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Tidings of Comfort and Joy

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“I have come to realize that if you spend enough time watching things that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, you will begin to realize you are the keeper of a terrible secret. Yourself.”

— Matthew Good
At Last There is Nothing Left to Say

Dean’s boot heels scuff through the grit of ice and salt on the sidewalk as he makes his way through the night. He walks a little splay-legged to try and keep his footing. A light rain fell earlier and it’s freezing over the salt and in small puddles, making black ice for pedestrians. Kilgore trots along beside him, tender pads of his paws protected from the frigid air with a pair of doggie booties. It’s dark and late, Dean’s not wearing gloves and he hasn’t felt his fingers for the last half hour or so. He’s been out walking for maybe three, maybe four, hours; he doesn’t know nor does he care.

He wishes he was half past lit and on his way to Blackout Town, but on nights like this, he has to limit his intake. He can have a few nips, catch a slow-burn buzz, but he has to watch it, at least until after. If he’s not careful, he’ll be passed out on the floor when Sam gets back and that’ll never do. He’s exhausted though, a full day of driving has worn him out and all that’s really keeping him awake is the four Stackers he took a little while ago.

Sam left around 9:30 to go be with one of them and left Dean alone with a bottle of Stackers, a fifth of Old Grand-Dad and Kilgore for company. It’s been three years now and Dean’s adjusted to Sam’s extracurricular activities well enough. Now, the problem is that Dean resents the hell out of them, the ones Sam goes to late at night in towns all across the U.S. of A. It isn’t right for him to feel that way; it isn’t how the story is supposed to go. Dean is supposed to be the good guy here, he should feel awful about all of the bodies piled up behind them over the years, but he doesn’t, not anymore.

Tonight, Sam set his sights on an attractive young woman with hair dyed so red it made Dean think of the yarn used to make Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. Her open, freckled face and rosy cheeks only invited further Raggedy Ann comparisons. Comparisons Dean had tried and failed not to make. His stomach had given a sick little lurch when his mind started supplying him with jokes about busted seams and popped stitches.

She was their waitress three towns back when they stopped for supper. She smiled at Sam, tried to chat him up and Dean knew. It had been in the way Sam smiled back even as he ran his fingers over the top of Dean’s hand. Raggedy Ann had flushed and giggled, she’d apologized. She’d said they were cute together—no, they were more than that. They looked hot together, that’s what she said. Then she clapped her hand over her mouth in embarrassment and apologized again. Sam’s responding laugh had been just the right pitch, somewhere between amused and a hungry growl. Dean had forked more meatloaf into his mouth and shivered when Sam turned that werewolf smile on him.

Dean still doesn’t know how Sam picks them or why one person makes the grade and another doesn’t, but he has learned to read the signs. Nowadays, he knows when Sam’s found someone new to scratch his itch. The way Sam looks at him tells Dean that he knows he knows; he figured it out years ago. Maybe that’s why Sam doesn’t mind telling him about it later. Or maybe it’s because Dean asks. It’s like poking at a sore tooth, picking at a scab or digging pus out of an infected wound with the glowing-hot tip of a knife. Maybe all of the above at once. It’s a bad habit and he shouldn’t do it, but he can’t leave it alone.

Supper was about seven hours ago. By now, there’s probably not much of Raggedy Ann left other than a stain and the smell of Sam slowly fading from the air. She’ll be cold now or at least getting there and her eyes will be open, staring and filming over. Dean would lay down serious cash on Raggedy Ann not being fit for an open casket funeral.

No matter how hard he tries, Dean cannot remember Raggedy Ann’s actual name. He guesses it doesn’t really matter, but he tries like hell to keep track. Although it’s not really necessary; Sam can rattle off his list in alphabetical order. He did it once because Dean was drunk and mad and challenged him to. He’d thought it would really show Sam what a bad person he had become. Instead, Sam had looked pleased and annoyed at the same time, but the curly lipped smirk he gave Dean was what had left a ball of ice in his belly. Gotcha, that smirk said and then Sam pulled him down on the bed and fucked him so hard Dean forgot his name for a while.

Dean stops walking and shakes his head to clear his thoughts. Blinking against the gritty feeling snow scouring his cheeks, stinging his eyelids, chapping his lips, he takes in his surroundings for the first time in six or seven blocks. Kilgore sits by his left leg and watches a stray cat with a limp and half a tail slip into an alley a little ways up. Christmas lights twinkle all around them, reducing the shadows to colorful, glowing puddles with only a small nucleus of darkness to combat them. Dean tips his head back and looks at Santa hanging off the light pole above him. He smirks when he thinks of him as an out of place Mardi Gras reveler. They grease the lamp posts down in New Orleans come that time of year to keep people from making like Santa here. Dean remembers Sam telling him that years and years ago.

Across the street is a thrift shop with a cheerful window display all bedecked for the holiday season. Mannequins dressed in gay sweaters hold brightly wrapped, festive packages in their stiff, fused together fingers. The window is glittering with the light from three small artificial trees and sparkly fake snow lies in drifts around the bare feet of the mannequins. Maybe the shop is running low on hand-me-down shoes this time of year. Dean licks clinging ice-snow off his lips and steps off the curb to have a closer look at the happy scene.

Up close, it’s not as pretty as it was from the other side of the street. The sweaters have small holes and the one on the child mannequin is coming unraveled at the hem. Their expressionless faces are chipped, marked with the pox scars of ill use and age. The bright red flocking on the bow of the package in the female mannequin’s hand is mangy looking, rubbed bald in places and appears to’ve been nibbled on by mice. There’s a stain on the paper of the male mannequin’s package. The artificial trees are missing limbs and the glitter paint is flaking from the ornaments hanging off the ones that remain.

Dean smacks his hand against the plate glass display window. It’s a fucking illusion. None of this is real and it’s only pretty from a distance. Up close it is ugly-ugly-ugly and he hates it with a ferocity that’s so sudden it nearly chokes him.

Then he laughs and takes the flask of Old Grand-Dad out of his back pocket. “Fuck me,” he says.

Kilgore doesn’t seem interested in any of it, he’s waiting patiently for Dean to shit or get off the pot. Given the things the dog has seen and heard over the last three years, he’s probably pretty damned jaded by now, if a dog can be jaded. Dean tips the flask back and ponders the idea for the first five swallows and forgets again by the sixth. He’s jittery from the speed and anxious for Sam to hurry the fuck up. Actually, he may be back by now. Thinking that, Dean pulls his cell out to check the time. It’s after two in the morning.

“Shit!” he says as he turns away from the window.

He slips yet again and this time, he can’t catch himself. Dean’s already bracing himself for the impact when a hand grabs his arm and yanks him back upright. Automatically, he slaps the hand away and steps backwards to put distance between himself and whoever grabbed him.

“Hello, Dean.”

Dean stops and blinks. Castiel is standing in front of him, hands in his coat pockets and head tipped to the right. Like a runaway train, Castiel has a bad habit of appearing out of nowhere. Dean should be used to it by now, but he’s not and isn’t entirely sure if he will ever be.

“What the hell, Cas? You scared the crap outta me,” Dean says.

“I apologize,” Castiel says. “If there is another occasion such as this, I will let you fall if it will leave you feeling less… startled.”

“No,” Dean says. He huffs out a breath and rubs at his eyes. His mind is like an exploding fireworks factory thanks to the Stackers and he still feels his exhaustion. He has to slog back to the motel, too. And here’s Castiel, being his inconveniently timed self as usual. “What do you want?”

“I need to speak with you about Sam,” Castiel says.

Dean jerks his head up at that, instantly on the defensive. Castiel’s known about Sam—or at least had his suspicions—longer than Dean has. He’s never asked and gotten absolute confirmation, but he doesn’t need it. Castiel has been weird around Sam for a long time now, Dean remembers noticing it back when he himself was still in the dark and thinking it odd. Hell, Castiel had looked at Sam funny back then and now, he avoids him altogether unless he has absolutely no other choice in the matter.

“What about Sam?” Dean asks. He takes another swig from the flask and waits as Castiel shifts on his feet, working up his nerve. Dean thinks it’s a pantomime, mimicry of human behavior that he’s picked up. It’s hard to imagine an angel actually needing to do something so basic as work up the nerve to open his heavenly yap.

“I know you are aware of Sam’s… activities… the last few years,” Castiel says.

“Yeah,” Dean says. He feels a prickle of heat run up his spine, chasing away the chill. “What about his activities?”

“What he does is wrong, Dean and your… your acceptance of it is perhaps even wronger,” Castiel says.

Dean huffs out a laugh. Even as scary-smart as he is, Castiel still gets little things wrong. Because he’s a tourist here on Earth, human language is not his mother (well, Father) tongue. “Wronger isn’t a word, dude.”

“Be that as it may,” Castiel says. “Sam cannot continue to slaughter innocent people the way he does. Do you not see that it is wrong?”

His voice is at his prissy librarian best and Dean bites the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. This is serious business, this here. Dean clears his throat and nods.

“I know it’s wrong, but there ain’t shit I can do about it, short of ending him and I’m sorry, man, but no,” Dean says.

“Dean,” Castiel begins patiently. “If you will not do something about Sam then I will. He must be stopped.”

Okay, this didn’t go exactly the way Dean thought it would. He thought Castiel would ask him to speak to Sam, to try and reason with him. He didn’t think he’d threaten to fucking kill him.

He jabs a finger at Castiel and takes a couple of steps towards him. “You leave Sam alone, understand? If he ends up with a… with a hair out of place, so help me, I will tear down Heaven and Hell to…”

Dean trails off with a shake of his head and represses a sharp sound of anger. He’s breathing heavy, breath pluming out of his mouth and nose in clouds of white as he rolls his shoulder. Only the memory of past experience keeps him from punching Castiel in the face. The last thing he needs is to break his hand on his jaw again.

“Dean, listen to yourself,” Castiel says. His big blue eyes are even bigger as he reaches for Dean, trying to reason with him. “Your brother is an abomination, that truth has never changed, but he is also a monster now. Is that really what you want for him?”

“It’s not what I want, no. It’s never what I fucking wanted for Sammy. It’s what I’ve got though and I can live with it. I’m used to it,” Dean says. He turns to walk away, but whirls back on Castiel and nearly falls down again. He notices that this time, Castiel doesn’t try to help him. “And you say he’s an abomination, a monster, but tell me this, Mr. High-and-Mighty: Whose fault is that? Because from where I’m standing, it sure as hell isn’t Sam’s.”

“Dean!” Castiel says. “What about free will? Do you not believe that he could choose not to kill these people?”

Dean slumps a bit, but shakes his head. He believes in free will, sure, but he also knows how Sam’s been fucked with—damn near genetically engineered—from infancy. Dean knows that Sam did none of those things to himself. Thanks to all of that shit though, Sam’s mind is bound to be a mess of nightmare corridors and charnel houses by this point.

“It’s not his fault,” Dean says. “It’s just the way he was made.”

“He will eventually be caught,” Castiel says. “Then what will you do? You are an accessory after the fact because of your knowledge of his criminal activity. You will be held just as responsible for it as Sam will be.”

“Maybe I am responsible,” Dean says. He sees the way Castiel’s eyes soften at that. Poor fucking Dean, always blaming himself for the shortcomings of others, that’s what Castiel is probably thinking. “Don’t you fucking look at me like that. Like you know what I’m thinking. You don’t.”

“Perhaps not,” Castiel allows. “But I do know your patterns. I know that you feel Sam is your responsibility no matter what. I also know that one day, Sam will be apprehended and then what will you do?”

Even as mad as he is, Castiel telling him Sam will get caught still makes him laugh. That’s where Castiel is dead wrong. Sam’s up there with the best and the brightest; as far as serial killers go, Sammy’s a fucking rock star. Sam ranks up there with the Zodiac killer. He’s smart, he’s organized, he switches things up and creates false paths for investigators to follow because of how he’s tailored his methods. Sam goes from state to state and his migratory pattern has no real pattern at all. Because of the diffusion as much as anything else, it would take decades—if it ever happened—for the authorities to pick up on the fact there’s a highly prolific serial killer at work.

Factor in that at any given time there are an estimated 200 serial killers active in the United States alone and Sam isn’t much more than a face in the crowd. He even fits the generic standard profile: Early- to mid-thirties, attractive, superficially likeable. He comes from a low income, abusive home. He’s highly intelligent. He’s easy to forget because despite Sam’s humongous size, he still fades into the background so easily it’s actually admirable. Dean’s never been half as good at disappearing in a crowded room as Sam is.

“I’ll do everything I can to save him if he ever gets busted,” Dean says. “You think I’d just let him go to the gas chamber? Nuh-uh, no. I’d bust him out; we’ve done it before, it can be done again. But I hate to break it to you: Sammy’s never going to get caught.”

“Dean, please listen to reason,” Castiel says. “He is dangerous. He could very well turn on you one day.”

“No, he won’t,” Dean says. “I’m sick of this conversation. I’m leaving, so how about you just toddle on back to whatever cloud you hopped off of to come bug me?”

Dean,” Castiel says. He frowns and puts his hands in his coat pockets. There’s that oh-so-sad look in his eyes again, but then he closes them like he’s tired. “Your love for Sam will be the end of you one day. Love like yours is a curse, not a blessing.”

Castiel’s words feel like a punch to the gut. He doesn’t know which love Castiel is referring to, for he’s bound to know about what else he and Sam do together. Either way, he thinks it’s bullshit.

“Fuck. Off,” he says, voice low and grating. “Leave Sam alone. How many times do I gotta repeat myself here? Better yet, leave us alone.” Dean lets out a harsh breath, another rush of steam that glitters in the cheerful light. “Do not fuck with him. That’s your last warning, Cas.”

With that, he turns and walks away from Castiel’s pale, drawn face. He hears Castiel call after him again, but he ignores him. He is fucking done.

Kilgore pads along beside him, unperturbed by the confrontation he’s just witnessed. The dog is steady-on as always, well-trained (Dean is really proud of himself for that) and unflappable. Behind them there is the whoosh of wings and a rush of air as Castiel disapparates away from the sidewalk. Dean is glad to hear him go. At the corner, he stops to lean down and scratch Kilgore’s head before crossing the street to head back to the Golden Rest Motor Lodge where Sam is probably waiting for him.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The Impala parked outside the motel room door lets Dean know that Sam is waiting inside for him. He picks up his pace and makes his tired legs move faster, sparing a loving touch to the Impala’s driver’s side door handle as he goes past, wishing her a good night as he digs out the room key with his other hand.

Dean looks at the dog sitting expectantly by the door, waiting to be let in and it’s only then he realizes Kilgore is not on his leash and hasn’t been the whole time. Dean’s started to forget a lot of little things like that lately, but at least Kilgore is trained well enough that he heels even without a leash. It still feels a lot like the dog has pulled a fast one on him and that makes Dean chuckle.

Sam is sitting in a chair by the window when Dean comes in. The room is dark save the light from the motel sign glowing around the edges of the curtains. The air is humid and the room smells like soap and Sam’s girly Fructis shampoo. Dean can almost taste the water that’s probably still dripping from Sam’s freshly washed hair. Clean, with a faintly bitter chemical chlorine tang. In his black clothes, Sam is almost impossible to see, but Dean knows where to look.

“Hey,” Dean says. He wants to smile, but he doesn’t. He’s still thinking about Castiel’s threat and his lingering anger is a sour taste in the back of his mouth.

“Hey,” Sam says back.

Dean goes to get a beer from the mini-fridge and twists the cap off, tossing it in the general direction of the room’s small wastebasket. He hears it hit the floor with a soft ping and shrugs it off before stooping to grab Sam a beer, too.

“Here,” Dean says, waving the bottle at him.

“Thanks,” Sam says as he plucks the beer from Dean’s hand.

Dean goes to sit on the side of the bed and tries not to fidget in the silence that swallows the room. Outside, the winter wind howls across the flat Nebraska landscape and the sound of their breathing seems loud in the hollow places their quietness has created. Dean can hear Kilgore softly chewing on his favorite rawhide bone, the occasional sound of his rust-colored paws thumping on the threadbare carpet tells Dean when he’s adjusting his grip on the treat.

Sam’s always quiet after one of his hunts, turned inward and introspective. Reliving the moment. Waiting for Dean to make the first move. But they both know how this will play out; they’ve been doing it for a while now.

Dean’s tension builds until he can’t take it anymore—Sam’s silence and what he knows he’s thinking about. He’s made it through three beers, enough to calm the jitters the Stackers left him with and to draw out the moment to its snapping point.

He gets off the bed and goes to stand in front of Sam. He can just make out Sam lifting his head to look up; the moisture in his eyes catches the light and makes them shine.

Dean looks at those crescents of moisture, the brighter stars of specular highlights near Sam’s pupils and says, “Tell me.”

Sam waits a few more seconds then leans forward to curl one of his big hands around Dean’s hip. As he leans back again, he gently tugs Dean closer. With his hand still on Dean’s hip, he uses his other to push up the tail of Dean’s shirt. His fingers ghost over the flat, slightly hollow, plane of Dean’s belly, reading the scars there like Braille and Dean shivers. Sam lets out a slow breath and then he begins to talk.

“She got off after eleven,” Sam begins. “I watched her wipe down tables and take the trash out the back. The cook slapped her ass and it made her uncomfortable, I could tell by the look on her face.”

“Did she say anything to him?” Dean asks as Sam snakes his hand up to his chest.

Sam’s thumb moves in a short arc over Dean’s left nipple; back and forth, back and forth. He says, “I don’t know, her back was to me by then, but the cook flipped her off when she walked away. So, my guess is that she did and it wasn’t very nice.”

Dean starts to ask more, but Sam rolls his nipple between his thumb and forefinger, gradually applying pressure until the throb is hot and electric. The pain is brief and fades to an echo when Sam lets go to stroke his hand down Dean’s side. He wants the pain back, but this is just as good, it keeps his own greed in check, builds his anticipation and lets him focus on the story again.

“No one walked her to her car,” Sam says as he strokes Dean’s lower back with smooth, firm strokes of his palm. Dean sways towards him and Sam leans forward to nip his belly through the cloth of his shirt. There’s a small spot of moisture left behind on the shirt and it sticks to Dean’s skin, grows cold. “Chivalry may not be dead, but I think it’s definitely dying a little more all the time. Her hair was like a flag, all of that bright red waving in the wind. Her coat looked old, worn around the seams, but it was hard to tell from that distance.”

“Where were you?” Dean asks. He closes his eyes and pictures Sam watching Raggedy Ann, taking in her movements, inserting himself in her life through the eye of a voyeuristic needle. It makes a hot little spike of anger poke into his spine and kindle in his chest.

Sam pushes Dean’s shirt up and presses a wet, sucking kiss to the skin right above the waist of his jeans. He runs his tongue over the long, neat scar there. There’s a twin of it on Dean’s other side, both of them curving around from front to back; parentheses bracketing his hips.

“I was in the garage of the auto repair shop across from the diner,” Sam says. “It provided the best view and the best cover.”

Dean remembers the place. It had been open when he saw it, but it was probably close to closing time. The place didn’t look like it did much business anyway. “You used binoculars then?”

Sam snorts softly and says, “Yes, Dean, I used binoculars.”

“I dunno, you could’ve used your go-go gadget eyes or something,” Dean says.

Sam’s soft laughter makes him smile even as Sam flicks open the button on his jeans. “Maybe next time,” he says.

“What happened next?” Dean asks.

“You know,” Sam says.

“I want to hear you say it,” Dean says.

“Okay,” Sam says. “I followed her home. She lived on the other side of town, the side we came in on. Her place was a little trailer out in the middle of nowhere. There was a house kind of close by and I’m guessing she was living on some of her family’s land.”

“But you don’t know that,” Dean says.

“Of course I don’t know, but I’m a pretty good guesser,” Sam says as he drags Dean’s zipper down.

He darts his head forward and bites him, quick and hard, deep. Dean jerks at the feel of Sam’s teeth sinking into the delicate skin beneath his belly button. His spit grows cold, but there is a warm tingle beneath it. Even if Sam didn’t break the skin, there’ll be a bruise there tomorrow, roundish and red-purple. There may be a blood blister to pop, too, a dark, raised lump of pain to prod at then drain. He gasps and runs his fingers through Sam’s hair as he licks over the spot. His fingers catch in the damp strands and he can feel them squeaking cleanly as he moves. He drags his fingers down to Sam’s jaw as he turns his head to lick and nip the fleshy heel of Dean’s palm. When he bites down, Dean moans, the sound sudden and sharp in the room. Not too long ago, such a sound would’ve embarrassed him, but he’s over it now, Sam helped him learn it was okay to like it.

“I waited a few minutes then walked down the drive to her place,” Sam says. “Her porch light was on and there was a moth fluttering around, even in this cold. It’ll freeze to death because of its helpless stupidity.”

Dean rolls that around in his mind, helpless stupidity and thinks he likes that. Sam’s become a good storyteller the last three years; he can mark the improvement in his skill over time. Dean wonders if Sam perfects his tales for him so they’ll be ready, ripe, when Dean finally makes his request. Sam does believe in preparation and he doesn’t much care for letting Dean down, so maybe he does try. Dean feels a wave of affection swell under his skin at that.

“Did she remember you?” Dean asks as Sam runs his hand up his inner thigh. Dean spreads his legs more to give him better access.

“Yes,” Sam says. “She was happy to see me.”

Dean can hear the smile in Sam’s voice. “She wanted to fuck you,” he says.

He hates her for that, for wanting what is his. She took Sam away from him for a little while and Dean cannot compete on the same level as Raggedy Ann, but he can do this, he thinks. He tightens his fingers in Sam’s hair until he hisses in a breath and lets it out on a chuckle as he shakes his head to make Dean let go.

“I know,” Sam says.

He sounds so calm about it, so fucking matter-of-fact, that Dean bites his lip against saying, Fuck you, Sammy.

Sam surges up out of the chair, a rush of long limbs and solid muscle. He crushes his body to Dean’s and still somehow manages to get both hands under his shirt, shoving it up until it bunches in Dean’s armpits. Sam walks him backwards and leans down to press his cheek to Dean’s. He rocks them from side to side, a slow sway drunken dancehall grind. His breath washes over Dean’s cheek, down the side of his neck and tickles at his ear.

“She let me in,” Sam says. His voice is muffled against the side of Dean’s neck. He nips him, once, twice, three, four times, tiny starbursts of pain following each pinch; the conception of small bruises for tomorrow. “She offered me coffee. Asked me if I was having car trouble.”

“What lie did you tell her?” Dean asks.

“I took her up on her offer of coffee. Said I was freezing and told her what a happy coincidence it was that her place was the one I saw a light on at,” Sam says as he moves Dean back-back-back until his knees hit the side of the bed farthest from the door. He almost falls, but Sam wraps an arm around his waist and pulls him closer still. Dean can feel his erection against his hip and he lets out a harsh breath as he digs his fingers into Sam’s shoulders. “I blamed it on you, told her we had a fight and I took off walking. I made you the bad guy. She thought it was all just awful.”

“Dick,” Dean snarls.

Sam’s only response is a soft laugh. They’re so close together, Dean can feel the rumble of it in his chest. “That’s what I called you, you bad, bad man,” Sam says. His voice is dripping with sarcasm and Dean clenches his teeth as Sam’s hands move down to his ass and squeeze. “She was so sympathetic.”

“Fuck her,” Dean says.

“What would you do if I told you I did?” Sam asks.

Dean freezes and pulls back from him, eyes wide and searching Sam’s face. “You didn’t.”

“I didn’t,” Sam says. “I could’ve though.”

“Shut up, Sam.”

“Why? I thought you wanted to hear about it.”

“I want to know what happened, not what could’ve happened,” Dean says.

“Supposition is part of what makes a good story though,” Sam says.

He pushes Dean and he lands on the bed with a bounce and a curse at the abruptness of it. He stares up at Sam silhouetted in the bad light, the neon glow that inches into the room highlighting his cheekbones softly in bright yellow and blue. It touches the bow of his lips, glints in the ends of his hair. His eyes are in shadow, black holes in his neon kissed face, but Dean can feel them on him as he pushes himself into a sitting position to yank his shirt off and toss it across the room.

“Did she make good coffee?” Dean asks he twists around to lie down without his legs hanging off the side of the bed.

“Yes,” Sam says. There’s a rustle of fabric followed by the soft snick of a blade locking into place. “It was strong and hot. I burned my tongue.”

Dean swallows and shifts around some more, scooting into the middle of the bed. He rests his arms at his sides, hands palm up, exposing the blue river lines of his veins. His tender white belly is exposed; his head is tilted back, showing his throat. It’s a holy trinity of vulnerability, but they all say the same thing: Dean trusts the Big Bad Wolf he calls brother; he calls lover. His blood beats so hard and hot beneath those more defenseless places of his skin. Sam’s teeth are so sharp, but Dean is not afraid. He’s merely waiting. Wanting.

The plaid bedspread of ugly neutrals is made of cheap, scratchy fabric and it itches a little bit, but Dean ignores it. They’ll have to take it and the sheets with them when they leave anyway. They’ll burn them on the side of the road somewhere, in one of the millions Middle of Nowheres out there. It won’t be the first time they’ve done so and it won’t be the last either.

Sam moves around to the foot of the bed and unties Dean’s boots, pulls them off and drops them on the floor. His socks follow suit. Dean lifts up enough to push his jeans and boxers down, wiggling around until they’re almost to his knees. Sam leans over him and tugs them the rest of the way off. Dean keeps his eyes on the blade of the knife Sam is holding between his teeth. It looks liquid as it catches the light and winks like slippery mercury.

The room is cold, not as cold as it is outside, but cooler than Dean typically likes it. Goosebumps rise up on his skin as he looks at Sam. Sam’s teeth are another quick flash of light in the dark, a faint white shine when he smiles then crawls over Dean.

With Sam looming over him, his warmth chasing the chill air away, Dean lifts his hands and cups Sam’s face to pull him down. “My tongue still hurts,” Sam murmurs against Dean’s mouth and then he kisses him.

Dean arches beneath him as he sucks at Sam’s sore tongue, Sam’s laughter another rumble that hums in his chest. Dean wants to make it better; he blames Raggedy Ann for Sam’s sore tongue. It’s one more reason to hate her. This is what Sam gets for straying off to go be with one of them.

Sam pulls away and Dean tries to follow him for a second before dropping his head back on the pillow with a soft sound of frustration. “Tell me more,” he says.

He strokes his hands down Sam’s arm, finds his right hand and touches the knife. The blade feels like dry ice against his fingertips, so cold it burns.

“I drank her coffee,” Sam says. “It cooled off and she talked. She seemed happy to have the company. I don’t think she had many friends. It’s a shame, really, she was sweet and nice.”

“How about that?” Dean says.

He barely manages to keep his lip from curling. He doesn’t know why he does this, not really, except that it’s a different kind of pain. One he hates and wants at the same time, one he has to have in order to prove his point. Getting Sam to talk about it while they do this is the best way. It gets him out of his own head, it brings him back to the present—back to Dean. It allows Dean to become a part of it and blot it out at the same time as he becomes the bigger part of Sam’s focus. He has to prove to Sam that he is better than all the rest, has to prove it until Sam stops seeing them and only sees him.

“Yeah,” Sam says. His voice is distant, distracted, flat almost. He rises to his knees above Dean and presses the knife to his chest, right below his collarbone. “How about that?”

Dean grits his teeth and tells himself to hold still when the knife bites in. The pain takes a second to catch up to the motion of cutting him, but when it does, it is sweet. It burns and tingles as it grows wet with blood. This is the pain that never, ever hurts Dean, the kind he used to be ashamed of. The kind only Sam ever knew about. The kind only Sam will ever know about.

“How about that?” Sam says again. This time he’s not being rhetorical.

Dean nods, touches his wrist and circles it, drawing Sam’s hand back down. “Keep talking, dork boy,” he says.

Sam laughs and presses down with the knife again. “When I grabbed her, I think she thought I was going to kiss her.” The knife digs another furrow into Dean’s skin and he moans this time, barely keeps from twitching. “She opened her mouth a little and her eyelashes fluttered, like she was about to close her eyes.”

“She wanted you,” Dean says through his clenched teeth as he balls his hands into fists at his sides. Sam’s cutting him again, the third one, he can feel his eyes pinned to slight shine of the blade, he can smell his own blood now.

“What bothers you more? That’s what I wonder,” Sam says. “That she wanted me or that she didn’t want you?”

Dean huffs out a heavy breath as Sam starts the fourth cut. They’re short and deep, blood running down his side and up towards his neck, little earthworm trails of sticky coldness.

“The first one,” he says when Sam pokes at the cuts with his finger to get his attention. “The… first… Goddamn.”

He jerks, panting, when Sam cuts him the fifth time, this one beneath the first cut. The side of his chest is on fire now, wet and burning and Christ, it’s not enough right up until it is and he never knows it. Sam’s the one that knows when Dean’s had his fill, it’s Sam that keeps an eye on him and keeps it from going too far. Dean would let him kill him just to get off. Just to come out on top.

As Sam starts the second cut in his second row, he says, “She didn’t even know what happened when I stabbed her the first time. She actually looked kind of confused. Then she tried to get away, but she couldn’t. The wind was blowing, it made the walls of the trailer rattle it was going so hard. I had to knock her out after that first one though so I could change.”

“Where was your bag?” Dean asks. The question comes out choked and hoarse.

Sam lowers his head to press a kiss to the six dripping cuts and then licks into them, running his tongue through the deep grooves. Dean’s hands automatically go to the back of his head, stroking his hair, holding his head close—asking for more. He pushes up against him with his whole body when Sam bites over the cuts then sucks at them. The pressure is delicious and the pain is sharp-sharp. Fingers tangled in Sam’s still damp hair, Dean lifts his head to press his mouth to the top of Sam’s to muffle the sounds he’s making. They have neighbors here tonight and they don’t need to hear this.

“I left it by the doorsteps,” Sam says when he pulls his head back. He presses a wet, salty kiss to Dean’s open mouth and slides his tongue inside. It’s almost like being kissed by a snake, the way Sam flicks his tongue over his, slides it over the roof of his mouth. Sitting back again, he touches Dean’s cheek with his left hand and Dean turns his face into his palm. “Bite down,” Sam says.

Dean starts to ask why, but then Sam cuts him again and he knows. He fastens onto Sam’s hand hard enough to muffle the sounds he’s making, but not hard enough to actually hurt him because Dean doesn’t want to hurt Sam. It only really goes one way.

“By the time she woke up, I was dressed and had cleaned up after myself,” Sam says. “I already had on my gloves, but saliva and an extra cup out, a pot of coffee sitting almost full on the burner. All of that had to be taken care of.”

Dean lets go of Sam’s hand long enough to say, “You’re so fucking tidy,” His breath is heavy, his chest feels weighted down and there’s an aching ball of pleasure in the pit of his stomach.

“Better tidy than sloppy,” Sam says. He cuts Dean again and he whimpers into the meat of Sam’s palm. Sam’s still and quiet for a moment, just touching the cuts, barely running his fingers over the blood. Then he sticks his fingers in his mouth and sucks them clean of the stain. “I had to gag her, you know,” Sam says. He sounds thoughtful. “I don’t like doing that, but that house was pretty close and well…”

Sam finally takes his shirt off and Dean reaches to touch him with a trembling hand. Sam’s skin is warm and smooth under his palm and he can hear the cat tongue rasp of his calluses against Sam’s skin.

“Did you strip her?” he asks as he touches Sam. “Did you…”

“Yes, I stripped her,” Sam says. “It’s easier that way when I want to take my time. Clothes just get in my way and piss me off. You know that.” Sam bows his head, takes Dean’s hand in his and draws it up to his mouth. He kisses his scarred and still scraped knuckles from their last hunt, tongue running over the scabs, tasting them. “I don’t touch them though.”

“You do touch them,” Dean says.

“Not that way, I don’t,” Sam says. “Not like this.” He licks Dean’s scabbed knuckles again then scrapes his teeth over them once before letting go of his hand. “Or this,” he says as he bends over Dean to kiss the corner of his mouth. “Or this,” he says as he moves back to the bleeding cuts and laps at them, the sound wet and lewd.

“You better not,” Dean says.

“Or what?” Sam asks. “What would you do if I did?”

“Aside from calling you rapist?” Dean asks.

Sam makes a growling sound of disgust at that and Dean smirks. He likes when he can get one up on Sam and he walked right into that. “You know what I meant,” Sam says.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “I’d be pissed, Sammy, that’s what I’d be.”

“I asked what you’d do,” Sam says. He cuts him again, a practiced movement that’s so quick it startles Dean and he jerks even as he gasps.

“Motherfucker,” Dean says.

“Now who’s being dirty?” Sam asks.

“Shut up,” Dean says.

“Not until you answer me,” Sam says.

Dean doesn’t want to answer him because he thinks Sam already knows the answer. Sam is playing with him, baiting him up and stringing him along. He won’t shut up either, not if he really wants to know and Dean can never tell with him these days.

“Dean, tell me,” Sam says.

Another cut as punctuation and Dean bites his lip against the sound that rises up in his throat. There are eight cuts on the left side of his chest now and each one is a line of pleasure-pain. The ball of pleasure in his belly aches in time with the throb of each cut. It’s getting harder to concentrate now that they’ve crossed the invisible line that is always there when they do this, always waiting for Dean to slip over it.

“I’d fucking kill them,” he manages to spit out. The ferocity in his voice startles him, snapping him back to the here and now. He blinks rapidly and tries to think of something else to say, tries to think of a lie that would let him pretend to take it back, but he cannot.

“Huh,” Sam says. “Okay.”

Dean can’t tell anything from his tone of voice and while he can see Sam, he can’t either. He’s mostly shadows, highlighted with only the faintest touch of light, just like he has been the whole time. Dean wonders how Sam can see him, but he has a sneaking suspicion Sam’s night vision is a lot better—and always has been—than he lets on. It’s one of those things that Dean keeps to himself, one of the questions he will not ask.

When Sam makes the first cut on the right side of his chest, Dean lets it go. He sinks into what Sam’s doing and what he’s saying because he’s talking again.

“I didn’t say anything else to her,” Sam says. “I don’t like talking to them while I work, it seems hokey to me.”

“And this?” Dean asks. “It’s not hokey?”

“No,” Sam says. “This is different.”

“Good,” Dean says. “What did you do next?”

“I cut her face off,” Sam says. Before Dean can ask why he did that, Sam makes a shushing sound and says, “I felt like it and I haven’t ever done that, so it was something new, too. I left it on her coffee table. I think people call stuff like that a ‘statement piece’. Do you think it counts as a statement piece?”

Dean can’t answer him, Sam’s talking too fast and cutting too quick. Everything is ratcheting up, getting down to the nitty-gritty. Sam’s breathing is heavier, his voice is thicker, it sounds rawer than its usual undertone of hoarseness. He’s back there with Raggedy Ann and right here with Dean at the same time.

“She didn’t die then though,” Sam says. “If you don’t nick an artery or cut a vein, face peeling is actually not that serious, aside from the disfigurement part of it, I guess.”

He cuts Dean again and with his other hand, digs his fingers into the cuts on the left side, raking them down at a 45 degree angle while still applying that heavy pressure. Dean bucks and makes a strangled sound and his mouth tastes like copper and iron because he bit his tongue.

“She was screaming and screaming, but it was muffled because of the gag. She had blue eyes and wouldn’t stop crying. I left her eyelids, it seemed like the right thing to do,” Sam says. Another cut and that’s five on his right side. “Can you imagine how much her tears burned in all of that raw meat?”

His breath comes out in a shaking rush as he cuts again. Six.

“I left her ridiculous hair,” Sam says. “It was an interesting contrast to her face—the raw and real with the obviously fake. I made an art installation out of her head. People in that podunk little town will be talking about it for years. It’s not like anything of real interest happens there often.”

“What did… What…”

Dean shakes his head, trying to clear it. He’s trying to find the words, but he’s not processing much aside from what Sam’s saying to him and the way everything hurts and he wants and he’s shaking. The tremors are fine and soft for now, they probably won’t get that bad at all this time. Though there have been times Sam’s made him shake so hard his teeth have chattered. Sam’s got a real talent for taking people apart.

“What did I do with the rest of her?” Sam asks. He makes the seventh and eight cuts in quick succession.

“Yes,” Dean gasps out.

Sam gets off of him then and Dean grabs for him, wanting to know where he’s going then he hears his zipper come down and he knows. “Roll over,” Sam says.

Dean tries to nod, but isn’t sure if he does or not, so he just rolls over. On his belly, his cuts are mashed into the scratchy bedspread and it irritates them, makes his breath catch and stutter in his throat. Sam’s weight is welcome against the backs of his thighs.

“I vivisected her,” Sam says as he makes a cut at the small of Dean’s back, on the left side of the gutter of his spine. Then one-two-three, quick as you please. “I made the Y incision first and peeled back her skin. It made me think of that dumbshit moth outside at the light.”

Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Two more neat rows and Dean’s got handfuls of bedspread grasped so tightly it’s making his knuckles hurt.

“I didn’t have anything to crack her ribcage, which was disappointing, but I was playing by ear. If I do it again though, I’ll plan ahead. You can go in through the abdomen and up anyway,” Sam says. “Did you know that? Yeah, you probably did. Her insides steamed when I exposed them. It’s so hot inside the human body, we’re all burning up, these furnaces of blood and meat.”

Dean listens to Sam sucking his blood from his fingers again and arches his back without thinking. Sam’s laugh is low and soft, gentle as he strokes a hand over Dean’s shoulders.

“I touched her heart, Dean,” Sam says. “I pushed up under her ribs and touched her heart.”

“God,” Dean chokes out.

Sam’s sickness is in his blood, Dean’s sickness is in his love, which is… Where? Where is his love? In his heart? His mind? Somewhere else? The Impala’s trunk? In his spinal fluid? Wherever it is, Dean knows it’s alive and well. He knows because he’s picturing Sam touching his heart, not Raggedy Ann’s. Such a thing is too intimate for a stranger. She didn’t deserve Sam’s touch, not there. Not anywhere. Picturing Sam doing that to him though makes him jerk again and rut against the bedspread accidentally because of the movement. He makes another of those whimpering sounds through his teeth.

“She was still conscious,” Sam says. He’s cutting on the other side now. One. Two. Three. “That’s the amazing part. She was still screaming, still crying and when I touched her heart… When I touched her there, it was like touching a livewire, it was throbbing and pulsing and pumping so fast.”

Four. Five. Six. Dean’s short, strangled scream is muffled by the mattress.

More sounds of Sam sucking blood off his fingers. He makes a low sound of pleasure in the back of his throat. Then Dean jerks when seven and eight come one after the other. They feel deeper, like they may need stitches and it makes him groan and squirm with want.

In his mind, Sam is fingering his heart and then pulling his dripping hand back to suck the blood off his fingers. It’s beautiful. He makes a choked sound as he presses himself deeper into the mattress, seeking some kind of friction. He wants Sam to finish his story, too and he doesn’t know what he wants more.

Sam pushes at his legs, gently urging him to spread them. Dean complies, spreading his legs as wide as he can; an open, insistent invitation. His hips protest a bit and his thighs tremble with the strain. Then there’s nothing for what seems like forever and Dean starts to get anxious, wondering what’s going on. His face is pressed into the pillow like a kid hiding from the bogeyman and his eyes are closed. It never occurs to him to lift his head and look around.

Lube is a cold, slippery shock and Dean jumps. Where’d that come from? Did Sam move without him noticing? What time is it? Where—? His questions cease with a shudder when Sam’s weight comes down on him. Dean lets him crush him into the mattress, feels the way his blood slips against Sam’s skin as he slides his arms under him and starts leaning back.

Dean catches on and moves with him until his back is pressed to Sam’s chest. His cuts spread-pull with the new angle, the lips of the wounds tugging open more, his skin maybe even tearing the slightest bit. He is crepe paper, wet from the rain and caught against the trunk of a tree, dissolving in the downpour.

