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Force Majeure

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Dean pretends, at first, that he doesn't remember Hell. Repress and deny, same as always, even if this is the one thing it can't fix. Sam calls him on it a dozen times before Dean lets the walls down enough to fess up.

It doesn't matter, and it sure as hell doesn't change anything. Sam knowing this much truth won't make Dean talk about it.

Sam might look at him differently. Futility and sadness and the scent of failure. There's nothing Dean can do about that. There's too much broken to go around, and Dean can't fix both of them.

Sam hovers closer, though, after Dean confesses. Seems like he's never more than a breath away, and Dean discovers he doesn't mind in the slightest. He should feel edgy, having Sam less than a step behind him at every turn; always at his goddamn elbow. It should drive him up the wall, and instead it anchors him. Holds him a little more steady.

It's not enough to drive the memories of Hell away, but it helps.

Which doesn't stop him from calling Sam on it once. Just to see if his brother even knows he's doing it.

"A little space, Sparky?" Gas station checkout, a lottery ticket display sitting gaudy to their left, and Sam is standing so close behind him that the cashier is giving them a funny look. She's cute, and normally Dean would be hitting on her. But normally he wouldn't have his Sasquatch little brother all up in his space, like a codependent freak or an overprotective boyfriend.

Sam doesn't register for a long moment that he's been spoken to, and when he works out Dean's words he takes a startled step back. Stammers something inarticulate and looks sheepish as hell. His blush is bright in the afternoon sun that leaks through the storefront window, and it's like kicking a goddamn puppy. Dean doesn't plan to try it again.

He collects his change and doesn't wink at the girl on his way out.

Sam makes it two days before he's right back in Dean's space, and Dean doesn't say a word.

 

— — — — — —

Despite the assurances that he's done with the powers, in the end Sam doesn't have much say in the matter. Hunting is a dangerous line of work, and even the best get cornered way too often. There are too many demons gunning for the Winchesters now, and Dean knows they'd be dead a dozen times over in the past couple months if it weren't for Sam's mojo.

He feels it like failure every time he watches Sam send one of them back to Hell with nothing but a raised hand and scrunched face. If Dean could just be smarter, faster, better maybe they could stay out of trouble. Maybe they could keep from getting trapped with nothing but Sam's powers holding off their inevitable demise.

Bobby calls sometimes, and Dean doesn't know what to tell him. The man is family. He can be trusted. He already knows about Sam's abilities.

Dean still doesn't know how to tell him this.

It's in an empty house in Yolo County that things go even worse than usual.

In retrospect, rushing in without Sam might have been a bad idea. Might have been downright epic in its stupidity. But Dean had the knife, and it was one demon. One, and they'd been following its trail for three days. They knew its current host, and when Dean caught sight of it, he could feel the sharp edge of now or never in his gut.

So he followed, up the decrepit steps and into the house. At first he was stalling for time, waiting for Sam to burst in and back him up.

Now he's just trying to stay alive.

Either Sam is behind schedule, or Dean's internal clock is out of whack from all the blows to the head. There's not a single part of his body that doesn't hurt right now, every breath burning in his chest, and he doesn't want to know the state of his ribs.

He ended up on the floor somehow, and from there he can see the thing approaching. Heavy boot steps as a sneering biker crosses the floor. Dean tries for his feet, at least he thinks he does, but it doesn't work out like he plans. It doesn't land him in a face-plant on the floorboards either, because the demon takes the opportunity to grab him by the throat and hoist him into the air.

"Dean Winchester," it says, glee ringing deep in its borrowed voice. "From all the rumors, I thought you'd be harder to kill."

Dean tries to kick, useless gesture that it is, and he has just enough time to think 'oh shit' as the thing throws him across the room. He smashes through something, doesn't even know what, and groans when he lands.

Yeah, jury's no longer out on the question. This was definitely a bad idea.

Again the tromp of heavy boots, and Dean shifts to sitting upright. It's all he can do, and even that hurts like hell, and Dean knows this time he's dead. The demon is tired of playing.

"Dean!" Sam's voice is panicked, emphasized by the slamming sound of impact as he bursts through the door.

Dean sees him, but he's busy trying not to pass out. He catches the fury and the terror as they widen Sam's eyes, and then the moment Sam focuses on the demon, still halfway across the room.

Maybe Sam's eyes are a trick of the light, just an incidental flash that doesn't mean a thing. But Sam raises his hand, lightning quick and just as sharp, and the demon is gone. Maybe exorcised or maybe not, and by the time Sam lowers his hand the far side of the room is on fire.

But fire is an easier flavor of danger, no trouble at all, and as Sam approaches him, something in Dean's head decides he can stop fighting now.

He's pretty sure he manages to smile at Sam before the darkness drags him under.

 

— — — — — —

When Dean blinks awake, it's to a world gone fuzzy around the edges. Everything is a degree off, warm and numb, and he knows the pleasant disorientation of Vicodin well enough to pick it out in a crowd.

