In the fairy tale, she’s a beautiful princess slumbering amidst a tangle of thorns. He’s a dashing prince who hacks his way into the highest castle chamber and kisses her, waking her from her enchanted slumber. They live happily ever after.
In reality, she’s an unconscious secretary. The thorns are smoke, thick and curling, and the castle is burning to ash around her. Her prince isn’t a prince at all but a mechanic’s son: just a firefighter who kicks in her door and grabs her from her bed and slings her over his shoulders and carries her outside. He lays her down on the grass and presses his mouth to hers and breathes out, forcing clean air into her lungs. One, twice, three times, and she coughs and comes awake in his arms, blinking up at him with soot tangled in her eyelashes.
“It’s okay, Miss,” he tells her. “You’re gonna be okay.”
And she smiles and rasps, “My hero.”
Okay, so the happily ever after part is accurate, anyway.
“So, how’d you two kids meet?” Dad asks when Dean brings her home.
“Donkey show,” Dean answers, grinning, and gets an elbow in the ribs for his trouble. Kate is blushing, embarrassed, and Mom shoots Dean a look that might have bordered on disapproving if she wasn’t struggling not to laugh.
“He saved my life, actually,” Kate announces, and slips her right arm around Dean’s waist, right where it belongs, and he kisses her on the temple and smiles.
It’s June when they meet, November when they marry, March when they move into a new house (small, but clean), and on August fourth, Dean is crouched next to a hospital bed with his finger trapped in a tiny, grasping fist. He feels like someone knocked him upside the head and scrambled his brains around: can’t quite wrap his mind around the fact that this little person is his. That this is his daughter, his Maggie.
A soft, wondering smile lifts his lips as he lifts his eyes to take in Kate. Her hair is limp and sweat drenched: her face lined and exhausted. She’s the most beautiful thing Dean has ever seen, next to the squalling, cabbage-faced bundle in her arms.
My girls, he thinks, chest expanding with a painful ache. My beautiful girls.
When he brings Maggie into the station a few months later to introduce her to the guys, Joey Mills claps him on the back and asks how the hell an ugly son of a bitch like him wound up with such a cute kid. Dean cradles Maggie close to his chest and shrugs.
“Just lucky, I guess.”
Maggie’s too young that first Christmas to really understand what’s going on, but Dean can’t help himself. He fills their living room with brightly colored packages—plastic toys, stuffed animals, blankets, and a really fucking awesome CD filled with lullaby versions of classic rock songs. Kate gives him crap for that one, but he can tell from the fond look in her eyes that she doesn’t actually mind.
On Christmas morning, Dean sits on the floor with Maggie in his lap and helps her open the presents. Kate watches the two of them from the kitchen while she cooks. All three of her brothers are coming over for dinner, and both sets of parents. At some point Dean is going to have to shave and shower and make the train wreck of a living room presentable, but right now he’s having too much fun with his daughter to worry about anything else.
By the time everything has been opened, the room is a multi-colored sea of crinkled, discarded paper. Dean leaves Maggie in a nestle of green and red and white and heads into the kitchen. His daughter doesn’t protest the abandonment: too busy playing with a wad of paper to notice. Next year Dean is just buying a couple of rolls of the stuff. Mags would probably be just as happy and it’d be a hell of a lot cheaper.
Kate is in the middle of mixing the crust for the pies (four instead of two, after a great deal of begging on Dean’s part). She’s covered in flour up to her elbows, stray bits of hair coming out every which way from her twist, and biting her lower lip in concentration. There are ratty blue slippers on her feet, and she’s wearing her faded cotton robe over a pair of his boxers and a worn Metallica t-shirt, which Dean’s pretty sure has also been stolen from his closet.
God, she’s beautiful.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he says, kissing her on the cheek. In a strategic movement, he sneaks his hand closer to the bowl of pie filling—pecans and molasses—sitting by his wife’s elbow.
Without missing a beat, Kate says, “Your bowl is by the microwave.”
Dean glances at it—little heaps of all four fillings and one of Maggie’s Sesame Street spoons—and then dips his finger anyway. Stolen filling always tastes better. Pursing her mouth, Kate flicks flour at him. Dean grins at her around his finger, unrepentant, and then reaches again.
This time, Kate smacks the back of his hand with her spoon. “Do it again and you’re history, buddy.”
Twenty minutes later, he’s busy mopping up pie filling and flour from counter and floor and walls while Kate plays with Maggie in the living room. Something has been nagging at him for a while now, but as Kate makes elephant noises against Maggie’s stomach, he finally pauses and sniffs the air.
“Baby?” he calls. “Is the turkey supposed to smell like that?”
Kate lifts her head, takes a sniff of her own, and then stares at him, horrified. Dean’s closer, but Kate moves fast enough that they’re standing side by side when he finally cracks the oven door. Smoke pours out, black and thick, and Dean’s pretty sure he can see the flicker of flames deeper inside. Kate immediately snaps the oven off while Dean yanks his shirt over his head. He dunks it into the cooling water that Kate used to boil the potatoes with and then, coughing, smothers the fire.
Kate looks at him with wide, startled eyes as the fire alarm sounds belatedly. Maggie is right behind it, shrieking up a storm, and Dean’s wife runs to round their child up while he waves a dishtowel around the alarm sensor.
When everything has settled down again—Maggie safe in her crib and smoke vented out the kitchen window—Dean takes a peek at the sorry remains of the turkey. He’s pretty sure this is his fault: vaguely remembers bashing his elbow against the oven knob during the epic pie filling battle. Oops.
Kate wanders up next to him and he puts his arm around her. They both regard the ruined dinner for a moment and then Kate starts shaking.
“Baby?” Dean says, turning toward her in alarm. Kate has been looking forward to this all month, her first Christmas as hostess, and he went and spoiled it like the jackass he is and now she’s crying.
Except she isn’t crying at all: she’s laughing, one hand clamped over her mouth and eyes sparkling. Dean is pretty sure that his wife has gone insane, but then again who is he to judge? He’s laughing too, after all: hard enough that there are tears streaming down his face.
They serve Peking duck and mu shu pork and chicken lo mein for dinner, and Dean spends the entire evening quoting A Christmas Story while the family spoils Maggie silly.
Best. Christmas. Ever.
It’s Dean’s twenty-sixth birthday when Maggie says her first word.
“De,” she gurgles, waving tiny fists in the air. Dean’s certain he misheard, but then she says it again, triumphantly: “De!”
For a heartbeat, and for no reason at all, he can’t see his daughter’s face. Instead, his field of vision has been invaded by shaggy brown hair and slanted hazel eyes. Then he blinks and it’s just Maggie again: blonde cap of curls like her mother and Dean’s own bottle green eyes.
“De!” Maggie proclaims, waving her hands at him. For some reason, Dean finds his eyes watering. He knows that he should be calling Kate in from her flowers to share this moment, knows that he should be happy, but instead he’s lying on the floor next to his daughter and crying.
This is all wrong, he thinks. His insides clench in revolt. I’m not supposed to be here.
Then Maggie grips his nose in one hand and squeezes. “De!” she insists, and Dean laughs in a shocky, surprised burst. That odd, almost fey feeling falls away from him as his daughter grins at him.
Later that night, after Maggie has performed for Kate, all their neighbors and, over the phone, two sets of ecstatic grandparents and three tolerant uncles, Dean doesn’t remember feeling anything in that first moment but a warm, glowing pride.
After all, being someone else’s first word is a once in a lifetime experience.
Kate’s birthday is only a few months later, in mid-April. Dean corners her in the kitchen at breakfast, when Maggie is still asleep up stairs. Wrapping his arms around her waist, he presses her up against the counter and kisses the curve of her neck.
“Morning, birthday girl,” he murmurs. “Got a present for you.”