Sam’s hands come up to his chest and his fingers splay out over those cuts, trimmed nails digging into them. Dean moans and lets his head fall back on Sam’s shoulder. He’s bent and curved against Sam, molding to him as best his flesh and bone will allow. Sam holds him still as he moves away from his back just enough to push inside of him. Sam’s breathing is rough and Dean reaches back with one hand to grab for his hip or his waist, seeking something to hold onto. He finds flesh and anchors himself to it, rooting himself to Sam. His other hand he moves up to touch one of Sam’s on his chest. Sam twines their fingers together over the bloody cuts and Dean trembles.

Sam is slow entering him and slower fucking him, but like the cuts, his motions are short, but deep and they jar through Dean. Sam bites the side of his neck where it meets his shoulder and Dean has nothing to muffle the noise now but his teeth sinking into the inside of his cheek. He gasps and moves with Sam the best he can, which isn’t great, but he knows Sam doesn’t mind.

“I held her heart in my hand,” Sam picks up as he fucks him. He digs his fingers deep into the cuts on Dean’s chest and he makes a choked sound almost like a plea. “Then I started to squeeze. I wanted to see if I could make it be still, even with it trying so hard to keep going. She flopped around and it was such a trip to watch her organs jittering around with her. So I squeezed harder.”

He snaps his hips against Dean’s ass and if not for Sam holding him up, he’d fall over. He bites down harder on the inside of his cheek against a cry and only partially manages to hold it back. When they fuck, sometimes it’s Dean who sounds like he’s being murdered. He may not care about that or even care all that much about their neighbor, but he still has enough sense to know having the cops called on them is the worst thing that could happen. He also knows Sam hates having to keep things quiet, that to him this is not much better than when he has to gag his victims. This, this being quiet shit, puts Dean right there with Raggedy Ann and he wants to be above her.

“Did she… Did she keep sc…” Dean is panting, breath choking him more than it is supplying him with oxygen. He’s slick with sweat and covered in chill bumps. Sam is moving inside of him and he’s alive, aching and sick with the pleasure of it. “Did she scream when you…”

“Yes,” Sam growls in his ear. His teeth are a sharp, bright pain when he bites the top curve of it. “I held her heart in my hand and I felt her die, but she screamed until it stopped beating. Her throat was probably really sore.”

“Did you like… Like,” Dean gasps and moans as he tightens his fingers on Sam’s where they’re glued together with his blood. “Like it more than…”

Sam nuzzles him, gentle and affectionate as he slams into him again, forcing a grunt out of Dean. “No,” he says. “No one screams like you.”

Dean squeezes his eyes closed at that and lets it all go, neighbor be damned. Knowing that in Sam’s eyes he is better is enough to make him come. For Sam, he doesn’t try to be quiet now, doesn’t worry about someone calling the police. The mattress is squeaking and if the headboard wasn’t bolted to the wall, it would be banging against it. Dean’s voice cracks and breaks as it rises, crests and then begins to fall back down. For a second, he swears he hears Sam humming and thinks he may even know what song it is.

But then Sam lays him back down on his belly, easing him carefully while he’s still trying to catch his breath and moaning with the aftershocks. Dean’s head is stuffed with cotton and he feels wrung out, but not so much that he can’t still reach back and touch Sam. He wants to feel him, the sweat sliding under his fingers, the flex of muscle as Sam moves. He loves him so much.

When Sam comes with a gasp and moan, Dean smiles.

He lies there, drifting, content and triumphant, while Sam cleans him up. He moves with rubber-boned complacency while Sam takes care of him. He likes this part almost as much as he likes what comes before. It’s the one and only time he doesn’t try to do things on his own because it’s not Sam’s job to take care of him. Dean is tired, as close to happy as he gets and Sam’s hands on him feel good in a different kind of way now. Sam cleans the cuts, smoothes salve on them and tapes bandages over them. Sam gets him out of bed just long enough to pull back the covers. Dean knows the routine, knows the sheets will be spotted with blood in the morning.

Sam lies down behind him and Dean presses close, seeking his nearness and warmth. He’s naked and cold again, but too tired to get up and put on clothes. Sam wraps his arms around him, one cradling Dean’s neck, the other draped over his ribs and Dean sighs.

This was Sam’s idea, not pretending anymore and Dean fought him on it because he was so used to the status quo. Sam’s persistent though and he finally wore Dean down, convinced him to just be with him because most people have no idea they’re related. They don’t even really look alike. Dean’s glad now, it took some getting used to, but being with Sam without hiding it is as close to normal as he can get. They can hold hands in public if they want to and Dean likes that. They don’t do it very often, but occasionally it’s a good thing.

It’s the lack of bullshit Dean likes most, the lack of having to pretend to be something he’s not in this one regard when so much of their life is one lie after another. The never ending game of Play Pretend. This much is real though and until Sam wore him down, Dean never realized what a burden this one secret was to keep.

“Sammy?”

“Hmm?”

“Say it.”

Sam picks his head up and his lips brush against his ear as they curve into a slow smile. “You are my sunshine,” he whispers.

Dean smiles and relaxes even more. He can sleep now.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t always so easy between them; after Dean caught Sam with the paramedic and his suspicions became reality, things were bad. He’d kissed Sam that night as they left, but once they got back to their motel room he’d punched him so hard he chipped one of Sam’s teeth. Dean’s stomach was a churning mess and while Sam went to get ice for his aching face, he’d made a dash for the bathroom and puked his fucking guts up again. Twice.

A dentist visit and 500 miles later, Dean picked another fight and ended up with fractured wrist and a broken pinky. Sam took it—mostly—letting Dean vent his frustrations and upset. He kept telling him it was okay and Dean called him a liar then went to buy more booze. They didn’t touch each other more than in anger for a long time. Sam didn’t push the issue and Dean wasn’t in the mood.

Two hundred miles after that, he picked another fight and ended up crying while Sam was out walking it off. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that his brother, his Sammy, was a monster just as bad as—or worse than—the ones they hunted down. He had his soul back and he was still doing it. Dean didn’t understand what was wrong with Sam and this time, it didn’t feel like something he could fix.

Seventy five miles and another job later, Dean made his own version of a stand on a smolderingly hot Kentucky night. He went out without Sam, jazzed to’ve actually worked a case that went off without a single hitch. Those were exceedingly rare and exhilarating when they came along; they reminded Dean why he’d loved the job all those years ago. He—they—had saved a nice family of three and there was no collateral damage. Hell, Dean and Sam barely had a bruise and the family could once again sleep at night without having to worry about the ceiling dripping blood on them. It was a real win for the Winchesters.

Sam had grown quieter and quieter, watching Dean from the corner of his eye, waiting for his next blow up or the day he’d turn around to find Dean with a gun pointed at his head. He didn’t have to say it for Dean to know that was the case. He’d thought about it, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, not yet and it was starting to seem like it would end up being not ever. Being around Sam was hard, that much was absolutely true. Seeing the way he’d changed was even harder.

There was something in his eyes that hadn’t been there before and on one hand, Dean was glad to see something in them again. On the other hand, that something was predatory and hungry; it was always watching so patiently. Dean was pretty sure Sam didn’t even know about it. The most disturbing part of it was that it wasn’t like looking at another Sam. It was more like looking at a part of Sam that had always been there, it simply hadn’t shone as brightly before. But Dean had seen a glimmer of it in the past, hadn’t he? Yes, he thought he had. That realization had been enough to send him back to the bathroom to vomit. Sam had handed him a bottle of water when he came back and not said a word, just looked at him with his, I’m sorry, Dean, eyes.

So, that night in Kentucky, Dean had taken off for some much needed R-and-R and left Sam behind. He watched Dean go with his sad, sad eyes and snorted when Dean said, “Don’t wait up,” before slamming the door behind him. Sam said something, but Dean couldn’t make it out and didn’t care enough to open the door again and ask him to repeat it.

He was trying to distance himself from Sam, from what Sam had become. It was almost more than Dean could stand at times, he wanted to touch Sam so bad. He wanted to start sharing the bed with Sam again and kick Kilgore back to the other one. Dean didn’t feel like he could though, that was the thing. It wouldn’t be right for him to let Sam back with Sam still doing what he did. The fact he’d fucked him for months when he didn’t have a soul wasn’t something Dean wanted to think about.

Sam had a soul now and he was plugging along like he didn’t. The only difference was that Sam truly understood it wasn’t right, but Dean wasn’t totally convinced he cared about that fact either. And that was the kicker. He cared about Dean and he was sorry, but Dean wasn’t sure whether he was sorry for being what he was or sorry that Dean had found out about it. He chewed on that thought until it had no flavor and then got himself another piece of the same thing.

Dean found himself in a smoky roadhouse called The Good Creature. There, they played bluegrass and some of the most heartbreaking old time hill country folk music Dean’s drunk ass had ever heard. It wasn’t The Scorpions or even Lita Ford, but it got him right in the gut and when the hill country folk wasn’t doing that, the bluegrass fiddle was making him stomp his dusty boots right along with everyone else.

It was the hottest part of summer and the moon hung low in the sky while Dean yucked it up, dancing his way across splintered floorboards to the bar and back again. He twirled and do-see-doh’d the best he could manage and laughed until his face hurt. It was a Saturday night and the locals were out, hollering and ready to raise hell. Dean was convinced he had found his tribe there at The Good Creature. Yeah, he was in high cotton for sure.

He met a sweet little gal in a straw cowboy hat and cut-off shorts with big brown eyes and long dark hair. She smelled like lily of the valley perfume, had a drawl that tickled Dean’s fancy and an ass that rang all of his bells. She also had some Somas that she was happy to share. A couple of those with shots of Jack back had Dean feeling the love with every loose-limbed jounce across the floor. When she asked him to take her home, called him sugar darlin’ and licked his ear, he said, “Hell, yes!” The guy on the barstool next to his gave him a high five and they all had a good laugh about that.

Back at her place, she turned off the overhead lights and plugged up some strings of party lights shaped like red chili peppers and Japanese lanterns, respectively. They ringed the room and gave it a cheerful, cross-cultural titty bar glow that Dean approved of very much. He flopped down on the old sofa and watched her totter around in her low-cut cowboy (cowgirl, he reckoned) boots while she got some music going.

The second she hit play and turned back to face him, Dean knew exactly where things were going. When she took her straw cowboy hat off and threw it at him, he grinned and said, “Rock my world, little country girl!”

“Woo!” she said as she pulled her shirt over her head and tossed it in his general direction.

On the stereo, Garth Brooks informed all and sundry that he had friends in looow places and Dean tapped his foot along with the beat. He’s not a big country music fan, but a guy doesn’t spend as many years bellied up to the bar in shit hole dives the nation over without developing at least a minimal appreciation for it. It’s really kind of a case of assimilate or die and Dean chose to assimilate. Besides, Garth isn’t as bad as say, Confederate Railroad because fuck those guys, that’s Dean’s opinion on the matter. Then there’s Mark Chestnutt’s, “Bubba Shot the Jukebox”, which is country music gold. He’d fight someone over saying different.

Her bra came off next, a lacy, frothy concoction the color of pink cupcake frosting. Dean leaned forward when her short-shorts shimmied down off her hips and whispered their way to her feet. She kicked them aside and he readjusted himself with a grin that she saw, returned and raised him a lip lick. All he could think was, Oh, yeah. Then she stuck her hand down the front of her matching thong panties and he had to adjust himself all over again.

Where the whiskey flows and the beer chases my blues away, Garth sang, but Dean barely heard him. His eyes were riveted to her slender hand outlined against the frosting pink lace of her panties.

“Looks like someone got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” he said, yelling to be heard over the music. It made an already cheesy—but a winner, by God—line obnoxious to boot, but she just laughed.

“Uh-huh,” she said. “I might need a spanking.”

“You might,” Dean said as he leaned back into the couch, elastic boned and dizzy with pills and booze.

She moaned and he watched her hand work; her face and the sweat on her bouncing tits barely a blip on his radar. Dean’s bedded a lot of women and a handful of men, but very few of them ever gave him a show like that. For some reason, most people seemed to think masturbation was something to be done only when they were alone. Dean thought that was a damned shame, too, because it was hot.

For a second the room seemed to get darker, an extra shadow where there wasn’t one and Dean was in the process of wondering what that was about, if he was passing out maybe. Then something wet and hot hit his face.

He jerked his head up in time to see Sam finish drawing the knife across the girl’s throat. Her hand was still in her panties as he grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head back, aiming her spraying throat right at Dean, where he sat frozen in shocked horror. His mind was a numb wasteland, all he could think was, Where the hell did he come from?

Sam dropped the girl’s body just as Dean’s legs, if not his actual thinking skills, came back online and he shoved himself up off the couch. He had the dumbest goddamned idea that he had to stop him, but it was already too late and he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. Then he did and he launched himself at Sam with the taste of the girl’s blood in his mouth, burning in his eyes and Garth Brooks now saying he was glad he hadn’t missed the dance.

For months, for hundreds of miles, Sam had quietly been taking his licks and letting Dean have his say. What Dean had learned the hard way and still always forgot was that when Sam got good and fed up, he could put him through a wall if he wanted to. Sam let him do it a lot of the time, let him take his pot-shots and sucker punches to give him the chance to let off some steam. That night, while a girl lay choking on her blood in the middle of her living room floor, Sam had enough.

He grabbed Dean by the throat, his longer reach giving him the advantage and pushed him back. Drunk and a little wasted on Somas, Dean went sprawling on his ass in a pool of blood. He managed to turn himself around to try and lever himself up with his hands before Sam grabbed him again, that time by the back of his neck.

With a grip like ironwood bands, he shoved Dean’s face right into the dead girl’s and shook him like a cat that had shit in the sink. “No, Dean,” Sam said. “No.”

Dean tried to speak, tried to fight, but he couldn’t get any traction and the smell, the smell was enough to make him want to pass out. Sam had been biding his time, watchful and patient like the predator he was and right then Dean knew it. Sam had been waiting for Dean to pull something like this and had probably followed him to the bar. As Dean sucked in stinking lungful after lungful of the girl’s blood, the reek of piss from her voided bladder (her hand, Jesus fuck, the poor thing had pissed all over her hand…) and the smell of her goddamnable perfume he thought he knew what Sam had said. It had been a plea and a warning. It had been, Dean, don’t. But Dean had.

He didn’t cut her throat, but Dean killed the girl whose brown eyes he was staring into. Her death was on him and he couldn’t even begin to pretend otherwise.

Sam shook him one more time before he hauled Dean to his feet. Turning Dean around, his hand closed on his throat again when he tried to speak, to yell and curse. A gloved hand sticky with blood.

Looking at him, Dean didn’t think he had ever seen Sam as mad as he was in that moment. He was wearing his murder gear, as Dean had come to think of it and he hadn’t raised his voice a single time, but his face was a mask of pure unadulterated fury.

“No,” Sam said one more time. Then he blinked and when his eyes focused on Dean again, a lot of that animal rage was gone, like it had never been there at all. “You need a shower. I’ve got some clean clothes for you in my bag. Do you know where the bathroom in this heap is?”

Dean opened and closed his mouth and Sam said, “Oh,” then let go of his throat. “Sorry.”

“I don’t know where it’s at,” Dean said. He was starting to shake.

“Then let’s go find it,” Sam said.

“Sam—”

“Shut the fuck up, Dean,” Sam said. His voice was brittle and tight and Dean shut the fuck up. His throat hurt anyway.

They found the bathroom and Sam took Dean’s bloody clothes, stuffed them in a garbage bag and went to do the clean up while Dean finished in the shower. He fell down once with a hard thump that, thanks to the Somas and booze, he really didn’t feel all that much. Sam didn’t come to check on him, but he was waiting outside the door when Dean came out. He went in behind him and wiped everything down after telling Dean not to touch another thing, to stick his hands in his pockets if that’s what he needed to do.

“People saw me leave with her,” Dean said while Sam scrubbed the shower.

“I know,” Sam said.

“You know?”

“Of course,” Sam said. “I was there most of the night.”

Where?” Dean asked. “And wait, did you just fucking set me up?”

“One, none of your business and two, no, I didn’t set you up,” Sam said. “It just happened that way, but that part was unavoidable.”

“You’ve been planning this,” Dean said.

“You started it, cock,” Sam said.

“I what? No, you—”

“No, you always pull this shit, Dean,” Sam said, turning to point at him. “You.”

“I didn’t do a goddamned thing, you sick freak,” Dean snarled. “You’re the serial killer.”

“Wow, you nailed that one,” Sam said as he wiped down the sink. “Very observant, Captain Obvious.”

“It’s not my fault that you’re a… you’re a…”

“I’m a what, Dean? You really wanna do this again? Huh?” Sam asked as he gathered up the towel and washcloth Dean had used. He started cleaning the toilet, working with quick, efficient movements. “I’ll tell you what I am: I’m a serial killer who is fucking his brother. One whose brother thinks the best way to get back at him is to fuck around on him with skanks he picks up in bars.”

“We’ve always fucked other people!” Dean yelled because he didn’t know what else to say, especially not after Sam so casually admitted that he was a serial killer the way someone would admit to being a tax attorney; like it was just what he did.

“Keep your voice down,” Sam said absently. “And I know we have, but I don’t want to do that anymore. I haven’t wanted to for a long time.”

“What the— What?” Dean felt like his head was actually spinning around, full-on Exorcist-like, minus the pea soup and fucking a crucifix stuff. “You did this because I hurt your feelings, is that it?”

“No, this was because I’m pissed,” Sam said. “Pissed and sick of the shit.”

“You killed her for no reason!”

Dean, watch your volume, seriously,” Sam said. “And I had every reason.”

“And those would be what, exactly? I cannot believe I am having this conversation,” Dean said. He took his hand out of his pocket and scrubbed hard at his face, trying to violently massage reality back into the situation. “I need a drink.”

“There’s beer back at the room,” Sam said.

“What reasons, Sam?”

“One, because I wanted to. Two, because I could. Three, because of the itch. Four—and this is the most important one—because now you know what’ll happen if you pull this crap again,” Sam said.

He ticked each reason off on his fingers and kind of smirked in a way that was icicle cold and kinda— Dean wouldn’t let himself think that, especially not right then.

“Are you threatening to kill anyone I sleep with who isn’t you?” Dean asked.

“That is where I got the idea to begin with,” Sam said with a shrug. “So, why not? The way you slut it up, I’ll be plenty occupied.” That weird smirk again, that eerie light flaring bright in his eyes.

Dean felt something warm swirling through his blood and wondered what was wrong with him, not Sam. Dean didn’t know what to do with that, not at all. Sam had killed the people he was fucking or wanted to fuck. He recalled a girl named Candace, her face rising up in his mind and he staggered, just barely remembering not to grab the wall to brace himself.

“I don’t… I… Sam… Sammy,” Dean stammered. “Fuck, man. I don’t know what to do.

“We’ll figure it out,” Sam said. “Let’s give this—us—a try, Dean. That’s all I’m asking.”

“Asking… Yeah, okay, sure that’s what you’re doing,” Dean said. “Asking. My ass. Besides, Sam, we can’t. In case you’ve forgotten, we’re fucking related.”

“How many people actually know that? Seriously, how many? We don’t even look alike,” Sam said. He looked around the tiny bathroom and nodded once to himself “I’m done here, let’s go”

“Still. Sam, c’mon, you be serious here. What we do, dude, it’s illegal,” Dean said. “And wait. Just like that, you’re done and ready to go?”

“Ninety eight percent of what we do is illegal and we’re way more likely to get busted doing that stuff than we are for fucking each other,” Sam said. Then he gave Dean a blank look, one eyebrow raised in question. “I already got what cash she had and scored a stash of pills like you would not believe from under her bed; those’ll be good for our first aid kit. She didn’t have anything else worth taking. Why, did you want to stick around a little longer?”

Dean immediately shook his head in the negative and motioned with his elbow for Sam to lead the way. As they left the old trailer, Dean was moderately aware that his brain was still mostly offline. It was clicking around, but not as well as it should’ve been. He was too calm or better put, once he thought about it, too loaded and in shock.

He watched Sam as they walked down the hall and asked himself if, after what he’d just done, he still wanted him. The answer was a shiver-clench in his belly and along his spine. It felt awful and it said, yes. He’d wanted Sam since they were kids, both of them too young maybe, but not either, especially not the way they’d grown up. He’d defied John because of how much he wanted Sam and would’ve taken a hundred and one more beatings to go with the quick, hard hand across his face on that porch if they had meant he got to keep Sam for himself.

Once upon a time, Dean had tried very hard to hate Sam because he’d broken his heart at least partway, but he hadn’t been able to and he still couldn’t. He could watch Sam’s broad back moving under his bloody poncho and look down to his long legs covered in black denim and think that it was always Sam and always would be. No one else even rated, not the way he did, not even Lisa or Cassie.

“How the hell did you get here?” Dean asked after they were in the Impala and Sam had shucked his gear. Sam was driving because Dean was way too fucked up—in almost every imaginable way—to attempt doing it himself.

“I hotwired a truck in the bar parking lot,” Sam said. “That place was a hole, but I like the name.”

“It’s a cool name, yeah,” Dean said. Then, “Jesus goddamned motherfucking Christ, Sam!”

“Uh-huh,” Sam said. “You get used to it.”

“I will not get used to it,” Dean snarled. “You fucking killed that girl! You killed her!

“Uh-huh,” Sam said again. He’d probably been waiting for this to happen and ta-da, here it was. Dean didn’t disappoint with his tirades.

“I can’t fucking believe you, man,” Dean said. “You’re my brother, not some Ted Bundy motherfucker running around with a pair of scissors.”

“I don’t think Bundy used scissors,” was Sam’s response.

“That is not my point and you know it!” Dean yelled.

Sam wiggled a finger in his ear with a wince. “I know,” he said. “I do, okay? And I told you: I’m sorry. But I… I can’t… I don’t want to stop.”

“It’s wrong,” Dean said.

“That’s it, it’s wrong?” Sam said. He made a scoffing sound in the back of his throat. “You don’t say. Jesus, Dean. You think I don’t know that?”

“Then why, Sam? Why?!

“I told you why,” Sam said.

“Is that really it though?”

“Mostly.”

Mostly.” Dean licked his lips and shook his head, trying to think. “If that’s most of it—the itch in your mind—then what’s the rest of it?”

“I want to.”

“Christ, Buddha, Vishnu, Mary fuckin’ Magdalene,” Dean said. He bent over his lap and drew slow, careful breaths. “Is it because of… I mean, the stuff we do—did… that?”

Sam snorted. “No. They’re different sides of a similar coin, but one isn’t the other, not even close and I… I dunno. It is what it is and I adjusted and I did that because I had to. I still feel really shitty about that cat though.”

“What cat?”

“Nevermind.”

Dean was actually willing—happy—to let that one go. He didn’t want to know anymore than he already did. Sam’s alphabetical recitation a couple of weeks ago had been bad enough that it nearly ended in him puking again. Dean felt it was best to leave small domestic mammals out of it lest things end the same way. He didn’t think he could deal with Sam listing, Buddy, Church, Fido, Fluffy, Spot and Whiskers as well.

They drove in silence for a little while, not even the radio on to stand in for a conversation. Then Sam said, “By the way, what was her name?”

Dean jumped a bit and then cleared his throat, which was hurting more the longer he sat there. Sam had squeezed the fuck out of it. He scratched at the back of his neck when the skin crawled at the remembrance of the look on Sam’s face.

“Chastity,” he said.

Sam surprised the hell out of him by bursting out laughing.

“What the hell’s so funny?”

“Sluts tend to have the most ironic names,” Sam said with a shake of his head. He was still smiling.

Without thinking about it, Dean shoved him hard and the car swerved violently towards the center line. The next thing he knew, his nose was pouring blood down his face.

“Are you trying to fucking kill both of us, you idiot?” Sam snapped.

“You hit me,” Dean said.

“Yeah, I did,” Sam said. “Goddamnit, Dean. I cannot believe you did that.”

“You killed that girl.” Dean’s buzz was weakening and he was waking up. He didn’t like what he was feeling either. He wiped at his bleeding nose and huffed out a breath. “You murdered her.”

“I know,” Sam said.

“You’re not even gonna say you’re sorry?”

“No. Because I’m not.”

Dean shoved him again, but Sam was ready for him and grabbed his arm, pushing it back at him before he got too much leverage into it that time. “Quit or you’re going to make us wreck.”

“I don’t care,” Dean said.

“Yes, you do,” Sam said. “The second it happened, if I just let you go, you’d care. You’re just upset right now.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I am,” Dean said. “You ki—”

“I know what I did, you don’t have to keep reminding me,” Sam said.

His tired, but calm, tone of voice was enough to actually shut Dean up. Something about it just flipped his ON switch to OFF. Except for one thing. “You’ll remember it forever, won’t you?”

“I keep all of them,” Sam said, once more as matter-of-fact as he would be if he was telling someone about his hobbies.

And Dean didn’t like it. On more than one level, he did not like it. Not even a little bit. For the second time that night, he asked himself what was wrong with him.

Back at the room, Dean had more beer while Sam took Kilgore out for his nightly constitutional. He sat on the bed and thought and thought and thought without really thinking anything. There was too much to sift and sort through, but when Sam and the dog came back, he got up off the bed and went to meet Sam.

That night, Sam sucked the bruises his fingers had left even deeper into Dean’s skin until it looked like he was wearing a black-purple necklace. The next case they worked, Dean wouldn’t be making many public appearances, that was for damn sure, but he didn’t care. The tug and ache of Sam’s mouth and teeth against those sore places—index, middle, ring, pinky, right over his carotid artery, Sam’s thumb—was worth it. He pulled Sam’s hair and wrapped his legs around him so tightly it was a wonder Sam could move at all, but he did. He made Dean’s heart hurt when he came because he could look up at Sam in the light from the bedside lamp and know that he loved him more than anything in the world.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Two days later in the weedy backyard of the abandoned house they were squatting in, Dean tried to kill Sam. Sam took one look at the gun in his violently trembling hand and shook his head. He looked so fucking sad when he glanced up and met Dean’s eyes.

“If you’re going to kill me then you’re going to have to shoot me in the back,” Sam said. “I won’t watch you do it.”

Then he turned away and disappeared into the woods behind the house. Dean watched him go then dropped the gun to his side and went to his knees. He’d torn his pants and cut himself on a piece of broken glass hiding in the overgrown grass, but it hadn’t mattered. Who the hell was he kidding?

That night when Sam finally returned, materializing like a shadow behind Dean while he heated some food on a tiny propane camp stove, he’d barely been able to look at him. He’d shoved a bowl of chili at Sam then went to sit on the other side of the room. All day, he had been thinking and the only thing left was finding a way to present his idea to Sam.

Dean settled on getting a bone handled hunting knife out of his bag and sharpening it by candlelight while Sam read by their only working lantern—the other three had up and decided to quit all around the same time. When he was done, Dean took the knife to Sam and handed it to him.

“What’s this for?” Sam asked as he took the proffered handle.

“Use me,” Dean said.

“Huh?” Sam said.

Dean noticed the way Sam was turning the blade this way and that, watching the honed, pale edge catch the lantern light.

“You have that itch and you’ve got those urges,” Dean said. “I’ve been thinking all day and Sam… Sam… I don’t want to… I can’t kill you, I never could. I don’t know if I would ever be able to, no matter what. But you don’t have to kill people either.”

“I will not kill you,” Sam said as he got to his feet. He dropped the knife on his bed roll and Dean looked down at it. It glowed warm, pale amber in the light and he swallowed, licked his lips and moved into Sam’s space.

“I’m not saying that, Sammy,” he said as he ran his hands up Sam’s arms. “I’m just saying you can take some of that out on me.” He swallowed again. It was hard to say out loud, even to Sam, who knew. “I like it—pain—and you like causing pain and I… It’s a win-win, thing, man.”

“Dean, it’s not the same thing,” Sam said.

“It can be,” Dean said. “It can be, if you let it. Just let it. No one else has to get hurt and we both get what we… what we…”

“Want,” Sam finished for him.

“Yeah,” Dean said. He moved in closer to Sam and kissed him once. “Maybe we can’t do everything like you’re wanting to do, but we can do this. Right?“

Sam stooped to pick up the knife and when he straightened up again, he held it up so they were both looking at the blade. “You’re sure?”

Dean’s breath hitched at the promise in that question. “I’m sure,” he said.

“Okay then,” Sam said as he wrapped an arm around Dean’s waist and crushed his mouth to his. Moving over Dean’s jaw, to his ear, he said, “We can do it all, Dean, you’ll see.”

“Sam, not now,” Dean said.

“No, not now,” Sam said. “Now, we do this.”

He dragged Dean down to the floor and stripped him naked. He cut him and let his blood stain the old boards. High summer and humid air in an old house, prime ground for an infection and neither of them worried about that because they were in their element. In the candlelit glow of the old den, they found a rhythm and Dean let Sam have his way. And Sam let Dean have his.

Nothing is a sure thing though. Six months later, Dean was introducing himself as Sam’s partner and Sam was getting that look in his eyes again. Dean tried to stave it off and he managed, but only a tiny bit. The truth is, Sam is a killer, not just a kinker and those things are mutually exclusive when the person behind the wheel knows what the fuck.

A week later, Sam disappeared one evening and when he came back, he apologized to Dean. Dean socked him in the jaw because he knew what Sam had done, knew it from the moment he went missing during a milk run and it hurt.

While he hit Sam for it, the real truth was that Dean wanted to go hit the guy that had caught Sam’s attention and diverted it. He’d ranted, kicked the wall and drank half a fifth of whiskey then ducked out to buy a rare (for him) pack of cigarettes.

Four hours later, he said, “Tell me about it.”

Sam did and while he was doing so, he burned a smiley face into the back of Dean’s left thigh with one of his Pall Mall Reds. Dean moaned and counted it as a win.

Chapter Text

The first week of December finds them in a small town not too far outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. The place is called Hideaway now, but up until a year ago, it was named Winston-ton. They’ve been to Greasy, Lickskillet, Eek, Truth, Consequences and Dean’s personal favorite, Middelfart. But they’ve never been anywhere that seems to have been named by someone with a stutter. Every time Dean even thinks it, he hears it in Porky Pig’s voice. Sam says it was nice of them to hyphenate at least. They both agree that Hideaway is a much better name than Winston-ton.

Back when the place was Winston-ton, it was an unincorporated township, but the past couple of years or so, the place has been incorporated and it’s grown. Now it’s got a name change and is trying to put itself on the map as a “resort destination”. That’s what happens when small—no, miniscule—towns get big ideas. In all fairness, the place isn’t doing badly though. It’s more granola-loving than Mercedes-sporting, but it means well and some of the little artisan shops look interesting, especially the one selling smoked game meats.

“Smoked game meats, Sammy,” Dean says as they walk past the shop on their way back to the little overpriced lodge they’re staying in. “Game meats. Smoked.”

“Dude,” Sam says. “If you’ve got that much of a boner to try out some dried up Bambi meat then go for it. Just stop saying smoked game meats.”

Dean walks a few more feet then says, “Hey, Sam?”

“What?”

“Smoked game meats.”

“Fuck you,” Sam says.

“Maybe I’ll let ya if you buy me some venison jerky,” Dean says.

“Wow,” Sam says. “You sell yourself cheap.”

“Like hell,” Dean says. “Did you see the ‘artisan’ part of that shop’s sign? That’s hippie code for you will shit when you see the price.”

“No,” Sam says.

“Whatever,” Dean says. “Wait. No, what?”

“Just no,” Sam says.

“Blanket statement?”

“Pretty much.”

“Fine,” Dean says. “I’m gonna have me some of that smoked game meat before we leave though.”

Sam makes a gah! sound and knocks his shoulder into Dean’s, but he doesn’t speak again. Dean grins and bumps him back then they carry on their way. They’ve been out checking out the town and getting a feel for the place. The locals seem friendly, sincere in the way only small town folks truly can be. Which is to say, nice as all get out and genuinely so, but with secrets piled up like dust bunnies in the corners of their smiles. Dean has a feeling this is going to be an interesting job.

It’s colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra and Dean blows into his hands to try and warm them up some. When Sam first mentioned there being a possible job in Arizona, Dean had been tickled. Arizona meant warmth, but then Sam added that the place was near Flagstaff and effectively crushed Dean’s dream. This part of the state gets cold in the wintertime. It’s only early December and an unexpected cold front has the temperature reading on the place’s little finance company standing at 48 degrees. Dean is definitely more of a summertime kind of guy, but Sam seems perfectly content with the chilly weather. Hell, Nebraska’s sub-zero nightmare of sleet and frozen pellets hadn’t bothered him much.

Then again, Sam likes cold weather. He’s told Dean all about making snow angels that morning in Maine while half-naked. After he’d yanked and chunked all the fuses for the heat and power to the small cabins. Dean remembers waking up so cold he ached with it, only to see Sam sitting there like the weather was mild and agreeable. The cold does at least get to Sam now, after a while even he starts blowing and stomping his feet like a restless horse. He actually seems to like that part of it, too, however. Just more proof that his brother is a weirdo.

They’re almost back to their room at Whispering Pines, an overpriced semi-spa type resort and the only place in town to stay for right now. Dean’s never been all that comfortable staying in places named after gossipy flora, but he supposes it’ll do. Sam had looked at him with one eyebrow raised when Dean asked him what he thought the pines whispered about. Sometimes he thinks maybe he shouldn’t say such things aloud.

Admittedly, Whispering Pines is a really nice little place to crash for a few days, but the price of rooms made Dean’s pulse jump. He’s glad they’re still scamming credit cards, that’s all he can say about that. They hadn’t given them any guff about Kilgore though and on that front, Dean thanks them. He’s spent more time sneaking the dog into rooms with far less class than Whispering Pines. Here they didn’t even charge them extra for having a large dog and that is pretty damned sweet.

They rolled into town around nine that morning and checked in, then hoofed it out of there again after letting Kilgore get in some exercise and take a dump. They’ve been walking around town since then, getting to know the locals after they ate breakfast at the small coffee shop-slash-diner (also overpriced, but the omelets were delicious). Dean had eaten artisan bacon, a first and also a real treat. He refuses to think about the cost of said artisan bacon, although he does wonder what makes it artisan. Are the pigs themselves handcrafted with love and care one at a time?

They turn down the shady drive to the lodge and Sam yawns. “I’m beat,” he says.

“I stink,” Dean says. “So, plan: You take a nap and I’ll wash the funk off.”

“Sounds good to me,” Sam says. “I could use a shower, but to hell with it, I’ll do it when I get up.”

“Yep,” Dean says. He pats Sam on the shoulder and Sam smiles faintly.

They dead-headed it all the way from Nebraska to Arizona. Dean got the last nap in before they hit Hideaway though, so he’s a hell of a lot perkier than Sam is right now.

Upstairs in their room, Sam doesn’t waste any time kicking off his shoes and flopping down on their bed with a groan. “My eyes feel like they’re full of sand,” he says.

“I offered you some Stackers,” Dean says.

He’s fixing himself a drink; according to his watch it’s about a quarter past whiskey o’clock. He can tell it by the faint tremors in his hands that he can feel more than actually see for now. If left unattended though he knows very well how that’ll go.

“You take too many of those things,” Sam says.

“No, I don’t,” Dean says. “I take a few here and there for some pep is all.”

“And how many is a few?” Sam asks.

“Don’t lecture me, Sam,” Dean says.

“I’m not, Dean, I’m just saying you take too many of them,” Sam says.

“Right and I guess you’re going to tell me I drink too much next,” Dean says as he raises his glass for a swallow.

Sam picks his head up and turns it to look at Dean. “I wouldn’t dream of doing that,” he says flatly.

“Nag.”

“Drunk.”

“Blow me.”

“Eat me.”

He’s smiling again and Dean grins, too. Sometimes he feels like he shouldn’t joke around with Sam, like it’s wrong somehow, like they should be super serious all the time. But they can’t be because there’s still humor in the world and they will always, always be themselves.

Sam flops his head back down with a laugh. Dean watches him close his eyes and start drifting off. It makes Dean smile, but then Castiel’s dire threat rings in his head like a fucking gong and the smile falls off his face. He clears his throat and downs the rest of his drink before quickly pouring himself a new one.

He hasn’t been able to stop thinking about what Castiel said to him; about what Castiel said he would do to Sam. Dean hasn’t told Sam and he’s not going to either, but he’s not sure what to do. It’s got him worried as hell and he can’t shake the uneasiness. Half the time when he looks at Sam lately, he hears Castiel saying, If you will not do something about Sam then I will.

“I’m going to shower,” Dean says after downing his second drink and pouring another. His voice is too loud and Sam jumps then cracks one eye open to look at him blearily.

“Okay,” Sam says as his eye slips closed again.

Kilgore’s on the bed next to Sam, head resting on top of his thigh. He sees Dean looking at him and raises his head, ears pricked. The bed sways a little and Dean knows it’s the nub of is tail valiantly trying to wag. It makes him grin to see the dog and Sam together; his family. Castiel’s threat is a flicker of toxic flames in the back of his mind and he takes a swallow of whiskey to try and tamp it out.

Dean ducks into the bathroom and takes a moment to just look around at all the gleaming chrome and spotless tile without stained grout. The tub is a spa tub with water jets and is big enough for two, even if one is mutant-sized. He files that thought away for later, right now he means to use the rain shower or whatever it’s called.

Once he’s undressed, Dean peels the bandages off the still healing cuts on his chest and back and touches them lightly. They’re still sore, not healed enough to itch yet, but not so fresh they ooze blood unless he does something to pull at them. In another week they’ll be 32 more scars to add to the collection all over his body. Sam’s been working on him for 3 years now and Dean will never be able take his clothes off in front of strangers again without having to field some very uncomfortable questions.

Dean doesn’t look at the scars and see anything ugly about them though. Most of them are of nothing particular, they’re just neat, straight lines or at their fanciest, swirling, coiling lines. Some of the others are elaborate though, the products of hours and hours of Sam carving him.

Dean’s favorite is on his back where he can’t really see it without twisting around at convoluted angles. Between his shoulders, Sam carved Yggdraisil, its branches reaching out almost to his upper arms and nearly up to his neck. Its roots curl down his spine to about two inches from the new cuts. It took Sam days in a rented one bedroom clapboard house in Homer Glen, Illinois to do and Dean had loved every minute of it.

Sam explained Yggdraisil to Dean, told him the story behind it. All Dean knew was that it was also called The World Tree. Now he knows that the god, Odin, hung himself from it—the tree the first cross to bear—and sacrificed one of his eyes so that he may see. It makes the tree mean so much more to Dean now that he knows the whole story.

None of the scars extend past his elbows or up on his neck or face, but sometimes Dean thinks about asking Sam to at least do his neck, ring it with roses and thorns. Then he remembers the job and knows he can’t do that. It actually irritates him a bit because now it’s the unmarked skin that looks out of place to Dean.

He runs his hands over his scabbed chest, down to his scarred belly and finally turns to get in the shower. He really is rank and he wants another drink or five before they head out to track down someplace to eat supper. As Dean turns on the shower, he thinks maybe they’ll order room service; that’ll be a rare treat for sure.

Once he’s done with his shower, Dean towels off with one of the big, fluffy white bath sheets they’ve been provided with. He makes a note to take every last one of them when they go then he pads back into the main room, naked and still damp. Even the warm air from the heating vents feels cold against his moist skin and it rises with gooseflesh.

He fixes himself another drink, takes another Stacker and then digs out a clean pair of boxers to put on. Sam is snoring softly, lying on his side now, head cradled in the crook of his arm. Dean watches him for another moment and wonders what he dreams about; if he dreams about them or if he dreams about Dean. Maybe Sam dreams about all that might’ve been and Dean wonders if that’s the case, if he is still a part of those dreams. In these secret moments of silence and aloneness, Dean can allow himself to hope so.

Bottle of Wild Turkey in hand, scars damp and shining in the filtered light, Dean goes to the bed and climbs in beside Sam. Kilgore licks a patch of moisture from his ankle—Hello—before going to get his ball out of Dean’s duffel. He brings it to him and Dean tosses it across the room, towards the door. They have to work tonight, so this little bit of exercise will be enough for now since Kilgore needs to be fresh for the job.

