressed up against it and heard at least three different voices from inside. He slipped his blade into his pocket and waited until one voice rose louder, then slowly reached to turn the knob.

Apparently, the trespassers had expected the building to be empty, too. The door wasn't locked and sighed open easily.

Sam peered in through the crack. Several tables—collected coffee and dining room and end tables—covered in chemistry equipment and piles of cash stood in the center of the room. The rest of the furniture had been shoved back against the wall. Two men in casual clothes were working studiously on the equipment. A rudimentary drug-manufacturing lab. Swell.

As Sam's eyes swept the place, he found two more men. The older one was keeping an eye on the others as he wrote in a book with an air of authority, and a younger, muscular guy with a buzzcut was sitting in a chair eating a sandwich, an obvious holster bulging his jacket.

Great, Sam sighed. Evict the people, and the cockroaches scurried in to take their place. What better place for a mobile drug lab than an empty building under police protection?

But this wasn't their kind of prey. They could make a call to the police when they were finished, let them handle the human evil. Sam still had a graul to find. He eased the door shut and started to turn.

His breath crystallized in the air.

Sam blinked, instinct fighting with the impossibility of what he was seeing. A ghost? That hadn't even been on the list. Yet another "cockroach," maybe? He scrambled through his pockets, seeking his iron blade.

Too late. The shape coalesced inches from him, smoky white and seemingly incorporeal until it reached out and grabbed Sam by the throat. It slammed him against the wall just as he found the knife and swung it up. The ghost disappeared with a screech, and Sam tumbled to the hallway floor, coughing.

So much for stealthy. Even as he scrambled back to his feet, the apartment door beside him slammed open.

Crap.

00000

Sam's 11 had frozen Dean in confusion in a doorway a moment—hadn't Sam already cleared the eleventh floor?—until he realized it wasn't a number but a double-tap. Sam had maybe found something and was checking it out, and Dean paused, idly checking his weapons again as he waited for the all-clear.

At least Sam was talking to him…sorta. The argument had been stupid, and Dean had spent the last two floors unsuccessfully trying to ease the guilt gnawing at his insides. Sam was hurting, miserable, scared. He'd had his whole life yanked out from under him, and Dean could still remember twenty-two year-old echoes of how that felt. Despite his loss, however, Sam had still slipped back into hunting almost as if he'd never left. He'd earned both veto power in their hunts and Dean cutting him a little slack when he needed it. Seriously, would another day of research have hurt anything when the building had already been cleared out? Or Dean acquiescing that they might maybe, possibly be hunting a graul?

Almost three minutes had passed. The phone remained silent. Dean chewed the inside of his mouth, nascent worry tickling his brain. He'd give Sam one more minute.

If he needed any proof his brother was good at what he did, the fact he'd been staying in touch even while angry at Dean had said it all. This wasn't the sullen teenager who'd stalked off on long walks or hid out at the school library, making Dean worry. Sam had become a man, mature, responsible, skilled: someone Dean fully trusted to watch his back. Maybe…maybe it wouldn't kill him to tell the guy that sometimes.

Sixty seconds. Frown having slid into a scowl, Dean punched in U OK? and waited.

Still nothing.

Sam was an adult and could take care of himself…but he was still and always would be Dean's little brother. And that meant watching his too-tall and skinny back, too.

Striding to the nearest stairwell door, Dean started climbing toward the tenth floor, taking the stairs three at a time and trying hard not to think the worst.

00000

The fight didn't last long.

Muscleman had come first, and Sam had chopped his wrist and then jabbed up sharp with his elbow, disarming and flooring the guy. Unfortunately, this wasn't TV, and the bad guys didn't line up to be taken down one at a time. Two more descended on Sam before their friend even hit the floor, and while he managed to knock one against the wall, the other swung a knife at him. The sharp metal slipped deep across his biceps, disarming him as his whole arm seized, staggering him just long enough. A second later, Sam was flat on his back on the grimy hallway floor, a gun barrel digging into his neck.

Sam almost laughed at the irony of his brief return to hunting being cut short by the kind of monsters he'd wanted to become a lawyer to fight.

But the gun didn't fire. Instead, Sam was unceremoniously yanked to his feet, arm bleeding like someone had stuck a tap in him, and pushed inside to a chorus of curses and grunts.

His tailbone hit the hardwood floor painfully as he was knocked down again. Sam barely finished registering the small pain before his hands were yanked above his head, a thin rope wound around his wrists and tied to a doorknob above him, then pulled tight. The deceptively smooth nylon immediately sliced into his skin. As he winced, a bandana was stuffed into his mouth and his head was yanked forward so the gag could be tied in the back. Hands shoved shamelessly into his pockets, emptying them, while someone else tied his feet. When he was released with a shove, all Sam could do was press back against the wall and stare murderously at his captors.

"He's a cop."

The youngest of the four drug manufacturers, a guy not much older than Dean, with pitch black hair and a handlebar mustache, pushed up from where he was crouched next to Sam. Sam's eyes followed him up, tracking from the leather fold the guy was holding, to the two other men who crowded around to see. The fourth was still on the ground where Sam had put him, moaning over his sprained wrist.