“Mmm,” she purrs, arching back into him. “I’ll just bet you do.”
“Close your eyes and don’t move,” Dean whispers, and kisses her neck again. It’s a habit he can’t seem to break himself of.
Kate glances over her shoulder, giving him a heated look from underneath her eyelashes, and says, “Ooo, kinky.”
Dean snorts. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it isn’t that kind of present.”
“Are you turning down sex?” Kate asks. “You? Hang on, I have to call everyone I know.”
She starts to slide out from between him and the counter and he tightens his grip on her. “Ha ha. Seriously, Kate. Just—close your eyes, okay?”
Kate heaves out a put-upon sigh, but she’s smiling as she complies. Dean kisses her one more time, this time on the cheek, and then steps away. He pounds downstairs to his workshop, has a bad moment when he can’t find his wife’s birthday present, and then practically trips over it. Cursing under his breath, he catches himself on his workbench and then corners the gift between a chunk of unworked wood and a half-finished toy chest.
Despite the delay, Kate is still waiting when he gets back, eyes closed while she hums the birthday song under her breath. Dean sets her present down on the counter in front of her, and then grins to himself as it immediately stumbles forward and licks her wrist.
“Oh!” Kate blurts, jerking her hands away and opening her eyes. “Oh!” she says again, in a completely different tone of voice, and reaches down to pick the ginger kitten up. It lets out a tiny mew, feet moving uselessly in the air, and then sneezes.
“I, uh, I know you wanted a dog, but I figured this’d be easier until Mags is a little older.”
“Baby, he’s perfect!” Kate coos, and then hauls him in for a kiss. The kitten, squished between them, lets out a little noise of protest and digs its claws into Dean’s chest. He immediately swears, stepping back and doing his best to detach those tiny, burr-like claws from his skin. Kate isn’t helping, of course: she’s too busy laughing at him with one hand pressed over her mouth.
Finally, Dean succeeds in getting the kitten off of him and then holds it out to his wife by the scruff of its neck. Kate takes it back and cuddles it close, rubbing one finger across the bridge of its tiny, pink nose.
“What should we call him?” she asks.
“How about pain in the ass?” Dean grumbles, rubbing his chest.
“Pain in the ass,” Kate muses. “I like it.”
Dean looks up, startled. His wife has an unpredictable sense of humor, and suddenly he’s worried that his half joking, half annoyed comment is going to result in a succession of kittens with similar names. He can just see it now: calling for Son Of Bitch from the back porch while Shit For Brains sleeps curled up in the windowsill. Mom’d kill if she found out, and she’s gonna find out, she always does.
“I didn’t mean—” he starts.
“P.I.T.A.,” Kate interrupts, her eyes twinkling with good humor and mischief. “It’s a good name.” She puts the kitten down on the floor and then grabs him by the collar of his t-shirt. “Now, let’s try that thank you again …”
On her first birthday, Maggie almost dies.
One minute, she’s stuffing fistfuls of chocolate banana cake into her mouth and the next she’s gasping uselessly for breath. Dean steps on Pita in his haste to get to her and the cat shreds his leg, but he doesn’t notice. All he can see are the tears running down his baby girl’s face: Maggie’s reddened cheeks and her chubby, cake-smeared fingers waving uselessly in the air.
“Kate!” he hollers as he drops to his knees beside his daughter. “Call 911!”
“What is it?” Kate asks as she hurries in from the kitchen where she was washing the dishes from dinner. “Dean, what’s—oh my God!”
“Fucking now!” Dean screams, raking his hands through his hair. Dimly, he hears his wife obeying him, but all of his thoughts are a chaotic jumble. He knows what to do, he has to, he’s a goddamned fireman, he took the course, they all did, but the only thing he can think right now is, please God, don’t do this to me.
Maggie’s eyes have rolled back in her head: eerily silent, she strains for air. Dean’s hand, splayed across her chest, seems monstrously big in comparison. Not as big as Sam’s hands would, though: not the mitts of a giant. Dean doesn’t know who ‘Sam’ is, and he doesn’t fucking care. All that matters right now is the shutter-click of memory that accompanies the name: a chubby-cheeked teenager dropping like this, so fast and sudden and horrifying, and Dean’s fingers clenched around something that looks like an oversized carving knife as he makes an incision in taut skin.
“Get me a straw!” he shouts, praying that Kate can hear him—is rational enough to hear him. Then, sweating and breathless himself, he sprints into the bedroom and rifles frantically through the crap on top of the bureau. There’s nothing, of course there isn’t, fucking cat probably batted it into some obscure corner. Dean is just about to run to the kitchen for a butcher knife when he finally spots his Swiss army keychain lying half-exposed under an old phone bill.
Snatching it up, he races back to the dining room and drops to his knees beside his daughter. Maggie is unconscious now: still and pale. Dean’s hands don’t shake as he opens the switchblade.
“I’m coming!” Kate calls back, and she is, Dean can hear her moving. He splays his hand across his daughter’s tiny chest and puts blade to skin and cuts.
“Oh my God!” Kate says, low and appalled, but Dean doesn’t look up from the bloom of blood.
Holding up one hand, he snaps, “Straw.”
Kate obeys, thank God, and Dean slides the plastic tube (bendy and bright pink) into the opening he made. Immediately bending forward, he seals his lips around the other end and breathes out. Maggie’s chest gives a hitch, and then another without his help, and suddenly Dean’s hands aren’t steady at all. Not at fucking all.
“Jesus Christ,” Kate sobs. “What’s happening?”
“She’s allergic to bananas,” Dean bites out. It’s ridiculous—no one’s allergic to fucking bananas, for starters, and Maggie has devoured hundreds of those tiny Gerber’s jars without so much as a sniffle—but neither of those facts stopped (Sam) whomever Dean was thinking of for a moment there, and they haven’t stopped Maggie either. There are going to have to be tests, of course, but Dean doesn’t need them. He knows in his heart what almost killed his baby girl.
“How long before they get here?” he asks, voice rough with adrenaline. He got Maggie breathing again, sure, but she might still die, oh yes she might, she might just stop and he doesn’t know what he’d do if that ever actually happens.
“F-five minutes,” Kate tells him.
Three hours later, sitting in a chair next to his sleeping (but alive, thank you God, alive) daughter’s hospital bed, Dean thinks that those five minutes were just about the longest in his entire life.
Once a year, Kate’s brothers head up to Colorado to do some fishing in the family cabin. The first year they brought Dean with him, it was pretty much nothing more than an excuse to interrogate the man engaged to their sister. Dean was just grateful there weren’t any shotguns involved.
The second year, Dean sat quietly and listened to the others reminisce about old times, or tell stories about their wives and girlfriends and, in Matt’s case, kid. Once in a while he volunteered a story about Maggie, nine months old and already charming the socks off of everyone she met, but for the most part he just felt awkward. He found the jokes and the pranks they passed back and forth mystifying. It was like being in a foreign country: listening to a language of familiarity and sibling rivalry that he, as an only child, never learned. He wasn’t sure he could learn it.
This year, the third, Kate’s oldest brother, Jordon, glues Dean’s hand to a can of beer during one of their poker games. Dean had already lost all of his chips (never was any good at cards) and was just sitting there minding his own business, and now all three of Kate’s brothers are braying laughter while he blinks at his hand. Chris, the youngest, finally gets himself under control and heaves Dean up by the armpit.
“Don’t worry, man,” he says as he leads Dean toward the kitchen. “He got me with that one a couple years ago. Think I still have the bottle of solvent around here somewhere.”
The next day, Dean gets up early, empties the sugar container down the drain and then refills it with salt. Jordon takes a sip from his coffee, frowns, and then pours the rest out while shaking his head.
“That the best you got, Winchester? Weak, man. Weak.”