A few tosses of the ball back and forth with sips of whiskey in between and Dean’s arm starts to get tired. He tells Kilgore to “get his bone” (it never fails to make Dean smirk) and go lay down. Kilgore seems disappointed, but does as he’s told. Before long, he’s contentedly gnawing away at the piece of rawhide. Dean’s smirk grows into a slightly shamefaced pet owner smile when he thinks that he has more dog toys in his duffel than clothes now. Sam says he spoils him, but Dean points out that the dog works hard, so he deserves his downtime as much as they do. Sam never argues with that and Sam also always takes Kilgore out with him on his morning runs, when he has the chance to get one in anyway.

Dean tips his head back against the headboard and when Sam shifts closer, face pressed against his hip, Dean drops his hand and starts combing his fingers through his hair. He works all the little knots out, careful and practiced now after 30 some odd years of doing almost exactly the same thing. He makes a snuffling sound in his sleep, his breath warm where it caresses Dean’s skin. Right then, Dean hates Castiel for ever daring say he’d hurt Sammy. Dean lifts his head, grabs the Wild Turkey and takes a long, deep swallow to chase away the burn of his rage.

Sam loops his arm over Dean’s thighs, fingers hooking under the right one and holding on. Dean puts the booze aside and rests his other hand there, fingers still combing through Sam’s slightly greasy feeling hair. He strokes the tanned skin of Sam’s forearm and leans his head back again. He closes his eyes, not sleeping, but resting. Dean takes a deep breath and enjoys the stillness of right now, of Sam and whiskey and comfort. It’s damn near perfect.

~*~*~*~*~*~

That night after feasting on room service, they head out to work. What drew them to Hideaway was an online article about a series of tragic deaths that occurred at the town’s small Christmas festival, more specifically on the antique carousel at the Christmas festival. A twelve year old boy bit off his own tongue and swallowed it, a traveling salesman died of a massive coronary, a local couple was found after appearing to have bled out from their pores. The festival had shut down after the couple’s death. While the salesman’s death may’ve been mere coincidence, the other deaths weren’t.

Sam had mused aloud about whether the boy had choked on his tongue or drowned in his own blood. Dean voted for the first one before even thinking about it and Sam smiled. Dean felt like a real asshole for all of two seconds and then asked Sam if he wanted coffee because he was making a run.

When he got back, he asked Sam what he thought the kid’s cause of death was and he said, “Probably the possessed carousel he was on.”

Now they’re walking towards that very carousel and Dean’s already so cold he’s becoming (what he feels is legitimately) concerned about getting frostbite on his balls. Because of how small Hideaway is and all of the green space, the tiny fairground is ringed in trees, sitting on the edge of town that heads toward the highway leading away from Flagstaff. It’s dark out, but the moon is full and it provides enough light to see by. That same light makes their breath glow like phosphorous mist and Dean watches it puffing out from their mouths, quietly fascinated by the sight.

The carousel is cordoned off, crime scene tape snapping in the wicked wind that howls around them. The end of it that’s come untied lashes the air like a shiny yellow tongue reaching for them, wanting a taste. It shimmies and rattles like flimsy chains when the wind twines its way through it without remorse.

“Marley was dead: to begin with,” Sam says.

Dean laughs. “There is no doubt whatever about that,” he says.

Reading A Christmas Carol was a small, short-lived tradition they’d had as kids. Sam had found it in a library in Texarkana one summer. They’d read it to each other every Christmas for a couple of years to pass the time, to do at least one thing they thought normal families did together. Then Sam lost the book or John tossed it out, deciding it was unnecessary baggage and they stopped bothering. Bits of it are still buried in Dean’s mind, but this is the first time he’s heard Sam mention it since he threw a fit about it being lost and got spanked for the trouble.

“Old Marley was dead as a doornail,” Sam says when the wind dies down and the yellow banner of tape flutters to the ground, an exhausted evangelist.

Kilgore chuffs softly and trots to the edge of the carousel then backs up with a growl before Dean can reply. The idea that dogs and other animals can sense things humans can’t has been proven correct to Sam and Dean over the years. The dog is a far better warning system for the paranormal than cold air or the smell of flowers because he picks up on the presence of things before they ever start gearing up for an actual manifestation.

They’re only here to check it out tonight and figure out what to do from there. They did some bare bones research before they left Nebraska and dug a little deeper after Sam got up from his snooze that evening. The carousel is over a hundred years old, each horse hand carved and hand painted. It was done as a commission for one very wealthy, very eccentric old woman. They called her ‘Crazy Mary,’ and local kids still tell Crazy Mary stories though she is long dead. She left her estate, including the carousel, to the town of Winston-ton. Aside from one hastily-buried instance in 1987, the carousel was in storage until now.

“This thing is creepy,” Dean says with a shudder as he plays the beam of his flashlight over the face of one of the carousel horses.

While many carousels have horses and other animals with bared teeth, they convey the feeling that they’re straining as they run. Dean loved carousels as a kid, loved riding the lions when he found one that had them and the horses the rest of the time. He’d cling to their necks and imagine he was trying to outrun the sky itself. The flare of the animals’ nostrils, the stiff, determined sneer of their pulled back lips always convinced him it was a race he and his mount were winning. Then the ride would stop or John would realize he’d wandered off and left Sammy unattended and would actually come yank him off the ride. People didn’t say nearly as much about a parent spanking their kid in public back then either, Dean remembers that very well.

These horses, tigers and wolves aren’t running though and their lips aren’t drawn back in sneers of determination. These animals are all smiling, some of them with their heads thrown back and mouths open like they’re laughing as well. This is a carousel from a madhouse, not a child’s imagined race for freedom.

“This thing should’ve rotted and turned to dust decades ago,” Sam says as he knocks on the wooden flank of a chortling horse painted whore’s lipstick red. “It’s solid as a damn rock though.”

“Magic?” Dean asks as he gives a black horse’s grinning head a wide berth and nearly trips over the coiled tail of a sitting tiger.

“Maybe,” Sam says. “I still think possession though.”

“Why?”

“Dunno,” he says. “I just do.”

Kilgore’s claws tick as he walks the carousel, nose to the ground and hackles half raised along his spine. Dean turns to watch him weave under the figures and jumps when his light hits something that makes it reflect back into his eyes so brightly it hurts.

“What the hell?” he says as he blinks trying to clear the spots from his vision.

“It’s a Christmas tree,” Sam says. “It’s got mirrored ornaments all over it.”

Dean redirects his flashlight beam to avoid sending anymore laser beams into his eyes and looks at it. “This is a really fucking small town.”

“I noticed,” Sam says. “What’s your point?”

Dean gestures with his flashlight. “Anywhere even a little bigger than this place and that tree would be stripped so fucking fast. This carousel would be covered in beer cans, used condoms and graffiti, too, for that matter. Here, they can just leave shit sitting out like it’s not an open invite to delinquents of all breeds.”

“Point,” Sam agrees.

He plays his light over the tree again, the beam catching on the beveled edges of some of the mirrored ornaments. Dean watches Sam, he’s not that interested in the tree; it’s pretty, but he didn’t come here for pretty. Sam is ever-distracting though and his flashlight beam is sending bouncing prisms of rainbow light sliding over his face, kissing his wind-rouged cheeks and glittering like fake jewels on his black clothes. Dean watches as a prism of dancing light disappears into a fold of Sam’s black denim jacket and remembers his explanation for changing out his old wardrobe for this color of perpetual mourning: Black hides bloodstains better.

It was so subtle that Dean hadn’t noticed it until the day he looked up and Sam was standing in the bathroom door with his shaving kit in his hand. He’d been wrapped in night from head to toe and the next day, he’d added the denim coat to it. Dean asked if he didn’t like cowboy shirts anymore and that’s when Sam had explained to him. Since the night Dean gave Sam the bone-handled knife, the color has been leaching from his own wardrobe. It’s only practical. Sam had told him that, too. And he was right.

Dean reaches out and touches one cold finger to Sam’s cheek where a will o’ the wisp prism flits right over where one of his dimples lies. For a split second, it dances on Dean’s fingertip as well and then disappears again when the angle of Sam’s light changes.

Sam jumps at the cold, sudden touch and catches his hand. “What are you doing?”

“Nothin’,” Dean says.

“Right,” Sam says. “E.T.” He kisses Dean’s finger and then laughs when he jerks his hand back.

“Dude,” Dean says. “Lame.”

Sam laughs again and shines his light on Dean. Dean cringes and flinches away from it. He doesn’t like being in direct light, it feels too much like being exposed, pinned down and studied. This is probably a direct result of all the times he’s been held in a cop’s high-powered light ray of doom.

“Your ears are pink,” Sam says. Then he walks away with another low laugh and shake of his head.

“It’s cold and they’re chapped,” Dean calls after him.

“Sure,” Sam calls back as he moves around the carousel.

Dean sticks the end of his finger in his mouth and sucks on it lightly without even being aware of it. By the time he heads in the opposite direction, he’s chewing on a hangnail and keeping his eyes peeled for ooky-spooky activity of any kind.

Sam’s humming on the other side of the carousel and in his head, Dean sings along with him. He knows this song so well.

Kilgore snarls, low and vicious and then barks once, a sharp, booming warning sound. Dean jerks to attention and he sees the silhouette that is Sam on the other side do the same thing. Frost flowers bloom along the floor of the carousel and the poles supporting the animals. The glass ornaments on the tree give a tiny, crystalline ting-ting-ting of sound. Kilgore’s barking harder and Dean runs towards where the dog’s at, Sam coming around from the other side.

Kilgore is backed up, hackles bristling at full mast along the length of his spine as he holds his ground against something only he can see. He’s snarling at one of the horses, the most maniacally cheerful of the lot. It’s painted smut black and bedecked in silver and red tack. Its proud head is pushed forward, legs bent in at full gallop as it runs, laughing and smiling, after its prey. Prey. Dean thinks it odd that’s what it reminds him of, but a second to consider and he decides that’s right; it shouldn’t be, but it is. This horse is chasing down something it means to kill and its insane smile is one of vengeful glee.

The carousel gives a jolt-jerk as the motor grinds to life and the lights all come on at once, momentarily blinding them. Music pours from the speakers mounted on the ceiling, that old classic carousel tune, “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down”.

White breath plumes from the black horse’s mouth and nostrils and Sam curses. “Dean, we have to get off of this thing right now.”

“Good idea,” Dean says. He makes to jump off the side of the carousel just as the horse turns its head, outstretched neck twisting and elongating obscenely. It whinnies at him and the sound shatters inside of his head as hard, blunt wooden teeth sink into his coat sleeve.

He yanks against it, hears cloth start to rip and then he’s sailing off the carousel and crashing into Sam just as the thing starts to twirl. They hit the hard ground with twin thuds that sends the breath rushing out of their lungs.

“Holy fuck,” Dean gasps as he rolls over to check on Sam. “You good?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “Damn thing tore my coat though. I just patched it, too. What the hell was that?”

“Something nasty,” Sam says.

Dean fingers the hole in his coat and curses again. Kilgore’s standing in front of them both, tongue lolling in the cold air. Dean sits up and Sam comes up with him. Leaning into Sam’s side, he scratches the top of Kilgore’s head and tells him he’s a good dog. They watch the carousel spin in whiplash circles, the thing going way too fast for a normal carousel. From its cheerily lighted depths rises a lunatic animal cackle, hyenas stalking a lost leopard cub in the dark. The mirrored ornaments on the Christmas tree twinkle and flash between the silhouetted bodies of the animals and dazzle the eye with each strobing pulse.

They watch the carousel until it starts to wind down again, at last stopping with a groan of old gears. The laughter fades slowly on the rising wind and when even that is gone, only the lights remain on. They are stained blue-red-green-yellow-orange and Dean looks down at his lap, at a bright bruise smear of red and blue light blending to purple at the crook of his knee.

Dean rises, bemused to find his ass has gone numb from the cold grass. “I need a drink and we have work to do. Tomorrow, we’re gonna come back and kill this bitch.”

Sam nods and gets up as well. “Good idea.”

“I think so,” Dean says. He leans into Sam, nudging him with his whole body before turning to walk away. “C’mon, Sammy, I need a heater before my balls freeze off.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

The next night is colder than the first, but Dean is too busy trying to avoid the snapping, clacking teeth of the possessed ride to worry about it. A wolf snarls and creaks against its pole as it lunges for his throat. He stumbles back and brings the shotgun up, blowing half the thing’s head off. It yelps pitifully and spiders pour from the hole, so many he can hear the scrabble of their hairy legs against the splintered wood.

The carousel is spinning so fast he has a hard time keeping his balance. Down on the ground somewhere, he can hear Kilgore barking and snarling, the sound zipping by him in a distorted scream every time the ride twirls past. His head is starting to hurt and he has a taste like bleach in his mouth. The carousel is killing him and somewhere on this hell ride is Sam and it’s probably killing him, too. His heart thuds double time at that thought. Castiel may bring Dean back, but he knows if Sam dies here tonight that this time he won’t raise Sam back up with him.

“Sam! Hurry up!” Dean bellows and hopes he hears him.

Blood trickles down his chin and there’s a sharp pain in his throat. There are spiders climbing up the legs of his pants and he kicks his legs trying to get them off. It throws his balance off and he falls into the side of a tiger that roars in outrage and swats at him with a massive paw as he spins away from it on his hands and knees. He feels warm wetness seeping into the raggedly torn denim on the back of his right calf. Its claws only grazed him, but if they live through this, the scratches will probably be worth at least fifteen or twenty stitches. Then Dean thinks about how those new scars are going to ruin the careful, swooping lines ringing that calf. Dean rolls onto his back, brings the double barrel shotgun up again and blows a hole through the middle of the tiger.

More spiders pour from the hole and Dean scrambles to get away from them. One of the new wave of spiders is thrashing on its back, the red hourglass shape on its belly screaming a warning for him to move. He can hear Sam chanting over the cacophony and then hears his voice break off in a coughing fit. Dean’s coat sleeve feels wet and he sees blood dripping from the opening where his wrist pokes out, his arm a leaky faucet now. His pores have busted, he thinks as he moves, trying to avoid the jungle of living wood, the smears of nightmare light.

“Sam!” he hollers again, blood spraying from his mouth in a fine mist.

The activity is ramping up and that means Sam is close, these things always fight back the dirtiest when they’re closest to losing. It’s always a neck-and-neck thing with this part of it, Dean and Sam always half a second away from imploding under the onslaught. The horses whinny, the tigers roar, the wolves howl and Dean feels his mind splintering, a stronger sensation than it was the night before. Underneath all of that is the same mad hyena cackle of laughter. He drops the shotgun and clamps his hands over his ears as he feels an answering scream rising up his throat. There is more wetness on his palms, his ears are bleeding and the pain is incredible, it is shredding him and this is the bad way, the bad pain.

Where’s Sam? I have to get to Sam. Where’s Sam? I have to get to Sam. Where’s—

The lights go out and Dean doesn’t know anything for a little while after that.

When he opens his eyes again, he’s on the ground and Kilgore is panting dog breath all over him. He sits up with a gasp, automatically looking for Sam. He’s standing a couple of feet away, looking at the carousel. It’s still now, the lights are on, but flickering, dancing a seizure jig as they die out one by one. The carousel creaks and groans, a fine cloud of dust rising over it as time finally catches up with it and it falls apart at last. The blackest horse, the running, laughing horse, lies a few feet away, burning. Dean squints at it and sees its head is gone and so are its legs. Dean thinks maybe Sam lost his temper a bit after it was done because none of that was necessary, but he can’t exactly blame him for it either.

“Sam?” he croaks.

“It’s done,” Sam says. His own voice is wrecked, a raw rasp that licks over Dean and makes him glad he can hear it at all.

Ears faintly throbbing, he gets up and limps over to Sam. He’s looking up at something over the doorway of the carousel, the gilded baroque swirls open for people to come on up and pick a pony. Sam turns to look at him and his chin is black in the weakening light, blood no doubt. Dean takes his face in his hands and checks him for injuries, finds blood dried and matted in the hair by Sam’s ears, streaks of it running down his neck.

“We’re okay,” Dean says. He needs to hear it out loud, needs to hear Sam reply in kind.

“We’re okay,” he confirms.

He takes the sides of Dean’s neck in his hands and looks down at him, thumbs stroking over his pulse. Dean breathes a sigh of relief as he touches Sam’s throat in turn, feels the strong, steady thud of his heart; the old brag of it.

“Let’s get the fuck outta here,” Dean says. “I need a bath and so do you.”

He backs away from Sam and turns around, whistling for Kilgore to come along as he does. Sam doesn’t say anything and after a few yards, Dean realizes he’s not walking along with him. He turns around to find Sam has edged closer to the carousel again, head tilted back, looking at something above the ornately carved entrance.

“What’re you doing?” Dean asks when he comes to stand next to Sam again.

“Mistletoe,” Sam says. He points up at a shock of green twisted with red ribbon and brass jingle bells that hangs from the molding around the entrance.

“Okay,” Dean says. “And?”

Sam is smiling when he turns to look at him and Dean feels a shiver in his belly. He pushes against Sam, cold lips against colder lips and opens his mouth to the soft lick of Sam’s warm tongue; moves in closer, breathes him in. When they move apart again, Dean grins at him in the multicolored seep of dimming light.

“Yep,” Sam says and licks his lips, re-wetting and smearing the blood on his face like tacky paint.

Dean licks his thumb and wipes away this newest dirty spot, the one he can actually do something about. Sam snorts, pulls his head back and bats at his hand. “Dude. Stop it.”

“Whatever,” Dean says. “Just come on.”

Sam shrugs and turns away, Dean falling in step beside him. As they go, Sam takes Dean’s hand and they twine their fingers together. Their shadows and the dog’s stretch out before them until the lights of the carousel go out all at once and they’re left in darkness again.

Chapter Text

After Hideaway, they end up in Idaho Falls, Idaho. They rent a room and decide to take a few days off since the carousel wasn’t a long job, but it took a lot out of them. By the time they stop, Dean’s going on almost 72 hours with no sleep other than short, disturbed cat naps and Sam’s starting to look at him funny.

It started the night they blew out of Hideaway, he fell asleep thanks to whiskey and painkillers and Sam drove. He came up out of the murk, choking and thrashing because of a nightmare. In the nightmare, they both died on the carousel after all and when Dean woke up, it was to Castiel standing over him. Sam’s body had been turning to ash in the fire that had eaten the black horse. I warned you, Dean, Castiel said without moving his mouth.

On the side of the road, somewhere near the New Mexico border, he’d scrambled out of the car when Sam yanked it over to the shoulder. Sam had followed him and he’d grabbed Sam’s face and stared into his eyes, counting the flecks of gold in them in the high beams. He’d done so until Sam took his hands away from his face and held them lightly as he stepped back to put a little space between them.

“What’s going on with you?” he asked and has been asking at least twice a day since then.

Dean refuses to answer him truthfully because he doesn’t want Sam to know. But he’s afraid to sleep, afraid to let Sam out of his sight for more than a few minutes at a time and even that’s not easy to do. Castiel’s words have wormed their way into Dean’s mind and he can’t dig them out. They’ve got him popping Stackers and pounding coffee like they’re both going out of style because he has to keep watch. Has to.

Keyed up and incapable of being still, Dean paces the floor of their cramped motel room. He plays with Kilgore, running from one side of the room to the other and back. He drinks when he pauses to catch his breath and Sam gives him worried, irritated looks from where he sits on the bed, reading A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews.

This goes on until even Kilgore is tired, but Dean cannot be still. He pops his knuckles and raps them on the table, wanting to do something with his hands. He pops some of the stitches in the back of his calf when he starts doing half-assed lunges by the door just so he can move. It’s then that Sam gets up and grabs him by the shoulders, jerking him to a stop.

“What is wrong with you? Did something happen on that carousel that you’re not telling me about?”

“No,” Dean says. It’s the truth, too. Something happened ages ago in Nebraska that he’s not telling him about; that he can’t tell him about. “I’m good, Sam.”

“Bullshit,” Sam says as he steers Dean to the bed. He goes and grabs the whiskey and then gets three beers out of the mini fridge. “Drink. It’ll level you out. You’re grinding your fucking teeth, Dean. You have to sleep.”

“I—”

“What?”

“Nothing,” Dean says. He pops the top on a beer and downs half of it in one go then takes a slug of whiskey. He chases that down with the rest of his beer.

Sam goes to the table by the door, grabs his bottle of Stackers and disappears into the bathroom. It takes Dean’s tired, wired mind a second to catch up and then he’s off the bed like a shot.

“The fuck do you think you’re doing? Those are mine,” he says.

Sam dumps the whole bottle in the toilet without so much as a flinch, not even when Dean comes into the room and punches him on the arm as hard as he can. “They’re driving me nuts and you, too. If you keep taking them, you’re going to have a heart attack, Dean. And you need to sleep.”

“It’s not like I’m snorting fucking meth, man,” Dean says. “It’s just… they’re just pep pills.”

“Uh-huh,” Sam says. “No.”

He flushes the toilet and Dean watches the Stackers swirl down the drain. Then he punches Sam again, but he shrugs by him and walks back out into the room. That’s a fucking shame, too, Dean thinks because he could really use a fight. It’d be a great way to expend some energy. So would sex, but he doesn’t think Sam is in the mood for that at all, he seems pretty aggravated right now.

When Dean comes back into the room after having watched the toilet fill up again, all while taking long, angry pulls from his bottle, Sam hands him one of the two beers on the bedspread.

“Drink,” he says.

“You’re trying to get me drunk,” Dean says. He opens the beer and drinks anyway. He’s not exactly one to protest inebriated states.

“That is the plan,” Sam says. “If you get drunk then you’ll pass out, which means you’ll sleep.”

“Devious,” Dean says. He’s already catching a buzz, the booze gently dulling down the bone-grinding jitters from the Stackers.

“To a fault,” Sam says. His words say he agrees, but his tone is noncommittal.

A few hours later, after Sam has re-stitched his leg, Dean decides he’s hungry. It’s the first time he’s really felt hungry since he started eating Stackers like Scooby Snacks.

“We should go somewhere,” Dean says. “A diner or something. I’m sick of this room.”

“Sure,” Sam says. “I could eat, too. I’m driving though.”

“Sure thing, soccer mom,” Dean says.

Sam rolls his eyes and reaches into Dean’s hip pocket to get the Impala’s keys. “Oooh, Sammy,” he says.

“Yeah, yeah,” Sam says, but he’s smiling, dimples soft pits in his face that Dean wants to lick.

“I want a buffet,” Dean says. “You think there’s a buffet open somewhere around here?”

“Dunno,” Sam says while he waits for Dean to grab another couple of beers. He’s pretty well blotto by this point, sure enough. “We can look though.”

“It’s a good plan,” Dean says. “An great plan.” He bumps into Sam when he gets to the door and stands there swaying gently in place.

“You need help?” Sam asks, looking at him with his eyebrows raised.

“Hell no,” Dean says. “I’m a big boy now and I wear big boy walking shoes. Move aside, Stretch.”

“Really, Dean?” Sam asks around his laughter, but he steps aside and lets him go out the door.

“Really,” Dean says. He doesn’t even remember what he just said, so agreeing is more of an executive decision. He likes to think it’s the right one though.

He makes it to the car without falling down a single time and only stumbles five or six times. The tiny, far away voice in his mind, the one that never gets as drunk as the rest of him, asks if this is such a good idea. Dean thinks it definitely is and besides, it’s not like Sam has never had to deal with him while he’s drunk in public.

They find a Golden Corral restaurant and Dean makes Sam stop there. He loves the Golden Corral even though Sam hates it. Sam’s indulging him though because there is absolutely no sense in arguing with someone as drunk as Dean is.

It’s an hour before closing and the parking lot is nearly deserted this time of night. The buffet is going to be picked over and destroyed by the scores of families that came through earlier, screaming toddlers in tow, sticking their little hands in the mashed potatoes and flinging the shredded carrots on the salad bar. There are lighted wreaths in all the windows, hung with silver and gold bows, the windows themselves framed in cheerfully twinkling white lights. Inside the restaurant is a tall tree hung with red and green paper ornaments, each one signed by a person that donated to some children’s charity Dean has never heard of. The top of the tree is anointed with an angel in flowing gold robes.

“Look at the tree,” Dean says.

“I see it,” Sam says. He looks around with an expression of distaste. The whole place smells like charred prime rib from the grill bar part of the buffet.

“I like the tree,” Dean says.

“The tree whispers about you behind your back,” Sam says.

“Huh?”

“Let’s go pay,” Sam says.

“Okay,” Dean says. Then what Sam said registers and he stops again, head tipped to the side and slightly down. Gossipy flora. It’s always such a problem. Then he shakes his head so hard he hears his brain sloshing around in its liquor bath and the thought is gone. He lurches after Sam and takes his arm to steady himself. “You’re not funny,” Dean says in a low whisper.

“I thought it was funny,” Sam says. He is smiling, that’s true and while he’s not laughing out loud, Dean can see it in his eyes.

“You were wrong,” Dean says. Then he laughs anyway because okay, it was kinda funny now that he’s thinking about it.

They pay at the counter and then begin the long weave through the waist high path of barricades that leads them to the bounty on the other side of it. Sam sighs and says, “I keep waiting for the Judas cow to appear.”

“The what?”

“Judas cow. The cow that leads all the other cows down the chute to their deaths,” Sam says. “This feels like being herded. It’s one of the reasons I hate this restaurant.”

“That’s fucked,” Dean says. “There’s such a thing as a Judas cow?”

“Yep,” Sam says as they make it clear of the barricades and find themselves once again in open space.

The carpet in this particular Golden Corral is green. Dean looks down at it and notes that it is heavily stained. “We’re not cattle,” he says. “Nope. But I do want to see if they’ve got some of that prime rib left.”

“Let’s go then,” Sam says.

“’Kay,” Dean says.

They get their food, Sam grimacing as he looks over what’s available, Dean piling his plate high with what amounts to being the leftovers of the gluttonous holiday shopper hordes that came before them. Then they find their way to the main dining room and take a window seat. The air is scented with cedar and pine and Dean glances up at the wreath casting cheerful light on their table. He reaches up and feels it, finds it real and takes his hand back with a little smile. He doesn’t know why it pleases him so much, but it’s probably because he’s running on E and he’s drunk as shit. He’s usually a cheerful drunk.

There are a few other people in the dining room with them, everyone spread out in the large space. There’s a group of teenage girls at one table, two of which smile and wave at Dean. Since it’s harmless flirting, he smiles and waves back. Another of the girls is eyeing Sam like he’s a side of meat, but he doesn’t pay any attention to her; his gaze passes over the little group without so much as a blip. His face is relaxed, but his eyes are sharp and glittering. Dean stuffs a bite of roll covered in mashed potatoes and gravy into his mouth and watches Sam while he chews. It takes a minute with his exhaustion, but then it clicks. Sam’s hunting.

Before he can decide whether or not to say anything—he usually errs on the side of keeping his trap shut—their waitress comes by with their drinks. She looks tired, but she’s friendly, if a bit wilted around the edges. When she walks away, Dean says, “She doesn’t have red hair.”

Sam glances back at her then away again, not interested. “No, she doesn’t.”

“What was her name?” Dean asks. He’s just remembered that he didn’t ask for Raggedy Ann’s real name and he always asks.

“Erica Linette Gardner,” Sam says.

“Ah,” Dean says. He repeats her name, tasting it then he files it away and hopes he doesn’t forget it. Then he digs into his food again. The shrimp he picked up are about half cold, but they taste good.

He’s halfway through his first plate when he slides out of the booth. At Sam’s questioning look, he says, “I gotta take a leak.”

Sam nods and goes back to picking the croutons out of his salad and eating them. He doesn’t seem all that sure of the lettuce itself since it is pretty badly wilted, looking a little slimy around the edges on some pieces.

“Eat some of my shrimp,” Dean says before he goes. “They’re nearly cold, but they’re good. The mashed potatoes are all right, too.”

Sam nods again and then Dean heads for the restroom because yeah, he really has to pee. Beer has a way of doing that to people.

On his way into the men’s room, a guy coming out knocks into Dean and then turns around to look at him. “Watch where the hell you’re going, asshole.”

He walks away and Dean watches him go with narrowed eyes. “And a nice fucking day to you, too, douche,” he says under his breath then ducks into the bathroom because gotta go, gotta go.

Back at the table, Sam’s eaten all of his shrimp and about half of what remained of his potatoes. He’s watching the room again as Dean slides into the booth and tucks back into his grub. He wipes the first plate out in short order now that his bladder is empty and he can concentrate better on what he’s doing. When he’s done, Sam goes back with him to peruse the buffet and ends up with his own pile of shrimp.

Dean keeps an eye on Sam most of the meal, following the direction of his constantly roving gaze, trying to figure out who it is he’s going to kill this time. He’s looking around the room, thinking about it when he realizes Sam’s watching him now.

There’s a little half smile on his face when he makes a slight gesture with his hand and says, “Well, which one is it, Dean?”

“Oh,” Dean says. He takes a bite of chicken tender and chews, trying to buy some time. He doesn’t know the answer and now that Sam’s called him out on all the time he’s spent watching him watch other people, he doesn’t know what to say. “You know,” he says lamely after swallowing.

Sam is all patience sitting across from him as he leans forward, elbows on the table and that half smile growing fuller. He tips his head, indicating the room at large. “Tell me,” Sam says. “Which one did I pick?”

Dean looks around again, nervous now, afraid of getting the answer wrong. He notes the teenage girls again and smiles at them when they smile at him, a reflexive action. There’s a middle aged overweight couple at another table. They seem happy together, smiling and talking, touching each others hands now and then, reestablishing contact. There’s an old woman at another table with a flower in her hat and a bored expression on her face. There’s a table with three men, all of them well dressed and eating their desserts. None of them are talking to one another, but from the looks of them, Dean guesses they’re probably related. Brothers or maybe cousins.

“The guy,” Dean says. “The one in the black leather hipster jacket.”

Sam glances over at the guy and his smile is full blown when he turns back to look at Dean. “Okay,” he says.

Something about it makes Dean frown and it’s not until Sam’s followed the men out to the parking lot under the pretense of getting something from the Impala that it hits him. He picked the guy that knocked into him on the way to the men’s room. Sam didn’t say, Yes, that’s the one. or You got it right. No, he said, Okay, like he was agreeing to a suggestion, not like he was agreeing with Dean.

“Fuck,” Dean hisses under his breath.

Maybe he’s getting it wrong though. Maybe Sam picked that guy because he saw something douche-y about him that he didn’t like; he does that sometimes. There was a man in Tacoma last year that cut them off in a Target parking lot then cursed at them halfway across the lot like they had done something wrong. Sam had cut his arms and legs off the next night and then cut ladders into Dean’s inner thighs while he told him about it. That has to be it, Sam didn’t like the guy and when he bumped into Dean; that was just a coincidence. Otherwise, Dean’s just picked out Sam’s next kill for him and if that’s the case, he’s not all too sure how he feels about it.

“You ready?” Sam asks a few minutes after coming back. “They’re gonna be closing soon.”

“I want a piece of pie before we go,” Dean says. “They had some cherry left.”

“All right,” Sam says.

“Sam… Did you…”

“I got the license plate number off his car,” Sam says. “Now stop talking about it. We’re in public.”

“That’s not what—”

“Dean, seriously, shut up and go get your pie,” Sam says. “We can’t talk about this in here.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Dean says. Sam is right, he shouldn’t have done that, it was stupid and could’ve been fucking disastrous if Sam wasn’t always so alert.

He gets his pie and douses it in chocolate from the chocolate fountain—he loves those things—then brings it back to the table and pretty much inhales it. Pie is the best part of any meal. Sam sips a cup of coffee and then sets it aside to use his fingers to swipe some of the chocolate sauce off Dean’s plate. He licks his fingers clean then does it again and leans closer to Dean, holding his chocolaty fingers out to him. Dean licks his lips then looks around the room to make sure no one’s watching them—their fanclub of teenage girls is gone now, so are the middle aged folks. Only the old woman remains and she’s reading something.

He catches a drop of chocolate on his tongue before he takes Sam’s fingers in his mouth and sucks them clean, sucks them until all he can taste is Sam’s skin. His calluses are rough against the roof of his mouth. Dean locks eyes with Sam and grins at him before letting go and sitting back, feeling smug.

“Nice,” Sam says as he sucks his spit-wet fingers, tasting Dean. His eyes are burning and Dean squirms a little bit. He knows what’s coming later tonight, the promise of it is written all over Sam’s smirking face.

Dean clears his throat and then says, “You ready to go?”

“Yeah, I’ve got some work to do,” Sam says.

Dean doesn’t say anything to that, just leads the way out of the Golden Corral and into the snowy night. The sooner Sam leaves, the sooner he’ll come back, but Dean’s already getting anxious. Heat simmers in his belly and annoyance coils in his veins. Sam will be back eventually, but while he’s gone, he’s going to be with one of them. One that Dean may’ve picked for him, no less. Some asshole guy in a stupid jacket that he didn’t like to begin with and is now starting to hate.

It always blindsides him, this unhappiness, this anger with them. Sometimes it’s fast and sometimes it’s slow, but it never fails to rear its head and this time it’s conflicted. Dean honestly does not care if the dickwad dies. Does. Not. But he does care that Sam’s going to be with him for hours, cutting him up and slipping his fingers into those dripping channels. His eyes are going to burn The Fonz while Dean waits back at their room; alone and wondering, wondering, wondering.

Sam gets the information he needs on The Fonz, gathers up his gear and is gone by a quarter after 11 o’clock. Dean’s still awake, still drinking and trying to fight his exhaustion as it creeps up and over him. He lays on his belly, head at the foot of the bed and flips on the television. He channel surfs until he finds a rerun of Breaking Bad and settles on that with a grin. Any distraction from the terribleness of waiting is good and this one is especially good. Walter White is possibly the most bad-ass motherfucker Dean has seen on a television show in decades.

He’s listening to Walt telling Jesse he’s in the empire business when he falls asleep. His consciousness becomes a black void, there are no dreams, only silence for hours. When he comes to again, it’s to the feel of the mattress shifting.

Dean focuses on Sam in the blue light from the television. Whatever channel it’s on now is unavailable, that’s what the little message at the top of the sea of electronic blue says. Sam smells fresh, which means he’s already showered. He’s also dry, so he’s been back a while, an hour at least. He’s not wearing a shirt and the light of the television gives his skin a cyanotic cast. Dean slept right through his return, the shower that followed and whatever else he’s been doing since he got back.

He twists around to lay his head in Sam’s lap with a tired huff and closes his eyes when he strokes his hair, humming softly.

“What time is it?”

“Nearly five in the morning,” Sam says.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“Because you needed the rest. I didn’t mean to wake you up now, I was trying to find the remote to turn off the TV.”

Dean wiggles a little bit and grunts when he feels it. “I’m layin’ on it,” he says. “Musta rolled over on it in my sleep.”

He digs around and grabs the remote then fumbles for the power button. With the television off, the room is much darker and he sighs again as he drops the remote on the floor. Sam lightly rubs his neck and Dean nestles closer, warm and content and growing ever more curious the longer he’s awake.

“Tell me,” Dean says a few minutes later, when he’s sure he’s not going to doze off again. He’d hate to ask only to fall asleep because his stupid body thinks it needs to rest. Sam wouldn’t repeat it either, Dean’s never asked him to do so, but somehow, he knows that he wouldn’t. Dean gets one chance and one chance only to hear Sam’s stories before he packs them up and hides them away again. “Tell me what happened.”

“You sure you’re awake enough?” Sam asks.

“Yeah,” Dean says.

“Sober enough?”

Dean thinks about that a minute, assessing his sobriety level. “Sober enough,” he says at last.

“Okay,” Sam says.

Then he makes Dean move his head out of his lap, gets up and walks across the room. When he flips on the overhead lights, Dean blinks and curses at the sudden glare. The light is almost too bright for this small of a space. It’s one thing motels never get right; the light. It’s too dim or too fucking bright, never anywhere near middle of the road. Either way, after a while, it starts to make people like them go half blind because of the constant exposure to poor lighting.

He picks up a bag on the table and brings it over to Dean to dig through. It’s full of fruit; apples, bananas, oranges, a pint of raspberries and a small sack of limes. Then Dean hits pay dirt and pulls it out of the bag. It’s a big bottle of Cuervo Gold.

“Sweet,” Dean says.

Sam grins. “Even sweeter is the fat wad of cash I got off the guy,” he says.

That makes Dean grin in return. Sam’s homicidal tendencies have really helped inflate their income. Robbing his victims is second nature by this point, no matter how he ends them. Taking other shit, that’s when he makes them look like bona fide robberies. Though Dean’s pretty sure that fruit doesn’t count; Sam probably just noticed it and wanted it. So he took it.

Sam’s digging through his backpack and when he stands up, he’s holding two Exacto knives, still in their packages. Dean’s attention is automatically diverted and he swallows around the way his throat tightens in anticipation. Sam only uses Exacto knives if he’s got something more elaborate on his mind. Dean suspects Sam plans the more involved designs, at least a little in advance. He doesn’t care though, not one whit, the more complex a design is, the longer it takes to do. The more Sam can take him apart.

He gets a bottle of rubbing alcohol, the lube from Dean’s duffel, sterile gauze pads out of their first aid kit. Dean watches it all, still holding the bottle of Cuervo. He only notices it again when Sam takes it out of his hand and puts it on the nightstand with everything else. Next, he gets the wastebasket and brings it over to the side of the bed as well.

Then he disappears into the bathroom and Dean listens to the water running, knows Sam is washing his hands. It’s then that he gets up and takes his clothes off. He looks forward to these moments, to letting Sam carve him and make art in his flesh. The pain and the concentration, all of Sam’s attention focused on him even as he talks—those are the best parts. Knowing Sam is immersed in him, that he can’t look away, that the lines he cuts into his flesh have been thought about and perfected in Sam’s mind. That they are only for Dean.

Once he’s stripped, Dean stands by the bed and waits, wanting to hear the story, wanting to feel the bite of the blades in his skin. His cock is already half-hard from the expectation alone.

Sam comes back after what seems like an hour even though logically Dean knows better. His head is humming faintly with white noise and it is slowly filling his ears. Sam looks like a stalking panther as he moves towards him, taking Dean in, devouring him and Dean holds his hands out to him, inviting him closer.

Sam takes his hands and pulls him closer, dropping his head to nuzzle the hair at Dean’s temple. “His name was Daniel Trenton,” he begins and Dean shivers.

He leads Dean to the bed, tells him to lay on his left side and stretch his arm over his head, exposing the sharp curves of his ribs on the right. Once he’s got him the way he wants him, Sam strokes his lightly scarred ribs and hums another bar of his tune. Dean closes his eyes and swallows again.

“What was his house like?” he asks.

“He was rich,” Sam says. “He had a house on a hill and another BMW to match the one he left that stupid restaurant in. There really is no accounting for taste.”

Dean smells the sharp odor of rubbing alcohol when Sam opens it, but it still takes every ounce of self control he has not to jump when Sam pours it on his skin. While it evaporates, he opens one of the knives.

“It was really an ugly house,” Sam says. “It stank of money, but it was tacky money, not classy money.”

“You expected it to be?” Dean asks.

Sam snorts. “No. What did I say about no accounting for taste?”

Dean nods slightly in agreement and waits… waits… waits.

Sam rests the blade against his skin, but doesn’t cut yet and Dean can’t help the way he starts to tense up as the pressure builds, the exquisite anticipation.

Then he makes a cut and Dean lets out a breath. “I had to wait nearly two hours for the dumbshit to go to bed,” Sam says as he makes four small, precise diagonal incisions.

Dean concentrates, tries to figure out what he’s doing. It’s only when he starts a new one does he realize Sam is cutting tiny diamond shapes into his ribcage. He’s musing on that, wondering what the full design will be when Sam slides the knife into the space outlined by the grooves of the second set of cuts. He sucks in a breath that he blows out harshly through his nose. Sam’s peeling the skin inside that diamond away; he feels it come loose one nerve ending at a time. it’s a small patch of skin, but the pain lances through him. He knows Sam’s nowhere near done, he’s just getting started and the thought makes him relax into the mattress more.

“How’d you get in?”