His mouth feels like cotton and tastes like ass, and the room is dimly lit; it makes him feel groggy as hell. It's a standard motel room, familiar gaudy kitsch, and eventually his eyes focus in on a glass of water in reach. Water is a great idea, but when he reaches for it, his body doesn't quite cooperate. There's a sensation beneath the hazy, medicated fog that's way too close to pain, so Dean settles back to reevaluate.

"God, Dean, I turn my back for five minutes and you're already trying to make trouble." The bathroom door slams, and Dean follows the sound of Sam's voice. Follows it all the way to his brother, and then Dean feels the smile setting in because it's Sam. Dean likes Sam, and Sam's coming closer, and maybe Sam can figure out how to solve the conundrum of the water glass.

"Stop moving," Sam orders. "You're in bad shape, dude."

"How bad?" asks Dean, because Sam looks very serious, and it must be important.

"Bad," says Sam. Quiet soft. "I had to take you to the hospital. Do you really want the rundown?"

"No," mumbles Dean. Injury lists are boring, and he's probably had them all before. No reason to be more aware of them than he already is. "Thirsty," he says. He's not sure if the look on his face is stern or pleading; maybe something else entirely, because Sam rolls his eyes and sits on the bed beside him.

"I bet," Sam mutters. He sounds irate, but he's all gentle finesse as he helps Dean sit up and props him with pillows. His hand stays there on Dean's arm as he hands the glass over, watching Dean take a grateful swallow.

Dean doesn't mind the touch. Not even a little. Not when he's gotten used to the fact that Sam is always touching him anyway, and Sam's hand is warm and real through the cotton of Dean's t-shirt. He finishes the glass, spilling a little because yeah, fuzzy, and then hands it back. Sam looks pained when Dean meets his eyes, and no way can Dean let that stand. The world sucks, sure; sucks goddamn hard, but Dean is right here — contented with the flow of good drugs in his veins — and Sam shouldn't look like everything is still wrong.

"What's wrong, Sammy?" Dean asks. His hand is sluggish as he raises it to rest against his brother's throat. No particular reason for choosing that spot, but it feels warm and good, and Dean congratulates himself on an excellent choice.

But Sam still isn't smiling. In fact, he looks downright pissed as he says, "I told you to wait for me. You could be dead, Dean. Again. What the fuck am I supposed to do if I lose you?"

"Sam, I'm fine," says Dean, and the pistons in his head are firing slowly enough that he's only just figured out for himself how dumb that sounds when Sam huffs his disbelief.

"You're not fine."

"Okay, well… true. But." Dean's head spins a little as he tries to work it through. "I will be fine, and you're okay, and no one needed that house anyway." Because it had to've burned down. No way did Sammy take the time to put out a fire if Dean was down hard enough to need a hospital.

Sam doesn't look reassured or appeased. He just looks exasperated, and Dean doesn't know what else to say.

The idea that hits him next isn't inspiration, exactly. Just a nebulous cloud of a thought that should maybe seem like disaster waiting to happen. But it doesn't. It seems brilliant, and Dean grins wide with it.

He slides the hand resting at his brother's throat until he's got Sam by the nape of the neck, and gives a tug. Takes a moment to register Sam's confusion at both the smile and the gesture, then says, "Come here."

Sam follows his direction with wary caution. Careful shift in position until he's just close enough, braced on his arms against the mattress and hovering in Dean's space. Right where Dean wants him, close enough for this and Dean gives one last guiding pull and leans to meet him halfway.

Dean feels that undercurrent again, of something that's meant to be pain, but he doesn't care this time. Too busy kissing Sam for all of the seconds he gets. Then his brother pushes him away, gentle but insistent; completely ignoring Dean's less-than-manly whimper of protest.

"What the hell, Dean?" Sam asks, but it doesn't sound angry. Confused mostly, and startled. Sam's eyes are wide, and Dean meets them from so close his eyes want to cross; he's still got hold of Sam, and he's not letting go now.

"Sammy," he says, and it's too close to a plea. He tries to pull Sam in again, but the element of surprise isn't working for him this time. Sam holds back, steady and stubborn. Sam's smile, when it comes, is unsteady at best.

"Dude," he says. "You are toasted. Remind me to cut your next dose in half."

Dean doesn't want to talk about drugs or doses or any of that bullshit. Sam is still so close, and Dean really wants to be kissing him. Again. For real.

"You should get some sleep," says Sam. "As much as you can. You'll be too miserable to get any rest in the car."

Dean grumbles when Sam guides him back down against the pillows. Inarticulate mutterings that taper away, because suddenly Dean is too sleepy to sustain any of it.

He feels unconsciousness draping itself back over him, and just before he's lost to it, the press of lips on his forehead. He falls asleep still thinking of Sam.