Later that afternoon, Dean teams up with Chris and Matt to toss Jordon off the dock and into the frigid water. He’s taken by surprise when they immediately turn around and heave him over the edge as well, but he comes up laughing. He and Jordon help each other back to the house, where they dry off and spike the others’ beers with Ex-Lax.
Dean thinks maybe he’s starting to get a hang of the whole brother thing.
The year Maggie turns three, Dean builds her a swing set in the back yard. Pita, just as advertised, twines in and out of his legs and steals loose screws to play with and generally makes a complete nuisance of himself. Maggie isn’t much better, barreling into Dean every five minutes or so and yelling, “Is it ready? Is it reeeeaaaaadyyyy?” at the top of her lungs. For such a little tyke, she’s got quite a voice on her.
Dean finally figures out that he can kill two birds with one stone by having his daughter round up Pita and carry him inside. Those two are thick as thieves these days, and the ginger tom goes willingly enough: smirking over Maggie’s shoulder at Dean and purring. Shaking his head, Dean turns up the boom box—AC/DC blaring through the suburban afternoon—and goes back to work.
Almost fifteen minutes later, he pauses. There’s a weird, prickling sensation along the back of his neck. Sort of like he’s being watched. Rolling his shoulders, he lifts his head and turns around.
There’s a guy standing on the other side of Mrs. Ketcherson’s fence. He’s huge—broad shoulders, oversized hands clamped tight on the wood—and has a wild mass of shoulder-length brown hair. Dean would have been a little nervous if it weren’t for the guy’s eyes, which are soft and hazel and soulful.
“Uh,” he says. “Hey.”
The guy blinks at him, face transforming with shock and joy. He opens his mouth—to speak, Dean guesses, only nothing comes out. The guy is looking at him expectantly, though, so Dean rubs at the back of his neck and offers, “Sorry, I, uh, I don’t read lips.”
The dude’s face falls at that, devastated, and for some reason it makes Dean’s chest go all sore and tight. He stands as the guy, shoulders slumping, turns around.
“Hey, wait,” he calls. “I could run inside and get a pen and paper if you want.”
But the guy doesn’t hesitate, striding around the side of Mrs. Ketcherson’s house and out of sight.
For some reason, Dean can’t stop thinking about the dude—something about his eyes, maybe—and a few days later he stops by Mrs. Ketcherson’s on his way home from work and knocks on the front door. She greets him with a smile and an offer of a cookie (like he’d turn that down), but when he asks about her visitor, she only gives him a perplexed—and somewhat concerned—look.
“I haven’t had a visitor in months, honey. Not since my nephew stopped by on his way to Chicago.”
“You sure?” he prods.
“Positive as pie,” Mrs. Ketcherson asserts, and ushers Dean out the door with a tinful of cookies for ‘the little one and that lovely wife of yours’.
It’s three years before he sees the guy again.
Maggie’s kindergarten is having a Christmas play (PC crap be damned) and Mags is playing Santa’s head elf. She’s kicking the crap out of the part, of course, and Dean is thoroughly enjoying himself when he steps out into the lobby for intermission. He’s thinking of the brownies and punch he knows the PTA is selling and already reaching back for his wallet when he runs into someone.
“Oops! Sorry, didn’t see you,” Dean says, looking up, and then freezes. “You,” he whispers.
“Yeah, me,” the guy says, smiling.
“You can talk,” Dean notes brilliantly.
Giving Dean a sidelong, cautious look, the guy replies, “Um. Yeah, I can talk. Why wouldn’t I be able to?”
“You, uh. Couple of years ago, you …” Dean trails off, uncertain. “I was building a swing set?”
The guy shrugs with a sheepish smile. “Sorry. I lived in Boston until August. You must be thinking of someone else.”
Dean is almost a hundred percent sure that he isn’t—this guy is a mirror image of the other one, right down to the dimples—but then again, why would he lie about it? “I, uh. I guess you’re right,” he agrees. “Sorry.” And then, because his mama raised him to be polite, he holds out his hand and says, “Dean Winchester.”
The guy’s face lights up. “Winchester?” he says, taking Dean’s hand. “You aren’t Maggie’s dad, are you?”
“Guilty,” Dean admits. As always, he perks up at the chance to talk about his little girl.
“I’m Maggie’s teacher, Sam Singer.”
Both of the guy’s names ring strangely inside of Dean and make the room seem overly bright for a moment. Everything looks plastic suddenly, like costume jewelry seen up close. Only the guy—Sam Singer—looks right. Looks real. That has to be wrong, though, because Sam is an intruder. He doesn’t belong here, with his cheap suit and his slicked back hair and his gleaming white smile. He isn’t Mrs. Ketcherson’s nephew, and he for damned sure isn’t Maggie’s teacher because Maggie talks about Mr. Irving all the time—Irving, not Singer—and—
Sam’s hand tightens on Dean’s, almost painfully, and the disorientation fades.
“Mr. Singer, sure,” he says. He doesn’t know how it could have taken him so long to place the name: Maggie says it often enough. “Mags can’t stop talking about you. Way she tells it, you’re either the Second Coming or Santa Claus. I’m not sure which.”
Sam laughs—boyish and adorable (adorable? seriously?) and genuine—and says, “It’s Sam, and I’m neither.”
After that, well, one thing leads to another, and somehow Mr. ‘It’s Sam’ Singer ends up invited over for Sunday dinner.
When Sam shows up, Maggie hangs all over him like a monkey. Kate laughs at his jokes, charming and charmed. The food is wonderful, and the wine Sam brought is good stuff: expensive for a teacher’s salary. Even Pita, who normally loathes company, comes out and hops into the man’s lap.
Dean has never been so miserable.
There’s a warm, fluttering feeling in his gut all through dinner, unnerving, and he keeps catching himself staring at the Maggie’s teacher. Sam’s smile seems to light up the room; his laugh raises goose bumps on the back of Dean’s neck. Dean’s hands itch with the urge to reach across the table and brush that unruly hair out of his face.
Wrong wrong wrong.
“Are you feeling alright, baby?” Kate asks him later, when he’s helping her get the coffee ready. “You’ve been quiet all night.”
“Yeah,” Dean rasps. For some reason, his throat feels overly dry. He tries a smile and isn’t sure how it looks. “I’m just. Uh. Thinking.”
“You sure?” Kate asks, cupping his cheek with one hand. He leans into the touch, but he’s imagining rougher hands. Larger.
“Yeah,” he lies. “I’m good.”
When Dean heads back to the dining room with a tray of cups and plates in his hands, Maggie is running around in what he recognizes as her Power Puff mode (she has about a gazillion Blossom toys in her room). Sam is sitting at the table watching her with his chin in his hands and Dean’s gut goes cold at the look on his guest’s face.
Gone is the laughing, slightly awkward schoolteacher from before. Now Sam’s eyes are narrowed: cold and resentful and almost angry. Then he looks from Maggie to Dean, who has come to a complete standstill, and his expression softens into something even more disturbing. Dean can see pity in those hazel eyes, and sorrow, and something else that he refuses to name, but which he can feel stirring in his own chest as well.
“Who wants cake?” Kate calls, strolling in behind him.
“Me me me me!” Maggie shrieks, barreling toward her mother and bashing against Dean’s legs as she goes. The collision makes the tray shake, but he balances it again and manages to keep from actually dropping anything. When he looks up from the near miss, Sam is standing right in front of him. Dean’s breath catches in his throat.
“Let me,” Sam says. His voice is far too soft and intimate for the moment, filled as it is with Kate and Maggie and chocolate cake. Filled with Dean’s family, whom he loves.
Sam’s fingers brush against Dean’s as he takes the tray. Accidental, maybe, except for the way the touch lingered half a second too long. Accidental, maybe, except for the way that Sam is looking at him.