“Through the backdoor,” Sam says as he cuts four new lines then begins four more. “I walked around the house, looking for an alarm panel. There was one by the front door, too, but I didn’t think it was good idea to go in that way. Something didn’t feel right about it. And guess what?”

“What?” Dean whispers as Sam peels away another patch of skin.

He wants to ask what he’s doing, but he wants to be surprised, too. That time, Dean hears the piece of skin hit the trashcan when Sam tosses it. The skinned diamonds feel sticky in the warm air and it hurts, a hundred ants crammed into each stripped area, stingers burying into each tiny shape.

“A car drove by just as I ducked around the back of the house,” Sam says. “I saw the lights on the lawn. That’s always so tricky with houses open to the road.”

He works quietly and Dean turns his head to bury it in the pillow as he moans. It’s building up as Sam goes, the constant pain becoming a wall of white noise now. His cock is hard, laying cradled against his slightly bent left leg. Precome is a cold stickiness there as it gathers against his skin.

“Once I got inside, I looked around a bit,” Sam says as he works. His breathing is steady, his voice is soft, soothing; creating a lullaby that Dean can rock himself to. “His taste wasn’t any better on the inside. Big black and white prints of women in various states of undress. A lot of it tried really hard to pass itself off as art photography, but when there are pictures of girls fingering themselves, I don’t care how well lit the shot is. It’s still spank bank material, not art.”

“Isn’t art supposed to be… whatchacallit… subjective?” Dean asks through his teeth.

The diamonds are gradually getting bigger, he can feel it in the way Sam drags the blade, the way the sound of his skin hitting the walls of the wastebasket is louder. The cool expanses of aching moisture are also telling. Blood is running over his chest and belly, across his back. Dean wants to move, but he can’t mess this up.

Sam presses his thumb into one of the skinned places and Dean cries out through his teeth, turning his face back into the pillow. His cock jerks against his thigh and he shifts the slightest bit to give the tiniest bit of friction. His arm is starting to hurt, but again, he doesn’t want to move it. Sam smoothes his hand over the jumping muscles of his belly then down to his cock. He palms it and gives it a gentle squeeze that makes Dean jerk his hips forward.

“Still,” Sam reminds him, voice close to his ear. He kisses Dean’s temple after he nods. “Art is subjective, but that guy didn’t have those pictures hanging up because of that. He had them hanging up because he liked having porn in plain sight. I’m sure his argument would’ve been that it was art if anyone asked.”

“What did he look like sleeping?” Dean asks as Sam etches another diamond into his skin, bloody jewels that are slowly forming a pattern. Cut a row of outlines, cut a row to skin; repeat as necessary.

“Like anyone else,” Sam says. “Ridiculous, but peaceful. There was a wad of tissues on his nightstand.”

Dean laughs around a gasping moan as Sam slowly, so slowly, peels away an even bigger diamond of skin. “Jerked off.”

“Yeah,” Sam says with a huff of laughter. “He was laying on top of the covers, naked, one hand cupping his junk. I think he loved himself a lot. Too much.”

“How’d you get him?” Dean asks.

“I took a lamp off his dresser and clobbered him with it,” Sam says. “Messy, but effective. He never went out totally, but he was disoriented enough I could tie him up.”

“You’re into bondage lately,” Dean says.

“Nah,” Sam says. “Just into taking my time is all.”

The wash of heat; want and jealousy twined together, makes Dean’s breath catch in his throat. Sam cuts away and he loses himself in it, in the rhythm of Sam’s careful, considered movements. There’s a ceaseless beat to the way Sam cuts him. With each slowly decisive incision, more blood runs in rivulets over Dean’s skin. His cock is an aching afterthought as his nerves light up and the switches inside his head flip one by one. Each thump of his heart is a beat of pleasure, a sick throb in his belly and inching along his spine with prickling white heat.

The cuts are even longer now, spreading out farther and farther, though there are fewer diamonds. They’re starting to edge out onto his chest and around to his back though; the design is growing and Dean is growing with it. He’s a wisp of smoke and a hunk of granite at the same time. When he forces his eyes open, the light is a harsh wake up, his blood glowing like neon against his pale skin and beside him is Sam, eyes pinned to what he’s doing. He glances up though and looks at Dean, reaches out with his free hand and strokes his thumb over his bottom lip.

“You with me?” Sam asks.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “I’m here; don’t stop.”

“All right,” Sam says. “I stuck fish hooks in the corners of his mouth, ran some line through the eyes and pulled it back to the wall where I tacked it up. You remember that bait and tackle shop near Tahoe, right? That’s what I was buying there, hooks and line. I got the thumbtacks way back in Georgia. I saw them and just knew I’d need them one day for something.”

“Oh,” Dean says as he closes his eyes again.

He pictures himself strung up like a marionette, bloody hooks gleaming from his skin as Sam makes him dance, pulling his strings, pulling pain sharper and brighter and ever more intense through his body. Sam doing it until Dean can no longer think, until all he knows is Sam, his world narrowed to that one pinpoint of reality. Condensed down to a singularity, to the one thing that truly matters. Then Sam cracks his sternum and presses his face into his gaping chest cavity. His breath is hot on Dean’s lungs and his tongue is like a piece of wet silk when he licks Dean’s heart.

Dean makes a choked sound of pleasure and tries to draw his legs up tighter to his body, wanting to curl in on himself and let the pleasure of the pain drag him down so far he can never come up again.

“Be still, Dean,” Sam says.

He stops again to let Dean catch his breath and ground himself again. Stroking his sweaty hair, Sam whispers, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”

Dean whimpers and reaches for him, letting himself take the strain off his right arm while he rests. Sam takes his hand and lays it against his cheek and Dean cradles it, slitting his eyes open to look up at him through a haze that’s like being drugged.

“You make me happy when skies are grey,” Sam murmurs.

He takes Dean’s hand in his and leans down to kiss him softly until Dean lifts his head up, responding and kissing him back. There’s an ache in his chest that is surrounded by warmth. His cock is hard and throbbing, his injured ribs feel like they are singing, keeping time with Sam’s words with every thump of his heart against their bony curves. Blood leaks from dozens of precise cuts, sending streamers of red over Dean’s skin.

“I love you, Sammy,” he says, his voice the rattle of pea gravel in the bottom of a can.

“I know you do,” Sam says as he moves away.

Dean raises his arm over his head again and Sam picks up where he left off.

“I ran hooks under his eyelids then through them so that when I pulled the line tight, his eyes would be wide open,” Sam says. “I turned the lights on so he could see. The bedroom was at the back of the house and the curtains were drawn. I didn’t have to gag him and it was—” Sam breaks off to let out a shaky breath, his hand stilling in the process of cutting a new diamond, one that he will skin when he’s done; Dean’s picked up the pattern by now.

“It was what?” Dean asks. He knows and he hates so much, but it’s a distant thing right now. He just wants Sam to get it out so he can rip more of his skin off.

“It was great,” Sam growls through his teeth. The sound makes Dean’s dick jerk again and he bites his tongue, moaning around that new, tiny pain. Sam finishes the cut and peels away a small panel of flesh, two triangles joined together to make a new shape. Dean still wonders what he’s making out of him this time, but like his hatred, it’s a distant thing for now. “He cussed me at first, you know. Sometimes they do that, the Betty and Bobby Bad Asses anyway. It was fucking hilarious though because he couldn’t talk that great with the hooks in his mouth. It made him sound like someone with severe… ah… developmental delays.”

“A retard,” Dean says and laughs again.

The expansion of his ribcage pulls and pushes at the cuts all at once and he slaps the mattress with his free hand, groping around and looking for Sam’s knee. He finds it and grabs it, holding on as Sam cuts him again. Bigger still, half the first diamond curling around his ribs and onto his belly, the fourth curving around onto his back. It’s where Dean’s mind short circuits; his world shrinks and becomes nothing but the splintered see-saw of what Sam’s doing to him.

Sam moves further down his body and starts working again. Dean whines through his teeth then opens his mouth to suck in gasping breaths.

“I did his ears, his cheeks and still, he was so brave, so angry,” Sam says with cruel amusement. “I haven’t had fun like that in a long time.”

Dean’s listening—mostly—but he’s concentrating more on the pain, the way the diamonds are shrinking back inward now. He’s breathing hard, panting through his mouth and blowing air out through his nose. He’s getting loud now, he can hear himself, but he sounds far away; he’s too far gone to care if there are neighbors tonight. He didn’t notice when they came in and he can’t be bothered to worry about it either way.

“When I did his nipples, he made this weird whining sound, like he was trying not to scream,” Sam says.

He’s breathing heavy, too, Dean can hear his harsh breaths coming from somewhere above him. He wants to tell Sammy it’s okay, he can cut deeper. He can run him through with hooks and stand him in front of magnets. Oh, the idea of a magnet and all of the hooks hanging from him, the power of it ripping them from his skin all at once.

He feels Sam’s hand on his hair again and tries to open his eyes, but he can’t. He’s lost though he’ll be back soon enough, but for now though Dean has mostly left the building. He is held only by the thinnest, but strongest of threads; bound down to Earth by Sam here with him, his fingers digging into Sam’s knee, Sam’s hand on his hair then again at his ribs with the knife. He skins a new diamond and Dean makes a strangled sound in the back of his throat and bites his own lip bloody to keep from thrashing on the bed, his body simultaneously wanting to escape the pain and force itself closer to it. The mind rebels even as it craves the agony, the ecstasy. It’s so confusing, so wonderful to be wounded this way.

“It was when I did his cock that he screamed,” Sam says. “I did a Jacob’s ladder, base to tip, two on each side. Then I hooked one through the urethral opening. He went nuts. Dean, it was so fucking good.”

He stops to catch his breath, presses down on Dean as he leans on him. He kisses his ear, the underside of his straining, trembling arm. Dean realizes he’s shaking all over, his jaws hurt from trying to keep his teeth from click-clacking together. He loves this part.

“Sam.” Dean’s voice is thick, hungry. “Sammy. Please.”

“I’m almost done,” Sam says as he sits back with a heavy exhalation. Sam is very goal-oriented, he won’t stop until he finishes this, Dean knows. He even knew how long Yggdraisil would take, he’d told Dean after the first day of working on it. He’d gone through some of his greatest hits for Dean while he did that one.

“He yanked some of the hooks out, both of the ones in his eyelids,” Sam says. Smaller diamonds form in Dean’s skin, a smaller patch of skin comes off. He quivers and holds onto Sam, teeth sunk so deeply into his bottom lip that he’s in danger of biting through it. He swallows his own blood and shudders. “The skin is so thin there, I should’ve known that would happen. The first one went while I was doing his cock, the second while I was doing his balls. They made these… these—” Sam stops to lick his lips, the sound so loud in the room. “They made these tiny little wet ripping sounds. It was a lot like paper, really.”

“Finish it, please,” Dean says around his lip.

“Almost, almost,” Sam says, words banging out of his mouth like two gunshots.

“When he finally stopped squirming around, I got the knife. You know the one,” Sam says. “I bent down beside him and looked right into his bleeding eyes. He couldn’t see me at all, I don’t think, not by then. He was crying and crying and it was so…” He sucks in a breath, peels more skin away and then does another. He finishes that row and starts a new one, what Dean thinks may be the next to last. “I cut his throat. But not side to side, no, I did it top to bottom. I cut through his windpipe and listened to the air whistle until his throat filled with blood. It was so… so… amazing.”

Dean whimpers and presses his thighs tightly together, feels the way they tremble and he moans. The pain is eating him alive, he’s falling into it. His ribs, back and belly are awash with red and he wants to tell Sam, Open me up, pick a vein and bust it wide open. Bathe in me.

“It’s finished,” Sam says softly and runs his hand down Dean’s throbbing ribcage. He drops his arm and rolls into the touch, undulating upward and moaning, mouth open and blood dribbling from his bitten lip. “Just one more thing.”

Sam’s quick and Dean’s eyes are closed, he barely feels him shift before he’s back. There’s a sound he can’t quite make out and then there’s a cold-warm splash on his skin that sends waves of pain crashing through him. He smells tequila even as he bucks and screams, thrashing beneath Sam who’s holding onto him. The pain rises and rises like it’s never going to break and Dean falls off the crumbling cliff and into the surging sea of splintered glass beneath him. Sam’s hand is on Dean’s cock—one, two, three; it’s done and Dean is gone. When he comes, it’s with Sam’s mouth on his twitching, tortured skin, licking the blood and tequila from his ribs and sucking over the skinned patches of flesh.

He comes back when Sam curls against his back and pushes inside of him. Automatically, Dean reaches for him, says, “Yes,” and lets his head roll back. Sam kisses him, licks the blood away from his mouth as he wraps his big palm around Dean’s ribs. He swallows his weak moan and makes a sound like a growl in Dean’s mouth.

Sam fucks him hard and fast, breath rasping in his throat, arms slicked with sweat as he moves and Dean murmurs encouragement. Dean wants this as much as he wanted the cuts, the hurt and the blood. When Sam comes, he crushes Dean to him so hard it drives the air from his lungs in a whoosh. Dean covers his hand on his ribs and hangs on, breathing in the stink of blood and spilled liquor, the clean tang of Sam’s sweat. He kisses Sam lazily, tastes blood and tequila in his mouth still and shudders once more as Sam pulls back, breathing against his cheek, pressing a wet kiss to the stubbled skin there.

A little while later, Dean rouses from his stupor and gets up to go look at what Sam did to him. Sam follows behind him and leans in the doorway while he looks at the dried streams of blood that go sideways now that he’s on his feet. Beneath the blood where it is caked the thickest along his ribs, there is a forest of diamonds. Dean lifts his arm and turns to the side to get a better look.

It starts with a single tiny diamond about two inches beneath his armpit and then two, making a row. With each row the diamonds become larger. The biggest row lies almost dead center on his ribs, diamonds curving front to back, following the curves of Dean’s bones. Then they begin to shrink again, tapering off to one last lonely diamond about two inches above his hip, resting an even shorter distance above the right parentheses there. The skinned patches are darker, coated in a rough, black-red scaling of blood. It has cracked in places, moisture shining beneath the shaggy dried cover. It makes Dean think of lava seeping from between the cracks in rock. He looks again and realizes that the rows and rows of red geometric shapes creates one large diamond, too. The largest row is where the sides of it flare out, the small single ones are the top and bottom and everything else in between fills it, makes it whole.

“You like it?” Sam asks him.

Dean nods and touches them lightly, so lightly and nods again. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I do.”

Sam comes into the room and stands behind him, wrapping his arms around his waist and Dean leans back into him. He watches him and Sam in the mirror and can’t quite keep the smile from his face. Sam’s reflection smiles back at him and kisses Dean’s jaw.

“Thank you,” Dean says.

“For what?”

“For having good taste in art,” Dean says. He turns in Sam’s arms and leans against him that way. Sam presses his mouth to the top of his head and laughs. He’s tired, but he needs to clean up and let Sam bandage him. Wiping him off isn’t going to do it this time. “I need a shower.”

“Same here,” Sam says.

Dean nods, they’re filthy and Sam never leaves him after they’ve done something like this. He appreciates it because he hates the idea of being alone afterward, but he keeps that to himself.

Once the blood is carefully sponged away and Dean’s dried off and bandaged up, gauze tight against his ribs, making them throb again, they curl up in bed together. Dean turns into Sam and lets Sam hold him.

There’s just one more thing to be done on this bright, cold December morning. Dean doesn’t know when he started to need it so much, all he knows is that he does.

He doesn’t have to ask this time. Sam strokes his back, tracing the tree’s limbs there and says, “You are my sunshine.”

“Yes,” Dean mutters.

“Yes,” Sam echoes and pulls the blankets up over them more.

Outside, a bird is singing its morning song; Dean can hear it over the rush of traffic on the interstate off ramp that runs in front of the motel. He smiles to hear it as he slips down into warm darkness.

Chapter Text

Dean lines up a shot with his pool cue and listens to The Boomtown Rats sing about how much the trigger-happy psycho chick in the song dislikes Mondays. Dean salutes her, even if she does seem totally thrown off and shooting a bunch of innocent people is never acceptable. Still, Dean identifies in his own simpler, far less homicidal way: Mondays do suck slimy donkey dick; he’s worked enough 9-5 gigs to know that much. And for that reason, he still digs the song in his pick-and-choose way.

They’re in a bar called Landers and a more glorified hole in the wall Dean has never seen. But the beer is cold, the music is loud and they don’t say shit about people smoking in the place. Even though smoking is illegal pretty much everywhere, Landers is so far removed from the rest of the world that it doesn’t even matter. That’s a good thing, too, because Dean feels like smoking tonight.

Sam didn’t say anything when he came out of the gas station with chips and a pack of Pall Mall Reds. He just eyed the pack like he was having thoughts and Dean doesn’t mind that one bit. The smiley face Sam burned into the back of his thigh has a whole congregation of burn-faces to keep it company now, some more detailed—and requiring more than a lit cigarette to complete—than others.

They’ve picked up a job working a poltergeist case not too far outside of Poplar Bluff, Missouri. It’s a bloody, messy job full of false leads, dead ends and headaches. After a day spent in the library staring at old newspapers until the tiny words in their cramped columns stopped making sense, Dean decided for the both of them that they were going to go out and do something. He was tired of the musty library, his eyes hurt from the strain of fruitlessly searching through the papers, the dust was making him sneeze and he needed to check on Kilgore.

That is a distant, unpleasant memory for Dean right now though as he takes a long swallow from his beer. Then Brooks & Dunn take the place of Boomtown Rats with their old classic “Neon Moon” and Dean nearly chokes on his beer. Christ, he fucking hates this song. It’s all he can do not to clap his hands over his ears. He may not loathe country music, but he’s still not a fan by any means and Brooks & Dunn are wretched any way you look at it. Dean tells himself to shake it off and focus on the game he’s playing, the guy he’s up against is actually damn good and he’s also not afraid to lay down serious cash because he knows he’s good. If Dean wins this game he’ll have a nice stack of dough-re-mi.

They’ve been hustling pool and darts since they arrived and have made a decent enough payday. It’s not enough money to last long, but it’ll do and Dean likes running the games even more than he likes the payouts themselves. Sam cleans up at darts; it’s always been more his game than Dean’s and vice versa is true with pool, although neither of them is a slouch when it comes to any kind of bar game. That’s what happens when kids half grow up in barrooms. When they were coming up bars weren’t as particular about people bringing kids in with them. Especially not small town roadside dives like John preferred to drink at. Those were the kinds of places only people that lived right up the road or travelers like the Winchesters ever knew about to begin with. Most of them likely didn’t even have proper licensing.

On the occasions John felt like stopping for a beer or thirty and he couldn’t bring Sam and Dean in with him, he’d simply leave them in the car. As Dean lines up his next shot, the bitter sound of King Crimson’s “Happy Family” bops through his head. It competes with the noisome racket of “Neon Moon” galumphing through the air with the ear-splitting squall of steel guitar. Happy family, one hand clap…

Dean remembers how they would sit all night long; listening to the crack and crash of pool balls and the roar of music making the walls of the bar seem to breathe in-out-in-out with the thud of bass. If they had to pee or do anything else, they did it in the weedy side-lots of the bars or sneaked around back and did it there. The indistinguishable roar of sound created by many voices raised in conversation at once often acted as lullabies for them. John almost always left them some snacks and a thermos of water, making sure they were fed and hydrated. At least he never forgot to crack the windows if it was hot out.

Memories like those, slimy things that rise from the deep trenches of his mind, slip up on Dean sometimes and wreck his ability to stay front and center in the present. The memories of barrooms past are the reason Dean misses a shot that would’ve been easy even for a novice. He watches the cue ball pony-hop across the felt as the vibration from the skittering tip of his pool cue runs up his arm. Dean scowls and then covers it up with an “aw, shucks” grin. He only thinks like this when he’s tired and he’s definitely that.

Dean laughs off the stupid mistake with his new single serving friend (mark) and picks up his drink to take a swallow. His hands are shaking, jitters from the newest batch of Stackers he bought on the sly at the gas station up the road. He’s still not sleeping well, Castiel as noisy a spirit as any poltergeist. He wakes bathed in cold sweat with Castiel’s threat squirming and viperous in his ears, hands clenched with rage and welling grief. He’s not taking as many Stackers, true enough, because Sam would notice and just dump the things again, so he’s buying the little eight packs now and even trying to limit that. Dean needs something though because if this shit doesn’t let up, he’s going to fall over.

Dean winces when Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man” starts bawling from the speakers around the bar for about the twentieth time. What the hell is wrong with these people? Do they not know what good music is? He mutters under his breath and decides he really needs to rectify this situation before his head explodes from the suck. He hurries to finish the last game of hustled pool and barely wins it because of his stupid mistake courtesy of inconvenient reminiscences.

He gathers up his cash after a handshake and a smile then takes his hard-won dollar bills to the jukebox and stuffs about half of them into the machine. He means to monopolize the queue with songs he actually wants to hear. He’s fucking tired of Neil Diamond and Brooks & Dunn vying for the most repeated plays of crappy music. Then he goes to the table him and Sam staked out at the back of the bar and sits down beside his brother.

“Go get us some more drinks, huh, Sammy?” Dean says as his first chosen tune comes on.

“Because you weren’t just up there or anything,” Sam says, but he gets up and goes to do it.

Dean watches him wade through the Friday night crowd of drunks and kicks his chair back so it hits the wall, giving him a better angle to observe from. Nashville Pussy thumps in the old concrete floor, up the legs of the chair and the wall behind him. Dean drops his chair completely back to the floor and taps his fingers on the marred tabletop to the beat. Dean thinks he did a good thing by taking up the queue for at least an hour. He’s glad—and surprised given what the night’s rotation has mostly consisted of—that Landers has such a variety of music to pick from. It has everything from Pearl Jam’s Ten to Garth Brooks’s greatest hits album.

“Friends in Low Places” should be playing soon if Dean’s correctly remembering the order he input his selections. Sam should get a kick out of that one and Dean got a kick out of just choosing the song. It’s been a long time since Chastity was so unceremoniously slung off the mortal coil. He thinks it’s high time he learned to laugh about it since he accepted it ages ago. It’s just one of those things—crass, callous and insensitive, but also what gets him through. In Dean’s opinion, gallows humor is the best kind of humor since they’re just waiting to swing anyway.

As Townes Van Zandt starts in with “Snake Song”, Dean looks across the bar as he taps his heels to the drumbeat. Sam’s stuck waiting in the squirming mass, all of them waving money, hootin’ and hollerin’ to get the barkeep’s attention. Sam is motionless in the sea of swaying bodies, a pillar holding its own against the battering of the human breakers that knock and jostle against him. It’s Friday night and folks just got paid, each one of them trying to drink their paycheck up quicker than their fellow bar goers. Sam is calm in the horde that swirls and moves around him, not so much as a head shake or an eye roll to betray what Dean has no doubt is ever-deepening annoyance. Sam’s become so still these last few years that it’s noteworthy, but that’s only part of it.

The changes in Sam came slow as everything else about him, subtle and sneaking, slipping into their day-to-day lives until one day Dean just noticed something outwardly different. Sam has what he calls the Serial Killer Disease and that definitely changed him on the inside, did something to his already screwy brain chemistry. But outside… outside, Sam had seemed the same right up until he hadn’t; right up until he had become an unmoving darkness in a constantly moving stream of color and noise. It makes him disappear even more thoroughly, so thoroughly that sometimes even Dean’s gaze will pass right over him. Like a magnet though, Dean’s attention is always drawn back to Sam.

The difference in Sam is even in the way he holds his head—the slightly arrogant, challenging tilt of his chin. It’s just enough that Dean can see it now, can see the way it changes the angle of Sam’s gaze so that he is always looking down at people in a manner his height alone never caused. It puts Dean in mind of a big cat lying on a tree branch, watching its prey from above because prey animals almost never look up. The way Sam looks at people is different, too, something cold and assessing behind his otherwise mild gaze giving him an alien cruelty that he didn’t have before. It’s not judgmental cruelty, but it weighs and measures all the same, sizing people up just before it goes right through them.

It’s in the way Sam walks, too, he moves with the calm and rolling stride of an apex predator. No enemies—no competition—means no fear and it has left Sam more confident than he has ever been. The confidence is the hinge the rest of it swings on, it’s what makes all of the other changes so evident. It’s quietly laughing confidence, a snicker in a dark room that lights up Sam’s eyes and helps to mask the reptilian calm in them. It hides all of the things only Dean can see because Dean’s got the eyes for it. He’s got the taste in his mouth and in his more honest moments, he thinks he may be addicted to it.

White Zombie starts in with “Thunderkiss ‘65” and Dean relaxes into the driving crunch of the music as he thinks maybe he’s always been a junkie when it comes to Sam. He is forever drawn to him as sure as an insect bewitched by the scent of pitcher plant nectar. It doesn’t matter if he’s swallowed and digested in the flood, so long as he gets a taste, gets to open his mouth and gather even a few seed pearl droplets on his tongue to savor. Sam lets him drink his fill though; Sam gives to Dean and never closes his lethal jaws around his soft little body, crushing him. And yet, he devours him all the same.

Dean closes his eyes and clenches his fists, digging his nails into his palms to make himself stop thinking. He’s half-hard and starting to sweat lightly in the cool air of the barroom. Their table at the back feels cramped as he opens his tired eyes. It’s only when he sees Sam coming back towards him that he relaxes.

Sam places a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table then sits down with a huff. “If one more person had stomped on my feet, I think I may’ve stabbed them.”

“That’s not your style,” Dean says as he pours them each a fresh drink.

Sam shrugs off the remark and sips his drink. Garth Brooks finally blats from the speakers and the revelers in the bar cheer at the familiar chords ricocheting around the room like twanging gunshots. Sam cuts his eyes over to look at Dean, expression neutral, but gaze sharp, questioning and Dean grins at him.

Only then does Sam start to smile back as he sprawls in his chair, glass half-raised to his mouth. “Nice,” he says as he bumps Dean’s foot with his own.

“I know,” Dean says.

“Morbid, too,” Sam says.

“I know,” Dean says again, his grin only growing broader.

Sam gives him a curious look then nods before at last sipping his drink.

When people in the bar start shouting along with the chorus, Dean bangs his hands on the table and shouts along with them. Sam watches him from the corner of his eye and doesn’t say a word. But when Dean slings an arm around his shoulders, Sam returns the gesture. His fingers skate warm paths up and down Dean’s arm; soft, light and barely noticeable even when Dean leans into him even harder.

Sam laughs as Dean waves his other arm around, cigarette lighter held aloft with the thirty or so others that are cutting flickering tracers in the smoky air. He pulls Dean closer and kisses his jaw and then the corner of his smiling mouth. Sam’s laughter is like a fresh breath to Dean, but far rarer and Dean holds onto it until it fades away with the last notes of the song.

It’s not until “Smoke on the Water” starts playing that Sam pokes Dean lightly and says, “Let’s go.”

Dean frowns, he’s got at least twenty more minutes worth of tunes lined up, but they’re both tired and need some rest. Kilgore needs to go out again, too and get some exercise as well as take a leak, Dean’s sure. Not to mention, they have more work to do tomorrow. The library in town closes at noon on Saturdays, so they’re going to have to be up and at ‘em bright and early. Dean is dreading it.

“All right,” he finally agrees with a huff. He stands up and grabs the bottle of Jack since they own it now and they begin the slow push through the crowd for the door.

Once they’re outside, the cold is like a slap in the face and Dean shivers all over with the sudden wallop of frigid winter air. The Impala is parked at the back of the lot, near the entrance. It’s farther to walk, but it makes it easier to leave in a hurry if they should need to and the car is far less likely to get backed into there.

At the car, Sam stops and leans against the trunk, looking out over the parking lot at the small clusters of people coming and going, some just hanging out in the rutted lot. A guy and a girl lean against the side of a farm truck, making out. She’s got her hand down his pants and his hand is up her skirt. They’re moving together, too far away to hear, but Dean can figure what they sound like just fine. There are folks milling all around, but as far as those two seem concerned, they’re the only people in the world. It at once makes the romantic in Dean happy for them and the horndog frat boy in him wants to slap the guy a high five. The bitterly cynical asshole part of his nature wants to go over there and dump cold water on them; jolt them back to reality where what they’re doing is considered public indecency in the eyes of the law and free porn in the eyes of voyeuristic perverts.

Snatches of Pearl Jam’s “Garden” reach them out in the parking lot, the sound muffled and distorted, growing clear and fading back to a faraway rumble-thump each time the bar’s door is opened or closed. Dean strains to hear the song and tells himself to leave the happy-horny couple alone. After all is done and we’re still alone, I won’t be taken, yet I’ll go… Man, he wishes he still had his old cassette of Ten.

He lights a cigarette and looks over at Sam. In the light from the sodium arc lamp above the Impala, Sam’s face is cast in drooping shadows and Dean’s sure his is as well. It hits him again the changes in Sam, the calmness, the distance in his expression—neither here nor there, but somewhere in between and constantly roving.

In the bar earlier tonight, Dean watched him tip the bartender with a smile of thanks. Later, he watched him stand in the thronging sway of the crowd and thought of all of those differences. Doing it again now, Dean knows he is the only one who can lift away Sam’s mask and not be horrified by the face beneath it. He’s looking at that face right now, Sam’s real face that slid to the surface once or twice even when he was a teenager and all he does is love it. Anyone else would be terrified by what they found, but Dean can see all of the horrible, monstrous things about Sam and love him in spite of it. That will always be true.

“Look at them,” Sam says softly. “Just look at them.”

Dean looks away from Sam and back out at the lot; at the people stumbling and laughing their way into the night. One couple is arguing, the woman shoving at the man. As Dean looks on, she gives her man a push so hard he goes down on one knee with a curse. Dean laughs before he can help himself and when he looks over at Sam, he finds his lips curled in the faintest of smiles as he watches a group of laughing men stumbling towards an old Lincoln Town Car.

Sam takes Dean’s arm and pulls him around so he’s standing in front of him. Sam slips his arms around him and lowers his head to nuzzle the side of Dean’s neck while he exhales smoke in a shaky plume. He’s not used to this, not quite, not even after all these years, but he is stupidly grateful to have it. If he’d succeeded in putting Sam off and shutting him down on his idea of them really, truly being together then Dean would’ve never known what this feels like with Sam. Not this or a hundred and one other little things that normal couples do all the time.

Now, he leans back against Sam and watches with him while Sam runs his hand up and down the bandages covering the diamond sea on Dean’s ribs.

“They’re all just rats in a maze,” Sam says, his voice so low that it is but silken murmur of sound. “They don’t even know it.”

“No,” Dean agrees.

“Out of all of these people here tonight, it’s likely that not one of them will ever know anything outside of their tiny existence,” Sam says. “Outside of their part of the maze because each state is a different variation on the same thing, each county or parish a sector within that variation and every town is a corridor that leads to a million tiny offshoot pathways. They bang around inside of it and never even think to try and make it to the center.”

“So because of how we travel, we’re… what? In the maze proper? The main maze? The… Hell, I don’t know,” Dean says. This is a bit hard to follow with all of the booze.

“We’re not part of the maze at all,” Sam says.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“What are we then?” Dean asks.

“We’re free,” Sam says. He runs his hand down Dean’s torso to the front of his jeans and rests his hand there, warmth soaking through the denim.

“Sam,” Dean says. He tenses, but doesn’t try to pull away, just tips his head back to look at Sam.

“Shh,” Sam says. He turns Dean around to face him, hiding what he’s doing a bit better. Dean is swallowed by his taller shadow, by the shelter it offers. He unzips Dean’s jeans and slips his hand inside, catching Dean’s surprised gasp in a kiss as he pulls him closer.

Music from inside the bar pours out from around a crack in the door where it didn’t close all the way. As he listens on, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs begin to sing “Stay”.

“Dance with me, Sammy,” he says as Sam’s hand works in quick, short strokes inside the confines of his jeans and boxers. It makes Dean’s breath hitch in his chest as he moves his hips into the rhythm.

Sam wraps his other arm around him as Dean loops his arms around Sam’s neck and presses his face to his chest to muffle his soft sounds of pleasure. Sam presses his fingers hard against the diamonds resting in their nest of cotton and tape and shivers run up and down Dean’s spine at the sharp little pains.

“I could kill every last one of these people and they would never know what hit them anymore than they will ever know what goes bump in the dark,” Sam says.

“All of them? You’d kill al—”

Sam shushes Dean again with a light twist around the head of his cock that makes him bite a mouthful of Sam’s shirt. “I’d kill everyone in the world if I could,” Sam says.

“Even me?” Dean asks, mind too far gone on the sound of Sam’s voice and the feel of his hand to think not to, to think he may not like the answer.

“No,” Sam says. He kisses Dean’s neck, pressing his fingers even harder into the diamonds. Diamonds are the sharpest things on earth and Dean hopes he doesn’t cut his hand on them. “Never you. Never, ever you.”

Dean moans soft and low as his hips jerk forward. Eat my heart, Sammy, he wants to say, but doesn’t know how. His breath quickens as Sam half drags him along in their dance, their boots rasping against the rough, crumbling pavement.

Something occurs to Dean in a slow, drugged way as Sam moves faster, his wrist likely being rubbed raw on the teeth of Dean’s zipper. He can feel slight moisture beneath the bandages on his ribs and wishes he could see the leak of his blood, could watch it soak into the cotton.

“Sam,” he whispers, breath moist and warm as it hits Sam’s shirt. “Sam.”

“Hmm?” Sam asks as he dances them faster, moving them around the car, using his hand on Dean’s cock to lead him as much as the guiding, steadying hand on his ribs that’s sending little shocks of pain through him, egging him on.

Dean moans again and his hips stutter towards Sam’s barely retreating hand as it slides up his cock. The song is fading away, dying out and soon it will leave them with nothing but the noise of stupid human laughter, the sounds of simple enjoyment from people who will never, ever know…

“What’s at the center of the maze?”

Sam laughs and moves his hand faster. Dean tightens his arms around Sam’s neck and presses closer to him, practically trapping his hand between their bodies as he lets out a harsh breath through his clenched teeth.

Sam bends down to press his cheek to Dean’s as he comes. “Nothing,” Sam says. His voice isn’t much more than a puff of air as he holds onto Dean while he moans.

When he lets Dean go, he licks his fingers and Dean leans forward to lick around them as well until Sam moves his hand and they’re just kissing.

“We should… uh… go,” Dean says when he stumbles back, the taste of his own come bitter and starchy in his mouth. His head is reeling after what just happened, about the fact he didn’t think about it or protest it that much. He wanted it, that bizarre dance in the cold with Sam’s hand in his pants and his voice in his ear.

Sam’s smile is small, secretive and satisfied at the same time. “Sure,” he says. “You driving or am I?”

“I am,” Dean says.

He grabs the bottle of Jack off the Impala’s trunk as he swings back around the car to get behind the wheel. Neither of them is sober enough to be quibbling over who is driving and who’s not because fact is, they shouldn’t drive at all. But they’re going to do it anyway. It’s the Winchester way.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Dean wakes up face down shortly after 9:30 with a gasp that makes him suck the pillowcase into his mouth. He’s shaking when he sits up, the dull throb of a weak hangover thumps behind his eyes, but he barely notices it. The nightmare is still cavorting around in his half-asleep mind, one image stuck front and center as he pants for breath. It is the image of Sam’s eyes lighting up like candles from Hell as Castiel burned the life right out of him. It is frozen in his mind, still frame horror for Dean only.

Dean concentrates on catching his breath then scrubs at his face as he tries to will away the echo of dream-Castiel regretfully telling him, I told you, Dean, as Sam’s husk of a body dropped to the ground.

The sounds of his screams in the nightmare are what woke him and now he’s sitting in an empty bed, shaking while Kilgore licks his fingers. Dean moans and doubles over on himself as a stab of worried, wannabe sorrow shoots through his belly like a cramp. On its heels comes a rush of anger so sudden and strong that it makes his breath freeze in his lungs, his whole body going rigid as he thinks about the words dream-Castiel spoke.

Sitting with the covers puddled around his waist, clammy with sweat, Dean wishes for last night back. He would like another little while caught up in the surrealistic sway and static of the night before. He wants to feel the way the music ran over his skin like Technicolor sunshine again. He craves the sound of Sam’s voice like the soft sigh of an autumnal wind. It soothed Dean, lulled him; it brought him home again and again with the sheer fact that even after all of the terrible, heart-wrenching things, it was still there. That they were still there. Last night was damn near perfect and he wants to go back so he can hold onto it and savor it a little longer and shut out everything else. Because now, reality is a millstone around Dean’s neck. He can feel his vertebrae creaking, threatening to snap from the strain and he doesn’t know how much more he can take.

He’s been slipping and sliding for a while anyway and any fool with eyes could see it and Sam is no fool; he sees it even clearer. So does Dean. He hasn’t slept right since his unfortunate conversation with Castiel in Nebraska. He can’t concentrate worth a damn either, not really because all he wants to do is watch Sam. A few hundred miles back in Iowa a murder of crows rising from a tree startled him so badly he nearly tackled Sam to the ground, meaning to cover his body with his own to protect him. When he slammed into him, Sam had rocked back on his heels as he’d yelled in surprised annoyance. Dean had tried to brush it off like he was just joking around and Sam said, Bullshit, Dean. He’s left it alone, though he knows something is bothering Dean because honestly, Dean’s been a total failure at hiding his fretting.

With another groan, Dean sits up straight and practically hurls himself out of bed, moving so fast that he nearly falls. He needs water and he’s got to piss. He staggers into the other bed and almost topples onto it, but catches himself with a shouted, “Motherfuck!”

It’s only when he’s standing upright, leaning down a bit to stroke Kilgore’s head, that Dean realizes Sam isn’t there. A harsh jab of worry skitters through Dean. Castiel is resourceful, he could take Sam anytime, anywhere and without Dean there to watch—to know—what’s really going on, Sam would never see it coming. For a second, panic spikes his heart and makes it lob even harder in his chest, but then he remembers today is Saturday and they were supposed to go back to the library. It doesn’t make him feel much better, but he then he spies a container of coffee on the room’s table and the very tiniest bit of calm settles over him: Sam seems to have decided to just let Dean sleep in and sleep it off, that’s all.

“Fat lot of good that did,” he mutters as he finally moves toward the bathroom.

He stops to pick up the coffee sitting on the dinette table and it’s then he sees it’s pinning down a note with its warm, caffeinated goodness. Another tiny trickle of calm worms through him like cool water as Dean snatches up the coffee and then grabs the note with his other hand. He takes a swig as he raises the note to read it. The coffee burns lightly on his tongue, still too hot to qualify as merely warm. Sam hasn’t been gone long then; the coffee tells him more than the note, which he is staring at blankly as he lets the first rush of caffeine warm him up a little.

When he reads the note, it confirms what he thought anyway—Sam’s gone to the library. He walked and says for Dean to meet him over there if he gets up in time; if not then he says he’ll see him in a little while. So it’s okay—maybe—for now. Except not really, not even mostly. Not even close. Dean still doesn’t think Castiel would gank Sam from a library; that’s unsubtle even for him because people would damn sure notice something like that. He lets that calm him even more because if he doesn’t do something, he’s going to wind himself up into a nerve wracked mess and that will do neither of them any good.

At long last, Dean shuffles into the bathroom to take care of business. It’s while he’s splashing cold water on his face that he hears, If you will not do something about Sam then I will. It’s so clear and loud that Dean actually jumps and slips on the bathroom tile a bit.

As he stares at his reflection in the mirror, face wan and circles under his eyes dark enough they almost look like bruises, Dean bares his teeth and says, “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up!

He slaps himself upside the head with both hands, trying to knock Castiel’s threat out of his ears so he can stomp on it and kill it dead. He makes a strained, almost inhuman sound through his clenched teeth as horror, worry, sadness and pure anger tie Gordian knots in his stomach then twist on up his back like vines to squirm into his brain like corkscrewing maggots.

“Leave him alone,” Dean pants when he drops his hands to brace them on the lip of the narrow faux-granite vanity. His voice sounds almost pleading and he lowers his head, bowing it down to stare at the floor while he tries to catch his breath. He thinks he may be hyperventilating. Castiel is going to kill Sam and there’s not shit he can do to stop it if he’s not with him every minute of every day and even then he may not be able to do anything for his brother.