 

— — — — — —

They stay low for too long, waiting for Dean to get up to speed. He tries three times to convince Sam he's ready to get back out in the field, and Sam keeps calling bullshit.

Dean is about ready to try his luck for a fourth attempt when Sam beats him to it. Says Dean looks as good as he ever does, and they might as well get back to hunting. Sam hasn't brought up the fact that Dean kissed him, and Dean is starting to hope he hallucinated the whole thing.

Sam hovers as close as ever, even when they check in to a Budget Inn the very next night.

"Two queens," Dean tells the woman behind the counter. She hands over the key but obviously doesn't believe him. He can't really blame her.

Downtime means things have been moving with the illusion of a smooth ride, and of course it can't last. They have a visitor waiting for them when they cross the threshold. Just one, and a face that's not completely unwelcome. It seems like a good time for an update.

Castiel stands to meet them, and even though the angel's expression never changes, Dean can tell the news is bad. They stayed down too long. Things are going poorly.

"How bad is it?" he asks, before Castiel opens his mouth.

"Bad." Holy understatement, Batman. "Time and seals are both running out." Castiel takes a step forward and closer, and Dean feels Sam take a matching step behind him. Like his very own, super protective furnace, and he doesn't startle when Sam's hand settles on his lower back. It's completely unconscious, Dean would bet his life on it.

"What can we do?" Dean asks, because it can't be too late. There has to be something.

But Castiel shakes his head. "You can't fight the remaining battles. It's up to us now."

"Then why — ?"

"Because I bear you a message." Castiel steps closer still, is almost within Dean's marginal space bubble himself when he says, "Find somewhere safe, in case we fail."

Dean wants to laugh, but Sam beats him to it; a wry, incredulous sound.

"Where?" Sam asks, voice immediate and loud in Dean's ear. "Where on Earth will be safe if you fail?" Because they've got more than an inkling of what failure means.

Castiel doesn't answer, and when he leaves it's a vanishing heartbeat, and too much silence in the room behind him.

"Do you think the world's really gonna end?" Sam asks.

"I don't know," says Dean. When he turns around, Sam is still too close. He doesn't back off like he should, and it's a moment that could so easily turn into something else. Dean can sense it in his blood, and without the haze of drugs he's got nothing else to blame for what he wants to step forward and do.

Sam is the first to step away, shattering the moment before Dean can do anything monumentally stupid.

But he climbs into bed behind Dean that night — rolls right up close and is careful of Dean's ribs when he drapes his arm across — and both of them pretend to sleep.

 

— — — — — —

They're at Bobby's when the last seal goes; it's the safest place they know.

They can tell exactly when it happens. The sky burns red and the seas boil hot, glimpses caught through fractured film footage just before the networks crash.

Maybe it was inevitable, but Dean thinks neither one of them figured on sitting out the Apocalypse in Bobby's panic room. Dean can't help thinking they should go down fighting. But Sam gives him a look over the top of the random tome in his hands, like he knows exactly what's going on in Dean's head, and says, "Maybe we're supposed to survive this."

"It's the Apocalypse," Dean reminds him, voice low so as not to wake Bobby.

"Yeah, but… why would an angel have told us to lay low if it was totally hopeless?"

Dean shrugs, marvels a little that Sam can still have something that looks so much like faith. He hates that he can't meet his brother half way, but he says, "Maybe he was letting us down easy, because he didn't know how to break the news."

"Maybe," Sam concedes. "Or maybe we'll make it through after all. Why assume the worst?"

Dean rolls his eyes, then his shoulders; takes a moment to loosen the stiff crick in his neck. Sam stares him down a moment longer before muttering something about stubborn jerk brothers as he goes back to his book.

They sleep in shifts, just the one cot between the three of them. Dean thinks, fleetingly, about offering to share with Sam. An excuse to touch and hold tight. But even with his brother's newfound habit of trying to occupy the same space as Dean, there's no way both of them will fit at once. Not without an awkward squash of elbows and limbs that will instantly give away the fact that sleep isn't the point.

Bobby might not call them on it — what with how the world is ending and all — but Dean keeps his mouth shut just the same.

 

— — — — — —

When they finally emerge from Bobby's basement, the world is different. Even though the skies have settled back to their usual shade of blue, the air is thick with the overwhelming smell of sulfur.

They venture out carefully, with rosaries and holy water clutched close. Everything looks normal enough from a distance, like the world is running with the same smooth dysfunction it always has; but up close, they discover that every face holds a demon beneath.

Too many of them know the Winchesters.

The three of them figure out fast that the war isn't on; it's already been lost. This isn't their world anymore.

They don't dare stay at Bobby's; too easy to find. So they pack up the most important books and all the supplies they can, and they drive to the middle of nowhere. Crash out in their two cars, surrounded by devil's traps etched into the gravel.

In the morning, even though it's risky, Dean calls Ellen. She's in the Midwest, not possessed so far as he can tell. Not that he can confirm it over the phone, but the only reason for her to be that far North is Jo. It's a good sign.