Dean makes sure to kiss Kate at least ten times over coffee. He volunteers to put Maggie to bed before his wife can offer and takes his time doing so: reading aloud from the Disney Princess Treasury until Maggie is legitimately snoring and he can’t stall any longer. Back in the living room, he pulls his chair close to his wife and clasps their hands together on the tabletop.
When they finally see Sam to the door, Sam gives Kate a peck on the cheek and holds his hand out to Dean. Dean hesitates long enough that his wife is starting to frown at him and then takes it.
“Thanks for the invite,” Sam tells him. “I had a good time.” His thumb, unseen by Kate, swipes across Dean’s pulse.
“Yeah,” Dean says clumsily. “Me too.”
Two hours and one orgasm later, he lies in bed and stares at the ceiling. Kate is curled against him with a slight smile curving her lips. Innocent. Loving.
The skin on the inside of Dean’s wrist is still shivering.
Tuesday morning, Dean is out picking up the groceries when he runs smack dab into Sam at the store. In the brightly lit cereal aisle, Sunday night seems distant and foolish. Dean can’t really believe how much he overreacted to a couple accidental touches.
Sam swipes Kate’s regimented list (which has a cartoon ginger cat at the right top hand corner and is bordered by such helpful reminders as 'beer is not a food group' and 'one gallon of ice cream, not five') from the basket of Dean’s cart and joshes him about it. Dean shoots back that a full-grown man with nothing but a box of Lucky Charms in his cart doesn’t actually have a leg to stand on and makes a grab for the list. He isn’t a short guy, but Sam is fucking ginormous, and just holds it up higher before turning around to peer at it again.
“What’s this?” he asks, pointing at two thick, underlined words at the top of the page. “No bananas?”
Dean’s chest clenches—an instinctive reaction, even after all these years. It isn’t something he’s likely to forget, not ever, but Kate worries almost as much as he does, and it makes her feel better to add the reminder. He’s gotten so used to ignoring it that he doesn’t really notice it’s there anymore.
“Maggie’s allergic,” he says, reaching for the paper again.
Sam gives him a weird look and lets him take it. “She’s allergic to bananas? That’s pretty rare, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Dean says shortly. He folds the list into tiny squares and then shoves it into his pocket. “Anyway, I gotta get going if—”
“You want to grab a coffee?”
Dean stops, unaccountably flustered by the interruption. By the alarming, exciting warmth in Sam’s gaze. “What?”
“Coffee. You know: brown, hot and caffeinated? There’s an awesome café over on Wyndton.” Sam’s smile deepens and his voice lowers a little. “My treat.”
Dean thinks about the fact that he promised Kate he’d take a look at the downstairs sink before she got home today, and then about the fact that he has to finish putting together that puppet box for Maggie. He thinks about the way his hands can span Kate’s waist when they’re in bed together, and the way that Maggie’s upper lip sometimes sticks against her teeth when she laughs and makes her look like a chipmunk. He thinks about the fact that he has a wife he loves and a daughter he adores and then he rasps, “Yeah, okay.”
Somehow, during their three hour long caffeine extravaganza, the question of why Sam is out and about when he should be teaching kindergarten never comes up.
Christmas is always a frantic time of year. Jordon, on winter break from his final year in law school, shows up a week early to crash on their couch for the duration of the festivities. He complains loudly and insincerely about being woken up by a green-eyed, giggling monster jumping on his stomach every morning and drinks Dean’s beer and is generally annoying.
Dean loves having him.
Hanging out with Jordon is easy. Uncomplicated. Fun.
They drink and make fun of each other and watch reruns of Baywatch while Kate rolls her eyes and Maggie yammers on about all the things Santa is going to bring her and Dean doesn’t think about Sam. He doesn’t think about Sam until the day before Christmas Eve when Kate, busy chopping nuts for the pecan pie, says, “Remind me to set an extra plate tomorrow.”
“Chris decided to bring Ashley after all, huh?” Dean says while he roots around in the refrigerator in search of beer. He and Jordon can’t have finished the entire twelve pack last night. Ah, there’s one.
“No, didn’t I tell you? Sam Singer’s coming.”
Dean drops the can. It hits the floor and explodes, spraying beer everywhere. Swearing, he grabs the fizzing can and tosses it into the sink. Kate passes him a towel with a raised eyebrow, but he can’t look her in the face. He’s too afraid his own expression will give him away.
“When did this happen?” he asks, squatting to mop at the floor. He knows that he sounds hostile and belligerent and can’t help himself. Luckily, Kate doesn’t seem to notice.
“Oh, I saw him when I dropped Maggie off yesterday. We got to talking, and he mentioned he didn’t have anywhere to go tomorrow, so I invited him.”
Dean clenches his jaw and scrubs harder at the floor.
“That’s okay, isn’t it, baby?” Kate asks after a moment. She sounds awkward now, and a little nervous. “You two just seemed to get on so well, and Maggie adores him, so I thought—”
“It’s fine,” Dean says. Standing, he tosses the sodden dishcloth into the sink after the can and then offers his wife what he hopes is a genuine-looking smile. “Your brothers are gonna eat him alive, though.”
Kate snorts wryly. “I already warned him about them. He says he can handle it. Apparently, he has an older brother who was something of a handful when they were growing up.”
“How come he’s not spending Christmas with him, then?” Dean asks. It comes out sulkier than he means it to, but Kate just gives him a sweet smile and comes over to kiss him.
“Honey, I know that family time means a lot to you, but he’s not going to steal us away, alright? Just … think of it as a good deed. You know, like a couple of years ago? Tony had just had that messy divorce and you invited him to spend the holidays with us?”
That was different, though. That was just Tony Ramirez, who was a probie with Dean and had gone through hell and back with him. Tony was familiar. He was safe.
Of course, Dean can’t say any of that to his wife because then he’ll have to explain why Sam isn’t safe, and that’s a kettle of fish he would just as soon not open. Ever.
It’s just one night, he tells himself. Just stick close to Jordon and you’ll be fine.
Sam shows up wearing an old, red flannel shirt and bearing a pitcher and a nutmeg shaker. “Egg nog,” he says by way of explanation. “Family recipe.” Dean can smell the booze all the way across the kitchen where he’s fussing with the ham.
Kate’s brothers descend on the pitcher like a pack of bloodhounds, collecting Dean as they troop back out to the living room. Dean calls an insincere apology to Kate, but his wife is in the middle of welcoming Sam and just waves him off good-naturedly.
Three cups of nog later and Dean feels a lot more relaxed. He’s surrounded by family, and warm, and comfortable, and Maggie and Matt’s kid, Trevor, are shaking the presents and trying to figure out what’s in them, and life is good. So what if Sam—confusing, unsettling Sam—is here? Dean doesn’t have to talk to him if he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t even have to look at him.
Besides, Kate seems to have chained the man up in the kitchen with her.
Dean is deep in conversation with his father about a Thunderbird that John is restoring when Sam finally emerges from the kitchen. He isn’t watching where he’s going: head twisted back as he offers a parting word to Kate. Then, smiling, he turns around to look at the gathering.
And stops, like a rundown watch, and stares. Dean has seen men whose houses have just burned completely flat looking less shell-shocked. As far as he can tell, Sam is about a heartbeat away from fleeing.
Part of Dean wants to get up and yell, yeah, that’s right, go! You don’t belong here, you son of a bitch! The rest of him, though, wants to go over there and put a reassuring hand on the back of the man’s neck. Torn between the two contradictory impulses, Dean sits where he is and does neither.
In the end, it’s his mother who saves the moment. With a soft, warm smile, she moves toward Sam with an extended hand. “You must be Maggie’s teacher,” she says. “I’m Mary, Dean’s mother.”
Sam stares at her hand for a moment and then, slowly, takes it. “Nice to meet you,” he says in a soft, but clearly audible voice. “Thanks for—for having me.”
