He’d left them scattered all over the country. Ever since he’d hit puberty, and he and his big brother had become involved in a way most would find taboo, Sam had purchased locks (or stolen locks) and scratched their initials on it.
Then he’d placed them on the Welcome To sign of the towns they stayed in for longer than a couple of days. Hundreds of towns, hundreds of locks. Most of the time he could affix it to a chain link fence the signs were attached to. Sometimes it was secured around a post or a hole punched through the metal signs. It was his secret, a bit of them left behind to prove they weren’t only drifters without a place in the world as long as they had each other.
Winchestered locks littered the country. Tangible reminders of a love that burned hotter than the sun, a bond of devotion and loyalty to each other that had seen them both to heaven, hell and back.
You were supposed to throw the keys away when you left the lock behind. To show the love was unbreakable, that nothing could shake the foundation, the lifetime entwined together was something that couldn’t be unlocked. Sam had kept every key. Because life had taught him from an early age that nothing was permanent. Nothing was unbreakable. The keys were palpable tokens for Sam. If he had them safely in his possession, then nothing could tear he and Dean apart. That logic, rooted at the impressionable age of fourteen, was something he’d held onto his whole life.
He had a gorgeous cherry wood box to keep them in – Bobby had actually made it for him when he was at Stanford, and it was covered in wards. Much better than the layers of socks he’d stored them in before. There was an intricate puzzle to complete before it could be opened, and only Sam knew the solution now that Bobby was gone.
When he finally moved it from a safe deposit box into the bunker, it was the only personal object that lent any warmth and personality to his spartan room. Dean immediately honed in on it. He pestered Sam with questions, and was always picking it up and shaking it, trying to figure out the puzzle.
Sam wouldn’t answer his relentless questions on it, and being the big brother, Dean simply could not let it go. Sam didn’t even try to lie about what was in it, there was simply no comment.
Dean spent weeks trying to work out the puzzle, always waiting for Sam to be out of the bunker, or at least lost in the library or dungeon doing research. And every time they got back from a case, Dean noticed Sam immediately went to his room and shut the door. He tried to listen, but could only hear muffled noises. Still, he knew it had something to do with that damn box.
When they dropped Harry off at the nearest bus station in Springdale, Washington, Dean had seen Sam take Harry aside quietly and speak to him. Then Harry had gone in to get his ticket while Sam took deep breaths looking at the night sky. Dean kept his eye on Sam as Sam walked over to the wooded area behind the station, sneaking his hand into his pocket and pulling out a lock.
Sam quickly glanced around and Dean ducked his head, staying flat against the Impala, pretending to listen to Led Zeppelin.
Dean raised his eyes and watched the large hands of his little brother deftly work the lock into place through the fencing surrounding the backside of the building. Sam pressed a kiss to his fingers, and then placed his fingers over the lock and rubbed it.
All the way home Dean never said a word. They were both still feeling the pang from the night’s events and better to not say something that would set either of them off while captive in the car.
Once back in the bunker, Sam made for his room. Dean fussed about in the kitchen, preparing a small snack. He gave Sam a few moments, and then knocked once to alert his brother of his entry before opening the door.
Sam froze in place, eyes wide, and the wooden box in his hands. The box that was open. There was a padlock key in Sam’s hand, and Dean could see the red velvet lining of the box was filled with similar small keys. No wonder that box was so heavy, thought Dean.
Sam stayed silent as Dean set down his tray of warmed pecan pie slices and fresh hot coffee on the barren desk.
“I thought you were supposed to throw those away, Sammy.” Dean’s voice was calm, no anger, no accusation, and no surprise. There was no shock or revelation in his tone.
Sam opened and closed his mouth, unable to answer. He felt exposed; Dean was never supposed to know about the locks – or the keys. He sat down on the bed, his face immediately sliding into the puppy eyed visage Dean so adored.
“You-you knew?” Sam’s response was whispered.
“Always knew, Sam. About the locks, anyway. Not about the keys. Why’d you keep them all? Isn’t it bad luck to do that?” Dean had walked over and joined Sam on the bed, placing a hand on Sam’s thigh, a current running through them both that was alive and electric.
There was deep division between the brothers, the last several weeks had been painful and heart wrenching for them both. Even so, that invisible string that tied their hearts together pulled tight. They’d both been hurt multiple times – hurt to the point most others would have walked away. And the thing that always brought them back together was something tremendous, defying definition. It was greater than a bond of soul mates. It was deeper than any platonic, fraternal or romantic kind of love. It was something angels, demons, monsters and humans all took note of and couldn’t stop commenting on.
So even in argument, that thing never let them go from each other, not truly.
“I think we’ve had enough bad luck, Sammy.” Dean held Sam’s gaze and watched those hazel eyes flicker, look down, look away, look up. When they finally rested on the emerald eyes watching him, they were bright with tears.
“Dean, I-I’m not ready.” Sam fiddled with the small key, his hand hovering over the pile in the box.