They arrange a meet-up, both leery but desperate. When Dean hangs up, he sees his trepidation matched in Sam and Bobby's eyes. There's hope, too; just a little, but it's enough.

For the moment, all they can do is stay under the radar. Out of sight and oh-so-careful as they find out-of-town dusty pit stops to fill up on gas and necessities.

"Hey, Dean," says Sam on their third night back in the world. It's dry and warm, cloudy-dark midnight, and they're each spread across one seat of the Impala — Dean in front, Sam in back, and neither one of them sleepy enough.

"Yeah?" Dean doesn't tell him to shut up and conk out. There's the sliding shift of sound as Sam sits up and leans his elbows on the back of the front seat. Dean sighs, because he just found a comfortable position on his side. But he twists around without further complaint, all the way onto his back so he can meet Sam's moon-tinted look head on.

"I know it's wrong," says Sam, voice weirdly hesitant. "But… do you ever think about it?"

"Think about what?" Dean asks. He's got no idea. Really he doesn't. Because that one time with the Vicodin? They don't talk about it, so it never happened.

Either Sam was going somewhere else with the inquiry, or he just plain chickens out, because he doesn't clarify.

"Never mind," he says, deliberate carelessness in the shrug of his shoulders. "Doesn't matter."

Dean could press the issue, but he knows better.

He rolls over instead, and tries to find that same comfortable angle he vacated. Comes close, and that will have to be good enough. There are too few hours before sunrise.

He listens intently as Sam settles back down behind him; disconcertingly close and too far away.

 

— — — — — —

At first, the only unpossessed people they find are hunters. The ones that saw the signs and knew something was coming. The ones smart enough to cut and run, hole up somewhere safe with every protection they could muster.

Not everyone got a warning direct from the source like the Winchesters.

They find Tamara on their way to North Dakota. She beats them to "Christo," and isn't too trusting. But she's got no better plan and nowhere else to go, so she climbs into her truck and gets on the road behind them.

Ellen and Jo are both waiting at the rendezvous point, out in the open but defensible, and they've got a handful of their own stragglers in tow. A collection of hunters Dean remembers in passing, and a girl named Kat that he's pretty sure he knows from somewhere.

They don't waste time getting down to business; name of God and holy water shots all around, and suddenly instead of three they're closer to a dozen.

It's a challenge, holding a larger group together while they maintain the necessary low profile. They stay on the move; not so much for security, but because everyone knows somebody that they have to try and find. No one wants to split up.

Some people are there and themselves, and they pack it in and join up without a fuss. Some are long gone. Others they find possessed, but now the hunters number enough to meet the challenge. Sneak attacks and exorcisms, and their numbers grow by the day.

Not just hunters for long, but everyone. Anyone that can be saved, they do it. Sam and Dean are always at the forefront. Not in charge; just first.

When they start venturing into small communities for their supplies, Sam starts using his powers for the first time since the world went wrong. There's no way around it, because even the small towns are full of demons. Making it in and out would be impossible without the extra show of force and Sam's ability to send the demons to Hell fast when the group gets cornered.

Dean would rather stay out of the populated areas entirely, but that's not really an option anymore. They've gone from entourage to convoy to caravan. They leave the civilians tucked safely behind them, guarded by hunters busy teaching them to fight and read Latin. And small groups of the surest, strongest and fastest make the runs for supplies.

It goes badly, sometimes. But even then they mostly just come back hurt, a handful of extra people instead of dead. Dean knows Sam is always the reason they make it.

No one questions Sam's powers. They're too smart; everyone's got a pretty good idea where they'd be without, and even the most skeptical hunters know enough to admit it's not a pleasant thought.

When they start actively planning rescues and exorcisms, Sam thinks to question the demons they send back to Hell. Dean tells him it's a dumb idea; sounds dumb to him, but Sam is insistent.

Sam is also right, and eventually they get enough truth to put a picture together. When the seals broke, Lucifer walked free. Apparently the demons' faith held a spark of truth after all, and the remembering awe in black eyes is disconcerting every time they see it.

Lucifer walked free and threw open the gates of Hell; every single one on the surface of the Earth. He called the demons from the pit and made this world his own, and from here he wages his war on Heaven. Vengeance and fire.

He's too busy frying his bigger fish to care about the handful of unpossessed humans wandering at liberty through the outskirts of his world. The forces of Hell are too many — all across the globe and back again — for a smattering of exorcisms to matter.

And maybe it sucks to know they're doing so little as to barely register on Hell's radar. But it explains why they're still alive, still relatively unmolested so long as they keep to the fringes of what used to be society.

 

— — — — — —

As weeks turn into months turn into something longer, the expanding band of survivors go from surviving to remembering how to live. Their numbers grow with every supply run, people saved and grateful.