“We’re just happy you could come,” Mom replies, gracious and disarming as always. Dean isn’t sure how his working class dad landed a lady like her, but it appears to run in the Winchester family. After all, he wound up with Kate.
“My granddaughter just adores you,” Mom continues. “It’s nice to meet the elusive Mr. Singer she’s always talking about.” Looping one hand through Sam’s arm, she pats the back of his wrist. “Let me introduce you to everyone.”
Kate’s brothers actually behave themselves when they’re introduced: probably out of respect for the egg nog, which even Dean has to admit is pretty impressive. Sam shakes all of their hands, gives Kate’s parents a nod, and then they’re standing in front of Dean and his father.
“This is my husband, John,” Mom says, and Dad heaves himself up and extends a hand.
There’s a moment of hesitation so brief Dean isn’t sure it was actually there and then Sam says, “Sir,” in a low, respectful voice. John looks surprised and then laughs a little bit, giving Sam’s hand a quick pump before releasing it.
“Aw, hell, boy, none of that now. Just John’ll do.”
Sam swallows and nods, and then, finally, looks at Dean. Emotions flicker through his eyes: too quick and too complicated for Dean to even begin to understand. He thinks he sees grief there, and pain, and anger. In the next moment, the emotions are gone, as if they never existed. Sam’s grin is cheerful, if tinged with the normal awkwardness of being in a room full of people he doesn’t know.
“Hey, man,” he says.
“Hey,” Dean says. And then, because he’s the host here (and his mother is giving him the stink eye), adds, “Glad you could make it.”
Sam’s smile goes a little wry around the edges, like he knows that isn’t actually true, but all he says is, “Enjoying the egg nog?”
Dean considers his mug. “It’s good. I just want to know how many package stores you needed to knock over to get the booze that went in here.”
Sam tosses his head back and laughs and the wave of warmth that washes through Dean has absolutely nothing to do with alcohol. Sam’s eyes are softer when he looks back at Dean: fond. It isn’t the kind of look Dean is used to getting from anyone other than his wife. Isn’t the kind of look he wants to be getting from anyone other than his wife. His stomach sinks as he realizes that his father and mother have drifted over to talk with Kate’s parents, all but leaving him alone with Sam. Not acceptable.
He downs the rest of the egg nod like it’s a tequila shooter and then coughs a little at the way it makes his throat burn. Sam reaches toward him, probably to pat his back, and Dean shoves up from the couch and out of reach. “Refill,” he croaks, still coughing a little, and hurries over to where his brothers-in-law are hogging the pitcher.
“Hey, Dean-O,” Jordon greets him. “We were just thinking a little poker’d go down pretty smooth right now.”
Dean’s still coughing and can’t respond, but he doesn’t need to because Sam comes up behind him and says, “I think you’re mixing your metaphors.”
Jordon scrunches his face up as he considers it. “Possibly,” he admits finally, and then fixes Sam with a look that would have been sharp if his eyes weren’t so glassy. “You seem pretty smart. You wanna play?” He grins. “Could maybe give Dean-O a coupla pointers.”
Sam gives Dean a weird look at that, like Jordon just announced that Dean had tits instead of testicles, and then says, “Well, I haven’t actually played before, but that sounds like fun. Count me in.”
“Awesome!” Matt crows, bounding up from his seat. Dean can tell that the man smells fresh blood in the water and wonders how badly Kate will maim them if they fleece Sam for everything he has. He tries to toss Matt a warning look, but his brother-in-law just tosses an arm around Sam’s shoulders (or as close to Sam’s shoulders as he can reach) and starts pulling him toward the kitchen and the door to Dean's workshop, where they usually play whenever Dean hosts family get-togethers.
Dean sort of wants to distance himself from the upcoming game—partly because he fears the Wrath of Kate, partly because he doesn’t want to deal with Sam any more than he has to—but Jordon and Chris already have hold of him. He could probably get free, but not without a lot of effort, and then of course he’d have to explain. Although he still sucks at poker, he never turns down a chance to play. If he tries it now, no matter how drunk they are, they’re gonna know something’s up.
Best to just grit his teeth and get through it. Besides, it’s just a card game. What’s the worst that could happen?
“I bid five,” Matt announces, tossing two chips onto the table.
It’s the fourth hand and Dean, as usual, has bupkis. He gives his cards a single glance and then puts them down.
“I fold,” he announces.
“Dean,” Jordon says patiently, leaning toward him over the table. “Are you going to play any hand? Ever?”
“Deal me something that isn’t full of shit cards and maybe I will,” Dean grumbles. Normally, he loses with much more grace than this, but Sam’s presence to his immediate right is grating on him. Sam, who keeps rubbing their thighs together in an absent, accidental way that Dean couldn’t have called him on even if they were alone. Sam, who keeps raking in the chips like he’s been playing poker all his life.
Dean’s beginning to suspect they’ve been had by his daughter’s kindergarten teacher.
Jordon snorts. “One of these days, I swear to God I’m going to get the concept of bluffing through that thick skull of yours,” he says as he sits back again.
“Eat me,” Dean mutters.
“Bitch,” Jordon replies.
Beside him, Sam flinches. Dean glances over at the movement, but the man is busy counting out chips and tossing them into the center of the table. He’s acting like nothing happened: like he didn’t just jump as though someone slapped him. When he speaks, though, his voice is rougher than normal. “Call.”
“Bring it,” Chris agrees, adding some of his own chips.
As Jordon reaches for his own pile, Sam says, “So, Jordon,” in a tone of voice that makes Dean stiffen. He’s surprised by the thinly veiled hostility in that opening gambit: hostility that seems to have gone unnoticed by everyone else, judging from the lack of response among his brothers-in-law.
“Hmm?” Jordon responds absently.
“What do you do? Plumber? Electrician?”
“Actually, I’m in law school.”
The temperature in the room dips about twenty degrees.
“What?” Sam whispers.
“I know, right?” Jordon ducks his head good-naturedly as he counts out ten dollars worth of chips and adds them to the pot. “Sometimes I barely believe it myself. I got into Stanford, actually. Full ride and everything. It’s a pretty sweet deal.”
“I bet,” Sam says.
As the weight of Sam’s attention swings back to him, Dean drops his gaze to his hands. He can feel the man’s eyes crawling all over his skin, heavy and pushing and demanding—demanding things Dean can’t even begin to comprehend, let alone give—and then there’s a light brush across the top of his thigh (Sam’s hand or just his own imagination, he can’t tell), and Dean shoves his chair back and stands. Surprised by the sudden movement, Kate’s brothers blink up at him.
“I, uh. I gotta take a piss,” Dean lies, and all but sprints for the door.
Upstairs, Dean does not collect a hundred dollars and he does not pass go. He strides past the downstairs bathroom and up through his bedroom and into the cooler, quieter master bath, where he shuts the door and sits down on the toilet. Putting his head in his hands, he takes three deep, shaking breaths and waits for his heart to stop racing.
Dean feels calmer after he has splashed his face with cold water and actually taken the piss he pretended he needed half an hour ago (that egg nog’ll go right through you). After a good deal of thought, he has decided that the best way to deal with the whole Sam issue is not to. Dean just has to get through tonight and then he can go back to not seeing the guy and everything will be just fine. There’s a nauseating tension in his gut demanding to know what he’s going to do if Sam refuses to accept that turn of events—a tension born from the proprietal way that Sam reacted to Jordon: like a dog snapping to keep hold of a bone—but he can ignore it if he tries.
Opening the bathroom door, Dean pokes his head out cautiously. He can hear laughter from downstairs—Dad’s belly laugh, and Mom’s higher tones. Maggie’s shrill voice. It sounds just like always: safe and normal. Dean is going to go down there and find his daughter and piggyback her around the room a little. And then he’s going to sit down with his family and eat the ham and mashed potatoes and green beans that his wife made. And have a couple of pieces of Kate’s pumpkin pie, which he definitely deserves after the day he’s had.