"Great," the senior member of the group muttered, a butter blond with a cruel face and cold brown eyes. "Narcs." His fringed shirt made him look like some sort of urban cowboy, but he'd been the one wielding the knife. Even with his arms elevated, the blood flow down Sam's shoulder and back still hadn't slowed. His sleeve was so saturated, he knew he'd be feeling the fluids loss soon. Not that anyone seemed to care, if the three angry pairs of eyes staring down on him were any sign.

He lashed out with his bound feet, briefly gratified when it made the other three leap back. It was even worth the kick he got in the shins in return from the third man, a nondescript short guy with mousy hair, glasses, and a sociopath's smile.

He was the one who held up Sam's phone. "Got a message a few minutes ago asking if he was okay—wanna bet there's another one in the building?"

Sam resisted the hard urge to shake his head, endeavoring to look puzzled instead. What are you talking about?

They weren't buying. The blond guy spoke over his shoulder at the fourth, a big slab of muscle who screamed henchman. "Go check out the rest of the building. Find his partner."

The bodyguard levered himself up with a grunt, casting Sam a murderous glance before he went out the door.

Sam tipped his head back. Terrific. Dean would hear the guy coming a mile off…probably, and a Hercules build was no match for their training. Still, Sam wasn't crazy about the thought of someone going after his brother, especially not a ticked-off giant with a gun.

And then there was the ghost—a simple ghost, of all things—that was bound to come back before long…

"What about him?" the mouse asked, eyeing Sam hungrily.

Sam stared back warily, pushing himself up so his own not-inconsiderable build was more obvious, an implicit stay away from me if you know what's good for you.

"He's okay here for now. We can get rid of him later." The blond said it almost carelessly, and turned away. Mouse leered a moment more, then followed, returning to the tables across the room.

Mustache was last. Manly man as he was, he took a swipe at the restrained prisoner, the toe of his boot sinking into Sam's thigh hard enough to make him grunt and his eyes water. "Narc," he spit, and dropped the badge into Sam's lap. Then he rejoined his cronies, glancing back occasionally at Sam.

Sam's head dropped back against the wood of the door as he pulled his legs up to his chest, and he started working on the ropes holding his hands. His wrists ached, the side of his face throbbed where muscleman's fist had slammed into his cheekbone, and the slice in his arm burned to the bone. Dean was wrong; people weren't crazy. They just sucked.

Like his life. Three months before, he'd had a bright future in law ahead of him, an amazing woman who loved him, lots of friends. Now, he was dodging the law as well as bedbugs and hellspawn, a car was the closest thing he had to a home, and his crude, onion-loving brother was his only company. And that had been before drug dealers had worked him over and tied him up. What sane person would choose that Door Number Two?

These four weren't even the brightest crayons in the box. Yeah, they'd managed to disarm him—which Dean wouldn't be letting him forget anytime soon—albeit helped in no small part by a ghost and the fact that two of the bad guys had been armed. Even Sam had his limits. But the knots were amateurish at best, and, frankly, leaving him alive wasn't the smartest move, either.

He startled, shivering a little, earning him a brief, sharp glance from one of his captors. Oh, man, he kept forgetting about the ghost. The iron wouldn't stop it for long, and it was at least as serious a threat as the drug dealers. Seriously, did God have it in for him or something? How did a spirit even fit into all this? They'd been hunting a graul. Or maybe a…what had Dean thought it was? Something ridiculous…

A wave of lassitude swept over him, and Sam shook his head to clear it. He was still bleeding, and his skin was starting to prickle cold, his head light and dizzy. He had to get out of there. Find Dean and finish the hunt, and deal with the hopheads or cokeheads or whatever they were. Oh, yeah, and the ghost. Stupid ghosts, messing up every—

The ropes slipped, his left wrist almost loose. Sam stilled as suspicious eyes turned toward him, then renewed his efforts when they swung away. Another chill traveled through him, but even as he tensed, his breath stayed invisible. Just him and his depleted blood supply, then. Sam clamped his teeth around the gag and kept working.

One rope gave, the other still tied around his arm but loose from the doorknob. Sam slipped the freed one down surreptitiously and started on the ankle ropes.

He had a half-baked plan. They'd taken all his weapons—he didn't have a half-dozen stashed on his person like Dean did—leaving only his pocketknife, flask…and his lighter. And Sam was willing to bet the chemicals bubbling on the table were flammable.

The knot on his ankles unfurled.

And Sam's breath abruptly frosted in the air.

Great, just friggin'… Sam yanked the bandana out of his mouth. "Watch—"

His warning was broken off by Mouse's shout. "What the—?"

The ghost was forming right next to the table, in front of the men.

Sam cursed, pushing up clumsily from the floor. Everything they'd taken off him besides his gun was in a small pile a few feet away, including his iron knife. He reached for it, having to grab twice as the room swayed. But as soon his hand wrapped around the cold metal, Sam shouted to get the spirit's attention and threw the blade.

It sliced clean through the ghost once more, dispersing it with a pop.

Leaving him unarmed and outnumbered.

There was a frozen moment where they all stared at each other. Then Sam was scrambling for the door, legs tangling as vertigo buffeted him. He shoved a hand into his pocket even as he lunged forward.

He was too slow, too clumsy. A bullet buried itself in the jamb right next to his cheek, and Sam almost lost his balance as he drew up short, heart hammering desperately at his chest.