Dean watches with quiet awe in his chest when the kids they've saved start laughing and smiling and playing again. The first two were named Kelly and James, six and ten, and the whole group — community, Dean thinks — cares for them like treasures. Same with all the other children that have come since. Sometimes there are people that can't be saved, but they never leave without the children.

"It's amazing," Dean says, eyes on the rolling tumble of playtime. His hand is in his pocket, fidgeting with a flask of holy water. Nervous habit, even though he knows they're relatively safe here.

"Yeah," says Sam, eyes on the same sight.

It's a chilly day, but bright and clear. They've moved the whole caboodle south, so the winter that's settled in is temperate; easy and mellow. It's a haphazard encampment, tents and lean-tos and a small army of RV's. The motor homes are a bitch to keep fueled, but totally worth it for the portable amenities

Watch is kept at the perimeter in shifts, and everyone knows to run the usual tests before trusting even the most familiar face.

"They're really okay," says Dean, cracking a smile as Jo gets dragged into the fray and tackled to the ground. She's no match for the focused attack of tiny limbs.

"Looks like it." Sam is smiling, too, but he's not watching the flurry of activity anymore. His eyes are on Dean.

Dean ignores the scrutiny, and he waves when Jo regains her footing. She's laughing, hair a mess of dirt and leaves. The time she takes to stop and wave back is a tactical error, and Dean snickers behind his hand when four kids take her right back down.

A startled shriek draws Dean's attention, but he knows from the sound that it's not trouble. Sharp and shrill, a thrilled pretense at terror as Kelly breaks from the group and runs at them. She's fast enough to keep ahead of the redheaded boy chasing her — Dean's pretty sure the kid's name is Terry — and once she's in range, Dean sweeps her into the air and onto his shoulder.

"Hahaha!" There's victory in her voice and strength in her laugh as she points one tiny finger at her pursuer and says, "I win!" Dean is pretty sure that if the game has rules, they're fluid.

"No fair!" says the boy, but he dashes back to the group before Dean can blink. Apparently recovered from his defeat.

Dean sets the girl down, smooth steady motion, and once she's back on her feet he says, "Good running, dude. But I think you better go help Jo. Looks like she's in trouble."

Kelly doesn't take right off to rejoin the group. She reaches up instead — high as she can — to tug at Dean's sleeve.

"What is it?" he asks, eyebrow arched in confusion.

"Hug," she says. Demands, more like, and what can Dean do but drop to his knees and comply. Her arms are tiny around his neck, her frame so terrifyingly fragile, but she hugs him hard. When she finally runs back to the group, Dean stubbornly refuses to have tears in his eyes.

When he stands and looks at Sam, his brother is staring. The expression is soft, but completely indecipherable.

"Dean," he says, but Dean shrugs it off.

"Come on," he says, hand on Sam's arm to direct him towards the far end of camp. "Bobby needed us for something."

Sam follows, a step too close.

Same as always.

 

— — — — — —

For a long time Jo keeps a relative but constant distance between herself and Sam, and Dean figures that makes a great big pile of sense. Last time their paths crossed — before the world went to shit — wasn't a pleasant experience for any of them. Dean remembers cutting her free at an empty bar in Duluth, and even more clearly he remembers the fear in her eyes.

He remembers walking away and leaving her to deal with that fear for herself. She's plenty strong; probably worked shit through better without the help. He feels bad just the same.

But it makes sense, the shadows behind her eyes and the careful distance.

He doesn't know what to think when instead of the same familiar distance between the two, he sees them moving closer. It's like he missed a memo somewhere, because between blinks Jo seems to go from shying subtly away to actively seeking Sam out.

Dean stubbornly Does Not Mind. Even when he can't find his brother sometime that might have been a Saturday once, and doesn't stumble across him until two hours later. Partway into the nearby woods, sitting on a long, landed tree stump with Jo. They're in the middle of a discussion, something with lowered voices and a quiet intensity that Dean doesn't feel right interrupting.

The second time he sees them at it, they're closer to camp. Ellen is in sight, and she catches it, too. The look she throws Dean is sympathetic and almost a smile, like Dean should be jealous. Maybe she's not wrong, but Dean thinks she might have it backwards.

"You and Jo are spending a lot of time together lately," Dean says once. They're packing up their tent; a big sturdy thing they grabbed from a silent sporting goods store about a month back.

"Yeah, I guess we are," says Sam, looking at Dean like he's a little bit nuts for saying anything about it.

They don't talk about it any further than that; even though Dean kind of wants to bring it up again when they're pitching the same tent in a new location nine hours later.

The trend continues, and Dean decides he's fine with being jealous. He'll keep it to himself. People are starting to pair off, slowly but steadily; finding someone to hold onto and remembering there's more to life than hunting and exorcising.

Sam deserves someone like that. It's not exactly a revelation, but it feels like one.