Dean finally gets his shit together enough he can leave the bathroom and go get dressed. He doesn’t bother with a shower or even brushing his teeth, he’s got far more important things to worry about right now. When he’s clothed again, he grabs the car keys and swings them on his index finger. He feels a little better now that he’s doing something instead of standing around like a hand-wringing old biddy. He’s still tired—so, so tired—but humming along a bit more on track. He grabs the coffee Sam left him and takes another sip, pleased to find it’s warm and not only that, it’s actually pretty damn good coffee; rare for a gas station.

When he leaves the room, Kilgore trots out the door behind him and goes to sit by the Impala’s backdoor. “You’re not coming with me,” Dean says.

Kilgore chuffs and slaps at the door with his paw, giving Dean a look that seems to say, C’mon, motherfucker, let’s go. Dean eyes him for another few seconds and finally throws his hands up.

“Fine, but you’re gonna hafta stay in the car, dude,” he says. “Gimme a minute here though.”

Kilgore doesn’t seem to care and waits patiently while Dean does what he needs to do. When he opens the door for him, he hops into the Impala and stretches out across the backseat.

Dean gets in the car, cranks her and then waits a few minutes for it to warm up. While he waits, he fishes a cigarette out of the pack in his inside coat pocket and smokes it in between sipping his coffee. When he’s finished with his smoke, he cracks the window and tosses it onto the asphalt then throws the car in reverse and heads out.

He’s three miles down the road before he realizes he forgot to put any shoes on. He’s wearing socks, but yep, a quick glance down proves he is indeed shoeless. What a bunch of shit, he thinks with a roll of his eyes and then carries on.

Ten miles outside of town, he turns down a side road and about a mile down it, he finds an empty field covered in snow. It’s there that Dean finally stops and lights another cigarette while he listens to the familiar, homey rumble of the Impala’s engine. When he finishes that smoke, he tosses it out the window as well then gets out of the car.

The snow makes his unshod feet go numb after a few paces and it soaks the thick wool of his socks the longer he stands in one spot, his body heat melting the icy white.

With one last huff of breath, Dean cups his hands around his mouth and tips his head skyward. “Cas! Cas if you can hear me, come on down, man! I needta talk to you!”

It’s only a couple of minutes’ wait before there’s a rush of air behind him. It buffets him with sudden warmth and a smell like sunshine on grass. Dean wallows in the slight reprieve from the unrelenting chill of the air around him.

“Yes, Dean?” Castiel says when he turns to face him.

Dean doesn’t waste any time getting to the point, just lets out a shivering breath and then says, “Sam… What he is… Can you fix it?”

Castiel studies him for a long moment and then gives a sad shake of his head. “What your brother is… it is unfortunately written in his DNA. I do not know if it was that way from the moment of his birth, but if not then it was there after Azazel fed him his blood. It’s been there his whole life either way and unless I completely… undid… everything about him then no, it is not fixable.” With a thoughtful tip of his head, he lets out a sigh of his own. “Besides, I don’t think a person can be rewritten, not in the way you are speaking of. I could take his memories of killing away, but the urge would still be there. Maybe not at first, but it would come back. There is no way to save him from this, Dean.”

Dean nods. That’s what he thought anyway. Having Sam re-scripted into someone else isn’t in the cards. Even the idea is abhorrent to him. He would never trade Sam in for someone who only looks like him. It was why he’d hated him not having a soul so much.

“So, the only way to fix him is to kill him?” Dean says.

Castiel nods and looks down at his feet. “I am sorry, Dean,” he says. “There is no other way to end this unless it is stopped at its source.”

“But it’s not his fault!” Dean yells. “He can’t help what he is, Cas. You have got to know that, man.”

“I do know that,” Castiel says. “But I—we—can put an end to this, to his suffering and the suffering he causes others. Those people had families and friends, lives that he cut short because of what he is. Sam is sick and he cannot be cured, Dean.”

The idea Castiel has about Sam suffering is so off the mark it’s hilarious, but Dean dares not laugh. He doesn’t know if he could anyway because there’s nothing at all funny about this.

“There are sick fucks all over the world. Killers just like Sam, kiddie fuckers and rapists, pyromaniacs and terrorists. All sorts of messed up people and some of them even worse than Sam is,” Dean says. “So, why him? Out of all the sick freaks out there, why do you want to end him?”

“Because I should have ended him years ago,” Castiel says. His plain way of speaking makes Dean furious and sick to his stomach at the same time. “What Sam is should have never been allowed to continue on this long. All of the others like him are dead and that is for the best—they were unnatural. Sam is unnatural as well, but he has survived because of your love for him and my foolhardy belief that he could be saved. His nature has been left unchecked and look at the destruction it has wrought.”

“That’s it, that’s your reason? He’s unnatural?” Dean snarls it at him and takes a couple of steps closer. “You want to kill my brother because you think it’s your fucking responsibility to do it?”

“It is my responsibility,” Castiel says. “I made a serious error in judgment when I let him continue on and look at what he has done. Look at what he has become.”

Dean shakes his head with a low, growling sound of negation. “No,” he says through his teeth as he steps into Castiel’s space, pushing himself so close their chests are nearly touching. “No.”

“Dean—”

“I said no, goddamnit!” Dean screams at him so hard his throat aches with the force and his voice cracks. “I know what he is! I know and I don’t care! You cannot have him!”

He doesn’t let himself think anymore, just knows he has to be quick about what comes next. He uncurls the slightly cupped fingers of his right hand, catches his prize as it slides from its hiding place up his sleeve and slams it upward into Castiel’s chest.

His blue eyes fly wide when the angel sword pierces his sternum. Dean shoves it in to the hilt then twists it hard before he stumbles away from Castiel. He stands there, rooted to the spot after that, unable to tear his gaze away from the sight before him.

Castiel is bleeding light from the hole in his chest, the sword glowing with it and being swallowed by it at the same time. It’s beautiful. It’s what’s at the end of the tunnel, Dean realizes. It’s not the warm light of Heaven that people see, it’s the blood of dying angels. Dean could go blind watching Castiel’s death flare outward like a supernova.

The look on Castiel’s face is one of hurt and betrayal, not the slightest trace of anger in it at all, but maybe that’s because he’s so surprised. He gave them the sword to protect themselves against those like Zachariah and Raphael, but trusted them to never use it against him. That’s the problem with misplaced trust though, it often comes back to bite you on the ass; Dean could’ve told Castiel that.

Castiel gasps and Dean tries very hard not to hear him. He wishes it didn’t have to come to this, but Castiel should’ve left Sam alone. He should’ve just left them alone. Dean told him, didn’t he? Sure he did, he gave him fair warning and he didn’t listen because he never does.

The light is getting brighter, Castiel is really dying. It feels like it’s been ages since he first sank the sword in him, but it’s really only been a few seconds.

“I’m sorry, Cas, but I can’t let you hurt him,” Dean says because he needs to know, needs to understand, before his light burns to darkness.

“Dean,” Castiel says. The sorrow in his voice ripples through Dean like a shockwave as he watches him at last collapse onto first his knees then topple over on his back.

There is one last blinding flare of light that Dean throws his arm up to block the sight of. There’s a smell like cherry blossoms and burnt sugar in the air. When Dean opens his eyes again, Castiel is gone, eyes staring up at the endless grey of the stormy sky above him. Massive wing silhouettes have melted through the snow and burnt into the ground beneath him.

Dean finally steps forward and with shaking hands, pulls the sword from Castiel’s chest. Around him, wisps of steam rise from the scorched earth as he stares at the bloodstain blooming on Castiel’s shirt, the blood of his vessel. Bending over him, Dean closes Castiel’s eyes and mouths, I’m sorry, one more time. He reaches out to touch one of the wing marks and yanks his hand back with a hiss of pain. His fingers throb, blisters already rising along the reddened skin of his index finger.

Without a backwards glance, Dean makes his way back to the car, stopping only to wipe the angel sword clean before he puts it back in the trunk. He cranks up and pulls away from the fallow field, aiming the car back towards town and the motel. He holds onto the steering wheel while he waits for the heater to warm up and chase the chill from his pebbled skin and frozen feet. He can’t stop thinking about how now that he’s killed an angel—that angel in particular—he’s sure to have a seat in Hell right beside Sam when they go there.

He flips on the radio and spins the tuner knob, trying to find something to listen to. Dean stops when he finds Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers rocking out their old classic, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”. Well, I don’t know, but I been told—you never slow down, you never grow old… Dean cranks the stereo then grips the steering wheel tight-tight. He screams along with the song, jagged and off-key, but it’s better this way. If he had the opportunity, he’d actually make a pretty damn good front man for metal band.

Back at the motel, Dean is weirdly calm. He takes Kilgore out for a romp after changing into dry socks and putting his boots on. He has a beer and watches some talk show on television without actually listening to it. It’s a shaky kind of calm though and it finally breaks once the television is off and the world outside is quiet.

He killed one of his best friends, murdered him like he was some kind of supernatural atrocity and didn’t think twice about it. He tried to compromise, tried to convince Castiel, but he wouldn’t listen and he had to kill him. He had to do it, there was no other choice. But it hurts now that he can’t ignore it any longer. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. Castiel was his friend, he saved him from Hell and brought him back to life; back to Sam and that’s how he repaid all of his kindnesses. He shoved a ridiculously shaped sword into his heart and twisted it, wanting to make sure he did the job right because there would’ve been no take-backs if he’d fucked it up. Now Castiel is dead so that Sam may live and it aches so bad. So bad.

He bows his head and wraps his arms around it as a thin, high sound rises from his throat. He pushes it back behind his teeth and down his gullet, but his shoulders have already begun to shake.

Sam will live because Castiel died and he’s happy about it, which only makes his guilt over it a thousand—no, a million—times worse. There should’ve been some other way, not this, not this, but it’s done now and they’re safe—Sammy’s safe. Dean has to keep him safe, but God, look at the cost of it—the price has to be paid every time. If people—and everything else—would just leave them alone, Dean wouldn’t have to do this.

He killed Castiel. Shit. He killed Castiel. Damn. He killed Castiel. “Fuck!” Dean yells through his tears as he folds over on himself so far his chest is almost touching his knees. “You dumb bastard.”

Castiel should’ve known better than to ask Dean to choose because no one will ever win out over Sam. No one. Knowing that Castiel got exactly what he deserved only makes Dean cry harder and he hasn’t the first clue why.

The next thing Dean is really aware of is Sam shaking him and asking, “Dean? What is it, what’s wrong? Hey, talk to me.”

He looks up at Sam and shudders all over, relieved to see him. Without thinking about it, Dean gets up from the bed and grabs him, holding onto him and making sure he’s really there.

“Oh, Christ, Sammy,” he says into the side of his neck. “Christ. Fuck, man.”

“Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?” Sam asks as he pulls Dean away from him to take a good look.

Dean just shakes his head and tries to hide his teary face. He must look like such a fucking twat right now.

Dean!” Sam says again as he gives him a gentle shake. “You’re kinda freaking me out here. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I killed Castiel,” Dean says. It comes out in a snot-clogged rush as he makes himself look at Sam.

Sam’s eyes go wide and he lets out his breath in a surprised whoosh. “You what?”

“He didn’t give me any other choice. I had to do it,” Dean says with a brain-jarring nod.

“Why? What happened?”

Dean laughs, the sound devoid of all humor as he pushes back into Sam’s space to hold onto him. He has to make sure he’s real because on some level, Dean thinks this may be the dream and Sam is already dead. It makes his chest hitch again and Sam’s frown deepens.

“I had to kill him, Sam,” Dean says again as he strokes Sam’s arms, reaches up to touch his face and press against the wrinkle of confusion between his eyebrows, trying to smooth it away with his trembling finger. Sam grabs his hand and holds it to make him stop. “He wanted to… He was going to… I couldn’t let him. I couldn’t.”

“What are you talking about?” Sam lets go of Dean’s hand to grab his face and make him look at him. “You are seriously bugging me out right now. You need to spit it out.”

“I killed him because he wanted to kill you,” Dean says, doing as Sam requested and spitting it out. He stares into Sam’s eyes and shakes his head as he goes back to touching him. He pushes against Sam again and kisses him with a low sound of pain. “I couldn’t let him do that. He wanted to take you away.”

“Whoa,” Sam says. He actually stumbles a bit and Dean grabs him to keep him steady. “What the hell for?”

“Because you’re unnatural,” Dean says with an ugly twist of his lips. “Because you’re a killer. He said you should’ve died like the rest of Azazel’s special children. But because you didn’t die like you should have, you turned into this since it’s what you would have always been if left alive too long.”

Sam’s eyes narrow and he shakes his head then wraps his arms around Dean, holding him tight. Dean holds him back, breathing in the old newsprint smell that clings to his black clothes, the smell of winter and strong coffee under all of that. They’re good smells; they are Sam smells.

“You did the right thing, Dean,” Sam says after a minute or two.

Dean nods. “I did.”

“You did, yeah,” Sam says. He pulls Dean away and when Dean surges up and kisses him again, Sam kisses him back. When they break apart, Sam touches his wet face and smiles. “Where would I be without you?”

Dean shakes his head. He doesn’t want to think about it. The images in his mind are all ugly though and every one of them ends with Sam dead well before his time. He stumbles back and stands there for a second, staring at Sam and taking him in; reassuring himself he’s still here. Then he moves close again and kisses Sam, runs his fingers through his hair.

“Thank you, Dean,” Sam says as he turns his face into the cup of Dean’s palm against his cheek. “Thank you for saving me.”

The words tear another pathetic sob out of Dean’s throat as he steps back just enough to kick his boots off. Sam watches him and then nods as he goes to sit on the side of the bed. Dean strips himself with hands that are shaking so hard he can barely manage the buttons on his over shirt.

“You are so beautiful,” Sam says when he draws him into the V of his legs. He kisses the scars on Dean’s belly as he strokes the ones on his outer thighs. He cuts his eyes up to look at Dean and says, “Thank you,” again.

Dean closes his eyes, more tears seeping from beneath his eyelashes. While Sam kisses him, Dean imagines a life without this, without him. It’s unbearable. He doesn’t want to ever be without his Sam. He cards his fingers through Sam’s hair as he licks the left parentheses on his hip and traces over the faces on the back of his thigh.

“I owe you everything,” Sam says between kisses. He lets out a soft breath as he leans back to look at Dean, drinking him in. He touches his bandaged ribs, reaches up to touch the bright red scars on his chest and shakes his head in what may be wonder. “You are so perfect.”

“Shut up, Sam,” Dean says as he bows his head. His shoulders jerk slightly with a hiccoughing sob as he moves in closer to Sam. He can’t get enough of him, he wants to staple his hands to Sam’s skin so that he never has to let him go. “I did the right thing,” he murmurs.

“You did, yes, you did,” Sam says.

“He was my friend,” Dean says as Sam moves away from him to stand up and undress himself. “He was my friend and I killed him.”

“Only because you know what would’ve happened if you didn’t,” Sam says. “You had no choice.”

Dean nods at that, tears clogging his throat and making every breath feel thick and syrupy. It feels good to know that Sam agrees though; that Sam understands.

“Then why does it hurt so damned bad?” Dean asks as Sam lies back on the bed.

“Because he was your friend and you had to kill him,” Sam says simply. The words make Dean’s shoulders jerk again and Sam shushes him. “Come here, Dean.”

Dean straddles him and braces his hands on his chest, shoulders hunched and chills running over his skin. “Tell me again, Sammy,” he says.

“You did the right thing, you know you did,” Sam says as he plucks the lube off the nightstand. “Tell me what he would’ve done if you hadn’t stopped him.”

Tears slick his face in a wet, salty rush and Dean swallows hard. Sam makes soft, comforting sounds in the back of his throat as he gently touches the bite mark bruises he left along Dean’s shoulders a couple of nights ago.

“He would’ve killed you,” Dean says through gritted teeth. Even clogged up, his voice is fierce and he vibrates with renewed anger even as he lifts up enough to let Sam slide a lube-slicked finger inside of him. “He would’ve taken you away.”

He rocks against the finger inside of him with a soft sound as he drops his head to rest his cheek against Sam’s. He’s shaking so fucking bad he doesn’t know if he will ever stop. Grief and want and slowly growing confusion over why Sam hasn’t hurt him yet—not so much as a nip of teeth—are fucking with his head. The longer this goes on, the more convinced Dean becomes that he’s dreaming.

Sam adds another finger and when Dean rocks back against them, he twists them inside of him. His voice catches on a low sound of pleasure even as he continues to weep. “Sam, Sam, Sammy,” Dean says. The words feel like they’re welling up from somewhere deep inside of him.

“I know, Dean, I know,” Sam says as he sits up some and Dean follows. Dean kisses his face all over as he rests his hands on Sam’s broad shoulders, holding on and taking comfort from his presence despite everything. Sam works his fingers in and out of him until Dean’s breath is strained.

“Sam, fuck me,” Dean says when he cannot take anymore, when he knows that if this goes on, he’ll come this way and he doesn’t want that.

Sam kisses him then pulls back when Dean grabs his face to stare into his eyes. He lowers himself down on Sam’s cock until he feels the ring of his fingers where he’s holding himself steady. When he lets go, Dean sinks all the way down with a sigh. His chest hitches and he nuzzles Sam’s jaw.

“I can’t let you go, baby boy,” he says into the hair at Sam’s temple. He rocks upward even as another sob breaks in his throat. It was so close this time, he almost didn’t save Sam, he’s certain of it and now that he has, he can’t really believe it.

“It’s okay, Dean, I’m right here,” Sam says. “I’m safe. You saved me.”

Dean looks at him and Sam smiles before he draws his head down to lick the tears off his face, catching them on his tongue as they fall from his bloodshot eyes. Dean moans and moves, letting the warm glide of Sam’s tongue clean the salt—the pain—from his skin. He begins to move faster, Sam’s hands a solid promise against his hips as he holds him steady.

Dean clings to him as Sam murmurs wordlessly in his ear and then begins to hum. The sound makes Dean quake all over, mouth falling open in a soundless gasp as pleasure thumps up his back. Still, he waits, wondering where the pain is, wondering when the thing he craves always will come. He’s not sure if this is real; it can’t be if everything is not as it should be. Pleasure is a softly growling dog in his belly regardless, a hungry thing that mutes the sound on his concerns to a degree.

“I saved you,” Dean repeats. “I will always save you if I can.”

“I know you will,” Sam says.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Dean says as he arches his back against a particularly strong wash of pleasure. “They’re always… always trying to…”

“I know,” Sam says. “But they can’t because you won’t let them.”

“I would die for you,” Dean says around a sobbing moan.

“Thank you, Dean,” Sam says. “Thank you for being my big brother.”

“Oh, God,” Dean chokes out as pleasure snaps up his spine like an electrical current. He buries his face in the side of Sam’s neck and rides him, the breath forced from his lungs when Sam meets him halfway into each downward thrust with a snap of his hips.

As Sam begins to hum again, Dean digs his fingers into his skin and sucks in rapid little breaths, sips of air as warmth crawls over his skin and blooms to a rush of heat. Sweat gleams on his skin as he moans and moves even faster. When he comes, he holds onto Sam like a life preserver, the pleasure almost agonizing as it pulls through him with taffy stretching slowness until he thinks he’s going to break on it. Then it’s over and there are only aftershocks, little bursts of pleasure like pond ripples under his skin.

Sam coming inside of him makes him moan again and lightly rock against Sam. They stay that way for a little while, Sam stroking his hands up and down Dean’s back and along his outer thighs. It’s only then that Dean realizes he’s no longer crying, but his head feels stuffed with cotton, his eyes are swollen and burning. In all honesty, he probably looks like ten different kinds of hell, but he doesn’t care.

His creeping confusion gradually comes back though and he checks himself over, doing mental inventory. And no, he’s not hurt other than some slight pain from his cut ribs, but that’s because of the way he was moving and nothing more. Dean gives his head a light shake and then moves off of Sam to lie beside him. Sam slides down in the bed and wraps an arm around him. They don’t speak and after a while, Sam’s breathing grows even and deep.

It’s only then that Dean realizes Sam didn’t say it, he didn’t say, You are my sunshine. The longer he lays there, the louder the argument in his head becomes.

One side says this was just a different way than he’s used to and it wasn’t bad was it? The answer is: No, it wasn’t bad, it was really good in fact; comforting even, but something is wrong all the same.

The other side says that’s because this is a dream after all, that he’s still asleep and none of this really happened. It was just too damned different, wasn’t it? The answer is: Yes, it was and while it still was not bad, it was definitely strange and Dean doesn’t trust it.

He gets up, yanks on his jeans and then grabs the nearly full bottle of Jack from the night before; they drank a few more beers after they got back, but that was it. He sits in a chair by the table and starts drinking, trying to fuse the two opposing voices in his head. They’re both his voice at least, but it’s still unsettling. He’s had a fucked up, stressful, sad day and that’s all this is. His mind is partially offline because he freaked out like a little bitch, but Sam fixed it. Mostly. Mostly he fixed it. Dean would feel a lot better about things right now though if he knew they had really happened.

He drinks, pounding the Jack down in long, guzzling swallows while he watches Sam sleep. Kilgore comes over and noses his leg and Dean reaches to pet him, stroking his silky ears while he holds the bottle with one hand.

There’s barely a half inch of whiskey left in the bottle when Dean finally gets up from the table. The two opposing voices have stopped, but now it’s just all of him that’s not totally convinced he’s awake. The sun has started to set and Sam snoozes on, probably worn out since he didn’t get much sleep the night before. Dean doesn’t want to wake him, but he has to be sure. So, he goes out onto the little patio that all of this particular motel’s rooms have. They’ve got the room on the corner—they always ask for such when they check into a motel. The building has a brick façade and it meets on the side in a sharp corner of blonde rectangles.

Dean drains the bottle then quick as 1-2-3, he smashes it against the brick corner. The thick glass shatters with a godawful crash that echoes in the sad excuse for a grassy area. It’s covered with snow now anyway, but it’s probably just a weed-choked lot in the warmer months; the snow is like a free facelift most likely. Dean waits, still as a statue, for sounds of movement from inside their room or any of the others near theirs.

When none comes, he hunkers down as cold wind licks over his bare back and gingerly picks through the broken glass. He finds a piece with a suitably sharp edge—it’s thin and fine, razored and slightly curved. It’s a beauty. Dean smiles as he rises to his feet and drifts back into the motel room on not-there legs. His mind is a soft hum of activity. His body a hollow thing that leads him on, following the directive he set down the second he rose from the chair to step outside. This is it, this will wake him up; he knows it will. It’s way better than any stupid old pinch could ever be.

In the bathroom, Dean looks at his scars, remembers the feel of Sam’s mouth on them as he kissed them. You are so beautiful, he’d said. Dean glances at his unmarked forearms, the smooth skin of his neck and then gets to work.

He is water and he drains all over the bathroom counter and floor in slooping, ink-thick splats and splatters. It’s high art as he works on his left arm since he’s right-handed. The glass is as sharp as he thought it was and the lines it makes are deep and right. It barely even stings and Dean grits his teeth, presses down harder, cuts deeper. He needs to wake up.

“Dean, what the fuck are you doing?!” Sam’s voice crashes in the cramped space and startles him. He slips and cuts a jagged diagonal line from the middle of his arm almost to his wrist before Sam grabs him. His grip is crushing, bruising and Dean blinks dazedly at him as the glass falls from his fingers unnoticed.

“I’m dreaming,” he says.

“You’re making a fucking mess is what you’re doing,” Sam says as he examines the counter, the floor and finally Dean’s arm. He lifts it up and Dean lets him do it with boneless acquiescence. “Look at this. Why did you do this to yourself?”

“I told you,” Dean says. He hears the way his voice is slurring and only then does he realize he is so very drunk that he has exceeded even his expectations in that area.

“You’re not dreaming, Dean,” Sam says. He’s staring at him, giving him a funny look. His eyes keep darting back to Dean’s dripping left arm. “You’re drunk though, Jesus Christ are you.”

“I got drunk to get the… to try and work it out,” Dean says.

“Because that always works so well,” Sam says. He rakes his hands through his hair, smearing blood through it with the one and lets out a breath. “Look, why do you think you’re dreaming?”

“Because,” Dean says.

“Dude, that is not an answer,” Sam says. “Why did you hurt yourself?”

“I had to wake up and um… Ya know, they say if you think you’re dreaming to pinch yourself,” Dean says. “So I just took it a step further. I had to make it make sense.”

“Had to make what make sense?!” Sam yells at him.

Dean flinches and he looks down at his arm then back up at Sam with wide, troubled eyes. The lines aren’t nearly as neat as the ones Sam makes in his skin; they’re all crooked and uneven. “Earlier, when we… you know… you didn’t you know.”

“Are you even serious right now?” Sam snaps at him. “I didn’t hurt you so you didn’t think it was real?”

Dean shakes his head immediately. “That’s not it… not all of it. Look, I just… After everything and then that… This whole fucking day feels unreal, Sam and I couldn’t… I had to be sure.”

“Are you sure now?” Sam asks. His voice is curiously flat and it worries Dean. That kind of flat means disgust and anger at the same time, he thinks.

When he looks at Sam though he only looks curious—and worried as hell. That explains the yelling then. Sam’s not mad at him, no; Dean scared the shit out of him is what that’s all about. Some people react differently and given their respective dysfunctions, it makes sense. Winchesters yell to say, You really gave me a scare there, man.

“I…” Dean stops and licks his lips, flexes the muscles in his forearm, making them bulge and strain against the dripping cuts. It hurts. It’s a distant pain, but it’s there, it’s real and so is Sam standing here next to him looking down at his bloody arm. “Yeah. But…”

“But what?” Sam prompts. He sighs again and looks at Dean’s face, meeting his eyes.

“I fucked it up,” Dean says. “Mine aren’t as good as yours.”

Sam is quiet for a long, long time. Dean listens to a door shut outside and footsteps from their upstairs neighbor. There’s the groan of pipes all around as people flush toilets and take showers.

“Do you want me to fix it?” Sam asks.

“Yes,” Dean says with no hesitation. “Fix them.” And make them beautiful.

“Okay.” Sam sounds very tired as he takes Dean’s bloody hand in his and leads him from the room.

Sam drags one of the two chairs over to the side of the table, close to where Dean was sitting earlier and tells him to sit down. Dean takes up his former seat while Sam goes to get alcohol, gauze and an Exacto knife. Dean waits with barely contained energy, but smiles when Sam gets two beers and brings them along with the other stuff.

He doesn’t say anything, just goes to wet two washcloths and grab a couple of towels from the bathroom as well. Dean finishes the first beer and has started on the second by the time Sam sits down, at last ready to get to work.

“I shouldn’t do this while you’re so damned drunk,” Sam says. When Dean tenses up, ready to protest, Sam shakes his head. “But I’m going to.”

Dean relaxes again and waits for Sam to get started. The alcohol burns like a mother in the deep cuts as he cleans them, but Dean relishes it. With every burst of pain, he becomes more convinced that he is awake, that Sam is really here with him and what happened earlier wasn’t some subconscious farce. It was just different, Sam gave him what he truly needed and he was just too fucked up at the moment to realize it.

Once Sam gets the bleeding from Dean’s cuts mostly stopped, he starts his own and Dean closes his eyes. He gets lost in it, mouth opening softly to the cold air of the room, ears drinking in the sound of the blade etching his flesh. It feels nice, it feels whole as Sam fixes his mistake and makes it as good as the rest. He grows hard while Sam works and squirms uncomfortably.

Sam glances at him from beneath his fallen hair and sucks at the back of his teeth. “Touch yourself,” he says. “Let me see you.”

Dean nods and Sam stops long enough for him to shimmy out of his jeans. He slumps down in the chair, the material stiff and scratchy against his bare ass. Sam takes his left arm again, holding his wrist to keep it steady and gets back to work while Dean strokes himself.

“You know you’re awake now, right?” Sam asks.

Dean bites his bottom lip and nods.

“Say it. I need to hear you say it,” Sam says.

“I’m awake,” Dean says. “I know I’m awake.”

“You’ve been awake the whole time,” Sam tells him.

“I know that now,” Dean says. “I just got… confused.”

“You had a fucked up day.”

“Uh-huh,” Dean says as he thrusts into his tight fist. “I just…”

“Don’t do that shit to me again, Dean,” Sam says. His voice is tightly controlled. “Not ever again. You drifted away from me, from everything there for a bit. I need you here, understand?”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He moans through his teeth. “I’m sorry. I got lost is all.”

“Now you’re found,” Sam says. Then he presses a kiss to the wet cuts on his arm.

Sam licks into the cuts, tongue-fucking the open wounds and Dean makes a strained sound through his teeth. He listens to Sam drinking his blood, tongue slipping into the grooves of the cuts. It fucking hurts and that is so good. Sam kisses his way down to Dean’s hand and licks his burned fingertips, his tongue running over the blisters on the end of his index finger. Sam sucks that finger into his mouth, tongue running over the reddened, slightly swollen skin. He moves like he’s sucking him off and Dean gasps out a soft, Yes.

Then Sam bites down, busting the blisters and draining them into his mouth. Dean arches so hard he nearly falls out of the chair as his orgasm blindsides him. He comes with a sharp, surprised cry as Sam’s teeth sink in so deeply he can feel them on the underside of his nail bed. It is so sweet.

He slumps back in the chair, shaking and drained, head drooping as he catches his breath. Sam presses a soft kiss to his finger and then works his way back up his arm, careful now, only lightly dragging his lips over the cuts, the blood.

Dean opens his eyes slowly, feeling like each lid weighs a ton and looks over at him. He takes his arm away from Sam and touches his hair, the side of his face then he stands up. Sam sees the invitation in his eyes and doesn’t hesitate, he just rises from the chair, grabs Dean with gentle-strong hands, turns him around and pushes him against the wall. Dean braces his bloody forearm against the plaster and rests his forehead against it as Sam moves up behind him.

The sex is rough and quick and when Sam comes, he bites the back of Dean’s neck. It makes him tremble and moan, exhausted pleasure tingling all the way to the ends of his fingertips. He can feel his heartbeat, thick and heavy, in the tip of his burned finger that has become a point of real agony since Sam bit into it.

Sam pulls away from him when it’s over and says, “Whoa, whoa,” when Dean starts to slide down the wall in a ragged heap of skin and bone.

He wraps an arm around his waist and turns him back around, holding him against his side as he leads him back to the bed. Dean looks up at him when he plops down on his ass and Sam kisses his upturned face. Dean smiles at him, the expression a little loopy and a lot drunk. Sam smiles back then goes to root around in their first aid kit to put something on the burn. The cuts on his arm are still bleeding, he won’t bandage those until they’ve stopped and he can clean them up without them starting up bleeding all over again. They’ll bleed some even then, but not as bad. Dean knows this story, too. He’s lived it a hundred times now.

It’s only after Sam has his finger bandaged that Dean even thinks to see what he did to his arm. Sam’s in the shower, getting cleaned up before he goes out to get them some food because they’re both starved.

He listens to the shower running as he turns his arm up to see what Sam carved into the underside. Dean blinks and squints, seeking the pattern through the veil of blood on his skin. When he finds it, he stares for a moment at what Sam so carefully intertwined with the cuts Dean made to create something new, something better.

Romans 12:1 is what Sam cut into him and now it rests in Dean’s flesh, shining wet and red as polished leather. He doesn’t know what it means, but it’s better than what he did and that’s enough. Sam made something from nothing and now his left forearm matches the rest of his body.

Sam comes out of the bathroom dressed and ready to go a few minutes later. Before he goes, he takes Kilgore out and he feeds him though. Then he kisses Dean and gets him another beer when he asks for one. Halfway to the door, Sam stops and comes back to where Dean sits on the bed, staring at his arm again.

“Hey,” Sam says as he crouches in front of him.

“Hey,” Dean says.

Sam leans forward and kisses him again then pulls back just enough to whisper four words against his mouth. Then he’s up and gone again and Dean is alone, but truly awake and happy now.

He finishes his beer and lies back on the bed with his arm cradled against his chest to wait for Sam to get back. Dean doesn’t make it though, he slips off the edge and into sleep without even realizing it’s happening. It’s the best he’s slept in a very long time.

Chapter Text

Christmas Eve is merry and bright, if a bit nippy for the Deep South. It’s still better than wading through snow and getting it clumped in his eyelashes though. Dean thinks about that as he tips his head back to look at the sky that peeks through the clawing branches of the trees that surround him. The sun—the sun—is warm on his face and shoulders where it falls in creamy butter-gold shafts of light through the trees. Somewhere nearby, a squirrel is barking at an intruder and all around him, birds are singing. In the distance is the winter-sleepy rumble of the Pearl River. Everything smells like fertile soil, water and pine.

Dean likes the place they’re staying here in Walkeye, Mississippi. It’s surrounded on all four sides by forest, save the rutted dirt track that leads to the camp. It’s off all the beaten paths—it’s a fifteen minute drive through a twisting maze of one-lane blacktop and gravel roads to even make it to the main highway leading into town. Through the trees comes the sound of the river all day and night. He can take Kilgore out without his leash on and stroll through miles of forest without ever seeing another living soul. He can sit under the shade of tall old pines and drink while he watches the winter sunlight turn the surface of the river to molten gold and brass at sunset. It’s like living in a trance and it would be easy to forget the outside world even exists if they stayed here long enough.

With a contented sigh, Dean drops his head and shakes off the lethargy that had started to creep over him. He’s got more important things to do than stand around and take in the scenery. He’s got groceries in the backseat—two turkey pot pies, a box of Stove Top, some Kraft mac and cheese, frozen dinner rolls, three pies and five bottles of whiskey with a case and a half of Busch Light beer to wash it all down with. They’re going to have a fine Christmas dinner tomorrow. He’s also got a bag with two steaks, two baking potatoes and a loaf of garlic bread for their dinner tonight. He’s really getting into this holiday feasting crap.

He also has a single string of multicolored Christmas lights, a cheap roll of wrapping paper and Sam’s Christmas presents. They took turns going to town, both of them being super secretive about it because stealth is an important part of gift-giving.

Dean gets his bags and the beer, leaving behind three bottles of the whiskey for safekeeping. Then he heads towards the place they’ve rented under assumed names (Dean Snyder and Sam Morrissey). It was only supposed to be for three days, just long enough for them to take stock of their ammo and weapons without drawing suspicion from motel patrons. There’s no better place in the world to do that than the rural south in the middle of hunting season.

In Pennsylvania, say, someone may see them going into their motel room with bags of guns and knives. That person, that Lookie-Lou, would likely cry, Terrorists! and then their asses would be in a sling they couldn’t get out of. Dean’s sure he can speak for Sam as well when it comes to not wanting to be detained by the F.B.I. and/or Homeland Security.

Their three days came to an end yesterday and about 10:00 o’clock that same morning, Sam went and paid the guy they were renting from enough cash to keep the little one bedroom camp until the end of December. They needed a break anyway and Dean’s kind of sick of having to spend holidays in motel rooms. He got a very small taste of what actual holidays meant for the first time since he and Sam were kids right before he went to Hell and he got another taste the short time he spent with Ben and Lisa—may they rest in peace.

That thought makes Dean’s stomach go sour; they didn’t deserve what happened to them, what those monsters did to them. But he and Sam got those motherfuckers, yes they did and Dean is still nothing short of thrilled about that. He does still hate that Ben will never get to grow up and Lisa will never get the chance to know happiness with someone who can truly be with her.

Ben and Lisa were hard to get over, but he has moved on from them. He’s still sorry as hell that they died, but he no longer feels as guilty and he hasn’t dwelled on them or their deaths in years. Things are better now, maybe the best they’ve ever been. Dean knows that almost everyone in the world would disagree with him about that, but he doesn’t care. He’s not interested in what everyone may think or feel because this is not about them.

He opens the front door, feels the warm air from the gas heater caress his flushed cheeks and lets it all go. Right here and now—that’s what matters to Dean. Kilgore comes to greet him, making Dean grin with his wiggling butt and lolling tongue. He takes a deep breath to call out to Sam and let him know he’s back, but then he stops and wrinkles his nose. Another, more careful breath presents him with a bitter, earthy smell that seems green; moist and furtive as its scent molecules stick in his nostrils. It isn’t an altogether bad smell, but it is still somehow unfriendly.

He walks on into the camp and kicks the door closed behind him. He finds Sam in the kitchen, busy at the four burner stove. On the small kitchen table is a pile of green stuff that Dean recognizes as mistletoe. Lots of mistletoe. He wonders where the fuck Sam got it all and even more than that, he wonders where he’s been keeping it. Some of it is unadorned and other bunches still are bound with raffia twine, grape vines, bows, ribbons and all manner of other decorations. He’s either been buying up the shit or he’s been stealing it. Probably a bit of both, actually. Either way, he’s been stockpiling it and probably hiding it in one of his duffels—likely the one he keeps all of his murder gear in since he leaves it in the trunk most of the time. But he brought it in with him when they stopped here, Dean recalls. Had it looked a little fuller? He thinks maybe it did.

“I don’t think you can make crank out of this stuff,” Dean says by way of greeting.

Sam stirs the steaming pot he’s got sitting on the stove and laughs. “I know.”

Dean shoves some of the mistletoe out of his way to put down his bags. “Okay then, so what the hell’s with all the kissy-face weed?”

Sam leaves his unfriendly smelling pot simmering and comes over to the table. He picks up a bunch of mistletoe wrapped in raffia that sparkles with gold and silver glitter. Waving it at Dean, he moves closer so that he’s holding it over his head when he smiles and leans forward.

“Mistletoe is poisonous,” he says. Then he kisses Dean, his smiling lips pressing against his as Dean leans into him a bit.

When Sam steps away, Dean nods. “Gotcha. I um… I take you found someone to use that on?”

“Oh, yeah,” Sam says.

“Wait. How are you going to use it? That shit reeks, Sam, I don’t think anyone’s going to willingly drink it,” Dean says.

“I thought of that,” Sam says. He reaches in his jeans pocket and pulls out a syringe. “I’m not going to ask them to drink it.”

He’s not going to ask at all. It sends a shiver down Dean’s back that isn’t entirely unpleasant.

Dean takes his coat off and pushes up his sleeves—it’s really warm inside, just the way he likes it. The bandage on his left forearm is bright white even in the dimly lit kitchen and he unconsciously runs his fingers over it.

“Okay, so why are you cooking it?” Dean asks. “I get that you need the juice, but there’s more to it than that. I know how you are.”

“Jesus, Dean, you make me sound diabolical,” Sam says.

“You kinda are, dude,” Dean says. It doesn’t bother him anymore that saying it makes him smile.

Sam chuffs softly with amusement. “I just like to stay creative, that’s all. There’s nothing duller than repetition and routine.” He goes back to his pot and looks into it, spoons up some of the deeply vibrant green liquid and makes a sound in the back of his throat that suggests he isn’t pleased quite yet. “I’m cooking it down to concentrate it. I won’t need as much then and that means—”

“You won’t have to take as much with you and that’s easier,” Dean finishes for him.

“Exactly,” Sam says.

“So, who is it?” Dean asks.

“That woman,” Sam says.

“Which woman?” Dean asks.

He usually spots them, but he can’t be with Sam 24 hours a day, at least not every day. Without Castiel bearing down on them like an F4 tornado, Dean’s once again getting along with that just fine. The thought of Castiel still sends an unhappy pang of regret through his belly, but he does his best to shove it away. He did what he had to do. He did the right thing. He has to remember that and eventually he will. His friend became a foe and that’s that. Fucking child. Child of God. All creatures of God are ultimately evil because God’s hands are the same ones that formed Judas and everyone knows how that turned out. Dean shakes his head and rubs his mouth to wipe away the sneer that has made his upper lip curl back.

“You mean you don’t know?” Sam asks.

“No, I don’t think I do this time,” Dean says. He’s wondered a time or two if he even knows half the time, especially after Sam offed the Fonz (fuck, what was his name?).

“One in Louisiana,” Sam says. “Think about it.”