"You don't understand," he burst out as he wheeled around, pulling the lighter out and slipping it behind his back, "you need to get out of here. It's going to come back and—"

"I don't know what kind of trick you pulled," the blond stepped toward him, "but you're not gonna have a chance to do it again."

"No, listen," Sam growled, frustrated. "It wasn't me." He lit the flame. "It's gonna kill all of you." And he swung his arm out as he threw, the lighter tracing a wobbly arc in the air.

Hitting the tiled edge of the kitchen floor, a good foot away from the table. The flame guttered and died.

Sam cringed, heart sinking. He gave the dealers a sheepish half-smile, then turned to bolt.

He didn't get far. Hands reached for him and slammed him face-first into the wall. Sam blinked hard, awareness rippling like water. This was bad; he was clear on that much, and made a feeble attempt to push back, only to get bounced off the wall again, hard enough to force the air from his lungs. Black spots encroached on his vision.

Something glinted in his peripheral vision. Even as Sam froze and forced his eyes to focus, the syringe disappeared from his view and there was a small prick at his neck.

A cruel smile spread beneath mousy hair. "Need something to settle you down? How 'bout a free sample?" The needle glided into his skin like butter.

Sam's foggy brain stirred in horror. Oh, God, no. Not that.

He fought back. Even when he lost track of what was up or down, when his hands flailed against wall and floor instead of flesh and bone. When the sounds coming from his throat didn't make sense to even him anymore. The reptile part of his brain knew that to give in meant to possibly never wake up again, and Sam was not a quitter, damn it, not when he lost his family, not when his normal life burned down around him, not even when he'd watched Jess take her dying breath. Just, no.

It didn't help. Didn't do a thing, and slowly the urgency slipped away, the panic and fight. Never helped, didn't need help, no help, help…

He didn't resist when they dropped him into a corner, only a loose binding around his wrists now. It took all his attention just to breathe through the soup he was immersed in.

Sam didn't even feel it when the air became frigid, nor heard when the screams began.

00000

If it was a skinwalker in the building—and Dean was secretly starting to have his doubts—it was like no shifter he'd ever met.

The gunshot he'd heard from above made his fingers tremble faintly with tension and his gut clench. Sammy. He'd just doubled his speed when he heard the footsteps on the stairs.

There was a momentary shock of relief: Sam was okay and coming down to meet him, maybe to report in and regroup. But it hadn't taken Dean long to realize the cadence was all wrong, the weight, even the sound. These were hard-soled shoes, not the sneakers Sam had been wearing, and the gait was lumbering. Dean had withdrawn behind the door to the sixth floor and waited.

The figure that finally came into sight looked like a reject from a Copolla movie: built like a brick wall and about as smart. Shapeshifters could take any form, of course, but Dean had never seen one that was anything less than athletic, with keen intelligence burning in its inhuman eyes. There was no reason Dean could think of that one would want to impersonate Guido here.

So either he and Sam weren't alone in the building…or they weren't hunting a skinwalker.

The guy had stopped at the floor above and peered in through the door, so Dean wasn't surprised when the heavy footsteps turned toward the stairwell door he was behind. He retreated to the nearest doorway, checked the clip in his gun, and took aim.

But…if it wasn't a skinwalker…

Biting the inside of his mouth, Dean switched tactics. As soon as the door started to swing open, he leaped, silver knife now in hand.

The blade sliced across a swollen wrist, pulling a yelp from the man. He dropped the gun he'd been holding, and red blood welled against the bruised skin. That was good enough for Dean. He darted back before the guy could regroup, his gun retrained.

Fury twisting his face, Goliath pulled up short at the sight of the weapon. "Missing your little cop friend?" he sneered.

Cop? Dean didn't even let the frown of confusion surface, nor the fear that hit hard a moment later at the implication, just narrowed his eyes at the guy. "Where is he?" Because no way on earth they were talking about anybody but Sam. Who else would blunder into…whatever Sam had blundered into?

"He's fine—for now. Little bloody, but ain't nothing compared to what we're gonna do to you."

"Yeah?" Dean raised an eyebrow. "You do realize which side of the gun you're standing on, right?"

Several shots, followed by screams too faint to be recognizable, suddenly echoed down the stairwell.

Dean's hair stood on end, a shiver crawling down his spine. God, please don't let that be Sam.

Muscleman's mouth curved up. "Sounds like your buddy's in trouble up there. You wanna see him alive again, you better let me go."

Dean gripped the gun so tight, his fingers tingled. "I've got a better idea. You tell me where my…partner is and how many people are up there with him, and maybe I won't put some extra holes in you." He shook his shoulders loose, cricked his neck, and took careful aim between the eyes.

Thick fingers clenched and unclenched, blood dripping from the already-damaged wrist. Sam's work? Dean refocused as the man snapped, "Cops don't make deals." But there was a twinge of fear in his voice.

The screams cut off. The silence after was even worse.

Dean's eyes ticked up, then back down. He smiled coldly at the guy, a look he'd practiced off his dad. "That's true. Problem is…" He shifted the gun down, square on muscle dude's groin. "…I'm not a cop."

The guy went white so fast, it was a wonder he didn't faint. "Tenth floor. Three others," he rushed out.