 

— — — — — —

Dean sits on it for a few days and does nothing but watch. He's not sure what he's watching for, but he knows what he doesn't see. For all their closeness, Sam never makes an actual move on Jo.

Maybe they're just discreet. Or maybe Sam is holding back, and it suddenly occurs to Dean that Sam would do exactly that. He'd hold back on Dean's account, if he thought Dean were interested in Jo. He would worry about infringing on his brother's territory or hurting Dean's feelings, and Sam would draw a line in the sand and never cross it.

Dean knows he can't let the misconception stand, but he doesn't get a chance to corner Sam about it for a week.

"Dude," he says when it's finally just the two of them. A thin stretch of forest separates them from their newest camp, no lines of sight but it's close enough for a scream to carry. They're walking the perimeter, just a security check but maybe they'll luck out and find a river.

"What?" Sam prods when Dean tapers off instead of asking a question.

"You ever gonna make a move, or what?"

Sam stops in his tracks and stares at him hard, eyes wide and startled and… terrified? The response doesn't track, and Dean backpedals; tries to figure out what needs fixing. He wants to reassure his brother, not spook him.

"Look, it's none of my business," Dean tries. "But you and Jo…" It's a different tack, but he doesn't know how to finish it, so he trails off into nothing instead. Shrugs. Sam looks like he's thinking now, though, like the dots could be starting to connect in his head.

"Me and Jo?" Sam asks, and okay, maybe those dots aren't connecting after all.

"Yeah." Dean waves a hand in the air like it helps clarify. "You should make a move, dude. Or if you've already made one, you should stop sneaking around about it."

Sam doesn't speak, and the confusion on his face is dissipating slowly. Gradually replacing itself with something like wide-eyed disbelief, and Dean feels that same tug telling him he has to do better.

"I don't know why you think I'd have a problem with it," he says. "I mean, it's not like Jo and I ever had anything. And even if we had… it's not like I've got dibs, and she clearly digs on you more than me."

"Oh my god," says Sam, confusion wiped completely away. "You're an idiot."

Which is not only a continent from the response Dean expected, it's also completely uncalled for. Dean opens and closes his mouth a couple of times, trying and failing because the words don't want to be found. He cocks his head to the side and gives his brother the full, dead-on glower of his befuddled consternation.

"Dean," says Sam, voice treading entirely too carefully. "I'm not interested in Jo."

The words bring an instant stab of relief, but that's too close to things Dean isn't quite thinking about. Besides, it doesn't make sense.

"Dude, you're with her like 24/7. All the time."

"No I'm not."

"Well, okay no, but…" Because really, Sam is right. He's with Dean 24/7. It's just that suddenly every other sliver of his time is taken up by Jo, and if they're not jonesing for each other then Dean doesn't get it.

It occurs to him that he might not have the healthiest perspective on women.

"I'm just helping her work through some stuff," says Sam, finally taking pity on him.

"What stuff?"

"It's not really my place to say." Sam stuffs his hands in his pockets and shifts his weight from one foot to the other.

"But you're going to say it anyway, right?"

Sam almost smiles at that; Dean can tell. He can also tell that yeah, of course Sam is going to tell him. It's a foregone conclusion. No point keeping other people's secrets, not between the two of them.

"Jo was possessed when Ellen found her," says Sam. "She remembers killing two people. There might have been more. She almost killed her mom before they got it out of her."

"Jesus," Dean breathes, shaking his head as the pieces finally fit. Sam's been there, too, and Jo knows it.

"Yeah," says Sam.

An off-balance silence settles between them now that the air is clear. Not quite awkward, but too close, and Dean rubs at the back of his neck. Considering.

"Okay, so the timing's bad," Dean finally says. Hurts a little at what he's about to say, but he has to say it anyway. "You could still make a move. She's totally into you."

Sam gives a bark of sound that's so far from laughter Dean doesn't know how to read it. When he turns and starts through the trees, Dean can barely keep up.

"Dude, what'd I say?" Dean asks. Because Sam never uses that huge, Sasquatch stride to its full potential unless he's pissed.

"Nothing," says Sam, but he doesn't stop moving. "Forget it, okay?"

"Oh, hell no," says Dean, and thinks about tripping Sam to interrupt his pace. Decides it would be a tactical disaster, so instead he says, "Sam, what?"

"Stop talking, Dean." Sam's voice is hard and careful, and underneath it is a hum of something different. It's not anger.

He obeys Sam in form but not in spirit; no more words as he steps up his pace just enough to stop dead in Sam's path. His brother has no choice but to halt his stride and look Dean in the eye, and they pass an electric moment like that. Raw and edgy.

Dean is so busy waiting for Sam's next move that he's slow in realizing when it happens. It's not a sidestep, or a turn and retreat, or even a fist in his face.

But it's sudden, and Dean barely keeps his footing when Sam grabs him by the collar and shoves him up against the nearest tree. Black walnut, and the bark bites rough through Dean's t-shirt.