Dean doesn’t have to think long after Sam gives him his hint. There had been a minute when he thought he knew at the time, but then he’d discarded it for some reason. Maybe he’d gotten distracted. That had to be it. He remembers the waitress coming with their food and being awed by the rack of ribs piled on his plate, all sauce-shellacked deliciousness resting atop a small mountain of crinkle cut fries.

“The girl with the feather earrings,” Dean says then. He remembers the pot pies and takes them out of the bag to go put in the freezer. “The one that was hitting on us. She gave us her phone number.”

“That’s the one,” Sam said.

Dean takes the other pies out of their bag and puts them in the freezer with the pot pies. “Why her? I mean, why the mistletoe for her?”

“Why not?” Sam says. “I’ve been thinking about the mistletoe thing for a while now. I figured it was time I try it out.”

“That’s why you were so interested in the shit on the old carousel.”

“That’s it,” Sam says. He dips his spoon in the stewing mistletoe again and that time, he looks satisfied. He turns around to look at Dean after he turns off the burner. He sees the Christmas lights and smirks then asks, “So, what did you get for Christmas dinner?”

“Awesome stuff,” Dean says. He puffs up a bit at that proclamation, certain that he’s going to reheat the best Christmas dinner that has ever come out of a box.

“Like?” Sam prompts.

So, Dean tells him and Sam nods his approval. “Still, that’s a lot of pie.”

“I’ll eat it,” Dean says.

All of it?”

“Well, I figure you’ll eat a piece or two,” Dean says.

Sam shakes his head and smiles. “Okay, man, have it your way. When you get sick from too much banana cream pie though, don’t expect me to feel sorry for you.”

“You wound me, Sam,” Dean says.

“Sure I do,” Sam says. “You wanna go for a walk while that stuff cools off?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Dean says. “But not too long, I got us steaks for dinner. I was thinkin’ we could cook them in the fire pit out back.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Sam agrees. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to stop anywhere for food on my way.”

“You’re going tonight?”

“Yeah,” Sam says. “I want to be here tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Dean says.

He wishes Sam would wait until after Christmas, but knows better than to try to change his mind. He may’ve picked his girl a few days ago, but he’s been planning this kill for much longer than that. Sam is probably about ready to pop he’s so antsy to try it out. It’s best if Dean just lets him get it out of his system and well, he’s not exactly opposed to the idea of Sam bringing him his very own version of, T’was the night before Christmas…

~*~*~*~*~*~

They eat dinner and when they’re done, Sam takes a shower then strains up his mistletoe concentrate. He spends another forty five minutes scrubbing the pot and all the utensils he used when he was cooking it. When he’s done with that, he goes back outside and builds the fire up to a real rager and slowly, calmly feeds every last bit of remaining mistletoe into it. Dean ends up helping him do that so they can go in and watch the Shrek Christmas special before Sam goes out.

The more Dean thinks about it, the more unhappy he becomes about this outing of Sam’s because he’s playing again. He’s not thinking about how it makes for better stories when Sam does that. No, he’s thinking about how Sam called the bitch—her name is Renée—and asked if she wanted to hang out later. She said yes, said she was hoping Sam would call her. Sam’s going to hang out with her, they’re going to talk and maybe watch a movie. There’s sure to be drinks and flirtatious touching.

Does Sam have any idea what knowing all of that does to him? Just thinking about it has Dean’s hackles up. He reminds himself that Sam is faithful, he’s not going to fuck around with someone he means to kill later or anyone, for that matter. It still sticks in his craw, the thought of Sam out with someone else, even if he is sitting on their couch in their warm living room. She’ll probably at least put her hand on his thigh and he will smell like her perfume when he comes in. He’ll tell Dean everything, every sickly delicious detail will be his in a few hours. But he mourns not being able to see any of it.

Dean is standing in front of the kitchen sink, rinsing out a glass to pour some whiskey into when the thought hits him. He drops the glass and curses as he snatches it back up. It’s not even chipped and that’s good, he supposes. There’s a part of him that wants to slam it down into the enamel coated steel bowl and listen to it shatter though. He wants to take his frustration out on it. Instead, he takes a deep breath and pours his whiskey.

“Hey,” Sam says from behind him.

Dean startles then jerks around to look at him. He’s dressed in some of his nicer clothes—casual enough to look relaxed, but not so casual he doesn’t look like he’s not trying to make a good impression. He can smell just the faintest whiff of cologne on Sam; the Cool Water they share, but haven’t actually touched in about two years.

“You look spiffy,” Dean says.

“Thanks,” Sam says.

It wasn’t a compliment. “Welcome,” Dean says.

“So, okay, I’ll be back in a few hours,” Sam says.

“How long is “a few hours”?” Dean asks.

“Four or five, maybe six,” Sam says.

“Great,” Dean says. “I’ll be here.”

“What’s your problem?” Sam asks. He tilts his head with a frown. His hair is in his face and Dean wants to shove it back so he can see his eyes.

“I need to trim your hair,” Dean says.

“Uh… Okay. Because I’m five,” Sam says.

“Nah, you’re not five,” Dean says. Then he smirks. “You don’t cry nearly as much as you used to when I cut it.”

Sam rolls his eyes and flips him off. “Whatever, Dean. You can trim my hair if it’s bugging you that much. You’re not doing it now though.”

Dean nods and opens his mouth to say more, but then drops it. There’s no point in drawing this out—the sooner Sam leaves, the sooner he’ll come back. “Drive safe,” he says instead. He raises his glass of whiskey. “Lotsa drunks on the road this time of year.”

Sam smiles at that. “I’ll be careful,” he says. He starts to turn away, but then stops. “I left you something on the coffee table.”

“What is it?” Dean asks.

“A surprise,” Sam says. “Maybe. It’s really up to you.”

That’s odd and fucking cryptic, damn. Dean rolls his hand at Sam in an “out with it” motion but Sam only shakes his head. “C’mon, man,” Dean says.

“Not gonna happen,” Sam says. He checks the time on his cell phone. “I need to go; I’m supposed to be at Renée’s by ten. I’d hate to be late.”

Dean curls his lip as he watches Sam turn away from him. He feels a clench in his belly that’s almost painful. Hollow and cold.

“Sam!” he calls.

Sam pokes his head back around the doorframe and raises his eyebrows in question. He looks a little irritated and impatient. “Dude. What?”

“Can I come with you?” Dean blurts it out, the words tumbling over each other like falling blocks. He freezes, mouth open a little in surprise. He didn’t know he was going to say that until he said it.

Sam stares at him for a long moment and then shakes his head. “No.”

Then he’s ducked back around the doorframe and gone, leaving Dean in the wake of his refusal. Just that, just NO and Dean feels a shudder of anger run through him. Sam always wants to be alone with them and he hates it. It leaves Dean on edge, leaves him feeling like Sam’s being cagey with him.

He listens to the Impala rumble to life and then the sound of it fading away… away… away into the night. He trembles all over. No. Sam said, No. It makes Dean feel like he doesn’t want to share that part of his life with him, not directly anyway. Not even after everything Dean has done for him. It’s so selfish.

“Fuck you!” Dean yells at the empty space Sam so recently filled.

He throws his glass and breaks it after all, shattering it against the doorframe. Whiskey drips down the white painted wood in dark amber rivulets and that makes him angry all over again. He wasted a perfectly good drink and on what, exactly? Even pissed off, he’s aware that he’s not exactly being rational about this shit. He doesn’t even know where it’s coming from. He’s never wanted to watch before; but the cologne, Sam’s casual-but-not-too-casual clothes, his stupid floppy hair—all of it—festers like an abscess in Dean’s mind.

What the fuck is wrong with him?

“Hell if I know,” Dean mutters under his breath.

He turns around to face the sink again and braces his hands on the cold enamel. Staring out at the dark, he breathes deep the ghostly traces of Sam’s cook. The unfriendly greenness of it sneaks up his nostrils and mingles with the scent of the spilled whiskey. Time slips away from Dean for a little while, he doesn’t know how long nor does he care. When he finally snaps out of it, he cleans up the spilled (wasted) whiskey and broken glass. He fixes himself another drink, this time in an empty soda bottle so he’ll have a cap. Then he gets a big Mag-Lite out of his duffel and calls Kilgore. They’re going for another walk, cold and darkness be damned.

Down at the river, Dean stops and watches the light from the waning moon play on the rippling water. Kilgore sniffs around closer to the water’s edge and Dean sings “Silent Night” under his breath. All of the daytime sounds have tucked themselves in for the night and he is left with the whisper of the water and the wind moaning through the trees. Together they sound like terrible confessions uttered during a slow death. And on that cheerful note, Dean unscrews the cap on his bottle and raises it to take a long swallow.

There’s a soft sound a few minutes later that’s different from all the rest and Dean clicks on his flashlight to have a look-see. He shines the beam directly at the water and there, in the middle of the river, two eyes the color of verdigris flecked bronze shine back at him. It takes him a second to fully understand what he’s seeing. At the same time it dawns on him what he’s looking at, those glowing circles disappear beneath the surface of the brownish water.

Dean throws a worried glance at Kilgore who is busy investigating a patch of dry reeds that grow right along the shore. “Kilgore, to me! Right now!” Dean barks. He can’t quite keep the edge of panic out of his voice.

Kilgore has excellent re-call and trots right to his side, easily keeping pace with Dean as he backs away from the water and into the tree line. He kills his light for only a minute and when he clicks it back on, the eyes are back and only a foot or two from the shoreline. He can see the knobby, black-green top of the alligator’s head now and it makes his heart stumble in his chest.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he mutters as he turns away and whistles for the dog to come on.

They’re so done with their nighttime outdoor adventure. If he hadn’t heard that soft sound, the ripple that wasn’t part of the regular water flow, then he or Kilgore would’ve been so much gator chow in another minute or two. He doesn’t even have a gun with him and Sam’s gone, so he wouldn’t hear Dean screaming for help if it had happened. He has no doubt whatsoever that damned prehistoric relic meant to chomp on one of them. Dean thinks it had its eyes on him since it was almost directly across from where he was standing.

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” he says under his breath as he hightails it through the woods and back to the camp. He doesn’t know if alligators attack on land, but he’s damn well not going to stick around to find out. He has heard that they can move really quickly when they want to though. That’s enough to have Dean picking up his pace from a fast walk to a light jog. Kilgore seems to think this is all one grand adventure.

Once he’s back inside with Kilgore and the door is safely locked behind them, Dean takes another long swallow of whiskey. Then he goes to his duffel to root out his aging pack of Pall Malls. He’s still got eight left, but he only needs one right now.

While he smokes, he remembers that Sam left him something on the coffee table. Curiosity piqued and his anger from earlier easier to put aside, Dean goes to investigate.

When he sees what it is, he frowns and says, “The fuck, Sam?” Fleet glares up at him from the box and he turns it over to look at the back. There’s a note poking out of the top of the box and Dean pulls it free to read it.

It’s up to you, but use it if you want to know the rest.

There’s that cryptic shit again.

“This is why I hate surprises,” Dean says to Kilgore. He flaps the note at him and scrunches up his nose. “I don’t know about all this.”

He puts the box down and tells himself he’ll think about it. He does want to know what the surprise is, but it comes with a price—he has to use the thing in the box. What the hell could that possibly be about? Dean’s not sure he wants to know. It makes him feel a little squirmy just thinking about it.

So, he drinks more and stops thinking about that after a while. Unfortunately, his thoughts turn back to Sam and what he’s doing with Renée now that they’re all alone. He’s had plenty of time to get into Louisiana; it’s only about a 45 minute drive from Walkeye to the border town they met her in. If Sam made good time, he could’ve been there in less than 45 minutes, give or take 5-8 minutes. Dean’s got driving math down to a fine art by this juncture in his life; he’s been doing it since he was a kid, after all.

To occupy himself, he gets the box of Christmas lights off the kitchen table and strings them around the living room window that faces the front yard. That takes him all of ten minutes. Even though he enjoys their cheerful glow, it’s not enough to keep his mind busy.

Dean gets another cigarette and throws the pack down on the coffee table. It knocks into the innocuous looking little box Sam left him. Dean stares at it for a good long while, daring it to make a move or whatever it is strange things in boxes do.

That makes him laugh and he thinks maybe he’s being a little ridiculous about this. He’s still not sure, but he is more curious every time his thoughts turn back to it. Still, he’s not ready to give it serious consideration just yet. But he needs something to do and as much as he loves Kilgore, the dog doesn’t play poker. A quick flip through television channels shows him nothing worth a damn is on television either. He does watch the end of a cooking show hosted by Jacques Pépin. That old dude can do things with a knife even at his advanced age that make Dean feel inadequate and he’s no slouch when it comes to knife work. It’s kind of hypnotic to watch him debone a chicken.

When Essential Pépin is over, Dean turns the TV off because he has no interest in Simply Ming. Dean sighs and scrubs at his face then finishes off his soda bottle of whiskey before getting up to grab the bottle. He stops himself after a few sips though. He can’t get smashed, not on a night like this. He has to do something though because he’s going stir crazy and he cannot stop thinking. Thinking on nights like this is so bad.

He rubs his bandaged arm and immediately brightens. There is one thing he can do, he’s been meaning to do it since he stole the Bible from the motel room they were staying at in Missouri. Dean hops up from the sofa and roots it out of his duffel. It has worked its way down into the bottom of the bag and when he grabs it, he grabs something else as well, something he had forgotten.

Dean holds the Bible in one hand and looks at the small envelope in his other hand. Back in early fall he made a single serving friend at a bar in California, a real cool cat of a chick named Billie. She gave him this envelope as a gift and told him to take it easy before she gave him kiss on the cheek and sashayed out into the night air. Inside the envelope are mushrooms, dried little things that look a bit like dehydrated pygmy ears. Dean’s only done them once before, back when Sam was in Stanford all those years ago.

He’d been in Utah, debating whether or not to go find Sam and talk to him. It was a debate he had with himself quite often during that time, but he could feel himself starting to break down in his resolve. He missed his little brother like he was an amputated limb that Dean had to sew back on or go mad without. He hadn’t known where John was—that was when he’d started that shit—and Dean was starting to wear thin. But in a bar on the Nevada border where they sold genuine whiskey and beer with the full alcohol content in flagrant violation of state laws, Dean had met a nice distraction named Cadman. He hadn’t looked like Sam aside from the fact he was tall and had weird kaleidoscope hazel eyes, but in a different array of colors—indigo, green and burnt orange-amber.

Cadman was a lot of fun and as much of a shameless flirt as Dean is. They’d hit it off and Dean had known that he was the kind of guy he could actually be friends with if his life allowed for such things. He’d crashed with him that night and the next day, Cadman had suggested they free their minds. When Dean asked what he meant, he’d pulled out some mushroom caps and grinned at him. Oh, had been Dean’s response to that. He didn’t need to be told what they were, but he’d never done much more than drink and smoke a little weed—small potatoes when compared to eating ‘shrooms. He’d agreed though, curious and already comfortable enough around Cadman to feel like it was okay to do it with him.

Cadman had called some friends of his to come and partake as well, a brother and sister named Sunday and Wednesday of all things. They’d been there in less than fifteen minutes and then the party had gotten started. The sun had been shining bright that day and they’d all lain in Cadman’s big backyard and laughed, talked, spun in circles around the moon that was hiding high above them. Dean still doesn’t know who touched who first, but one second he was grinning at the shapes in the air and the next he was kissing Sunday while Cadman ran his hand up his inner thigh and Wednesday sucked lightly at the tendons in his neck.

Dean remembers the sweat and pleasure, the light and the color. It had been so bright it was surely unreal and he’d been lost in it. He’d been lost in them. A few hundred miles away his brother had been waking from nightmares with demon blood cells waking up in his veins, popping like poison-filled balloons, but Dean had been there. While Sam moved through another sleepless day, Dean watched Sunday kiss his sister while Cadman fucked Dean in the soft, verdant grass. He remembers seeing that and not feeling so alone. After all those years he had proof that it wasn’t just him and Sam. Except Sunday and Wednesday didn’t push it past a kiss. A kiss was still something though.

In a small, weird way, Dean still misses those people and wishes he could introduce them to Sam. He also wishes he hadn’t stayed so long. He thinks maybe if he had gotten to Stanford sooner, he may’ve been able to do more. Mostly he knows that’s wrong, but he’s never been able to shake the feeling entirely.

He shakes the envelope again and then tears it open. Looking into the envelope, he sees the little caps there and remembers how unpleasant the taste is. Then he shrugs, takes two out and pops them in his mouth.

“Ah, damn,” Dean says around the mouthful when the flavor washes over his tongue in a nasty rush.

He chews as quickly as he can; the bitter, starchy flavor reminiscent of how his come tasted that night in Missouri, but about a thousand times worse. Maybe a million times. The texture is like slightly flexible, thin plastic or flattened styrofoam—something wholly unpleasant. As soon as he’s got them chewed enough he can swallow without choking, he does so.

With a grimace, Dean grabs his whiskey and chugs it then swishes the last bit around in his mouth and gargles lightly. Then he puts the bottle aside and only then does he laugh. He can’t get drunk on nights like this, so of course the brilliant alternative is to munch some psilocybin. For a minute he entertains the idea of throwing it up, but it’s probably too late—at least a little too late anyway—and the thought of that bitter starch flavor coming back up on a tide of whiskey is even worse than swallowing the things. So, he’s stuck. Dean decides he’ll just have to play it straight when Sam comes in and barring that, well, he should probably just tell him. About the time he started talking about Sam’s aura, he’d give himself away anyway.

About half an hour later, Dean is kicked back and in love with the world. He’s got his eyes closed and there are squares and circles in glowing neon jumping behind his eyelids. As time creeps on by (Why so slow, time?) the shapes morph into actual things. The Impala chit-chats with him and sounds a lot like Courtney Love—she’s definitely foul-mouthed enough to qualify. It’s delightful to have the car talking to him like this. He wonders if they are connecting long distance and thinks they may be. They will not be charged for this call.

The sound of his own laughter makes Dean open his eyes and look around, certain he will find someone standing on the other side of the room because that’s where it sounded like it was coming from. Maybe his other self—they’ve met, but that Dean was kind of a downer. Seriously fucking militant, wow. His other self won’t ever exist though, will he? No, nope, he won’t. Dean fixed that and made it so it would never happen.

“Holy shit,” Dean says. He’s just realized that he rewrote time. That’s pretty fucking amazing. Like, really fucking amazing. Maybe he’s magical. That would be fun, except probably not. Look what being different did to Sam—it ruined his life, pretty much. At least the life he would’ve had. Poor Sam.

Dean frowns and thinks, Uh-oh, when he does. He needs to cheer up before his yellow brick road turns into the road to Golgotha. That hill. All of those dead people. It must’ve smelled so bad and the sounds of the dying—moans and cries, pleading for mercy—carrying on the hot wind. The carrion birds wheeling overhead, rapacious and hungry.

Dean snatches the Bible up and holds it close to his chest as he looks wildly around the room to make sure it’s still there. He’s going down and he needs to come up. Hurry up now, don’t be late.

He flips the Bible open and blinks at the page when the words jiggle up and down like they’re all auditioning for jobs at Hooters. Maybe a chorus line at Hooters. That would be stupid. Fun though. Dean bets it would be lots of fun. Especially if Sam picked one and turned her into one of them. It’d be even better if he let Dean watch.

No.

Dean looks around again, glaring this time. It sounded so real. Sam’s an asshole for leaving him here like this. What is he doing with Renée? What, what, what? How long has he been gone? When will he back? Where did time go anyway? Things feel stretchy and stiff at the same time. Dean tries to remember if this happened when he ate mushrooms with Cadman and cannot. He goes back to the Bible. It’s very important that he do what he set out to do. Goals: He has them.

It takes him a while (but not long at all) and Dean finds the passage he was looking for. It takes him another twenty minutes to read it because he keeps getting distracted by the twinkle lights and once, he was pretty sure he saw Castiel sitting in the chair, but a second look showed nothing but a bag of ammo.

“Focus, focus,” he says. He presses his face as close to the page as he can without the words blur-smearing together and reads:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

“Whoa,” Dean says when he sits back. Spiritual. Act. Of. Worship. That sentence alone weighs a ton and Sam marked him with it. He… What did he do? What does it mean?

Dean reads it again. And again. And again until he loses count and no longer has to look at the words at all. There’s a message here—an important one that sits in Dean’s mind and takes up room in his heart. It makes him feel warmer than he already did. He still doesn’t know what Sam was trying to tell him, but it makes him feel… It makes him feel… Feel…

Loved.

Sam gave him Romans 12:1 like it was a love letter, a declaration. He was telling him that what they do is sacred, an act of worship. All the knives and blood, the cuts and burns that turn to scars over time; that turn into testaments in the flesh. A living sacrifice. Dean’s body is the altar at which Sam worships. It makes him shudder so hard his teeth clack together. He rolls his head back on his shoulders and thinks that he has never felt so perfect.

“Thank you,” he breathes out. He feels the words move up his throat and over his tongue. They step from his lips graceful as ballerinas as they revoltade out into the world.

He rolls his head forward again and peels away the gauze from his arm to see the words. To see the scabs. He stares at them, at the patterns and dark flakes of dried blood. Then he begins to very methodically pick away the scabs from the word and numbers so he can touch-feel-know them. Blood wells slowly in the healing wounds and Dean watches, rapt and struck by this in some profound way he cannot name. He is a fountain. A holy ground. A baptismal font. He bites his arm and lets his mouth fill with the sacrament of his flesh.

Dean sits that way for an interminable amount of time, unaware and uncaring as blood seeps around his lips and trickles into his mouth. The taste is coppery and sharp on his tongue, glistening like a fish, like liquid gold or a river at sunset. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice…

Yes, oh yes.

The sound of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” jars into Dean’s meditation and he lets go of his arm, licking his mouth and only then hoping he didn’t fuck anything up. Jimi can move over for a minute while he checks. The word and numbers are still there, clear as ever and Dean is relieved. Then he realizes that Jimi Hendrix isn’t here with him, he’s in his phone. Actually, he’s his new ringtone.

Where is his phone?

“Pocket,” Dean reminds himself. He reaches into first his left coat pocket and no. Then his right and yes, he is victorious!

“Hello?”

“I’m on my way back,” Sam says.

“How’d it go?” Dean says. He’s smiling from ear to ear. Holy and pleasing to God…

“I’ll tell you when I get home,” Sam says. “Did you find what I left you?”

“Yeah,” Dean says after a minute to think about it. “What’s it for?”

“You can read,” Sam says.

Dean laughs. “I know I can, I learned… dunno… a long time ago. I mean, what do you want me to use it for?”

“It’s a surprise. I told you that,” Sam says.

“You also said it was up to me,” Dean says. “What does that mean?”

“It means that if you do that much then you’ll learn the rest soon enough. But if you don’t want to do it even then, we don’t have to,” Sam says. “It’s just something I was thinking about.”

“Romans,” Dean says. There is a Centurion in front of the TV for about half a second when he says that and it makes Dean laugh again. “Pretty sure that’s the wrong kind. Maybe.”

“What? Are you drunk?”

“Uh… No,” he says honestly. “No.”

“Did you get into the painkillers again?”

“Nuh-uh,” Dean says.

“You’re being… unusual,” Sam says.

“Just… I am not,” Dean says. “When are you going to be home?”

“Soon,” he says. “I just left. I heard on the radio on my way over that there may be traffic checkpoints around though, so I may get held up a little while longer.”

“Shit,” Dean says. “Did you—”

“Don’t worry, eveything’s taken care of,” Sam says.

“Good,” Dean says. “Be careful, Sam.”

“I will be,” Sam says. “I need to get off the phone though.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He sucks his bottom lip into his mouth and thinks through the swirl of colored smoke in his mind. It’s like a concert for one. He hopes Megadeth plays. “Hey, Sam… I’ll do it. I want to know. So, okay. Okay?”

He can hear the smile in Sam’s voice when he says, “Awesome. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And Sam?” Sam hmms in question. “Thank you for the Romans.”

“What?” Sam asks.

“My arm,” Dean says. “I um… I. I… just shut up and say something.”

“You’re welcome, Dean,” Sam says around a laugh. “How’s that?”

“Good, now go and drive and don’t get a ticket in my car,” Dean says.

“Sure thing,” Sam says. “See you soon.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He hangs up and grins then looks at the box. He’s feeling charitable and really open-minded about his dubious pal, Fleet. He wants his surprise more than he’s worried about a few feelings of personal awkwardness. He’ll get over it.

He snatches up the box and heads for the bathroom with the very firm idea that when he’s done, he’s going to take a fucking shower. That’ll make him feel better.

~*~*~*~*~*~

When Sam makes it back, Dean is dancing in the front yard. He doesn’t need music, he has an orchestra in his head. He has never felt so wild or so free, so in love with the layers of the night that peel back one at time and show him shades of blue he never knew existed. After his confrontation with Fleet (which wasn’t as godawful as he’d feared) and his shower, he went outside for some fresh air. But only after convincing himself that alligators are too stupid to walk around a house. As long as he didn’t go out the backdoor then he was a-okay. He was sure of it and look at that: He was right. He has not been munched on by a single large reptile. He did, however, have a very brief conversation with a startled looking possum. It proved to be a terrible conversationalist.

The Impala’s headlights kiss his skin and Dean is blinded by the light and lost in a new wash of alien color and shapes. Then the lights are gone before the engine dies and he hears the familiar squeak of the door hinge as Sam pops it open. He stands and waits, smiling and shivering now that he’s stopped moving.

“Dean,” Sam says as he trots towards him. “Dean, are you all right?”

“I’m grrrreat, Sammy.” Dean smiles up at him in the dark and moves closer, seeking his warmth and smell.

“You’re naked and it’s thirty something degrees out,” Sam says. “How is that fine?”

“I was dancing, did you see? Do you want to dance? You’ll have to listen really close though ‘cause the music’s in my head,” Dean says.

“What the hell are you on?” Sam asks as he takes his coat off and gives it to Dean.

“Warm,” Dean says as he lets Sam’s big, black coat swallow him. He’s wrapped in a shadow. It’s nice.

“Hello?” Sam snaps his fingers in his face.

“Oh, that,” Dean says. “Mushrooms. Remember that Billie chick in Cali? She gave them to me.”

“Well, that’s great,” Sam says. He doesn’t sound sincere at all and Dean frowns.

“No, look, it’s okay,” he says. “I’m up, not down. It’s nice here.”

“Right,” Sam says with a soft laugh as Dean leans into him. “Let’s go inside.”

“Hell, yes,” Dean says. “I’m cold now.”

“I wonder why,” Sam says.

“Dunno,” Dean says. “But I have an idea it has something to do with the weather.”

Sam laughs and laughs at that and in turn, it makes Dean laugh. Sam seems like he’s in a good mood and that makes sense. He’s usually in a good mood after his… his private hunts.

Dean can hear his teeth chattering as they walk and he leans even further into Sam. Sam may like the cold, but he is so warm; he’s always been like that. Dean’s glad for it, too, it’s really cold once the music stops and the dancing ends. It’s like death. Except not, Death is way uglier than this. He has funky hair, too. He fixed Sammy though, so Dean likes the guy a lot even if he is scared shitless of him, too.

They go inside and Sam makes him sit on the couch then he goes to turn on the heater and get Dean a blanket. Dean watches him as he wraps himself up in the soft blanket and when Sam sits down, he tips himself over into his side, seeking his warmth again. There’s something he needs to tell Sam. Something he did and now he needs to know. What was it? What was it? What was— Oh!

“I did the thing with the stuff,” Dean says. “The box.” Sam nods and Dean waits until he can’t anymore. “Motherfucker, tell me. Tell me all of it.”

“I will,” Sam says. He’s starting to smile. It’s a smile Dean likes a lot; it’s a sharp, but not cruel, smile. Dean wants to cut his mouth on it. “But not in here. Come on.”

He stands up again and holds his hands down for Dean to take if he wants to. He thinks about it for a moment then throws off his blanket and does it.

As they go, Dean says, “Sam, tell me what happened.” Don’t tell me no.

“I will,” Sam says. “Don’t I always?”

Dean nods as they walk into the bedroom. He looks around like he’s never seen the room before. Kilgore is in the bed. His eyes are smoked glass. So pretty. Dean sits on the bed and hugs the dog until Sam shoos him down and out of the room with a gentle admonition. When Kilgore has walked away, looking supremely put out, Sam shuts the door and turns back to Dean.

Sam runs his hand over the back of Dean’s head and studies him for a second. Finally, he says, “Lay down, okay?”

“Yep,” Dean says.

He does as Sam asked and stares up at the ceiling. It wasn’t this shiny before, it looks like the glassy surface of still water. It, too, is pretty. He’s happy here, with Sam and his black light violet and lightning aura. He can hear him crackling with energy, but it doesn’t make him afraid or worry him. Dean wants to be inside that electrical storm, struck down and torn apart. Sam would put him back together and he is always so careful with his hands. He’s precise.

Sam takes two of the four pillows on the bed and gets Dean to lift his hips so he can slide them under him. “Are you comfortable?”

“Uh-huh,” Dean says. “What are we doing though?”

“You’ll see,” Sam says.

Dean rolls his eyes and decides, Fuck it. He trusts Sam. For a long time he didn’t, but he does now. Sam said if he didn’t like it, he’d stop and Dean knows he will. Now that they’re here, too, he’s kind of wondering what the surprise is—he wants to find out in his own time instead of having Sam tell him. It’s funny how things like that work.

Sam takes off his coat and then his shirt and throws them on the floor by the closet. “You know, she thought she was an artist,” he says as he goes to his duffel and gets the lube they’ve been using and two more things of it, a different brand. Dean finds that interesting for sure. “She fucking sucked though. A lot of abstract crap that a drunk, blind monkey could’ve painted better even while high on crack.”

That makes Dean choke he’s laughing so hard. He’s perfectly relaxed, perfectly, gloriously calm. He only ever feels this way when Sam’s here with him, when they’re truly alone and none of the other shit from the outside world can ooze in and taint his mind.

Sam sits on the bed and scoots very close to Dean, into the splayed spread of his legs. He turns his head to kiss his inner thighs, licking each rung of the ladders carved there. He pops open the cap on the lube and strokes Dean lightly at first, not pushing inside of him, only caressing him. It’s enough to be pleasurable and frustrating all at once.

“We watched a movie,” Sam says. “Her idea. Something called Run, Lola, Run. It really wasn’t that bad, but I’d have liked it better if she hadn’t talked through half of it. Apparently she took German in college. She was still reading the fucking subtitles, so she must have not retained much of what she learned.”

“What foreign language did—” Dean’s voice cracks when Sam finally slides a finger inside of him. “Shit. Sorry. What foreign language did you take in college?”

Sam laughs as he strokes his finger in and out. Slow-slow-slow. “Latin.”

Dean laughs, too. “Easy A.”

“Exactly,” Sam says. “I learned stuff I didn’t know though. Declensions screwed me up at first. Not totally, but enough.”

“Do you think Renée knew Latin?” Dean asks.

“Renée didn’t know her ass from a hole in the ground.” Sam says it very matter-of-factly as he crooks his finger up and makes Dean gasp softly. He draws it back that way, slightly angled upward, pulling the sound from Dean as he goes. When he pushes back in, he adds another finger. “She thought she was smart, but she really wasn’t. You know, I usually don’t dislike them, but by the time I got around to spiking her, I couldn’t fucking stand her.”

Dean’s touching himself: Side of his neck, behind his ear, the crooks of his elbows. He slides his hands over his chest, tracing the ley lines of veins there, thick and blue beneath his skin. Where did Sam put the needle? Where did he slide it in and inject Renée? Dean knows where all the major arteries are even though he doesn’t know the names of all of them. Did Sam do it there or did he pick somewhere different? He moves his hands down to his groin, touches there and he wonders if Sam would’ve done it there. It makes him angry to think he would. It’s such an intimate place, the prick of the needle an entry. A penetration.

His skin prickles with gooseflesh as he closes his eyes and lets his hands wander. He can feel Sam’s fingers inside of him, warm and slippery and good. Dean breathes in. Dean breathes out. He feels like he’s full of warmth all over, but no light, no light. He does not bleed angel blood. His is much too red for that. Offer your bodies as living sacrifice…

Dean arches his back with a soft moan when Sam adds a third finger and jerks as he pushes them all inside at once then twists them. It’s a little uncomfortable at first, but a couple of slow, smooth strokes and a bit of lube and Dean’s lifting his hips more, moving into it. Dean moves his hands along his thighs and he picks his head up to look at Sam and meet his eyes. Something about that is galvanizing and he lets out a soft breath at the intent look on Sam’s face. His eyes burn him when he looks up and stares right back. Dean watches his arm moving back and forth and knows exactly why. It sends a delicious thrill through him.

Sam drops his head to nuzzle the crease of Dean’s thigh and then nips him. It’s a sharp, pinching bite that makes Dean jerk again. He does it all the way down the crease and then switches sides. He never stops moving his fingers. Dean’s starting to sweat, hips rolling into Sam’s motions, pleasure a quivering thing inside of him.

“Don’t stop talking, but—”

“Okay,” Sam says. “Not yet though.” Then he stops moving his hand.

Dean makes a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. He’s so close and Sam just stopped. If he came it wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened and sometimes it’s nice. But apparently that’s not happening tonight, at least not yet. When he looks at Sam though, he smiles at him.

“Not yet, that’s all,” Sam says. “Just breathe and stay relaxed. I’ll take care of the rest.”

Annoyed he may be, but Dean finds himself nodding anyway. He wants to see this—whatever it is—through to the end.

“Tell me if it hurts though,” Sam says. Then he shakes his head. “I mean, if it hurts bad. You know.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He takes one more look at Sam and closes his eyes again. There are a million beautiful things flashing across the backs of his eyelids and Sam is right here with him. They are breathing and alive and it’s okay. Everything is okay. He takes care of Sam and Sam takes care of him.

Sam is focused on him, on what he’s doing to him and he’s interested in Dean (I offer my body…). Sam is a hurricane and with him he always brings a flood, washing everything away in his aftermath. It’s why he’s full of lightning. Dean watches it snap in his aura. It looks red in all of that eerie violet light.

His breathing is slow and deep; the harsh breaths coming out of his nose have leveled out again. Sam starts moving his fingers when that happens and bites him. Not too hard, but not softly either; just enough to keep him balanced—not too close and not too far away.

“Tell me the rest. Tell me, tell me,” he says.

“After the movie, she tried to kiss me, but I ducked away. I said I had to go to the bathroom,” Sam says. “I don’t think she believed me, but I don’t care and she was too desperately hopeful to not believe me either.”

Dean makes a startled sound when Sam adds a fourth finger to the other three. Like the third, it’s a little uncomfortable at first, but he adjusts quickly. He’s wide open and full at the same time. He’s slick with lube and can hear the softly sucking sound of it every time Sam moves. It makes him tremble and his belly clenches.

“Do you want to know where I put the needle, Dean?” Sam asks him.

Dean opens his eyes and stares at Sam who is looking right back at him. He can’t find the words, but he manages to swallow even as he nods.

“I palmed the syringe while I was in the bathroom and when I came back, she was waiting for me,” Sam says. “She was wearing this little off the shoulder, scoop-neck top. I smiled at her, walked up to her and put my hand on the back of her neck. I drew her forward and she thought—no, she knew—that it was going to happen: I was going to kiss her after all. Then I stuck her right in the subclavian artery.”

Dean tries to nod, but he can’t. He’s listening though, hanging onto every word like it’s a piece of silk sliding through his fingers. Sam pushes his fingers into him and he grunts softly, rolling his hips toward him instead of away. Sam moves so… very… slow as he works his fingers in him that it aches with the want to become more. As it is, it builds beneath his skin and twists him up into an origami man as he waits for the next push, the next stroke along his prostate.

Sam’s been pausing every once in a while when his breathing gets too ragged or quick and it makes Dean shake harder. Something new is happening here, he can feel it in more than one way and he anticipates it. Even though he’s not entirely sure what it is, Dean craves it; the completion of this process. This slow, careful, maddeningly pleasurable process.

There are lights in the room, soft flashing spots of color. Green means go. Green means go.

When Sam takes his hand almost completely away, Dean automatically grabs for his arm. “Shh, it’s all right,” Sam says. “We’re doing okay.”

“Talk to me, Sammy,” Dean says as he settles back down on the bed.

“It was the usual, you know,” Sam says. “She was surprised and that never gets old. People are all, save the very old, convinced of their own immortality. Seriously, everyone thinks they will live forever.”

“Lies,” Dean says. Green turns to blue and he doesn’t know what that color means.

Sam pushes his hand forward again and for the first time, Dean tenses, brow drawing down in a V of concentration. He knows now, he thinks so. Yes. He can feel all five of Sam’s fingers pressed against him and slowly easing forward. His thumb is right there and good fucking God.

“Are you— Your hand?” Dean manages. He’s shocked, but not in a bad way. The idea of having Sam so inside of him is amazing. Dean has never thought of it before and he wishes he had. He is surprised, but not upset. Fuck no, not at all. Sam’s hand there—yes—resting within his body—yes—and Dean all around him—yes—bound together—yes—and yesyesyes. Always yes.

“You okay?” Sam asks. He’s stopped. “Open your eyes, Dean. Look at me. Talk to me.”

“Yes,” Dean says. He looks right at Sam even though he wants to close his eyes. The lightning is chasing itself around and around. Sam’s eyes are dark, but full of light—full of starlight. He is nighttime in his black clothes and dark hair, tanned skin and speckled eyes. “I’m okay. I know now. I want you to.”

“Okay,” Sam says.

Dean closes his eyes again and lets himself feel everything then. He lets go of it all except for the thread of Sam’s voice. It’s like a guide. His fingers slide in an inch at a time and he tells Dean of Renée’s death. How she choked on her vomit, how it came out of her nose—drip, drip, drip—as she tried to crawl away. How she could barely breathe and how that was fine. Sam’s fingers are almost inside of him now and soon his hand will be. It made her go blind or at least close to it. Sam thinks it was actual blindness because she kept saying how everything was dark. Dean grunts when the knuckles of Sam’s hand press against him and Sam stops talking.

“I’m okay,” Dean manages. “It doesn’t hurt. It’s just hard.”

“Can you do it or do you want me to stop?” Sam asks. “Think about it, Dean. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Dean breathes deep, calming breaths and after a minute, he nods. He does think he can do this. If he can’t then it will break his heart because he wants to give this to Sam and he wants it for himself as well. What they are doing right now is beyond anything they’ve ever done before and it’s unbelievable.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” It’s a whisper, low and drawn out; a rush of air over his teeth and lips.

“Okay,” Sam says.

There’s the sound of Sam squeezing out more lube before he starts moving again. There’s bound to be a mess on the bed covers and the pillows. Dean can feel it smeared all over his skin and knows that in the light, it is shining. He is shining.

When Sam’s knuckles at last make it past the ring of muscle and his hand slips all the way inside of him, right up to the wrist, Dean’s whole body bows up from the bed. He can feel Sam’s hand, huge and hot inside him, he can feel the pulse in Sam’s wrist thumping away. It should be obscene, but it isn’t anything of the sort. There’s a switchboard lighting up inside of Dean, the pressure against his prostate is almost unbearable and yet feels like it will never be enough. Dean’s not sure if he’s making any noise out loud or if it’s all in his head. All he can hear is a static roar like analog ocean waves.

When Sam lightly rocks his arm forward, experimenting, Dean starts to shake all over. It starts inside of him, ripples of movement that begin in the center of his body and radiate outward in all directions. He can hear himself now even as the ripples become glowing fractures. There’s one in the middle of his mind and it arcs like electricity on a Jacob’s ladder. Dean knows it is Sam’s lightning inside of him. So inside of him.

His eyes fly open, seeking Sam and he’s right there, eyes glued to him. “You’re okay, you’re okay,” Sam says. He sounds awed as he glances down then up at Dean again.

He smiles and Dean’s shaking becomes trembling. He looks right at Sam as he comes undone. Only when his eyes roll back as it begins in earnest does he break their gaze. He cracks apart along all of those brilliant fault lines; spirals up and up and up in a screaming wind that howls in his ears.