Dean nodded, threw him another smile, then swung without warning, the butt of his gun clipping the buzzcut head. Three hundred pounds of muscle collapsed into mush.

Dean cursed under his breath as he dragged Monstro out the door and to the stairwell banister. Then he unbuckled and slipped free the thick leather belt the guy wore, and used it to bind his arms behind him to the metal railing. Dean took particular pleasure from tightening the restraint hard around the injured limb.

But only for a second. Then he turned and dashed up the stairs, focus only on getting to Sam.

00000

The cries were what he heard first.

Sam blinked, eyelashes fluttering across his vision as he tried to clear it. No, hair. His hair was in his eyes. Dean was always ragging him to cut—

Something shrieked nearby like Jess's teakettle, and Sam rolled his head lazily to see. It was a guy, but he was all red, even his light blond hair, whiter than Jess's except that now it was bright crimson…

Another scream, and Sam jerked, blinked harder. Something was going on, something wrong, dangerous. Had to protect Jess. She didn't know what was out there.

He rolled to his side, body feeling oddly numb and disconnected. His body, right? Sam glanced down, saw a flannel shirt and jeans and sneakers. Almost looked like Dean. Huh. They'd better not have swapped bodies. That would just be disturbing.

A wet gurgle reminded him—again?—that he wasn't alone. Sam pushed to his knees, swaying, trying to figure out where he was.

It was a big room, but not home, not the frat house, not a motel. Nearby lay a figure in red—no, made of red—no, dripping red. Even as Sam wrinkled his nose, the shape next to it screamed and screamed…

The ghost bent over it looked up at Sam, holding what looked suspiciously like—

He was gonna be sick.

No, it was a-a hunt. He was on a hunt. For a…graulwalker or something. Bad. Peeling people like onions, except there were no layers inside, just corpses. And…

Dean. Dean had been there. And now there were just…bodies. Dead, unwrapped bod—

Sam bent over and started heaving.

The screams were dying. The other…the victim, it had black hair. Blond and black—not Dean. Dean was…God, why wasn't Dean there? Or Jess? And why was Sam?

He lurched to his feet, beady ghost eyes following his movements even as it stroked the arm of the half-dead guy, then grabbed his skin and—

Sam ran. Stumbling, falling once to his knees, another time painfully on his wrist, he struggled out of that death room, away from the stench and dying shrieks and the hunt he'd never wanted to be on in the first place. Why couldn't Dean leave him and Jess alone? Why couldn't Dean just come and…

There was a sound down the hall, and Sam cringed even as he turned, expecting cold and ozone and pale see-through features.

Mousy brown hair stuck out of a door down at the end, followed by eyes that caught on Sam, then narrowed.

No. No no no no no. Sam spun the other way, shoulder slamming into something hard as the floors and walls danced all around him. Earthquake? The one that had hit in the middle of the night had scared him, but Jess had held him tight through it, talked to him. Dean had always said living in California was crazy…

Run, Sammy.

He wasn't Sammy anymore even though sometimes he privately craved to be. He missed Dean so much. Didn't even mind the command this time, just staggered forward to obey.

He tried to catch himself with a hand whenever he fell, but the other one always came with it like they were joined together or something. They couldn't seem to move fast enough to push away the wall whenever it threatened to fall on him. His head hurt and his stomach cramped and I don't want any more ginger ale, Dean. Dean thought it cured everything.

Running footsteps behind meant something bad. Something worse than the shadows that gathered in the corners and on the ceiling, writhing and whispering to him. "No," he muttered. "Go 'way."

Fire roiled above him, Jess screaming.

And Sam covered his head with his hands as best he could, the heat making his eyes water and his throat raw, and ran.

00000

His first terrified, despairing thought was that he'd been too late.

Whatever the freak was they were hunting—and Dean was totally ready to capitulate to Sam's graul theory at this point—it had already been there. Two bodies lay sprawled on the blood-spattered floor, skinned muscles shining wetly.

The fact that there were two of them sunk in first, followed by the realization that even though it was hard to tell, one's hair looked too light and the other's too dark to be Sam. Not to mention that neither…person was freakishly tall.

Dean started breathing again, only to cough against the odor that saturated the room. Death, blood, puke, ozone…

Ozone?

A glance around the room showed it was all clear, and Dean moved soundlessly inside, eyes still roaming, returning again and again to the bodies. Definitely fresh; those were probably the screams he'd heard on his way up. If the door to the tenth floor hadn't jammed on him, he might've even made it there in time to end whatever monster had done this.

And find Sam.

A couple of tables still sat by the bodies, money and a chemistry set straight out of Dr. Jekyll's lab and empty little bottles overflowing them. Dean's jaw clenched. Terrific. The cops had cleared the building, only to let the friendly neighborhood mobile drug lab move in. Two days later they'd have been gone again without a trace; of all the freakin' luck…

With a growl, Dean reached under the dining room table that now served as drug workbench and heaved up. The equipment crashed and shattered against the floor, liquid quickly soaking into the carpet around the wreckage. Probably a stupid idea seeing as there'd been a lit Bunsen burner in the set-up, but it thankfully sputtered out. Not that Dean would've been that averse to burning the place down at that point, but not before he found Sam.