"Sam?" he says, and then Sam is kissing him. So sudden that Dean feels words and air catch in his throat.

It's not a gentle kiss, catches Dean off guard, but he doesn't mind at all once his brain catches up. This is where the requisite freak-out should assert itself, but Dean doesn't have time for that. He's too busy enjoying the fact that his brother is bigger and taller and manhandling him like Dean is Sam's to possess.

There wasn't much conscious thought before, probably for either of them, but when Sam's leg nudges its way between his thighs, the rest of Dean's brain is gone with the touch. No blood to spare for the gray matter upstairs, not with Sam sucking on his tongue and Sam's whole body riding up against him. It's nothing but frantic rutting in the middle of the forest, the inevitable chafe of boxers and denim, but Dean comes so hard it's like suddenly being alive again; he didn't even know he was dead.

Sam's face is buried against his throat when Dean finally comes back down, nothing but his brother's pressing weight to hold him up against the tree. Sam's breath is still coming too fast, and it makes no sense when Dean is sure his brother barely outlasted him. They're both sticky and spent, Dean would bet his life on it, but Sam's whole body still feels like raw energy. Like panic, Dean realizes.

When Sam steps back, he won't meet Dean's eyes. His eyes are hidden behind a skewed fringe of bangs, and Dean can't see him.

Dean is a smart enough cookie to know his brother is deliberately hiding from him, and that there's nothing he can do to force eye contact or anything else from Sam like this.

He wants to ask what's wrong, or if Sam is all right, or maybe if the whole incest thing is really that big a deal given that the world they know has ended.

Or given that for them it really hasn't, because the only world Dean has ever known is Sam.

 

— — — — — —

Sam doesn't say a word the entire trudge back to camp. He doesn't so much as twitch to acknowledge the dozen or so attempts Dean makes at conversation. Dean finally gives up trying, especially once he gets stuck on how very much he wants to get back to the Impala and their tent to change into clean clothes.

Their tent is an extra hike across camp, relatively isolated on the perimeter at the other end. No one nearby to ask why the Winchesters are changing in the middle of the day and ditching their soiled clothing in the bushes. It's not worth washing them. Easier to scrounge new ones.

Sam is silent through the rest of the day — dinner and training and checking supply lists for tomorrow's run. Not one word, and Dean is starting to absorb the panic for himself. He can't figure out what he's done wrong, besides everything, and it leaves him no idea how to mend things.

The world is too small and dangerous to let things hang in limbo. It would be so easy for them to die tomorrow, any tomorrow, and Dean knows he can't let the cold pit of uncertainty in his stomach last out the night.

When the sun goes down, Sam has nowhere to go but back to their tent. Dean knows it and waits him out, heart ricocheting off his ribs and leaving his pulse an unsteady drumroll as they go through their nightly routine by rote. Bottled water to brush their teeth and then spit in the bushes nearby, and Dean keeps Sam in his peripheral vision as they shed their top layers away and hunker down for the night.

It's too warm for crawling beneath the nest of sleeping bags and blankets that scatters the floor of the tent, but that doesn't stop Sam from hiding from him. Dean watches, frustration a harsh ache in his gut as Sam rolls onto his side, deliberately turning his back to Dean.

"I don't see why you're pissed at me, man," says Dean. He doesn't really think that's what's going on, but it's what he knows to say.

It wins the desired result; gets him enough of a rise out of Sam that his brother turns and levels startled eyes at Dean in the muted glow of their travel alarm clock.

"Pissed at you?" Sam asks. Incredulous; confirming a theory that Dean's worked out to nebulous at best.

"Made you look," says Dean, cracking a smile through the spreading tension.

Sam flops onto his back, and maybe he doesn't want to look at Dean anymore, or maybe he's just tired; but Dean watches his brother scrub a hand across his face. Watches almost in silhouette as Sam's jaw clenches and unclenches, throat working in a nervous swallow. Dean doesn't need more than the barest hint of light to capture the minutia.

"Dean," Sam says, and his voice is thick and whisper-quiet. "I'm sorry. I know it's not…" He swallows again, eyes closed and it doesn't matter because Dean knows he couldn't read them in this much dark. "I shouldn't have done that to you."

"Says who?"

Sam's eyes are suddenly open and grabbing right onto him, drilling intensity through the warm night air. Dean feels like he's missing context clues, like he's a step off from this entire conversation. Of course Sam is freaking out about the incest thing, and it's whacked that Dean is trying to work out how to convince his brother to lighten up about it.

"Sammy, it's okay—"

"No, Dean, it's not."

Dean wants to sit up. He wants to be having this conversation upright and well lit and normal, not lying on his side with Sam just beyond his reach. But he's afraid to move, because what if Sam spooks? What if sitting up breaks the spell, ends the conversation before Dean can find the leak and patch the dam.