Taking a deep breath, Dean starts forward again and runs into a broad chest in the bedroom doorway. It’s two weeks ago all over again, only this time he can’t step back because Sam has a hold on his left upper arm and right wrist. Dean looks up and Sam looks down and neither of them moves. Dean can feel his heartbeat echoing through his entire body.
After a few tries, he manages a shaky smile and says, “Got lost, huh? Bathroom’s downstairs, I’ll show you where—”
“I’m not the one who’s lost,” Sam says, whatever that means, and tightens his grip.
Dean’s stomach does this fluttery, confused thing, and he tries to step back again. He’s noticed that Sam is a big guy, of course, but it isn’t until he’s pulling and Sam isn’t budging at all that he actually understands just how huge the dude is. Broad and jacked and completely unmovable.
“W-we should get back,” he tries again, fighting down panic.
Sam just looks at him with those dark, unsettling eyes, and Dean’s breathing goes ragged. He’s feeling a little light headed: a little flushed. Probably shouldn’t have had that last mug of nog.
Then Sam’s eyes lift above their heads and Dean’s follow—can’t help it. He realizes what Sam is looking at and his stomach drops right down into the basement. His mouth is suddenly bone dry.
He remembers Kate hanging the mistletoe after Thanksgiving and before everything got turned upside down. Remembers pressing his wife up against the side of the doorframe and kissing her until they were both breathless from laughter.
Dean’s breathless for a whole ‘nother reason now.
He opens his mouth to say something—no? don’t?—and then Sam does and they’re kissing. Dean’s mouth is dry, but Sam’s is wet enough for both of them, and warm, and he’s kissing Dean violently enough that Dean’s lips are going to be bruised and swollen with it. Then Sam’s tongue slides forward into his mouth, claiming, and does this little twist-curl that sends his blood rushing south.
Dean’s free left hand comes up and weakly fists Sam’s shirt. He doesn’t know if he wants to push the man away or pull him closer. Oh hell, oh fuck, he should be fighting, but he can’t figure out how.
It occurs to him that Sam is walking him backward, that Sam is walking him over to the bed and pushing him down, and Dean is letting him. Dean is shuddering and spreading his legs and Sam’s mouth is on his jaw now, and then his neck, and Dean isn’t saying no. He’s panting at the ceiling, eyes roaming around the room—boxers on the floor, one of Kate’s bras hanging on the back of the door, which isn’t even closed—and his life is disintegrating around him and this is so fucking wrong.
It’s Kate’s voice—Kate, his wife—and Dean finally blurts, “No!” and shoves Sam off and scrambles free. He stumbles downstairs, straightening his shirt and rebuttoning his pants as he goes. As certain as Dean is that everyone will know as soon as they look at him, he’s desperate to get back into the middle of the crowd: back to safety.
“Daddy!” Maggie yells, glomping onto his legs as soon as he reaches the bottom of the stairs. “Time for pie, Daddy!” she declares, and raises her arms imperiously.
“Time for dinner,” Kate counters, poking her head out of the dining room. She gives Dean a fond smile as he bends over and lifts his daughter, tucking her in against his side like a shield. “Can you give me a hand with the ham, honey?”
“Sure,” he agrees. Although he can hear Sam coming down the stairs after him, his voice doesn’t tremble.
Kate’s eyes lift to take in Sam, and they both must look okay because her smile doesn’t falter. “Soup’s on, Sam,” she says.
“Great,” Sam says, coming up next to Dean and clapping a hand on the shoulder unoccupied by Maggie. “I’m starving.”
“Mr. Singer! Mr. Singer!” Maggie crows, squirming in Dean’s arms to reach for him. “Mommy made pie!”
“She did?” Sam says in this innocent, light voice that makes Dean’s stomach crawl. “Well, let’s go rustle some up, then.”
He reaches out for Maggie, for Dean’s baby girl, and Dean takes a reflexive step back. He doesn’t want Sam touching Maggie. She’s his, and Sam is … Sam’s … Dean runs into the wall and can’t go any further. Sam takes Maggie from him and she giggles, kicking her feet.
“Piggy back!” she demands, and Sam swings her up onto his shoulders, out of Dean’s reach. Sagging against the wall, Dean watches them go into the living room. Sam has to duck almost in half to clear the doorframe.
Give her back, Dean thinks, and, Get out, but he knows it’s already too late.
For three, glorious weeks, Sam leaves Dean alone, and then he calls one Sunday afternoon when Dean’s off work to invite him over to watch the game. Refusal trembles on Dean’s lips, but for some reason he can’t force it out. He ends up jotting down a phone number and directions on a piece of paper and asking his wife if she minds being left alone with the rug rat. Kate gives him a peck on the cheek and tells him to call for a ride if he has more than a couple of beers. Dean agrees, gives Maggie a whirlwind airplane ride through the house, and then leaves.
Sam has a double-story house across town. It’s white with blue trim and has a neat lawn that has been frozen brown by winter. Dean pulls up in front and thinks about just driving off. He thinks about turning around and going home and having sex with his wife and then popping Land Before Time Seven into the DVD player and curling up on the couch with the two most important people in his life.
Instead, he gets out of the car and walks up to the front door and knocks.
“Hey, man,” Sam says when he opens the door, expression warm and relaxed. “Thought you were gonna stand me up.”
“I, uh, got lost,” Dean lies, like Sam couldn’t have just glanced out his front window and seen Dean sitting in front of his house like some kind of psychotic stalker.
Sam waves the excuse off. “Don’t worry about it, man,” he says, and takes Dean’s coat as he steps inside. “I’m just glad you made it.”
Sam’s house is … strange. There aren’t toys strewn everywhere or old copies of Woman’s World and Family Circle lying around. There’s no cat hair on the rug. It’s too neat: a bachelor’s pad, and barely lived in. It looks, actually, the same way that Dean’s apartment always looked whenever he was planning on getting lucky. His heart beats a little faster and he wonders what the fuck he’s doing here.
“You want a Corona?” Sam asks as he leads Dean into the living room.
No, Dean thinks. Absolutely not. “Okay,” he says.
“Awesome. I’ll be right back. Make yourself at home.”
Dean showed up. He proved to himself he could be in the same room with Sam Singer and not jump him. He’s allowed to leave now. He’s allowed to sprint for the door and go home and forget that the man even exists.
Clenching his jaw, he sits down on the couch to wait.
Despite the fact that the man’s couch is huge, at some point midway through the third quarter, Dean looks down and finds his thigh pressed up against Sam’s in a burning line. He’s four Coronas into it, should definitely be thinking about stopping so he can drive himself home, but he can’t. Drinking keeps his mouth occupied. It’s safer.
He keeps waiting for Sam to try something—their Christmas Eve kiss burns on his lips—but Sam is acting like nothing happened. He’s acting like they’re best friends, or maybe brothers. Like they’re just two guys hanging out and watching the game.
Fuck, maybe Dean's losing his mind.
Sam lets out a whoop beside him suddenly and pumps a fist into the air. “Did you see that, man?” he cries, bumping Dean’s shoulder with his own. “Touchdown!”
“Yeah, awesome,” Dean agrees belatedly. To be honest, though, he isn’t sure he could tell Sam what teams are playing at this point. He forces himself to make an effort, furrowing his brow and squinting at the screen. He manages to watch for about three minutes before he has to shift anxiously. There's this crawling feeling on the back of his neck, like someone’s staring at him.
Dean glances cautiously to his left and Sam is watching him with lazy, hooded eyes. For the first time all afternoon—hell, for the first time since Christmas Day—Dean is certain that Sam kissed him. That Sam wants to kiss him again.