He was moving back toward the door when something caught his eye. Dean had almost stepped into a pool of vomit, and his eyes narrowed at the revolting orange puddle. Sam had had OJ for breakfast that morning, and the mess wasn't anywhere near the bodies. Which meant…Dean had no idea what. He skirted the spot and crouched beside another door leading to the…bathroom, studying the fray of rope dangling off the doorknob and the wide swath of congealing blood below it. There was also blood smeared on the wall in the corner and by the door.

Yeah, that was encouraging.

Glances either way revealed a leather fold tumbled to one side, and Sam's wallet, flask, and a few other belongings neatly piled to the other. Dean shifted his gun to his free hand to pick up the fold, eyes tightening at the sight of Sam's fake ID and badge inside. The kid had definitely been here, tied up…hurt. How he'd ended up over in the corner, sick to his stomach, and then vanished, Dean still didn't know. He scooped up Sam's things and stuffed them into his pocket as he pushed up to his feet. Then with a final glance around the room, Dean headed back to the hallway. He may not have known what had happened exactly, but a few things were very clear: there were only two bodies here, which meant one unfriendly unaccounted for, besides the graul-skinwalker-ghost-whatever. Sam was also injured, probably unarmed and on the run, needing help.

And Dean was one extremely ticked-off big brother.

00000

He was pretty sure he was trapped in a nightmare.

It was one of those endless chase ones through corridors that stretched to eternity. There was something familiar about the place, but every time Sam seemed on the verge of recognition, the hallway warped and twisted around him and he was lost again. His hands were still stuck together, and more often than not he didn't manage to break his fall as he lost his balance. Blood kept trickling into his eye and his elbow was on fire and his wrists ached. But all he was sure of was that he had to keep running because something bad was after him.

It had nearly caught him twice. There were doors all along the wall but most of them were locked. One leading to stairs had finally opened, and Sam had stumbled and tripped down a flight, crashing through into…another hallway. There, he'd huddled behind the door as footsteps approached, paused, and retreated. Taking a breath, he'd started running again. But the noises were soon following him again. Another scramble through an unlocked set of rooms also almost ended badly before he was able to hide behind a sofa and slip out behind his pursuer. That respite hadn't lasted long, either, though.

He was pretty sure he would die here, and if you died in your dreams…

Jess had died in his dreams, then died for real.

Sam's throat closed, vision blurring the confusing maze of walls and carpet and neverending doors. He remembered now: Jess was gone. Dying horribly in agony, just feet away from him, but he'd been helpless to save her. He'd have died, too, if not for Dean—

Dean. God, it was embarrassing how badly he wanted his brother. Dean had just always had a way of making everything better, or at least bearable, even after Sam had denied as much in his adolescent pique. Hitting bottom had a way of shattering your pride, however, and Sam was reaching the end of his limits. His lungs heaved, his legs were turning to water, and his arm throbbed nauseatingly. He wanted Dean to come and just…fix it, just one more time.

Another door knob turned under his hand, and Sam tripped through the doorway. It was a small space, though, nothing like the home—always wanted a home, white picket fence, safe—he'd crawled through before. This was dark and filled with shelves and bottles and brooms. But the hunter after him—he wasn't the hunter anymore, not this time, and this wasn't what he'd meant when he said he wanted to quit hunting—was close behind, so Sam ducked down into the cramped space, wedging himself into the darkest corner, folding his long, clumsy body as small as he could.

The door closed, trapping him in utter darkness.

There was a strong smell, like chemicals. Not sulfur—he remembered the sulfur. And blood. He was pretty sure Dean had sat him down outside and carefully cleaned the blood and tears off his face before all the questions started. Dean had smelled like leather and smoke and home, and Sam had buried his face in his jacket to keep from watching his attempt at a new home burn. Maybe he wasn't meant for it. Maybe it was punishment for leaving his family, for wanting more. He could see her beautiful face blistering now…

The door was jerked open, the light from outside making Sam squint and flinch away.

"There you are." Mousy brown hair framed a face that twisted and coiled in front of Sam, flame in the small eyes. "I don't know what you did up there, you friggin' pig, but you're gonna pay for it." He grinned his crazy, leering smile. "Nice and slow."

He was Evil. Sam kicked out frantically, sending a few mops and a bucket clattering that way, but the monster ducked, unfazed. Light glinted off his teeth and the gun he held.

Hands scrunched the front of his jacket so tightly, Sam felt the zipper bite into his neck. He was yanked upright and shoved hard against the shelving unit, feet scraping helplessly to try to find balance, purchase, something against a tilting floor. The grip tightened, the barrel of the gun frigid against his jaw, and air grew scarce.

The bland face peered closely into his, and Sam stared back at it with defiance even as he arched against metal shelves that dug into his back, allowing him no escape, no place to hide. This was when Dean was supposed to show up, had always appeared in the nick of time. But there was no sign of him, and despair and impotent rage curled in Sam's belly. "Jess didn't deserve that," he spat, his joined arms tucked between his chest and his captor.

The mouse blinked, frowning. Then sneered, blowing out a breath.

It steamed in the cold air.

Sam's eyes widened as a white shape took form behind the guy.

The frown on Mouse's face deepened, and he half-turned. Then cried out, letting go of Sam to spin around and fire one round after another.

The sound in the small space was deafening. Sam slid back to the floor and curled tighter into himself, struggling to cover his ears but unable with his trapped hands. He finally hunched his shoulders and tried to think about something else. Anything else.