“Didn’t say you had to forgive me Sam. Just said we’d had enough bad luck. Why are you keeping the keys, little brother?” Dean pressed gently, warily knowing Sam felt backed into a corner. He didn’t want to cause further harm between them, and Sam needed to know he was not being attacked.
“Can we just not talk about it?” Sam’s face took a hard stubborn edge to it, distance in his voice seeping in.
Dean released his hand from Sam’s body and pulled back slowly, keeping the frame of his body open and loose, forcing himself to keep his eyes wide and reflective. Calm, stay calm.
“You know I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is one of those times we should.” Dean took a deep breath, laid his palms flat against his thighs and bit his lip. “Sam, let me just start, ok? You don’t have to say anything, just listen.” He looked at Sam, waiting for any indication. Sam’s arms were crossed over his body and his shoulders were hunched in. His face lost the hard edge, his jawline softening as he slowly nodded consent.
“So you were, what, fourteen, the first time you did that with a lock? It was a week we’d been in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and we were gonna be leaving in a couple days. I was supposed to pick you up from the library, and I was late. Remember I caught you walking back to the motel?” Dean tracked Sam’s eyes, watching the memory play out across his face. Recognition flared and Sam looked up at Dean, his mouth open in a slight “O” shape.
“Yeah, kiddo. I wasn’t late. You’d been so eager and excited to go to the library, and I knew you’d done all your homework already, and dad was already off on a case. There wasn’t any research for you to do. So I dropped you off, then watched and waited. I knew something was up – you’d been fidgeting all morning, shooting me looks and trying to find any reason to get out of the room. I figured it was because you were feeling guilty about what we’d done the night before. So I gave you some space. About an hour into being there, you left. You walked about two blocks before I started worrying. You were headed for the town limits, and I thought you were gonna hitch yourself a ride somewhere and leave. But you stopped at the sign welcoming visitors and stood there for a while, fiddling around. About ten minutes later, you walked back to the library. So of course I went to find out what you’d done.” Dean paused as Sam’s arms uncrossed, the one hand moving in to dig through the keys, searching for a particular one it seemed.
“I found the lock Sam. With our initials scratched into the red heart painted on it.”
A tear slid down Sam’s face as his hand pulled out a dingy old brass key. There was a “1” etched into it, and Dean’s breath caught as the realization hit him, and kept talking.
“I went back to the library, plunked down in a deep corner and did some research of my own. I lost track of time and had to wait for you to start back or you’d have caught me there. But I found out about love locks. And all I could do, Sam, was wonder at you. At the marvel that you are. At the love you had for me even then and how you decided to show it. It seemed pretty clear you wanted it to be a secret and we’d just – well, we’d just started things between us, so I let you do your thing – but I was always watching you, Sammy, always.”
During the conversation, Sam had felt some weight lift. He had fallen back against the headboard, stunned. That first key slipped from his hand, and as Dean went to pick it up, Sam reached for his hand instead.
Surprised, Dean let his hand be held. Their fingers interlaced, their palms together, warmth radiated.
“I didn’t throw the keys away, Dean,” Sam spoke softly.
“Yeah, can see that bro.” Dean kept his tone light, letting Sam lead now.
“The locks – you know why. And you’ve seen me do it, all this time, all over the country?” Dean nodded in response. “Even when things weren’t always right with us?” At this question Sam held his breath.
“Especially then, Sammy. Figured, if we were both so angry and you still did it, it meant you still loved me, that we’d make it.”
Sam blew out his held breath and more tears slipped down his face. “So you saw – after Harry – in Springdale?”
“Yeah, Sam. I did.”
“So you know what it means.” And here, Sam raised his face to meet Dean head on. There was no guile, no anger, not even a question, just a statement of fact.
“It means you still love me Sam.” And damn if tears weren’t slipping down Dean’s face as well. “And the keys?”
“I kept them because if I had them safe…” His voice trailed off, thick with emotion, and he hung his head again. Dean understood immediately.
“No one could undo what you’d done. What we have.” Dean felt Sam squeezing his hand, and returned it. Then he couldn’t control himself anymore and moved over to pull Sam into a hug. The box tumbled off Sam’s lap onto the floor, scattering hundreds of keys all over the rug. When the brothers broke apart, Sam leaned down to pick the box up. Before his brother could think to start retrieving the keys, Dean was on his knees, picking them up, placing a kiss on each one before handing it to Sam to return safely to the box.
When all the keys were carefully locked away, Dean again hugged Sam, holding him close. “Sam, I know we’re not ok. Not yet. The locks, especially with this most recent one – that means something. It’s important.”
When they pulled apart, Dean brushed his lips over Sam’s, quickly, lightly, just a trace of a kiss.
“I’m going to give you space and time, Sam. Just know whenever you’ve left a lock behind; you’ve locked another piece of my heart inside of yours. And I don’t want you to ever throw away that key.”
As Dean left Sam’s room, Sam recalled how things had ended with Harry and Ed. And while the parallels had seemed similar, their journeys were vastly different. He remembered Harry’s words to Ed, and knew already in his heart, he’d soon be making a different choice than Harry had. Dean was his. He was Dean’s. That transcended everything else, and always had.