Flushing, he cuts his own eyes away and takes another swig from his beer. He can still feel Sam’s eyes on him, heavy and burning, and his stomach flips. He doesn’t know what he’s doing here. He doesn’t know why he came. Swallowing, he starts to shift away and then Sam’s hand clamps down on his bicep.
“No,” Sam says. “Don’t do that.”
Dean swallows and then, with false levity, says, “Dude, I was just gonna go take a piss.”
“Like on Christmas Eve?” Sam asks.
Dean shudders at the insinuating purr of the man’s voice. Jesus Christ, he’s so nauseous it hurts, needs to puke, and yet there’s no denying the spreading heat in his groin and chest. He stares at Sam’s carpet and wets his lips.
“Dean, look at me.”
Dean didn’t think he could get any tenser, but it looks like he can because his muscles lock and leave him completely rigid. He refuses to obey Sam, can’t take that final step, but he can’t run either, and part of him doesn’t want to. After an endless, agonizing moment, Sam finally moves: swinging a leg over Dean’s lap and dropping down.
Dean jumps, somehow startled despite the fact that he knew exactly where this was going as soon as the phone rang four hours ago—or maybe he knew that night at the play. He fumbles his beer and the bottle slips from his hand to spill on the rug. Sam doesn’t seem to care. Smirking, he sinks down more firmly on Dean and presses their crotches together.
Dean doesn’t know what to do with his suddenly empty hands, which are trembling in the air centimeters away from Sam’s body. There’s heat radiating off of the man’s skin, like he’s burning inside. Burning means fire and fire means danger—Dean knows that fact better than most: he deals with the stuff every time he laces up and heads to work. You don’t play with fire. You don’t fucking touch it.
Clenching his hands into fists, he starts to turn his head to the side.
“Don’t,” Sam says sharply, and grips his chin. “Don’t.”
Dean blinks up at him, terrified, and then Sam leans forward and they’re kissing again. It’s wrong: Dean knows that immediately. He wants this desperately, can’t lie to himself about that anymore, but it isn’t right. He has a family that he loves so much it scares him, sometimes, and he can’t do this to them.
Christmas Eve was one thing—Sam took him by surprise then, and Dean was really fucking drunk, and he’s almost eighty percent sure that he would have stopped before things went too far, even without Kate’s timely dinner summons. This is different. It’s premeditated. It’s a decision. It matters.
Dean’s stomach lurches sharply and he jerks his head to the side. He’s panting: hands closed around Sam’s waist in a way they really shouldn’t be. His mouth tastes like Corona and Doritos and something else. Something bitter. Like smoke.
Sam’s breath is coming just as fast and shallow as Dean’s, and now he rests his forehead on Dean’s shoulder and shakes. In that moment, Dean isn’t sure whether to hate the man or pity him.
“I can’t do this,” Dean says when he can make his voice work. “I’ve got a wife, Sam, I—”
“No, you don’t,” Sam bites out. “It isn’t real, any of it.”
Dean’s insides tumble around into a new, distressing arrangement. “What?” he whispers.
When Sam lifts his head, his eyes are wet and overflowing with tears. “Dean, you’re sick. You. You got hit by something out there in the real world, and it locked you in here, in your mind, and this is—I don’t know, it’s some fucked up alternate reality or a dream or something—but it isn’t real, none of it’s real. Your family, you—you made them up, or the spell did, I don’t—I don’t know which, but they’re not real, I am. Jesus Christ, Dean, don’t you remember me at all?”
“No,” Dean whispers. “You’re lying.”
He feels a little like he did when he was seven and he fell off the roof of the house. Hanging in that moment of numb shock before the pain kicks in. Sam’s hands cup his face, enormous. His fingers are trembling.
“Dean, it’s me. It’s Sammy, your brother. Fuck, you practically raised me, you—I’m the one who went to Stanford, damn it! I’m the one with the banana allergy, I—you taught me to play poker and you taught me to shoot a gun and you—you—”
He makes a sudden, hurt noise and lurches forward, catching Dean’s mouth again. Sam kisses him like he can’t breathe and Dean is oxygen: like he can’t see and Dean is light. Then Dean gets his hands up between them and shoves, sending the man off his lap and onto the floor. Panting, he shoots to his feet and takes three skittish steps to the right, out of range. The numbness is finally fading, and Dean is frightened into fury and shaking with nausea and so confused that his head aches.
“You’re a fucking liar,” he spits and then turns to go, fumbling in his pocket for his car keys.
“Dean,” Sam calls from behind him. Dean can hear the man picking himself up off the floor. “Dean, please, you have to listen, you—”
Sam’s hand drops down onto his shoulder and Dean spins around and punches him. The force of the impact splits his knuckles, but it shuts Sam up, thank God. Shuts him up before he tells any more lies about reality and spells and brothers. Shuts him up before he can finish cracking Dean open and scooping out everything good and peaceful. Dean trembles, ready to punch the man again if he so much as opens his mouth, but Sam doesn’t. He just stands there and cries and stares at Dean, and maybe that’s even worse.
Finally, Dean says, “You come anywhere near me or my family again and I’ll kill you. I swear to God, I will.”
This time, when he turns to go, Sam doesn’t try to stop him.
Kate welcomes Dean with open arms when he bursts in through the front door. She’s obviously surprised when he sweeps her off her feet and carries her to the bedroom, but she doesn’t complain. Dean fucks her until he can’t anymore, he fucks her until they’re both limp with exhaustion, and then he curls around her and holds on tight.
She’s real. This is real.
It has to be.
Sam doesn’t come around anymore. Then again, he doesn’t need to.
That winter afternoon has left deep, jagged cracks through Dean’s world—through his sanity. His dreams aren’t his own anymore. They belong to someone else: someone he doesn’t think he likes. Someone broken and dark and cold. He dreams about blood, and pain, and loss. He wakes with tears running down his cheeks and an ache in his chest and Sam’s name on his lips.
Dean calls Chris and Jordon and all he can hear on the other end of the line is static. Dad is suddenly thinner, and greyer, and sometimes he’s pale with chapped lips and a bullet in his thigh. Sometimes he has yellow, cracked eyes. Mom’s face is a skull. Her hair is fire. The hose twists in his hands when he’s on a call and becomes metal, long and tapered. Shotgun. Dean looks at his gorgeous, amazing wife and his beautiful, perfect daughter, and sometimes he thinks he can see straight through them, like looking at ghosts.
Oh God, reality is breaking down around him in fits and starts, and he doesn’t know how to stop it.
One afternoon in late February, Dean is terrified enough that he screams at his wife for almost an hour: tossing dishes around the kitchen and generally behaving like a madman. Kate screams back—why don’t you just fucking leave already, if we’re making you so unhappy—and then stomps out of the room, leaving him alone with the wreckage and his own, sour tears.
Not half an hour later, she returns and goes about making lunch as though nothing happened.
Dean watches the shards of ceramic evaporate from the floor. He sees the plates reappear in the cabinets and the cracks fade from the walls.
“Do you want a sandwich, baby?” Kate asks, smiling at him.
“Not hungry,” Dean manages faintly, and then flees to his workshop before she can press him further. He sits at the poker table and puts his head in his hands. The room smells like wood and dust and metal, familiar, but these days there are new scents lurking beneath those, and they’re familiar too. Scents like blood and sulfur and gun oil.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he whispers, rocking a little. “I’m not.”
Three days later, Dean wakes up and the sky has come over purple. The walls are running wet and sticky, like tears.
Kate is in the bathroom doing her hair. There are faint smile lines at the corners of her mouth and laugh lines around her eyes and she’s beautiful. Just as beautiful as she was all those years ago when he pulled her from a burning building. Dean comes up behind her and slides his arms around her waist, where they still belong, no matter how much it feels like he’s embracing smoke.