The utter lostness of arriving at school, alone.

Seeing those blonde curls across the roomful of people.

Jess's kisses, touches, her body against his.

Moving in together, his first real home.

The nightmares, fire and sulfur and blood.

Dean holding him when all he wanted was Jess.

Dean hanging in the wendigo's cave, falling into Sam's arms when he loosed him.

Dean listening to him talk about Jess, tucking his jacket around him as, exhausted, Sam finally drifted into sleep.

The rumble and hard rock beat and feeling of safety of his lifelong home.

Click, click, click.

Sam pried his eyes open to see Mouse curse and drop his gun, then sidle past the white figure and run. He quickly threw himself forward to scoop up the gun, and the figure turned to Sam. And suddenly he could see the features he couldn't before: the long hair and the desperate eyes and the torn dress. Blood dripped from white fingers.

"You're a-a vengeful spirit," Sam breathed.

It drifted closer to him, the pure white of its light hurting his eyes.

Sam pulled back, raising his useless hands with their even more useless gun in front of his face. "No, please," he whispered.

It—she—paused, cocked her head at him.

And Sam waited for the inevitable.

00000

The terrified guy running toward him told Dean he had the right floor. The fact that the guy had a burgeoning black eye and blood spattered on his jacket assured Dean he was the missing scumbag. The lack of an obvious weapon on said scumbag was the only thing that saved him from Dean's full wrath.

Didn't mean he didn't take a great deal of satisfaction in slamming the stairwell door into his face just as the rat-haired guy reached it. The dude went down in a heap without a sound, nose busted and pouring blood.

Dean stepped over him and kept going.

Only one door was open in the hallway that he could see, halfway down. He couldn't hear anything coming from it, but that was his best option. Dean cracked his shotgun, double-checking the salt-round load, then snapped it shut and slipped down the hall staying close to the wall, weapon loose and ready at his side. The three amateur chemists were accounted for, but Goliath could've been lying, or there was still their unknown skin fetishist. And Dean had had just about enough of things getting in the way of his reaching Sam.

So when he yanked the open door wide and saw the white shape billowing over his cowering, bloody, tied-up little brother, the reaction was pure instinct. Dean didn't even register raising the shotgun or Sam's shout, just heard the gun's report and saw the spirit fragment and vanish.

Finally. It was a little like being able to breathe again after being trapped someplace tight and airless.

Sam didn't look relieved, however. Still keening no, no, no just as, Dean realized, he'd been yelling before, he was wedged into the corner of the supply closet as if trying to melt through the wall, face raw with fear and anger. And a gun raised and pointed shakily at Dean.

That didn't worry him at all. It was Sam's frame of mind, confused and desperate enough to aim a gun at him, that made Dean's scalp tighten and set his teeth on edge. What exactly had happened in the less than two hours they'd been apart?

He set the shotgun down slowly and held his hands away from his body. The gun and Sam's wild eyes tracked him unerringly. Dean crouched down, made himself small, his voice quiet.

"Hey, Sammy. Wanna tell me what's going on here?"

Sam was shaking. "No," was all he said, but Dean didn't think it was in answer to him. "No." His hands were bound, skin peeking out red and swollen under the ropes. Far more worrisome was the amount of blood that soaked his right side and the gaping slash in the fabric of the jacket's arm. There was no bandage under it that Dean could see. "No." Sam's cheek was purpling, up into the skin under his eye, and blood trickled from his thick hair into his other eye. The kid looked like a mess. "No…"

And then Dean noticed the smear of blood on the side of his neck, the fresh pinprick scab. It suddenly took serious effort to keep his voice low and steady, even as his hands curled into fists. "Sam, it's me. It's Dean. Remember me?"

A frown beetled Sam's brow, and his eyes slid away like he was trying to recall. "Dean? No, you're…"

"Yes, Sam—look at me." Dean slid closer, nudging aside a toppled bucket. He was near enough to touch now but kept his hands up, non-threatening. "It's me. Everything's okay now, all right? Bad guys are gone, spirit's dusted. Time to stand down, man."

"Dean?" And, geez, Sam sounded five again, all hopeful and scared.

"Yeah, dude." Another slide forward. "Got yourself kinda banged up, huh? I'm gonna take this, all right?" He closed his hand gently around the gun, shoulders sinking a fraction as Sam immediately relinquished it. "Sammy? You okay?"

Sam swallowed. His eyes were murky, and God only knew what he'd been shot up with or what he was seeing. But those long fingers latched on to Dean's sleeve with unmistakable need, worked their way up to his collar, clenched onto the fabric over Dean's heart. "Dean? I missed you."

Yeah, that was reassuring. Dean grimaced, letting Sam cling for a moment while he dug out a handkerchief and threaded it around his brother's upper arm. "I wasn't gone for that long, kiddo."

"No." Sam's grip tightened to near painful, words frantically cracking. "No, Dean, at school…I didn't think I'd make it. I didn't…want to leave you, I just…I couldn't…"

Some part of him had longed to hear those words for nearly four years, but there was no satisfaction in them now. "It's okay," Dean muttered, pulling the cloth tight to Sam's hiss, then one hand shifting higher to check his pulse, his bleeding head, while the other started on the rope. "I know."