He can feel everything; the weave in the sheets, the tickle of Sam’s arm hair, the sweat trickling in spider web vines from his temples and face, soaking his neck and hair. His heartbeat is thunderous in his ears as he opens his mouth and breathes out something he can’t describe as sound because he’s not hearing much of anything anymore. Dean doesn’t care about Renée at all, not right now, not with this happening. He’s never felt anything like this. Dean breaks apart on it, feels it swell up inside of him until he thinks he will burst from it. Then it explodes and flows out through his whole body.

Dimly, he is aware of the way he’s spasming, the embarrassing sounds he’s making. He is acutely aware of Sam’s hand inside of him; the gentle, unconscious flex of his muscles as he watches. He knows Sam is watching him shatter and good, good, let him watch. He gave Dean what he’s feeling right now and Dean is glad to give him the pleasure of watching it.

He hears Sam saying, “Dean. Oh, God. Dean. Dean. Dean. Oh, God.”

There is no God here, only them and Dean knows it, but he can’t remember the words to say it. He can feel his body moving, rolling up-up-up as he rides the waves of this whatever it is, if there is even a word for it. This isn’t an orgasm and it is and it’s so much more; something so much better as it wrings him out. Doors fly open inside of his mind and he’s still making noise. He can feel how his throat is hurting. Light explodes behind his eyelids or are his eyes open? He can’t tell anymore and it doesn’t matter. It crashes through him, then gradually lessens in intensity; pummeling, roaring waves becoming lapping wavelets that lick through him.

Gradually, Dean becomes vaguely aware of his surroundings again. Sam’s hand is still inside of him and Dean reaches forward, moving so, so carefully until he can touch his arm. He follows it to where it joins with his body and then that’s all he can do. He falls back, boneless and wrung out and so unbelievably content he can hardly believe it. Dean has never felt this kind of calm before.

“Dean?” Sam says. “Holy shit. Dean?”

“I’m here, Sammy,” Dean says. At least he thinks he is. He laughs and closes his eyes with a moan at the jolt that sends through him. Cracking his eyes open again, he sees Sam staring at him. He looks stunned; his eyes are wide, his hair is stuck to his sweaty face.

“I’m going to take my hand out now,” Sam says after a second. “Are you ready?”

No. Dean doesn’t want to lose that, but he knows they can’t stay this way forever. It sends a sharp little wiggle-worm of pain through him at the anticipation of the loss.

“Yes,” Dean says.

Sam nods and carefully withdraws his hand. Dean is loose and relaxed now, so it’s not nearly as hard to remove as it was to get inside of him. With every inch that is withdrawn, Dean feels a little emptier. When Sam at last takes his hand completely away, Dean feels cored out and bereft. He’s open and empty and messy and dirty and Sam’s hand is gone. For one moment they were right there with one another and now it’s over. Dean grieves the loss in a way that he never thought was possible. He’s never come so fucking hard in his life and doesn’t know if he ever will again, but it’s not about that. It’s about… Dean can’t put a name to it. All he knows is that it’s the closest he’s ever come to having a spiritual experience and now it’s over.

Only when Sam gets up from the bed and moves away does Dean snap to attention.

“Don’t you dare fucking leave me, Sam,” Dean says. His voice is soft and broken sounding, not nearly as fierce as his words would suggest.

“I have to clean up,” Sam says. “I’ll come back.”

“No,” Dean says. He has never felt less like being alone in his life.

“Are you good to walk then?” Sam says.

Dean nods and rolls over to stand up beside the bed, intent on proving his point. He falls sideways into the nightstand. Not totally, but enough he bangs his leg on it pretty hard.

“Help me,” he says. “Just don’t…” His voice wavers and cracks and he makes himself stop talking.

Fuck, why does he feel like he’s going to fucking cry? He’s never been so emotionally fucked up after sex, even unconventional sex, which is pretty much the only kind of sex they have given their taste in things.

“Come on,” Sam says. “We could both use a shower, huh?”

“Good God, yes,” Dean says. He can feel lube running down the backs of his thighs. It reminds of him of how empty he is. He really hopes he gets over this shit soon. Something occurs to him then and he says, “So. What about you?”

“What about— Oh,” Sam says. He laughs. “Truthfully?” When Dean nods, he sighs and says, “I came in my pants.”

That makes Dean laugh so hard he nearly falls down, even with Sam helping him. “Seriously? Oh, man, that is great. Sammy came in his pants like a ninth grader.”

“It was because of you,” Sam says. He’s smiling a little, cheeks flushed with the lightest hint of pink because it doesn’t matter and they both know it: coming in your pants is not the cool way to go.

“Bullshit,” Dean says as Sam leans him against the bathroom counter while he starts the shower.

“No bullshit,” Sam says. “That was… you were… It… My God, Dean. You know?”

“Yeah, yeah I do,” Dean says. He also figures he must’ve looked pretty stupid. He’s momentarily distracted by that when a butterfly swoops towards his face. He bats at it and nearly topples backwards. The mushroom high is fading, but it isn’t gone yet and his mind is like Jell-o right now anyway. That he’s talking this much is kind of a miracle, at least in his opinion.

Sam helps him into the shower and holds him against his chest, maneuvering him around so they both get washed and not just damp. Dean leans against him and by the time Sam’s totally done washing the lube off them both, he’s dozing on his feet. He didn’t even get to hear the rest of the story about Renée. Maybe this is one Sam will tell him another time.

Sam leaves Dean in the living room while he changes the messy bed and by the time he comes back, Dean has almost fallen asleep again. He’s barely aware of Sam helping him lay down, but he turns into him, pressing close. Seeking some semblance of what they shared earlier. It’s not the same thing, but it’s every bit as good, Sam’s warm and his arms are around him. He’s singing as he strokes Dean’s hair, down the back of his neck and across his shoulders. Dean presses against him and holds on right back, molding their bodies together.

Dean listens to Sam’s singing, his voice a gently hoarse susurration of sound. Outside, the river creeps into the melody and lends its voice. Dean doesn’t so much sleep as he disappears into darkness for a while and that’s even better.

Chapter Text

On New Year’s Eve, they leave Walkeye and head out towards whatever may await them. Dean drives and a little after eight that night he starts drinking to keep with the tipsy flow of the traffic. It’s not drunk drivers that ruin things for everyone; it’s that one sober motherfucker that screws everything up. Dean doesn’t want to be that guy. That’s what he tells Sam when he asks him if drinking Old Crow is such a great idea at the moment. Sam snorts and uses a pocket flashlight to read by after telling Dean he’ll be taking over the driving if he starts swerving too bad.

Dean misses Walkeye already, their little camp there was starting to feel like it could become a home for the two of them. They slept most of Christmas day, but when they got up, Dean cooked and made Sam help him. He’d been a little sore from the night before, but he also had never felt so satisfied. The afterglow had faded, that emotionally turned inside out feeling was gone and in its place was just a feeling of closeness with Sam. They’d eaten and then sequestered themselves away while they wrapped each others gifts. They’d opened them by the cheerful glow of the twinkle lights Dean had strung around the living room window.

The stay in Walkeye had felt like sending out feeler roots, seeking a spot for the taproot to anchor down. He wants to go back, but he knows they can’t and it smarts the tiniest bit. Those walls, that room, that bed, will all be for someone else soon and Sam and Dean’s merry Christmas will only be a memory they keep.

At about 10:30 they stop on the outskirts of Montgomery and rent a room. Dean’s got a buzz and they’re tired, more so than they would normally be after only a few hours driving. Once they rent the motel room though, neither of them sleeps. Sam goes back to reading and Dean takes Kilgore for a walk. When they get back, he flips through the television channels and watches part of an old softcore porn flick called The Sex Files until he gets so fed up with its ridiculousness that he turns the TV off. Sam has put his book away and is scrolling through online news articles for anything that may look like a potential job. If he finds anything, Dean hopes it’s good; something to start the new year off with a bang. He feels like shooting something.

Bored, Dean kicks back on the bed and scratches Kilgore’s head. He glances over at Sam. He’s bouncing his knee up and down, nervous energy and boredom making him fidgety. It’s New Year’s Eve and here they sit like a couple of… Dean doesn’t know what.

“Sam.” When Sam looks over at him, Dean waves his bottle of Old Crow. “Come have a drink with me. Let’s ring in the new year in style.”

Sam’s smile is quick and bright; he looks almost grateful. “Sure,” he says.

He sits down beside Dean and stretches his long legs out. Kilgore is between them and honestly, it’s a little crowded, but that’s okay. Sam takes the bottle when Dean passes it to him and drinks long and deep. Dean enjoys watching his throat work as he swallows.

“We shoulda got some fireworks,” Dean says. He always thinks about it and he always forgets.

“Maybe next year,” Sam says.

“Maybe,” Dean says. Next December 31st is a long ways off though and living the way they do, on what always feels like borrowed time, is not the kind of lifestyle that lends itself to things like planning ahead. It would be nice if they could though.

Sam passes the bottle back and they slip into silence, comfortable as an old shoe. Kilgore gets bored with them and gets off the bed, taking one of his toys to his bed and working away at it, trying like hell to get the squeaker out. They’re so used to the noise by now that it doesn’t even bother them. It’s a homey kind of sound.

They shuffle around a little after 11:30 and get ready for bed, pajama pants and a t-shirt for Sam, boxers and his shirts from that day for Dean. He tends to sleep in his clothes because he’s always waiting for the moment he has to get up and run, the moment he has to fight, the moment his sleep is disturbed by something coming to kill them. He’s partially gotten out of the habit the last few years though. He cannot say why, except that it feels more normal to take his jeans off when he sleeps. It’s also a hell of a lot more comfortable.

When they’ve taken care of all that, they climb back into bed and lean against one another, backs propped on the pressboard. Sam rests his hand on Dean’s leg and Dean lays his head on Sam’s shoulder. Outside, there is the sound of laughter and joyous revelry; the far-off pop-boom-crackle of fireworks. Inside is the sound of Old Crow draining from its bottle, the death-squeaks of Kilgore’s toys and their breath. It’s like being walled off, closed in; separated from everyone else. It makes Dean think of Sam’s maze analogy. He kisses Sam’s shoulder and Sam smiles, squeezes his thigh affectionately. He and Sam are different, they may mix and mingle with the rest of the world, but they are not truly a part of it. They really are free… and they’re free because they are outsiders.

Sam’s phone dings a quick, up-tempo tune and Sam raises the bottle high in the air. “Happy New Year, Dean!” he says with a laugh. It amuses Dean to realize he’s a little drunk.

“Stay gold, Sammy boy,” Dean says in return then leans in and kisses Sam.

Sam’s laughter hums in his mouth and it makes Dean laugh back. That’s what midnight means: celebration and swapping spit. Dean doesn’t mind that aspect of it at all.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Dean is in a red room: red ceiling, red walls, red floor, red bed—red everything. It’s not red like a spray of roses or a waitress’s hair; it’s the deep, rich red of arterial blood. The ceiling is foil-shiny, Dean’s reflection a watery shadow above him as he looks up. He turns his head side to side, watches the smear of his naked body moving on the covers. The sheets are made from the softest, finest cotton. They feel slippery-smooth against his naked back and make rustling, snake belly sounds against his skin. It’s okay, he thinks, it’s okay. This is just a box of candy, this is Valentine’s Day.

Sam’s crawling up from the foot of the huge bed. Dean watches the rise and fall of his shoulder blades, the ripple of his muscles as he moves. His eyes glimmer in the reddish light, his gaze is sharp and intent. He smiles and Dean expects to see his mouth is full of row after razored row of teeth, but it’s not. It’s just Sammy’s teeth; straight on top, crooked on the bottom.

Dean holds out his hand to him and smiles back. “Come on, Sammy.”

Sam nods and slides over him like a new skin, a dry tsunami and Dean sucks in a sharp breath.

“Are you ready?” Sam asks.

“Yes,” Dean says. He touches Sam’s face, slides his fingers along his cheek bones, down his jaw. He touches Sam’s mouth and Sam kisses his fingers.

The knife shines brightly in the sourceless light and Dean closes his eyes against its glare. He breathes out slowly, letting himself relax. It’s what he’s wanted forever.

“Do it, Sam,” he says. “I trust you.”

“You do,” Sam says.

He cuts him and Dean moans, spreading his arms out, leaving himself wide open as Sam drags the knife down his belly. His skin parts like shafts of sunlight moving aside for the shade. His blood bubbles out of him like music, soaking into the deep red sheets and turning them red-black. It seems elegant and right to Dean.

The air licks at his insides, saturates his organs and soaks into his lungs like they’re sponges. Dean feels dizzy with it, drunk on happiness and desire.

“I love you,” he says.

Sam grabs his ribs and cracks them, a jagged fissure running up his sternum before the bone gives completely.

“Always,” Sam says. “Always.”

“Always,” Dean echoes as he takes Sam’s face in his hands and draws him down. “Eat, Sammy.”

He’s found the words and the elation sends thrills through him, electrifying his veins, making his exposed nerves spark and sizzle with pleasure. He can feel Sam’s breath, hot and moist as a southern wind, on his aching, starving heart.

Outside is the sound of calliope music, it filters through the walls and vibrates in the mattress springs. People are screaming laughter and barkers are calling for marks to come to their booths. The room is turning and turning and turning. This is a carnival ride and they are the main attraction; the stars of the freak show. No one can afford the admission to their tent but they themselves.

Sam takes the first bite of his heart. It makes a crisp, snap-crunch of sound. Breaking bones or a candy apple, Dean’s not sure and he doesn’t care. His breath is quickening as he tenderly cradles the back of Sam’s head and threads his bloody fingers through Sam’s dark, dark hair. It’s streaked with gold from the sun and it seems to melt over Dean’s fingers, a trick of the light. Sam takes another bite and Dean screams through his clenched teeth. Nothing has ever felt this good simply for the pain it causes.

When Sam lifts his head from Dean’s bloody chest cavity, his face is not his own for a minute. It’s the huge, shaggy head of a timber wolf with burning yellow eyes, but it is only a mask. Dean runs his fingers through the ruff of fur at the wolf’s neck and it fades away, long muzzle and hungry eyes melting away to show him Sam again. Sam with thick red like melted candy dripping down his face. Dean listens as he chews, feels himself leaking out onto the red-red bed.

Sam smiles at him and blood oozes between his sharp wolf teeth as he leans down to take another bite.

In the dirty dishwater grey light of a hungover New Year’s Day dawn, Dean comes awake with a gasp and a shudder. He’s lying against Sam’s side; head pillowed on his chest, the sounds of his breath and heartbeat filling his ear. Sam’s got one hand resting against Dean’s heaving side and his other is on his chest, his thumb just barely touching Dean’s cheek.

He cuts his eyes up to study Sam’s sleeping face in the ugly light and thinks that Sam is the only thing he’s ever truly known. Not hunting, not their dad, just Sam. Sam is the only thing worth knowing to Dean now. Maybe that’s always been the case.

Dean closes his eyes, but he can’t ignore the way his body thrums with energy and want. He’s hard, has been since he woke up—it’s partly what woke him up to begin with. Sam with his face buried in his chest, eating his fill; taking what he wants and in doing so, giving Dean precisely what he desires.

He opens his eyes again and looks up at Sam’s face. He’s startled to find Sam watching him back, eyes calm and wide awake. Dean pushes up from beside him and looks down at him.

“Sam.” His voice is a whiskey-burned rasp as he climbs on top of him.

Sam’s hands automatically go to his waist as Dean leans down to kiss him. Morning breath isn’t exactly sexy, but be damned if Dean cares and Sam’s not complaining, so to hell with it. He pushes at Sam’s shirt, trying to get it off and Sam finally makes him stop so he can take it off himself. While he does, Dean shucks his boxers and shirts. It’s got to be some kind of record. Sam shimmies out of his pants and pushes them down to the foot of the bed.

“I want…” Dean says as he climbs back on him. He moves against Sam, breath a rough groan in the back of his throat. He can feel Sam, hard against the crack of his ass. “Want you.”

Sam doesn’t say anything as he leans up to nip Dean’s bottom lip sharp enough to draw a bead of blood. It will leave a sore spot for days, something for Dean to press his tongue against and recollect.

Dean reaches behind himself to take Sam’s cock in his hand and hold it steady. He lowers himself down on it, breath straining through his teeth as he relaxes to take him in this way. Sam sits up, taking Dean with him, hands sliding up his back to cup his shoulders as the blankets crumple around them in ripples of well-worn fabric. Dean moves and looks right at Sam as he does, breath hissing out of him until he finds a rhythm. He kisses Sam and tastes his blood. Sam bites him again, drawing more blood. Dean bites Sam back just so he can lick at the sore spot and make it better.

The room is warm and the exertion makes sweat bead on his skin and slip down his spine. Sam’s stroking hands smooth it away as they move together in the dawn light. Sam bites his shoulders, the side of his neck.

“Here,” Dean pants. He leans back far enough to lay his hand over his heart. “Bite here.”

Sam does it, leans forward and takes a mouthful of flesh into his mouth and bites down. Dean feels when his teeth break the skin, he practically hears it.

“Yes, oh yes, Sammy.” Dean strokes his hair and the back of his neck.

Pleasure snaps up his back as he moves. It’s not all that comfortable without lube, but it can be done and it damn well isn’t bad. Not with Sam’s teeth buried in his flesh and his heart beating hard in the back of his throat. Sweat stings his eyes and he closes them against it, sees his blood oozing between Sam’s sharp predator teeth and cries out.

Sam lets go of him for a moment and only a moment before he bites down again. Dean can feel the way he works his jaw, forcing his teeth in deeper. Every movement pulls at Dean’s bleeding skin and he throws his head back.

“Eat my heart,” Dean says.

At last set free, the words come out not much more than a wisp of noise, curling into the stuffy air of the motel room. Sam makes a sound like a growl and Dean knows he heard him. When he shakes his head like he means to tear out a hunk of Dean’s flesh, it pushes him over the edge with a sharp sound of surprised pleasure. It’s intense, slamming into him so hard he can’t catch his breath for a moment. He grips Sam’s shoulders, blunt fingernails digging red crescents into Sam’s skin as he hangs on.

Sam grabs his hips and holds Dean tightly against him as he comes, moaning around his mouthful of Dean’s flesh. Dean feels it, the sound tunneling under his skin, seeking a place to live inside of his very bones. Let it. Let it stay forever. He will keep it.

They clean up and take Kilgore out, but it’s still too early to do much else, so they go back to bed. Dean’s wide awake and satiated, but Sam’s actually a little hungover, one of those slow, sneaky kinds of hangover that make you tired more than anything else.

“How are you not miserable?” Sam asks.

Dean snorts, breath puffing out across Sam’s chest. “Dean Winchester ain’t no fuckin’ amateur, that’s why.”

Sam laughs tiredly and nods. “You do have a lot more practice.”

“Yep,” Dean says, completely unashamed of the fact.

“I feel like I haven’t slept in a year,” Sam says.

Dean figures Sam knows exactly how that feels, too, so he doesn’t argue with him. “So sleep, I’ll keep watch.”

“Watch against what?” Sam asks.

“Whatever,” Dean says.

“Or you could get some more sleep, too,” Sam says. “You’ve had the same sorry two and half hours as me.”

“Maybe,” Dean says. He’s perking along just fine right now though, but maybe he’ll nap some. “Just sleep, Sam.”

“Sure,” Sam says. He closes his eyes and strokes Dean’s hair. It’s relaxing for them both and before long; Sam’s hand is resting on the back of Dean’s head, still.

Dean lies beside him and listens to Sam breathe while he stares at the wall across from them. He’s not tired, but he’s not ready to go running laps either. He has found that staring at nothing at all is a good in between though. He can do it for hours at a time if left alone. He’s done it before, losing time just by watching the wallpaper never change. Maybe that should worry him, but Dean thinks it’s probably a lot like meditation and people don’t get concerned about that, now do they? No, they don’t.

Dean checks out for a little while and eventually he does fall asleep again. He’s not even aware of the transition, just one minute the wall is there and the next, it isn’t. It doesn’t really matter.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Rest area bathrooms are comedy clubs and confessionals, littered with threats and declarations of love; nonsense and philosophy. Dean’s learned a significant portion of his knowledge of human nature simply from reading the chicken scratches on shit house walls. There are wretched philosophers, poets and lovelorn souls; the terminally bored and astoundingly uncreative. There lie on restroom walls the sad and frightening words of lunatics and sane men alike.

In a rest area bathroom on the Maryland/Pennsylvania border, he reads about how Tracy Loves Kasey. Beside it, in parentheses, some joker added, (and the Sunshine Band). A little ways beneath that are the words, Reapent, Harlakwin! On the wall to his right is, Little snake, little snake, what a pretty pair we make.

Dean stares at that one while he finishes up his business. He thinks the important questions that no one has thought to ask are: What do you do when the little snake grows up to be a dragon? Will it breathe ice or fire? And either way, can you stand before it and not be killed?

Once he’s back in the car, he poses the questions to Sam who is quiet for mile after long mile. He barely even glances at Dean when he asks. He finally says, “What about the person that wrote it? What do they become?”

Dean frowns. He didn’t think about that. It’s a good point. What he says is, “I don’t know.”

“Neither do I,” is Sam’s reply. “But I like to think they become a dragon, too.”

“Maybe,” Dean says. “Maybe. Maybe.”

They drive on, only pausing long enough to get food, gas, take bathroom breaks or to switch seats so the other one can rest.

~*~*~*~*~*~

In Boston, Sam meets someone new, his first for the new year. Dean only sees the guy from the back as he walks away. Sam waves farewell. He’s smiling and there is light touching his face like tentative fingers. He’s got a piece of paper in his hand that he folds up and puts in his pocket. Dean was across the street putting in an order for lunch that he needs to pick up in thirty minutes. Sam went into the used bookstore across from the restaurant to browse while Dean stood in line.

“Who was that?” Dean asks.

“That was Ricky Tindel,” Sam says. “He’s a veterinary assistant and is going to school part time to become a bona fide animal doctor.”

“That’s nice of him,” Dean says. “What did he give you?” He knows, but he wants to see if Sam will tell him.

“His phone number,” Sam says. “I’m supposed to call him tonight. He said he’d cook me dinner.”

“Of course he did,” Dean says. His voice is strained and tight. He tells himself he trusts Sam and Sam would never, ever do anything like cheat on him with one of them.

“What can I say? I’m charming,” Sam says.

“Like hell you are,” Dean snaps and then goes to look at books. Maybe they have something that’ll catch his attention. He hasn’t read a novel in a while; it may be nice to do something different.

Sam doesn’t say anything and when Dean peeks over the top of the low shelf he’s browsing, Sam’s flipping through a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot.

The knowledge of Sam’s dinner date weighs on him all day. He knows why Sam took the guy up on his offer, he knows why Sam didn’t tell him that he’s taken. He knows all of that and still, it bothers him like an itch he can’t reach to scratch. He wants to know why: Why does Sam do that? Why did Sam tell him no? Why does he have to wait, alone and unhappy, for Sam to come back? Why does he have to learn about what Sam does secondhand? Why, why, why?!

~*~*~*~*~*~

Early that evening, while Sam is doing research and Dean is pretending to do the same, he looks up from the pages spread out before him and asks, “Why did you tell me no when I asked if I could come with you?”

“Because I don’t want you to,” Sam says.

“Why?” Dean asks. His voice is a little too loud and it makes Sam tense up.

“The only times you’ve ever seen it, you fucking puked or freaked out, Dean,” Sam says. “And you kept puking, on and off, for weeks after the first time.”

“That was then,” Dean says. “It wasn’t about the fucking paramedic or Chastity anyway. It was about you.”

“And so all of that’s changed now, huh?” Sam says. He leans back in his chair and looks at Dean, gaze steady and face unreadable. “You’re a-okay with it all now? You think you could watch me do it?”

“Yeah, I do,” Dean says.

“Do you want to watch me do it?”

Dean looks away from him and licks his lips. Yes, rests on the edge of his lips, teetering there and threatening to go spilling out into the room. Instead, he says, “I just want to make sure that’s all you do.”

It’s said with the intention of wounding and it works. He sees the way Sam’s head jerks back just the slightest bit, how that infuriatingly calm inscrutability clears away.

“You don’t trust me,” Sam says. “Even now, even after all this time, you still don’t trust me.”

“Nope,” Dean says. He smirks at Sam, an ugly, vindictive twist of his mouth. “You have a long history of putting your dick where you shouldn’t.”

Sam’s nostrils flare and his eyes narrow. Dean’s pushing all of the buttons he can think to push, all of the sore places that have mostly healed up. He’s avoiding the issue, turning it around and turning it on Sam because he doesn’t want to answer the question. If he said yes, if he told the truth, he has the feeling it would be a line he couldn’t go back across ever again. It hurts him to do this though, it really does because the other truth is: He does trust Sam. He trusts him with his life on the job. He trusts him not to cut too deep or in the wrong place. Every time he lets Sam near him with a knife, he’s putting his life in Sam’s hands with the full knowledge that with Sam, he is safe.

“Go fuck yourself, Dean,” Sam smiles then, a bitter, harsh edged smile that is all anger and bared teeth.

“Yeah, well, fuck you, too, Sammy,” Dean says.

Sam gets up from the table and starts for the door. “I’m going out.”

“I don’t think so,” Dean says. He gets up and crosses the room to grab Sam’s shoulder. “We’re having a discussion here.”

“You’re picking a goddamned fight is what you’re doing,” Sam says as he shakes him off.

Dean tilts his head back, clicking his tongue against his teeth and then he laughs. “Ya know… You’re totally right, dude. I am picking a fight.” He pushes himself up into Sam’s face and pokes him hard in the chest. “So… Why don’t you shut up and fight, motherfucker?”

He’s so mad about Sam taking all of that time to be with them and leaving Dean to wait for the leftovers. He’s tired of being able to only imagine it. He wants to watch the blood fly, he wants to see the look on Sam’s face as he watches them die. He doesn’t want to stay at home like the shy little woman anymore. Dean wants a real taste of the good stuff.

When Sam punches him, he’s actually glad for the reprieve, for the chance to turn his brain off and let go for a little while.

After it’s all said and done, Dean’s left eye is black and Sam’s right eye is. They both have split lips and bruised jaws and shoulders. Dean’s left side is throbbing and he’s sure Sam’s chest is going to be purple in spots by tomorrow. He feels like a complete asshole because: What the fuck was the point of that?

Even knowing the answer doesn’t make him feel any better. Deflecting and transferring—those are Dean’s specialties and he just deflected and transferred all over Sam. It’s times like this that he is all too aware of the fact that he is somewhat damaged, to say the least. He doesn’t like that thought though, so he shoves it away and goes to get ice—a peace offering.

Sam doesn’t even look up when he sets the ice pack down on the table next to his elbow. He picks it up though and says, “Thanks.”

“Welcome,” Dean says. He sits on the bed and ices his own black eye, casting sidelong glances at Sam every now and then. He never once catches Sam looking back at him.

Eight o’clock that night comes quickly and when it does, Sam’s up and swinging the car keys around his finger before Dean can blink. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

He’s a little surprised, he thought Sam would cancel with Ricky for sure on account of his black eye and split lips. It seems that Dean was wrong on that front. He knots his hands into fists in his lap and tells himself to be still and shut up.

Sam’s got one foot out the door when he says, “Sam—”

Before he can finish, Sam makes a truly ugly sound in the back of his throat, something between a snarl and a laugh. “There’s no way in hell, Dean.” His voice is so flat and cold that it makes Dean shiver.

When he shuts the door, he does so a little harder than necessary and Dean is all too aware that the ice pack wasn’t enough. He shouldn’t have picked the fight to begin with, shouldn’t have said the shit—the lies—he did, but he can’t take it back now. That’s always been a problem with them: They say so many things and never remember how to say, I’m sorry afterward.

Dean punches the wall beside the television until his hand is sore and the plaster is dented. Given the truly shitty quality of this particular motel, Dean’s pretty sure no one will notice. He feels like crap and he’s still pissed off on top of it. He’s tired of this, of being a fucking bystander in Sam’s life. He’s missed out on so much and he doesn’t want to do it anymore. But there’s nothing else for him to do now, so he sits and waits; wearing his old mantle like a pair of shackles.

Dean does and does not understand where this jealousy and anger is coming from. He doesn’t really want to examine it too much either because that way lies truth—an ugly truth that he’s keeping from himself, he thinks. He figures he’s doing it for a good reason though. He’s got to be.

“I’ve got to be.” If he says it out loud, it will be true. So he repeats it until his throat is dry and his voice is hoarse.

He rocks back and forth, swaying on his feet and hugging himself. He tries not to think of Sam in some stranger’s house, breathing up their air and eating their food, salt and spices burning in the cuts Dean put there.

~*~*~*~*~*~

It’s a little before one in the morning before Sam comes back. He shuts the door quietly and Dean is there, waiting for him just like always. He swallows and glances down at the floor and then back up at Sam.

“Look,” he says. “I didn’t—”

“Save it, Dean. Right now, I don’t want to hear anything you have to say,” Sam says. His face is expressionless, his voice empty, but his shoulders are tense and his jaw is tight.

“No, I want you to listen,” Dean says. He swallows again. “Please?”

“Oh, what, you think being mannerly about is going to make me say, Sure, Dean, smear some more shit on me?” Sam shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”

“That’s not what I’m trying to do!” Dean says, losing his temper quick as you please.

“Then what are you trying to do?” Sam asks. “I need to take a shower and change clothes. So, if you’re really that determined then you need to make your little speech quick.”

“I’m sorry, okay? That shit I said earlier… I didn’t mean it,” Dean says. “I swear I didn’t.”

Sam leans against the wall by the bathroom door and watches him calmly, coolly. “Then why did you fucking say it?” His voice crackles though. God, he’s fucking mad and it’s all Dean’s fault.

“I said it because… because…” Dean trails off and scrubs his hands through his short hair, leaving it sticking up all over his head like hedgehog bristles.

“Well, that clears it up,” Sam says and turns to go into the bathroom.

“I said it because I’m fucking sick of you picking everyone else over me,” Dean says. “There. I said it.”

“What?” Sam looks at him over his shoulder, incredulous. “You think I’m picking them over you? Dean. What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You always do this, Sam. You always go off with other people and… and… You leave me,” Dean says. “You’re always fucking leaving me and I can’t fucking stand it.”

Sam sighs and turns around to look at him again. Dean can barely meet his eyes, he feels like such a fool. He can’t take it for very long and looks down at the carpet between his feet, taking a swallow of beer to wet his tight, dry feeling throat.

When Sam’s shadow falls over him, he shakes his head. “Look, man, forget I said anything.”

“No,” Sam says. “I will not forget it.” He sits down beside Dean and reaches over to take his chin in his hand, gently urging him to turn his head and look at him. When he does, Sam runs his fingers down his cheek and his smile is sad this time. “Nothing I have ever done and nothing that I do has ever been about me trying to get away from you, Dean. None of it. The times I ran away as a kid, when I went to Stanford… all of that was about getting away from this life and from Dad. Ruby was about trying to do what I thought was right and yeah, I fucked up. I fucked up a lot and we both know it. But none of it was about leaving you. You’re the only reason I ever tried to stay as long as I did, you’re the only reason I didn’t turn into some demon spawn hell… whatever. You’re why I’m still here at all.”

“But you never took me with you either,” Dean says. The words are heavy and thick coming out of his mouth. It feels like he’s unwrapping them like knotted tendons and coughing them up in a big fucking emotional mess.

“Only because you wouldn’t have come,” Sam says.

Dean deflates at that and wonders if it’s true. He’s not sure, but he thinks Sam may be right. Then again, he may be wrong, too. He wanted to escape almost as bad as Sam did. There were times he fantasized about it, but in those fantasies, he always had Sam with him. Did Sam ever even think about him though or did he give up from the get-go and think he had to do everything alone?

“I think that if you had asked then maybe I would have,” Dean says.

Sam clasps his hands between his knees and now it’s his turn to look down at his feet. “Then I’m sorry I never asked,” he says when he meets Dean’s eyes again.

“Yeah, Sammy, me, too,” Dean says.

It would’ve saved him from a lot of beatings if nothing else. Except then he thinks about how John would’ve tracked them both down and decides that no, it wouldn’t have. They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. He always jumped Dean’s ass when Sam ran off, but sometimes it was even worse for Sam when they found him again. Unless Dean got between the two of them and took the brunt of it in Sam’s stead.

“You’ve got me now, Dean,” Sam says. “Only you. I’m not ever going anywhere again. I promise you.”

He kisses Dean’s jaw and gets up then to go take his shower and Dean lets him go. He touches where Sam kissed him and cups his palm against it, holding it there while he tries very hard to believe that what he says is true.

After Sam’s shower, he goes out to the car and comes back with a small paper bag in one hand and a knife in the other. “I want to give you something,” Sam says.

“What?” Dean asks. He can’t stop staring at the knife, at the promise it wields like a radiant talisman.

“You’ll see,” Sam says. “I don’t know how to explain it, so I want to show you instead. Can I?”

Dean thinks for only a couple of seconds before he nods. “Yeah, Sammy.”

“Good.” Sam looks relieved.

“What do I gotta do?” Dean asks.

“Just take off your shirt,” Sam says.

Dean does it and then shrugs and takes off the rest of his clothes as well. If he’s going to be bleeding—and he figures he will be—then he doesn’t want to get it on his jeans. He doesn’t want clothes in his way at all.

Sam smiles at him and when Dean lies down, he crosses the room and straddles his waist.

“Are you going to tell me about it?” Dean asks.

Sam shakes his head. “No, I don’t think I am tonight,” he says. “This isn’t about what I do when I’m gone. This—this—is about us.”

Dean nods and touches Sam, running the tips of his fingers down his throat. “I do trust you, Sammy,” he says. “I do. I’m… About that I’m…”

“I know, it’s okay,” Sam says.

Dean wants to argue, but he doesn’t. He wants to make Sam listen to him, but he doesn’t do that either. He closes his eyes instead and offers himself up, speaking without saying a word because Sam will understand anyway, if he doesn’t already.

Sam takes his time, making each cut with precision and depth until the sheet is wet with Dean’s blood on either side. He cuts his chest, starting beneath the rows of neat, new scars there. It starts on one side and spreads out across his flesh to end on the other. As Sam works, Dean gets lost, letting his voice rise and fall as Sam cuts him until he’s shaking and shivering, panting for breath. It feels like it takes an hour or longer, stretching Dean to the limits of his patience for Sam-Sam-Sam. He won’t give in though, he’s intent on finishing what he’s started and only stops long enough to smooth Dean’s sweaty hair back, kiss him and tell him to wait, to just wait.

When he’s done, he sits back and strokes what he has engraved into Dean’s body. “Do you know what it is?”

Dean shakes his head even as he touches it himself, bloody fingers sliding over Sam’s equally bloody fingers. Some of it felt like letters, but others felt like shapes and he has no idea what any of it means.

“It’s a name,” Sam says. “Iphigenia.”

“Who?” Dean asks.

“Iphigenia.” Sam traces each letter as he speaks. “I wrote it in Greek. Her name means ‘strength’, more or less. Without her, Agamemnon would not have been able to sail to Troy. Without her, he would’ve been lost at sea and battered to bits on the winds the goddess Artemis sent to destroy him. Without Iphigenia, everything would’ve been lost to Agamemnon. She saved him, Dean.”

He takes his hand away and picks up the paper bag he brought in with him. Dean touches his bloody chest, finding the shape of the Greek letters and tracing them with wet fingers. He’s throbbing all over and wanting, but Sam’s not done yet. He doesn’t need to ask, he just knows.

Sam drops his head and kisses Dean’s hand where it moves across his chest, he licks into each letter, gathering blood into his mouth and swallowing it before he kisses Dean, sharing with him. Then he gets up and takes his pants off before he settles back on the bed between Dean’s legs. He’s up on his knees, looking down at him. He’s got something in his hand. It’s a fish hook.

Dean glances up at Sam in question and then jumps a bit when Sam runs the hook through his own skin right beneath his collarbone. Only then does Dean see the long piece of fishing line hanging from the hook’s eye.

“Jesus, Sam,” he says.

It may be weird for him to be shocked by that, but it doesn’t stop it from being so. Neither of them really swings in the same direction the other does. It’s uncommon, but that’s how it flows between him and Sam. Dean likes pain and Sam likes giving it, but not so much the other way around.

“It’s fine,” Sam says. He threads the other end of the line through another hook. That one he pops through the skin beneath Dean’s collarbone in approximately the same place his own hook is.

He keeps working and Dean watches him, awed and turned on and floored by it. By the time Sam is done, they are bound together by seven hooks leading from Sam to Dean and back again. The fishing line gleams like finely spun gossamer and every time Sam leans back even the slightest bit, the hooks pull at their flesh. Sam’s a little sweaty, but he looks satisfied, calm even though he’s aroused. Dean’s so hard he’s actually starting to hurt because of it and his brain is mostly offline, but he thinks he gets it all the same. Sam couldn’t find the words, so he drew him a picture in their flesh to say it.

Sam leans down and kisses him; his mouth, his jaw, his cheeks. “Do you understand now, Dean?” he whispers. He takes Dean’s face in his hands and stares into his heavy-lidded eyes. “Do you see?”

He bows his head and nuzzles Dean’s throat and Dean strokes his hair. “I do. It’s okay, Sammy, I see.”

“Yeah?” Sam asks.

“Yeah,” Dean says. He turns his head to kiss his temple even as he wraps his legs around him and lifts up to move against Sam.

“Without you, I’m nothing,” Sam says.

“Neither am I,” Dean says.

He rolls his head back on the pillow and arches his back as Sam pushes inside of him at long last. The hooks twist and pull in their flesh and Dean’s chest leaks blood all over the place, stamps its imprint onto Sam’s skin. This is the completion, the slow end of their ritual and Dean welcomes it. He tightens his legs around Sam and holds onto him, letting him in where he belongs.

~*~*~*~*~*~

There is a strange truth to understanding that a lot of people seem to be unaware of. That truth is that understanding does not always breed acceptance and that’s the problem Dean finds he has. He got what Sam said to him, it made his heart swell and his blood pump thick and warm as sunlit honey through—and out—of him. It still doesn’t make him feel any better. As the days pass and they work their way back towards the middle of the country, it begins to snowball inside of Dean’s head. That same old chant of, Why, why, why?!

It does blunt the claws of his green-eyed monster, though Dean is dimly aware that it’s starting to twist into something else. What it is though, he cannot say because he honestly has no idea. It’s becoming something other, he knows that much. It feels alien and familiar; different and the same. It knocks at the back of Dean’s mind like an impatient postman with a package to deliver.

Sam never does tell him about Ricky-from-Boston; Dean doesn’t even know if he lived in a house or an apahment. He likes to imagine that Sam strangled him and took his time with it. He imagines that Sam let him come up for air once or twice before latching onto his neck for good and squeezing so tight that Ricky-from-Boston couldn’t even hope for another sip of air. Dean entertains himself by adding that Sam tied a big, loopy bow around Ricky’s neck when he was done, an homage to the Boston Strangler. Sam’s not prone to whimsy, but Dean is and since he’s left to his own devices there, he indulges himself. It’s his right, by God.

He knows why Sam didn’t tell him and probably never will—no, scratch that probably. Sam won’t ever tell him that one. Ricky-from-Boston is an ugly mark on their map, a scar that neither of them really wants to look at. Instead, they have something else between them from that night.

The word, Iphigenia, makes his eyes burn every time he looks at it. It’s the same for the fading black-red punctures the fish hooks left behind. It’s the nicest thing Sam has ever done for him. Dean catches himself staring at the marks for minutes, even hours if he’s alone long enough, in bathroom mirrors state after state. Without you, I’m nothing.

It still doesn’t stop Dean from asking Sam to choke him in the bathtub of a house they squat in outside of Cleveland. His throat is sore for days, finger marks black and painful against his neck. He smiles every time his throat throbs and his neck muscles protest the ache when he swallows or turns his head.