“Morning,” she greets him, kissing his temple playfully. “You want to catch a movie tonight? Mrs. K. said she’d watch Maggie.”
“Sounds great,” Dean rasps, and kisses her. Again. Again.
Kate laughs and swats at him. “Shoo, fly,” she says, and Dean turns away so that she won’t see the moist sheen in his eyes. He takes one final look at the bedroom and then, with slow, dragging steps, he goes down the hall to his daughter’s room.
His beautiful baby girl is sleeping, unmindful of the fact that all of her stuffed animals and toys are melting into the floor. She’s growing up beautiful, like her mother. Going to break hearts some day. Dean sits down on the edge of her bed and runs a hand through her hair and down the side of her face.
“Daddy?” she yawns, half-waking. “’S time to get up already?”
“Yeah, honey,” he whispers. His voice sounds thick: choked and wet. “It’s time to wake up.”
“Don’t wanna,” she mutters, burrowing back into her pillow. “Ten more minutes.”
He leaves her there, sleeping.
Sam is waiting for him by the curb in front of the melting marshmallow that used to be his house. He’s leaning on a sleek, black car that makes Dean’s chest ache. He walks carefully over the treacherous, bubbling ground to stand before the man.
“You did this,” he chokes out after a moment. “You—you came in here and fucked things up.”
Sam looks back at him, pitying but unflinching, and says, “Yeah, I did.”
“Why?” Dean demands.
“Because you don’t belong here, Dean,” Sam tells him. “And because—because I need you.”
“Fuck you,” Dean spits, and then wipes the back of his hand across his lips. “Fuck you, I was—I was happy. I was—”
“You were comatose in a bed, man. What was I supposed to do, leave you like that?”
“Yes!” Dean shouts. The word sends jagged mustard ripples through the sky.
Sam’s jaw twitches and he looks away—looks at the fucked up world around them. Dean runs a hand through his hair, roughly, and it’s shorter than he’s used to wearing it. His body feels heavier. His right hip aches: an old, unfamiliar pain.
“Can you fix it?” he asks. “Can you put it back like it was?”
“No,” Sam answers bluntly, and then adds, “And I wouldn’t even if I could.” When he looks at Dean again, tears stain his cheeks. “I’m sorry, man, but I—I love you. You and me, we. We’re all we have. I need you.”
Dean chews all of the furious, sorrowing words he wants to say into tiny pieces and swallows them. Shutting his eyes, he says, “I don’t know—” He stops. Has to clear his throat before he can manage, “It’s all fucked up in my head. I think I’m. I’m losing this world, and I can’t remember the other one. Only bits and pieces. Nightmares.”
“It’ll come back,” Sam says, low and earnest. He reaches out, but when Dean flinches away, he stops. Hand up and palm out, clearly empty, as though Dean is a wild animal that needs to be gentled.
Dean realizes suddenly that he hasn’t seen Pita in a couple of weeks. Whatever happened to the cat, he hopes it didn’t hurt.
He prays that this won’t hurt his baby girl and his wife.
“You just need to come with me, Dean, and we can. We can fix it, okay? We can make it right again.”
It was right, Dean thinks. Before you came. He grimaces as tears slip past his defenses and then scrubs at his face, nodding wearily. It’s too late for this world: even a blind man could see that. Dean might be able to eke out a couple more days, but he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to be here when Kate and Maggie’s faces start to run like the walls of their home.
“When I. When we do this, I want to remember. Kate and Maggie. I want to—”
“You will, okay? I promise, man.” Sam’s arms come around him, drawing him closer. Sam’s hand strokes through his strange, shortened hair.
And they lived happily ever after, Dean thinks, and then Sam brushes their lips together and his life dissolves in a wash of gold light.
Dean’s whole body aches. His right hip, which he broke on a hunt just two months after Sam left for Stanford, feels particularly sore and stiff. Groaning, he opens his eyes and then immediately winces. Fuck, that light is bright.
“Dean. Dean, man, you okay?” Sammy’s voice. Sammy’s hands patting frantically at Dean’s face and chest.
“Dude, chill,” Dean mumbles, reaching up to bat Sam’s hands away. Or at least he tries to reach up. His arms, leaden weights, refuse to move. Okay, that can’t be good. He tries to remember why he’s so fucked up—why he’s in a hospital bed with tubes in his arms—and draws a blank.
“What happened?” he asks. Something big, based on the tears currently streaming down his brother’s cheeks. Dean shifts his gaze to the far wall and pretends not to notice while Sam gets himself under control again. Then he repeats his question.
“We, ah. We were on a job. People were turning up comatose. We tracked it down to the town well. Local coven did a blessing on the water and got a little more than they asked for. Locked anyone who drank from the well inside their head in some kind of perpetual dream state.”
“And this answers my question how?” Dean prods, although he thinks that he already knows.
“You, uh, fell in.”
Okay, that explains the aching body. And the scrambled feeling to his thoughts. “How long was I out?”
“Three—what the fuck, Sam?”
Sam flushes and drops his eyes. “It. It took me some time. To figure out how to get you back. I had to find some dream root, but it didn’t work right, so I had to do a spell, and then you didn’t—it was hard to find you.” He glances up at Dean, eyes shadowed, and hesitantly asks, “Do you remember anything?”
Dean considers the question for a moment, but there’s nothing. “Last thing I remember is burning that rancher’s body in Wyoming.”
Sam nods, looking both relieved and unsurprised at once. “The others didn’t remember anything either. Most of them woke up a couple of weeks after I fixed the well.”
He threads his fingers through Dean’s and squeezes in a motion that feels way too practiced. Looks like Sam’s touchy-feely side has been bleeding all over the place without Dean around to keep it under control. Which brings him back to—
“Fuck, three months? Really?”
It’s meant as a joke, sort of, but Sam’s jaw does that funny little clench that means there’s some serious angsting going on. This time, when Dean tries, he gets his fingers to obey him and squeezes his bother’s hand back.
“Hey, man, it’s okay. You got me out as quick as you could.”
Sam nods, throat working, and then says, “Yeah, I did.”
They’re both quiet for a few moments, and then Dean asks, curious, “What was it like in there?”
“What?” Sam looks started. A little shell-shocked.
“Well, you went in after me, man. What was I dreaming? Was she hot?” He grins. “Tell me she was hot.”
“You don’t want to know, Dean,” Sam tells him.
“No, man. Seriously. Like, on a scale of Jennifer Love Hewitt to Angelina Jolie—”
And then Sam forward and kisses him. Like, on the mouth kisses him, which should be new and more than a little awkward, and instead feels … normal. Safe.
When Sam finally pulls back a few minutes later, his pupils are dilated. His lips look just as swollen as Dean’s feel. Dean waits for the disgust and the guilt to well up, but while there’s a little fluttering in his stomach, there isn’t nearly as much as there should be.
“You don’t want to know,” Sam repeats firmly. His eyes are sad, filled with a horrible mix of pity and compassion and longing and a depth of love that leaves Dean a little frightened. Whatever happened must have been pretty bad to leave Sam looking like that. Like, Hell bad. Maybe Dean doesn’t need to know after all.
“Okay,” he agrees and then, after a pause, adds, “You know we’re gonna have to talk about this.”
Talk about them, he means.
Sam nods without looking at him and then says, “But not today.”
In the fairy tale, the handsome prince wakes his princess with a kiss and they live happily ever after.
But this is real life, and the princess is actually a prince—the handsome prince’s brother, at that—and there is no happily ever after.
There’s only Sam sitting by the side of his bed with a nervous, slumped slope to his shoulders. There’s only Dean, body aching and weak.
He strokes his thumb across the inside of his brother’s wrist and closes his eyes. “No,” he sighs. “Not today.”
He’s home. Sam brought him home. For this moment, for today, that’s enough.