"No." That was apparently Sam's new favorite word, as if he were two again. He jerked Dean closer, nearly knocking him off balance, their faces inches apart. Up close, Dean could see how dilated his pupils were, and silently cursed again the yahoos who'd done this, dosed Sam with whatever they'd been cooking upstairs just because he'd gotten in their way. Probably while trying to save their lives, knowing Sam. "I just…I needed—need—" he gasped out.

His next agitated exhalation was a white plume of condensation. Dean instantly spun in his crouch, grabbing at his shotgun.

"NO!" Sam grabbed his arm from behind.

Dean swore. "Sam, let me—"

"No, she won't hurt you."

She? Dean paused, eyebrow going up as he slid his eyes sideways to his brother. "Uh, you did see the bodies upstairs, right? Little 'Buffalo Bill' thing going on?"

"She just…she wants us to know."

The white form had taken shape now, and Dean could see it was indeed a she, long hair and pretty, sad features. Blood dripped from her hands, but at a closer glance, he could see her fingertips were torn, several nails missing, and her peasant dress sagged on her thin figure, torn in places. He frowned, shifted so that Sam was still tucked behind him but his brother could see, too. "You talking to dead people now, Sammy?"

"It's okay." Sam's hand flattened against his shoulder blade, the other one, tethered to it, brushing Dean's spine. But whereas Sam had been clinging before, the tables had unexpectedly turned, his little brother reassuring Dean. It was…disconcerting, even more so when he realized Sam wasn't talking to him. "We know where you are now—I promise, we'll let people know what happened."

"Sam?" Dean said over his shoulder.

"She's buried in the wall in one of the apartments, Dean. She was buried alive."

Oh. Oh. Things suddenly fell into place.

All her senses would've been cut off in her plastered coffin. She'd probably just been trying to alert others to her fate, but in the twisted way of spirits, had instead visited a similar fate on them. Tongue, eyes, skin, the nose and ears…he should've seen it before. But, crap, that had to be a lousy way to go, dying of thirst, maybe suffocating, alone. Pretty much top of his list of nasty ways to kick it, and Dean flinched at the thought, feeling a reluctant sympathy for the spirit.

He cleared his throat. "Uh, yeah. We can do that, get you out and…" Buried maybe wasn't the best word here. "…put you to rest."

The ghost gazed at them both with those eerie—well, duh, Dean, ghost—eyes, then slowly nodded. "Thank you," she whispered, her voice high and sweet, and Dean was pretty sure he would have flirted with her if he'd met her when she had a pulse. She was gone before he could think further than that, though, fading out into nothing. The air quickly warmed in her absence, and Dean doubted she'd be back, not if they kept their promise.

"Dean?" Sam whispered behind him.

He raised his chin. "Yeah?"

"S'really you, man?"

He shifted a little, feeling Sam's bound hands drag across his jacket. "In the flesh."

"Good…'cause…" Sam suddenly sagged against his back, forehead dropping against the top of Dean's shoulder.

"Sam, hey," he chided gently as he winced and slipped out just enough so he could grab his brother before Sam dropped forward. "No cutting out on me yet."

"Sorry," Sam mumbled from beneath a curtain of bangs. No longer clinging, too weary—too resigned—to do anything but lean on Dean.

"It's okay." He wasn't sure what exactly Sam was apologizing for: fading out on him, scaring the crap out of him, arguing with him. But the answer was the same. Dean sighed out a breath and tucked his brother up close against him, careful of the injured arm. The years fell away for a moment as the long limbs poked at him, Sam's ridiculously long hair tickling his neck and jaw. Dean reached an arm around him to keep him there while he started to work on the rope again.

Sam yawned, then shivered against his ribs. "'S a drug lab 'pstairs."

"I know, it's taken care of." The ropes weren't tied tight, but the knot wasn't giving. With a huff, Dean reached back for his boot knife.

"She didn' mean t'kill anybody…she was jus' upset."

"I know, Sam." Dean sawed at the ropes carefully, looping his thumb under one to keep it from rubbing any more against Sam's tender wrists.

Sam huddled closer against him, trembling with cold from the blood loss and probably the adrenaline after-rush. "I just…I thought you'd go with me if I left, Dean."

His jaw flexed, face working. The rope finally gave, and Dean tossed it aside and massaged Sam's cold fingers to make sure they had full circulation going. Then he folded them into his brother's lap and pulled the flaps of his own jacket open before caging Sam close, chest to chest. Waiting as slowly, slowly the lean, shivering body absorbed some of his heat. "Sorry," he whispered eventually, not sure exactly what he was apologizing for, either, but the answer was also the same.

Sam coughed, stirred. "Didn' mean…" he mumbled.

"S'okay, Sam." He rubbed his brother's uninjured arm, his back. "It'll be fine."

Sam didn't respond, just drooped silently against him and let Dean take the lead, and that was response enough.

00000

He let the world slide by him for a while after that.

Moments of awareness filtered in occasionally: Dean propping him up in the elevator, the soothing vibration of the Impala, some antiseptic place where strangers poked him with needles in one arm while Dean held the other…though come to think of it, Dean holding his hand? He might've imagined that one.