~*~*~*~*~*~

In northern Minnesota they catch a case that nearly ends all three of them. All of their research yields no solid results and they go in essentially blind about this particular foe. It needs to be stopped though because it’s going through the small town’s population like a bloody pestilence.

The thing has wings like a bat and the head of a cat, the long, whipping tail of a lizard and claws like dirty black rapiers. The closest thing they came up with in their research is that it’s some kind of chimera. Whatever it is, it nearly wipes the floor with their asses. It gets Sam, Dean and Kilgore with its nasty, hooked claws. If not for the dog they would’ve been outright fucked from the word go.

Whatever it is, decapitation kills it just as good as it kills most anything else. When its head goes rolling across the snowy forest floor, Dean runs after it just so he can kick it in its ugly fucking face while Sam gathers up the dog in his arms.

They take Kilgore to a 24 hour veterinary clinic and tell them it was a bobcat. They have on layers and their coats are zipped up to absorb their blood as they stand around waiting. Dean’s anxious and on edge, Sam a quiet, calming presence beside him. He’s way too pale though and Dean figures his color isn’t much better. Sam holds Dean’s hand and doesn’t complain about how hard he’s squeezing his fingers.

When the vet comes back, Dean almost falls he scrambles up out of his chair so fast. Sam comes with him and puts an arm around his waist to keep him steady. She tells them that Kilgore got some nasty scratches, but he’s going to be fine with some rest and relaxation. It’s a good thing Sam has his arm around his waist because Dean’s knees feel wobbly-shaky at the news. She tells them they can come get Kilgore in a couple of days and Dean nods, trying not to get too emotional, but he still can’t speak. Sam pays with one of their credit cards while Dean goes back to look in on Kilgore.

Back at their motel room, they peel off their bloody clothes and take turns patching each other up. It feels strange without Kilgore there, chewing on his toys or lying on the bed between them, lapping up the petting and attention they give.

For the second time in less than a month, Dean thinks that retiring may not be such a bad idea. If they retired, shit like this wouldn’t happen. Kilgore wouldn’t be at some vet’s office with cuts and stitches, Sam wouldn’t have a gash in his side so deep and nasty that it looks more purple than red. Dean wouldn’t have shredded meat on the back of his upper left arm that Sam needed to trim away before he could start stitching him up. None of this would’ve happened.

Fact is, the world needs them more than they need the world. Dean’s getting tired of giving without getting anything in return while always running the very real risk of losing everything he loves to this fucking job.

Wrung out physically as well as emotionally and bombed on painkillers, they fall asleep sprawled across the gaudily striped bedspread in a tangle of bruised and dirty limbs; blood-soaked gauze and suture trimmings.

~*~*~*~*~*~

They spend a couple more days in Minnesota after getting Kilgore back, but then it’s time to hit the road again. They end up in Wisconsin in an abandoned house that sits back from the road on an overgrown plot of land. They shouldn’t do it, it’s too cold and there’s a chance someone will notice smoke coming from the chimney, but they stay anyway because Dean wants to. He likes the house; it was a nice house once upon a time, but years and decay have taken its toll. It’s a used up beauty queen turned barfly these days—all the good bones are still evident, but the skin is starting to sag and spot with age and hard use.

The floors are solid though and there’s a fireplace in the master bedroom, too. That’s where they lay out their pallet and make a bed out of a couple of extra blankets and their clothes for Kilgore to lie on near the fire. He’s making a quick recovery and regaining his stoic, but still good Doberman humor a little more each day. His movements are a little stiff, but he’s definitely bouncing back and that makes Dean feel so much better. He tries not to think about how else it could’ve gone; this is the only way it should be and so, it is. That’s that.

Sam takes long walks through the wintry woods almost every single day, sometimes staying gone so long that it’s near sunset when he comes back. Dean sticks closer to the house to keep an eye on Kilgore and be on the lookout for anyone who might dare to stick their nose in their business. At night, they sit in front of the fire and eat, drink and talk. They listen to the sound of the trees popping in the cold like tight joints and sometimes Dean sees the way it makes Sam smile.

One night, after supper, they’re sitting in front of the fire and simply enjoying the comfortable silence that comes from years of familiarity with one another. Outside it’s snowing, white flakes swirling down from the blackness above them, piling deep around the drooping porches and blowing under the eaves to drift in serpentine lines across them. Kilgore is gnawing at one of his rawhide chews and Dean’s smoking the last of his now ancient Pall Malls. Sam’s reading, squinting in the flickering orange-yellow light, but he gives it up after a short while and settles for staring into the fire like a man hypnotized.

“There’s a little subdivision through the woods,” he says. His voice seems unbelievably loud in the snow-wrapped silence all around them. Dean jumps and looks over at him so quickly it hurts his neck a bit.

“Okay,” he says.

“Near the edge of the forest is a house, it sits farther back from the other houses,” Sam says. “I don’t think it’s part of that… rural subdivision shit the other houses are.”

“What’s your point?” Dean asks. He thinks he knows exactly what Sam’s little walks have been about the past few days though.

“There’s a couple that lives there,” Sam says. He’s still staring at the fire, his eyes far away and reflecting back the dancing flames. “Late thirties or early forties. I’m going to kill them. I’ve never done a couple before.”

“Yeah.” Dean watches the tiny smile tugging at corners of Sam’s mouth and doesn’t know if he wants to kiss him or hit him. He’s not invited, he doesn’t need to ask to know that and the snowball in his head rolls faster, grows larger.

Sam meant what he said (illustrated) that night in Massachusetts, but it hasn’t really changed anything. That’s the part of his understanding that Dean cannot accept. They are bound together, without one, the other falls to ruin, but he is still left out; made to stand on the sidelines. It isn’t right, but there’s no use saying anything about it to Sam either. All it will be is an argument and in the end, Dean will look like an irrational fucking idiot and Sam will be so mad at him he won’t speak to him for days. He can feel himself coming to a point where that will cease to matter, however.

Dean’s not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

“When are you going to do it?” he asks instead of saying any of the things he’s thinking.

“Tomorrow night,” Sam says.

“All right then.”

“Yeah, it’s allll right,” Sam says. His smile grows to a scythe blade sliver and Dean licks his lips before looking away.

That night, he gets Sam to bite over his heart again until he’s bleeding from the perfect impressions left behind from his teeth. Taste. Eat. Devour. Dean mouths it over and over while imagining Sam chewing right through the bone to bite into the meat.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The next night, it doesn’t snow; the night is clear, the sky bejeweled with stars that wheel overhead and almost seem to pulse in the cold night air. Sam leaves late that night and Dean kisses him at the door, hands balled into hurting fists at his sides.

“See you soon,” he says before Sam disappears into the darkness.

He’s not carrying a flashlight and that only reconfirms what Dean’s thought for years: he doesn’t need a flashlight. He has a mighty fine idea about why that is, why it’s always been that way. It’s a minor thing though and not necessarily bad, even if it does speak to the fact that Sam is not and never will be entirely human. It’s inside of him and it’s not his fault.

Dean waits in the frigid kitchen for half an hour after Sam’s gone, a flashlight tucked into his coat, the heavy aluminum body of it warmed by his flesh. There’s a gun in the waistband of his jeans, equally warm and safe from the cold; its weight a familiar reassurance. Last night Dean decided that if Sam won’t let Dean come with him then he will simply go.

He has to prove to Sam that he can do this.

He touches the bruised, bloody ring of teeth marks on his chest once, twice, three times. Beat, beat, beat. His heart is Sam’s heart. He’ll show him that.

Outside, the cold is sharp as a knife, cutting through all of Dean’s layers and making his lungs burn if he breathes in too deeply. Sam’s footprints in the snow are deep and easy to follow, but he stumbles anyway because of the drifts. Sam’s taller than he is; he likely didn’t have as much trouble wading through the packed white as Dean does. He makes it past the tree line and follows the path of Sam’s footprints for what feels like hours. As he walks, clouds fill the sky and it begins to snow again and not lightly either. Soon, the tracks will be lost to him if he doesn’t hurry.

Dean picks up his pace, trying to keep to the trail Sam left before it’s obliterated. He looks up at the sky, now starless and gloomily dark. The only color is the white that howls down around him, twisting and dancing on the skirling wind. It shrieks around Dean, tearing at his skin and clothes. This is turning into a fucking blizzard, he knows it and thinks he should turn back, but he can’t. Not now. He moves even faster, wondering how much farther he has to go before he breaks on through to the other side.

His mind is a maelstrom to rival that of the one cavorting and screaming all around him; a million lost souls screeching for redemption. Why this is so important to him is hard to say, but he knows it is. He wants to be there, wants to watch Sam drain the life from someone’s body like an artist smearing paint on a canvas. He wants to belong, to be a part of the microcosm that Sam alone inhabits now. Dean wants to wrap his fingers around Sam’s on the handle of a knife and feel the drag of it as it parts flesh and makes those peoples’ tiny little lives actually mean something. As it makes them a story to be told.

Dean thinks about Sam’s disease, the Serial Killer Disease and for the first time, he stops to wonder: Is it possible that it’s contagious, that he’s caught it himself?

Then he asks: Do I care?

The answer makes him stumble and nearly go sprawling in the snow. The answer is, No. He wants to be infected. He can’t remember ever wanting anything this bad in his entire life, save Sam himself.

When he breaks the tree line, his visibility is even worse without the trees there to act as a buffer. He can just make out a glowing light, dim and far away. Dean surges through the snow towards it, sweating under his layers of clothes and beads of it freezing to his wind-burned face. His lungs hurt from the cold air he’s sucking down into them as he wades towards the faraway beacon.

He nearly walks right into the side of the house because his visibility is low and he’s so focused on that one bit of light. It’s leaking around a barely there crack in some drapes. This has to be the right house and if it’s not then Dean’s about to have a lot of explaining to do to some very startled homeowners.

The backdoor is unlocked and that gives him hope. He pushes it open and the wind helps shove him inside, pushing at his back like hard, frozen hands. Snow slips in around him in a dervish swirl and only falls when Dean quietly shuts the door. The sudden warmth is a shock to his system and his teeth start chattering as he hunches his shoulders and shudders all over, snow falling from his clothes in a pile around his feet.

Dean follows another faint light source into a nice kitchen and down a short hall. He stops just inside the mouth of the hall and looks out into the living room. The room has an open beam ceiling and Sam’s run a length of rope over the center beam. There’s a naked woman hanging from it, twisting slightly from side to side. She’s crying hysterically, her sobs muffled but not silenced behind a strip of duct tape that wraps all the way around her head. Sam’s stroking her hair and smiling at the man tied to a kitchen chair. He’s yelling behind his own duct tape gag and when Sam flicks the knife just so, slicing off one of the woman’s nipples, he screams.

If any of them turned their heads, they would see Dean standing in the hallway, face pale and hands shaking. He’s only seeing Sam through the red haze. He’s touching her. He doesn’t care why, only that he is. Oh, but Sam is beautiful just like he knew he would be. He’s luminous in the dim light, shining bright even in his black clothes. His teeth are gleaming and white, his dimples adding something eternally boyish and charming to his face; a stark contrast to Sam’s high, fine cheekbones and glinting eyes. Dean’s mouth waters and he knows right then that he will never forget the look of joy on Sam’s face. Knows he wants to see it every single time.

The man closes his eyes when Sam neatly slices off his wife’s ear, holding up her sunshine blonde hair to do so. The touch is almost loving, the way he sweeps her hair aside and runs his gloved thumb over the strands. Dean’s stomach clenches with rage even as he watches the glitter and sparkle of her emerald earring, still attached to the lobe, go tumbling down to the floor.

Sam goes to crouch down in front of the man and tilts his head with another little smile. He taps him on the shoulder and the man’s eyes fly open at that. “You may want to pay attention to what happens next,” Sam says.

Another clench in Dean’s gut, his vision seeping to an even darker shade of red. He’s talking to them. He said he didn’t. Didn’t he? No. He said he preferred not to and that’s not the same thing. Dean still doesn’t like it. But what he really doesn’t like, he thinks, is that he’s only a voyeur here, still getting everything secondhand. Still, he does not move, not yet. He wants to see what happens next, too. If he interrupts, Sam may not do it and that would ruin everything.

Sam eviscerates the woman, a quick upstroke of the knife and he unzips her like her very skin is but a costume. Her guts spill out in bloody loops and coils, blood gushes like a dam breaking. She thrashes, intestines swinging from the hole in her stomach and smearing abstract patterns across the polished hardwood floor.

Her husband screams again and gyrates madly in his chair, making it bounce up and down. He almost looks ecstatic instead of horrified, the bounce-bounce of the chair seems a lot like he’s cheering Sam on, Yea! Do it again! But he’s crying, too, tears streaking down his face as he shakes his head from side to side as his wife dies.

Sam stands calmly to the side, back to Dean and head tilted as he takes it all in. “Told you,” he says to the man. Dean can imagine just as easily that he’s talking to him though; that all of this was for him.

It’s then that the man’s head snaps up and he looks towards Sam, who is standing in the same line of sight as Dean. His eyes land on Dean first and then widen almost comically. He’s been spotted and something about that makes Dean downright livid. He had half-convinced himself to just turn around and leave, to save this for another time, but the thoughts of that flee his mind. In their wake they leave a high, whining buzz of sound and nothing else.

Dean reaches beneath his coat, grabs the gun and brings it up all in one smooth, long practiced motion. The safety is already off and so, all he has to do is pull the trigger.

Several things happen at once then: The gun is loud in the closed space, making Dean’s ears ring. The man’s head snaps back and his brains blow out all over the wall behind him before his head falls forward again. Blood drips onto his bare chest from the hole where his right eye used to be. Sam jumps and then whirls, his face a mask of nearly inhuman fury as Dean is lowering the gun. Dean stumbles back a couple of steps to try and get away from that look.

Sam strides towards him, long legs eating up the space in only a couple of seconds. He snatches the gun out of Dean’s hands and then shoves him back a few more steps.

“Do you have any idea what you have just done?” he asks. It’s the eerie calm of his voice combined with the rage on his face that’s the worst part.

Dean says, “I didn’t mean to. I—”

Sam shakes his head and rolls his shoulders. Dean hears him grit his teeth. “They have neighbors, Dean. Someone heard that gunshot and in a quiet neighborhood like this, you can bet someone is going to call the fucking cops. The cops, Dean. You couldn’t leave things alone though, could you? Oh, no, not you.”

He’s crowding Dean back with every menacing step; anger rolling off of him in waves of cold that even the blizzard outside cannot compete with.

“I didn’t mean to,” Dean says again. He sounds absurd to his own ears, a naughty child who broke mommy’s favorite heirloom plate because he was running in the house even after being told repeatedly not to. Actions have consequences: lesson learned.

I didn’t mean to,” Sam mocks in a high-pitched, childishly venomous voice. “But you did it any-fucking-way, didn’t you?”

“Sam. Sammy, please.” He’s begging and he doesn’t care. This is the first time in years that he’s actually been afraid of Sam. But the look on his face is nothing short of murderous and it’s directed at him.

“Shut up,” Sam says. “This is why I didn’t want to bring you, Dean. You’re sloppy and you don’t think because you’re so… What are you? Jealous? That all you can do is get mad. You tend to—” Sam stops and coughs out a humorless laugh. “—act out when you’re angry.”

“I’m sorry,” Dean says. He touches Sam’s face and tries not to flinch when he jerks away from him. “Please don’t be mad.”

Sam sucks at his teeth and nods, looking down at Dean. “Here’s what you’re going to do: I figure you’ve got maybe fifteen minutes before the cops show up. You’re going to clean up your fucking mess before they get here. Dig that slug out of the wall and wipe down anything you touched since you didn’t pull the fingers up on your fucking gloves, genius.”

“What?” Dean looks down at his hand, at his fingerless glove-mitten things and slumps. He forgot. Why does he do that so much lately?

“Yeah.” Sam spits it out at him. “I’m going back to the house.”

“No. You can’t… Don’t leave me here, Sam,” Dean says.

“Your mess, your problem,” Sam says. He walks back into the living room to get his bag then and leaves Dean standing in the hallway, working the flaps of his gloves back over his fingers.

Sam comes back and goes around him, back through the kitchen and to the backdoor. Dean follows.

“Sam, please,” Dean says. He grabs Sam’s shoulder to stop him at the door.

“You better hurry, Dean, the cops’ll be here soon,” Sam says. He hands Dean what looks like the woman’s blouse. “Use that to wipe up your prints and bring it with you when you’re done.” Then he opens the door and disappears into the blowing snow.

Dean panics for a full five minutes before he kicks himself into high gear and wipes down the back doorknob and tries to remember if he touched anything else. He actually didn’t and that’s good, that’s really good. He does need to mop up the puddles of melted snow he tracked through the house. He’s probably mopping up Sam’s tracks as well, something he would’ve done on his own if he’d had time, but Dean doesn’t mind. It’s the least he can do. The hardest part is digging the spent slug out of the wall behind the dead man. It’s hard to hold the knife with the flap up and covering his fingers. He wore the fingerless gloves so he could access the trigger easier, but he didn’t think past that and now look at the mess he’s got to deal with. He gets the slug though and drops it twice before he manages to get a grip on it and shove it in his pocket.

Once he’s done, Dean takes a precious moment to look at the tableau in this cozy living room. There are family pictures on the mantle, a half-eaten bowl of popcorn on the coffee table. There’s a framed print hanging on the right side of the cheerfully roaring fireplace bearing that cheesy saying, Live. Laugh. Love. It has flowers all around it in the shape of a heart. On the left side of the mantle is a framed needlepoint sampler that reads, You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. — Isaiah 26:3,4

Against this warm, inviting backdrop is blood and brains, spilled organs littering the floor like dropped party favors. They shine brighter than anything else in the entire room and fill Dean’s mind, make his heart pound with excitement as his muscles quiver with something he cannot define.

He shakes his head to snap himself out of it and doesn’t realize he’s smiling when he finally runs for the door.

Outside, the snow is falling heavily, but the wind has died down some at least. He uses his flashlight to try and find the edge of the forest and when he does, he bails towards it, run-hopping as fast as he can to make the shelter. Behind him, the falling snow rapidly fills his boot prints just as it has already done for Sam’s.

Inside the trees, Dean stops to catch his breath and looks wildly around. He doesn’t know which way to go—left, right, straight ahead. He can’t remember and the tracks here are gone as well.

“Shit,” he says under his breath as he sweeps the beam of his flashlight from side to side.

He decides to go slightly to the left, that seems about right. He’s only taken a couple of steps when something grabs his arm and jerks him to a stop with a startled shout that he barely bites back in time.

“Calm down,” Sam says. “It’s just me.”

“Hey?” Dean ventures.

“Hello,” Sam says, squinting against the light from Dean’s flashlight.

He doesn’t sound as mad and his face isn’t that awful storm of fury like it was inside. Dean scrutinizes him in the light, taking in his rosy cheeks and wind-snarled hair.

“You waited for me,” Dean says.

“Yeah,” Sam says. “I didn’t want to leave you trying to find your way back in this shit.”

“Thanks,” Dean says. He’s relieved. Sam’s been walking these woods for days now, he has a much better sense of where he’s going than Dean does.

“Uh-huh,” Sam says. “Did you take care of it?”

“Yeah.” Dean nods, the beam of his flashlight bobbing along with his head until Sam takes it away from him and turns it off. “Hey!”

“People can see it if they’re looking,” Sam says.

“Oh,” Dean says.

“Oh,” Sam echoes. He knows he’s rolling his eyes even if he can’t see him now. “Did you wipe everything down? Mop up the water? Did you dig out that slug and remember to take that shirt with you?”

“Yes, yes to everything,” Dean says. He’s got the shirt stuffed inside his coat. He can smell the woman’s perfume faintly if he moves his head just right.

“Good,” Sam says. He takes Dean’s arm to help guide him. “Now come on, we need to get out of here.”

They slog through the cold in silence, save the sound of the bag containing Sam’s murder gear bumping against his leg every now and then. Dean’s mind races as he steps through the drifts and stumbles over hidden forest debris. Sam seems almost serene as he leads them back to their temporary home. The snowfall slows, but does not stop and continues to blot out their footprints like a good friend doing them a solid. It’s at least five or six miles through the woods and it seems even longer with their slow, careful way of moving. Sam moves with more confidence than Dean, who allows him to steer him to keep from braining himself on a tree or putting out an eye on a low-hanging limb.

It’s not until they finally come out on the other side, the house a dark, hulking shape in the dark, that Dean tries to speak again. He babbles is what he does, but he can’t help himself.

“I’m sorry,” he says again as he steps away from Sam’s side to stand in front of him. He holds his hands out towards him. “I just got so mad, you don’t even know how mad I was. You were talking to them. You touched them.” As he talks, he moves closer and closer until he’s gripping the front of Sam’s coat, face turned up to see him. Snow catches in his eyelashes, freezes his teeth for an instant before it melts and fills his mouth one tiny flake at a time. “I hate them. But I still didn’t mean to do it, I didn’t even know what had happened until I saw… saw that guy’s head. You gotta believe me, Sammy, I wasn’t tryin’ to fuck you over. I only wanted to see.”

“And did you? Did you see, Dean?” Sam asks him.

“Yes,” Dean says. “I did. I saw you and Sam, Sammy… You were beautiful, just like I knew you would be.”

Sam leans down until his face is a scant inch from Dean’s. “Did you like what you saw? Hmm?”

Dean shakes his head violently, but he says, “Yes. Yes I did. I want… I want to see it all the time. I’m tired of stories, Sam.”

Sam takes Dean’s face in his icy hands and leans even closer. Dean can feel his warm breath skating across his cold lips. “What am I going to do with you, Dean?”

Everything,” Dean answers. His voice is a shaking whisper, but he’s smiling as he closes the last small gap between them and kisses Sam. It’s just a press of lips, almost chaste.

Sam’s smile is a slowly dawning thing, made all the more lovely because of the way it is drawn out. His teeth look blue and sharp in the cloud diffused moonlight.

“Take off your coat and shirts,” Sam says as he edges Dean back towards the Impala.

It’s freezing out, but Dean doesn’t care. He’s quick to comply because he meant what he said. Every syllable of it was the unadulterated truth and now that it’s been said, it cannot be unsaid. He doesn’t want it to be.

His coat and shirts land in a pile; shadows amongst the harsh white of the faintly moon-flushed mounds of snow around them. Then he waits for what comes next.

“Brace your hands on the hood,” Sam says.

The metal is shockingly, achingly cold beneath Dean’s hands even though he’s still wearing his gloves. He presses down harder, feels the cold kissing his back and making him go numb. His breath plumes out of him in silvery blue clouds. The sound of Sam’s belt buckle rattling as he unfastens it is bell-like in the deep alabaster silence.

The first snap of the belt against his back is shocking, both in its suddenness and because of how warm—almost hot—the leather is. Dean gasps and rocks forward, slipping a bit on the smooth, waxed hood, only to rock forward once more as the belt comes again. It whistles a bit now that he’s listening, but Sam is relentless, one blow coming quick on the heels of another. He finds the rhythm anyway and breathes in deeply in the short spaces between one lash and the next. He moans through his teeth and flexes his fingers against the Impala’s hood, seeking purchase that isn’t there. At last, he lays his upper body on the hood so he doesn’t fall down. He barely feels the cold against his chest because his back is on fire.

The belt whistles through the air again, but there’s a split second pause between that and it connecting with his skin. When it does, Dean gasps and moans at the sharper, harder sting of the metal buckle biting into his skin. That brief pause was Sam twisting the belt around to hold the tongue in his hand instead. The buckle thumps into his skin, harder than a fist and twice as good. The leather follows it, snapping against his throbbing skin. He feels it when the skin cracks and begins to bleed. It’s more warmth, wet and trickling as he presses closer to the car, rolling his hips against the grille.

I offer up my body as a living sacrifice, brother. This is my spiritual act of worship. It runs through Dean’s head in a mad loop. This is his body made whole. It is one thing he thinks he could never, ever say to Sam, but he has to believe that Sam knows anyway. Everything Dean does is for him.

Then Sam says, “Tell me about it, Dean. Tell me.”

Dean chokes on his own moans and tries to swallow, but he can’t seem to manage it completely. He begins to speak though; he tells Sam all about it while the belt rains blows down on him. His words—his confession—come out in staccato bursts, racked with moans and gasped breaths. He gives a full report in time though.

Sam stops when Dean’s tale is complete, when he sums it all up by saying, “I… liked… it.”

Dean is left with a ringing in his ears and the comingled sounds of his and Sam’s panting breaths. With shaking arms, he pushes himself upright and gasps at the pain of the movements. He looks over his shoulder at Sam who moves up behind him, pressing close and hard to his back.

His skin twitches and judders, pain and pleasure making Dean’s breath come in short, sharp bursts as he presses right back into Sam, the rough cloth of his coat and shirt aggravating Dean’s cracked and bleeding skin. He will have bruises in diagonal stripes, some of them crowned with the simple shape of the buckle, across his back tomorrow if he doesn’t already.

Sam kisses the back of Dean’s neck, up behind his ear and over his cold cheek to his mouth. Dean opens to the kiss and moves against him, asking without speaking, but Sam makes a sound of negation in the back of his throat.

“Tell me you want this,” he murmurs against the side of Dean’s neck, lips brushing the spot where his pulse thumps madly.

Dean’s pulse jumps even harder and he nods. “More than anything,” he says. He finds Sam’s hand where it rests at his waist and grips it in a brutal squeeze.

“Okay then,” Sam says. He twines their fingers together and with his other hand, reaches around to unbuckle Dean’s belt and unfasten his jeans.

He bends him back over the hood of the Impala and works Dean’s jeans down to about mid-calf. He pushes into him after a quick slick of spit and they rock together, listening to the icy squeak of the car’s shocks as they move. It’s slow and almost gentle in comparison to the beating, but when Sam strokes a hand firmly down Dean’s spine, he bucks against him.

In the distance, there is the sound of sirens at long last. Sam huffs out a soft laugh as he snaps his hips against Dean’s ass, cold-hot skin slapping together lewdly in the frozen dark.

“They’re late,” Sam says. He seems amused.

Dean doesn’t care; fuck the police, that’s his feeling on the matter. Right now is what is important—cold and pain and skin-on-skin while his blood freezes in the night air. Sam is all around him, they are tied up and bound this way forever and there’s nothing in the world that means more than that—than this—to Dean.

~*~*~*~*~*~

They leave Wisconsin in the arsenic grey light of pre-dawn. Sam leaves Dean in the car with the engine on and a pile of blankets covering him while he cleans up behind them. Dean turns on the heater when the car is warm enough and waits for Sam until he can’t keep his eyes open any longer. He is lulled to sleep partly due to tiredness and partly due to purely Pavlovian reactions—the rumble of the engine, the blankets and the warm air from the heater all say that he’s home now; that it’s time to rest.

When he wakes up again, the sun has breeched the horizon, hanging brightly in the sky and their sad old has-been beauty queen of a house is miles behind them. So is the house where Dean shot the man, Sam gutted the woman. The house where people lived such plain, uninteresting lives and will now become the stuff of legend in the area. The house where a needlepoint Bible quote hung on the wall, so kind, so welcoming. So true. Dean bites his bottom lip to keep from smiling though he can feel the way it tugs and strains at his face, begging to be set free.

Dean drifts back to sleep and only comes to again when Sam hits a pot hole and jars his bruised back. He makes Sam pull over so he can climb in the backseat and lay down to try and keep some of his weight off of it. He and Kilgore switch spots and Sam puts in a Metallica tape to help him rest. Dean drifts off to the sounds of “Battery” and doesn’t know anything again until Sam wakes him up for lunch snagged from a Wendy’s drive-thru and consumed in a strip mall parking lot.

~*~*~*~*~*~

They end up in Ellsworth, Kansas and rent a motel room so Dean can recuperate. Dean’s back looks like a lunatic rainbow; black-purple-blue-red and moving around too much is really kind of a pain in the ass. He cherishes each stripe of bruising though, each cracked streak of flesh that oozes clear plasma and makes his shirt stick to his skin until he stops wearing one at all. Sam dabs creams on him, brings him ice and food and beer. It’s really not all that bad.

One night, Dean looks away from the television and finds Sam fiddling around with his laptop.

“What are you doing to my computer?” he asks.

“Deleting all the hentai,” Sam says.

“Dude, you better not,” Dean says.

Sam laughs and shakes his head—he’s really not.

“What are you doing, seriously?”

“Did you know that the serial killer Henry Lee Moore killed a family of five right here in Ellsworth in 1911?” Sam asks. He clicks something and Dean listens to the hard drive whirr and grind away.

“Ah… No,” Dean says. “Is that significant?”

“Nah,” Sam says. “Just interesting.”

“Sam, what the fuck are you doing with my computer? You know the rules, man: I don’t touch your shit and you don’t touch mine,” Dean says.

“I don’t touch your shit, that’d be sick. I’d be totally skeeved out if you touched mine, too, so you know.” Sam smirks, amused with himself.

“What? Gross,” Dean says. He wrinkles his nose.

“Yeah, it really is,” Sam says as he clicks something else.

“Sam—”

“You’ll see, Dean,” Sam says, finally a touch exasperated. “I’m not breaking your damn computer, so chill out, okay?”

Dean considers for a moment and then grudgingly nods. “Okay. But my hentai better still be there.”

“It will be,” Sam says.

“All right then… so long as we understand each other.”

“Aye-aye, Captain Dean the Porno Creep,” Sam says.

“It’s not creepy,” Dean says.

Cartoon porn is creepy, no matter what kind it is, but this is especially weird,” Sam says.

“Shut up,” Dean says.

Sam laughs, triumphant and finishes up what he was doing. When he’s done, he puts Dean’s laptop away and then goes around the room, gathering up the rest of their stuff.

“Okay, what the hell is going on here? Stop being so fucking evasive, Sam,” Dean says.

“We’re moving,” Sam says. “I found us another house today. It’s outside of town, but there’s still a really good wireless connection. It must be coming from one of the other houses in the area. It’s not great, but it’s definitely good enough.”

“Uh-huh,” Dean says. “You mind telling me why we’re moving?”

“Less chance of being overheard,” Sam says. “The house has a fireplace in the living room, so that’s a bonus, right? I chased a family of raccoons out of it earlier today. Then I tested it out with a little fire and it works. The place isn’t that old, actually. Was probably a foreclosure. Anyway, it sits back from the road and there’s a place to hide the car, too, for extra coverage.”

“All right.” Dean’s not opposed to moving out of the motel, so long as he’s got a way to keep warm. He just wants to know a few minor little things, such as: Why was Sam messing with his laptop? Why are they leaving this place, which is pretty decent as far as roach motels go? Why is Sam being cryptic again?

Sam must see something on his face because when Dean tunes in again a minute later, he smiles at him. “It’s a surprise,” Sam says. “Now come on. Or do you need help?”

“I got it. You grab the beer though,” Dean says as he gets up and starts putting on his shirts. It hurts all the way down into his muscles even still, but it is lessening and he’s definitely a lot more flexible than he was even a day ago.

When he’s dressed again, he throws out his arms, relishing the ache even that brings. “Okay, let’s go, Mysterio.”

“This is going to be fun, I promise,” Sam says. The way he’s smiling makes Dean swallow. He understands a bit better now—not much, but he’s got the general idea at least.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The next evening, Sam brings Dean his laptop. “When I call you, turn it on.”

“Why?”

Sam tilts his head, a little smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he leans forward to touch his tongue to the bow of Dean’s upper lip. “Because I want to show you what I would’ve done to that guy in Wisconsin.”

Dean drops his laptop then, but it’s not a far drop and it thumps down lightly on the tops of his thighs. “Really?”

“Really,” Sam says. “I put Skype on your laptop. I’m taking mine with me, so when I call you on it, just click the window that pops up.”

“Really?” Dean says again. He feels dumb, his ears full of that same strange static hum.

Sam slides his hand up the side of his neck to cup his cheek. “Yeah, really,” he says. “Unless… You don’t want me to.”

“No.” Dean’s answer is instant and more forceful than he means it to be, but it only makes Sam’s smile widen.

“Good,” Sam says. “I’ll call you in a few hours.”

“Okay,” Dean says.

Sam kisses him quickly and then rises from his crouch beside Dean’s spot on the pallet. He grabs up his laptop bag and is gone in only a couple of seconds, always anxious to be off doing what he loves to do.

“Thank you,” Dean says long after the grumbling sound of the Impala’s engine has faded away.

He lies down on his side and hugs the laptop to his chest, waiting. Sam may not be ready to take him along yet, but he’s ready to let Dean into his world. It may be a slow inch at a time, but he’s getting there. He’s making it and eventually, Sam will let him be a part of it entirely. He clearly fucked up in Wisconsin, but at the same time, he also managed to prove something—something incredibly important.

Dean’s not aware of the fact he’s laughing until Kilgore comes over and looks at him with a quizzical expression before he starts licking Dean’s face.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Sam calls him around midnight and Dean clicks “answer” before Jimi Hendrix has even managed the opening strains of “Star Spangled Banner”. He just breathes into the phone until Sam says, “Dean?”

“I’m here.”

“Turn your laptop on and get it connected to the wifi.”

“Yeah, okay,” Dean says. His hands are shaking and he fumbles with the laptop’s lid for a second before he yanks it open. He has a brief pang of worry—what if he broke it? But it’s okay.

He turns on the computer and watches it boot up, just waiting for something to go wrong because that’s how things work in their life. When his desktop wallpaper pops up—Sam did change it, now it’s of a bunch of red balloons sailing off into the sky—he breathes a sigh of relief. He doesn’t waste any time connecting to the only wireless signal available in the area that isn’t password protected.

“I did it,” Dean says.

“Good,” Sam says. “See you soon.”

The line goes dead in Dean’s ear, but a second later, a little window pops up in the corner of the screen. Dean clicks it and there is Sam.

“Can you see me?”

“Yeah, Sammy,” Dean says. His heart is pounding, his palms are sweating. He blinks rapidly and this time, he doesn’t bite back his smile.

“Cool,” Sam says. He messes around for a minute and then stands back, the upper half of his body filling the screen. Then he steps aside. “Can you see him?”

“Fucking goddamn,” Dean chokes out.

Nailed to the wall behind Sam is a man. He hangs there, stripped naked and gagged with duct tape, toes just barely touching the floor—enough to keep his weight off the nails driven through his arms. He’s wide awake and staring right at Dean. Dean wants to look away, not liking that he’s been spotted; that this man can see him. He could identify him… except no, he can do none of those things. He’s going to be dead very soon.

“You nailed him to a wall?”

“I nailed him to his wall,” Sam says. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah… I…” It’s sacrilegious as hell, morbidly twisted humor if ever there was such a thing. “It’s great,” Dean says.

“I thought so,” Sam says. “You know, I actually found nine inch nails? Well, nine and three-quarters, but close enough.”

“Like the band?” Dean can’t tear his eyes away from the man nailed to the wall. He has sandy colored hair and fair skin. He’s not bad looking at all, athletic build, what seems like blue eyes though it’s hard to tell from the computer screen. He’s got blood all over his face—Sam probably beat him down to subdue him—and his eyes are glassy, wide open and tear-filled. It’s unreal, surreal.

“No, like the crucifixion,” Sam says.

“Oh,” Dean says.

The static is louder in his ears now; he can barely see or think past the man nailed to the wall and Sam standing beside him with a knife. He turns it this way and that, letting the blade catch the light and kick it back into the man’s eyes.

“Are you watching?”

“Yes, Sammy,” Dean says.

Sam nods and then he begins to work. Dean leans closer and closer to the monitor, watching when Sam peels back the skin on the man’s torso and tacks it to the wall as well. Then he cuts through muscle, each stroke of the blade precise as a mathematician’s calculations. The guy passes out once, head going limp and rolling forward, but Sam slaps him hard across the face—so hard Dean swears he hears one of his teeth break. When he comes back to, Sam continues on like nothing ever happened.

Dean is sweating and shivering at the same time. He feels feverish, the surface of his skin cold and just beneath it, burning hot. He licks his lips and wraps his arms around himself, rocking to the rhythm of Sam’s knife. Streamers of blood flood down the man’s body and Dean hugs himself even harder to try and quell his shaking.

He hears it when Sam slices through the man’s abdominal artery, the sudden gush-splash of blood hitting his cheap raincoat. The blood itself makes a sound a lot like a busted water pipe and Dean trembles and moans.

When Sam cuts through the last bit of muscle holding him together, viscera bulges out and then plops to the floor in a wet rush. Dean can see the faint gleam of sweat on Sam’s skin; can see the way he’s smiling; the way his eyes flare bright and hot as he reaches into the man’s chest cavity.

Dean cannot help the whimper that slips through his teeth as Sam does so. He knows Sam hears him, though he shows no actual sign of it. He sees the way Sam’s arm flexes as he grips the dead heart in his hand. Then he yanks. Once. Twice. Three times. Four times.

The man’s heart comes loose with a wet, snapping rubber band sound. What blood is left comes with it in a gout. Dean moans at the sight and leans so close to the screen when Sam faces him, his nose is nearly touches it. Sam has the heart held out like an offering as he comes ever closer until he’s crouched down right in front of the screen.

Sam holds the heart out to Dean for a second, glistening and wet, deep red and so strong, but so frail. Then Sam tosses it over his shoulder like it’s nothing. Like it’s trash.

He winks at Dean then, the expression quick and playful. This is just between us. Right, buddy?

“What would I ever want with some stranger’s heart?” Sam whispers.

Dean can’t think of anything to say, he just reaches out and touches all the thousands of pixels that make up Sam’s face. Sam kisses his fingertips and being unable to actually feel his lips hurts.

“I’ll be back soon,” Sam says.

“Hurry,” Dean says.

Sam nods and then he closes his laptop, leaving Dean alone and shaking.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Sam comes back and Dean is up and headed for him before he can even get in the door good. He kisses him so hard their teeth clack together as Dean wraps his arms around his neck and hangs on until they have to stop so they can catch their breath.

Sam kisses him softly and then presses his mouth to Dean’s ear. “Do you still want me to eat your heart, Dean?”

Dean whispers back, “Yes, Sammy. Eat my heart.”

Sam takes him by the hand and leads him back to the pallet. He already has a knife, the sharpest one they have, the demon knife. He cuts Dean’s shirt off and then eases him back on the pallet. For a long, drawn out moment, they watch one another. When Dean nods, Sam nods back. Then he begins to work.

Inside their stolen house before the glow of the fire, Sam carves into Dean’s chest. He sings the whole time. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey. He carefully scoops out a gobbet of flesh and holds it in his hand for a moment; looking at it and letting Dean see as well.

He strokes Dean’s cheek with his bloody thumb, smearing bright red in a swooping arc across his pallid skin. “You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.” He speaks the words instead of singing them and smiles at Dean.

Dean cannot answer, he’s gasping for breath, shaking and shivering, sweat blurring his vision as his whole body throbs in response to Sam.

Right before his wide, watering eyes, Sam takes Dean’s flesh into his mouth and begins to chew. When he does, Dean comes so hard and so suddenly that he forgets where he is and he doesn’t care either.

All that matters is that Sam is here with him in this place that is neither here nor there; not in the maze, but free. All he can see is Sam. All he can hear is the sound of him chewing. All he can taste is his own flesh and blood when Sam kisses him to swallow the throat-tearing sounds he’s making. Dean holds onto Sam while his bleeding body shudders and jerks until it—until he—is at last still in his arms.

~*~*~*~*~*~

That night, Dean lies awake while Sam hums beside him. They don’t speak, they are spent and out of words for now. The fire crackles and Kilgore’s toenails click softly on the floor. The wind howls around the eaves of the house, once again furiously blowing snow.

Inside, they are safe and warm. Sam’s hand rests on top of Dean’s where it covers the heart-shaped wound he carved out of his body. Blood stains the covers and floor, his back throbs in time with his heartbeat, the same heartbeat he can feel thumping up through the gauze packed piece of art in his chest.

Dean lets his eyes drift closed as he begins to doze; the sound of Sam’s humming dragging him further under. He is smiling. Things have never felt so fucking wonderful before. This is a new beginning, a step forward and they have found their footing once again, just as they always do.

Together, they are unstoppable. They are eternal.