Sam wasn't really sure of anything, actually, not until he woke up in an avocado-tinted motel room feeling hungover, nauseated and light-sensitive. Dean pulled the blinds, turned the TV on low, got him some ginger ale and a bucket, and sprawled out in a chair on the side of the bed Sam was curled up facing. Theoretically watching TV, but he always seemed to be watching Sam whenever he opened his eyes.

By the second day, a milestone marked only by Dean's relocation for a few hours to the other bed, Sam crawled out from under the covers under his brother's keen eye to take a shower. He peeled the soiled bandage off his upper arm and poked disinterestedly at the row of stitches beneath it and the butterfly band-aid high up in his hairline. The left side of his face looked like he'd run into a door, and his eyes were runny, but he supposed that was what mainlining a narcotic did to you. He was pretty sure he remembered someone saying it was a good thing the stuff wasn't pure or it might've been a lot worse. Yeah, Sam dried his aching body off and climbed into the clean clothes that had magically appeared on the bathroom counter. 'Cause what he'd gone through had been such a picnic.

He dragged himself back out into the room, avoiding Dean's gaze. Sam wasn't sure how much he remembered was reality and how much had been his hyped-up brain, but he was at least fairly certain he'd spent some time huddled in Dean's arms and, yeah, so much for his impassioned arguments for maturity and independence.

But Dean just waited until he was settled in bed, then tossed a folded newspaper at him. "Found your girl."

Sam frowned as he smoothed the paper out and scanned the headlines. Didn't take long to locate the one that mattered: "Nine-Year Disappearance Solved with Gruesome Apartment Find." He looked up at Dean, who'd crossed the room to search through one of their bags, and raised a silent eyebrow in query.

Dean nodded at the paper. "Michelle Reisinger. She was last seen in her apartment building in 1997. Anonymous call yesterday led the cops to her body sealed up in her old place's wall." He came over to Sam's side of the bed with gauze, tape, and scissors in hand, gently pushing up the arm of Sam's t-shirt.

Sam ignored the first aid, thinking. It was starting to come back, the ghost's plea, her story. Sam's eyes trailed over the article. "Huh. So why…?"

"Start skinning folks now?" Dean was wrapping smooth folds of gauze around the stitches in his arm. "Guess who the first vic was."

Sam shook his head.

"Michelle's old boyfriend. Guy was visiting a friend who'd just moved into the building. Guess it was the first time he'd been back to the scene of the crime." He cut the gauze, taped it carefully down.

"Huh." Sam bounced his leg against the mattress as he thought. "So her murderer shows up, rousing Michelle's spirit, she kills him but then keeps going like, what, some kind of cry for help?"

"She just wanted to be found, man," Dean said, as earnest as Sam ever heard him. He was studying Sam's face now, looking into his eyes. "You seeing double, blurry, pink kangaroos or anything?"

"Besides the leprechaun in the corner, right?" He was immediately contrite at Dean's look of alarm. They weren't used to each other's sense of humor anymore, or maybe Sam had just changed that much. "I'm okay, Dean. Just a headache now."

"Yeah?" Dean was trying to look chagrined, but he just looked worried. And tired. Sam wondered abruptly if Dean had been staying up to monitor him, or simply to be ready if Sam needed something.

"Yeah," he said as certainly as he could, even managing a smile.

Dean gave him a suspicious look, but then his mouth quirked. "Bitch." He rolled his eyes, getting up from the edge of the bed and going around it to flop down on his own. "So, I thought we'd stay here another day or so, then head south. Got a few possibles down there if one of them looks good to you, not to mention Georgia peaches."

Sam frowned. "It's not peach seas—" Dean's smirk finally registered. Oh. Sam rolled his eyes. "Whatever, jerk," he grumbled, sliding back down into his warm and, for once, not too short bed. "Just wake me up when it's time to go."

"It can wait," Dean dismissed. He picked up the remote and started flipping through channels.

Sam stared at him in sleepy confusion a moment before realization crept in. Dean was waiting for his input. Giving him a say in the hunt, and while that had seemed only fair a few days before, the respect it showed now made his chest constrict. Sam cleared his throat. "It wasn't a graul."

Dean gave him a sideways glance. "Wasn't a skinwalker, either."

"I almost shot you, Dean."

His brother groaned. "Gun was empty, dude—I was counting bullets."

"Oh." Maybe that should have reassured him, but it only made Sam feel worse. He rubbed the edge of the sheet between two fingers, and swallowed his pride with effort. "You were right," he offered. "We shouldn't have split up."

He got an exasperated huff for that. "We weren't exactly expecting attacks on two fronts, either, dude. You did good, okay? Kept your head, got away, figured it out. What happened wasn't your fault."

That meant more than Dean could have known. Praise had to be earned in their family, and was never given casually. Even at school, even when Dean hadn't known, Sam had worked hard for his big brother's respect. But Dean had always taken care of him, and sometimes that wasn't a bad—or weak—thing. Sometimes it was even a strength.

Not partnership, but brotherhood.

Sam swallowed, looking up at Dean from where he lay. "Thanks anyway for coming after me, man," he said earnestly. Sure for the first time that he didn't just mean in the apartment building.

Dean started, head jerking around to stare at him. But Sam just closed his eyes with a smile.

That way they could both pretend he didn't hear Dean getting the final word one more time with a quiet, "Always."

The End