"Sam," he says. Careful. "I get that you're freaked. But you've gotta give me more to work with here." There's too much at stake for them not to work this out. "I get that this is messed up, but if I did something wrong, I need to know."

Sam barks startled laughter; a single, short burst of sound that's got nothing to do with amusement. It's a grating second and disbelief, and then Sam says, "Something you did wrong? Dean, I didn't give you a chance to do anything, let alone something wrong."

"Huh?" Dean feels his brow furrow.

"God, Dean, it's not like I asked you before I took what I wanted." Sam's voice is rising, almost enough to worry Dean — because their tent is an isolated distance off, but it's not so far a good yell won't carry.

"Jesus," says Dean, when it hits him. He keeps his voice low, hopes it will remind Sam where they are. "That's what you're freaked about? You think you took advantage of me out there? Christ, Sam, I thought it was the incest thing."

It's almost funny, but Dean can't laugh. Not with Sam's face still so serious, far enough away that Dean can't reach out and touch like he wants to. He's suddenly annoyed that their tent is so spacious, because Sam's got plenty of space to bolt if things go that way.

"I didn't give you any chance to say no," says Sam, and his voice is tinted with guilty despair.

"I would've found a way to say it anyway," says Dean. "No way, Sam. No way you could force me to do something I didn't want."

Sam breaks eye contact, rolling his neck until he's staring into the darkness of the tent ceiling instead of looking at Dean. Every centimeter of the movement rings with disbelief, and Dean has finally had enough.

He moves fast. So fast Sam can't possibly evade him, and he doesn't stop until he's straddling Sam at the hips. He leans close, into space he knows he's got every right to, and props his hands on either side of Sam's head.

"Enough," Dean says, and suddenly his heart is beating with a different sort of energy. A rushing pulse of warm, eager ideas that filters through his blood. "What do I have to do to convince you I was along for the ride?"

"You'd do anything for me," whispers Sam. It's true.

But he says it like he can't believe Dean wants this, too.

The ideas are diverting Dean's blood flow to more useful pursuits, and he's not embarrassed when he starts going hard against Sam. He shifts just a little, maddening hint of friction; just enough that Sam can't possibly miss it.

"You…" Sam says, and tapers off like he expects Dean to interpret the rest for himself.

"Yeah," says Dean, because he's just that awesome.

Sam's hands find his hips and grip a little too hard as he shifts Dean a couple inches down. Lines them up just so, and yeah, Dean had a feeling his brother would already be hard. Dean's more than halfway there himself, closing the distance and so damn ready, and when he grinds down against Sam's erection, Sam's hips buck up to meet him. Sam's fingers are warm where they dig into hips, holding him down all the tighter, and Sam throws his head back on a low, loud groan.

The movement stretches his neck long and perfect, too damn tempting, and Dean drops to claim it beneath his lips. Wants to suck and bite and mark, but he settles for licks and light kisses; because they don't want to deal with uncomfortable questions in the morning.

Sam flips them so suddenly Dean doesn't see it coming, quick reversal of their positions, and somewhere in the ensuing scramble their clothes get gone.

Dean's skin is on fire with the electric silk of Sam, naked and pressed up against him everywhere. Sam pushes him down into the mess of blankets, and kisses the gasp off his tongue. Worries at Dean's lower lip and then kisses him harder, deep and claiming. Sam's hands feel huge on Dean's face, guiding and grasping as their bodies ride against each other, hips snapping with needy desperation and so goddamn almost there.

Sam comes first, biting at Dean's shoulder. It stings like a bitch, maybe even broke the skin, but it's not enough to break Dean's momentum. It's a startling snapshot of a moment, all the more vivid from the unexpected pain, and maybe it's the bite that pulls Dean over the edge right after his brother.

They're a mess, after. A sticky, intertwined mess, but Dean can't move with Sam's exhausted weight smushing him back against the blankets; and Sam doesn't seem inclined to stop clinging to him.

Dean waits for his body to stop shaking, warm thrill so slow to let him down, and Sam's breath is warm and heavy against his throat.

"Dude, we have to clean up," Dean finally says. Not the most romantic Next Words, but sometimes romance has to make room for pragmatism. Morning's not going to be particularly romantic anyway when all their sensitive parts are glued together and they have to pull free.

Sam groans instead of complying, and Dean gives a useless push at his brother's ridiculously muscled shoulder.

"You can have all the snuggling you want once we're not gross anymore," he says. "Come on, man."

Sam mumbles something into his skin, nonsense words for all Dean can tell; but he finally obliges. Finds the nearest water bottle and a discarded t-shirt while Dean is busy trying to remember how to sit up and breathe.

Sam holds Dean to his word once they're clean, rolling in close and dragging Dean against him. It's a little bit awkward, shifting and squirming until they find a position that works for both of them. Dean doesn't mind the awkward once Sam settles in behind him, all sleepy possessive heat as his arms wrap Dean close. It's still too hot for so much touching, but tonight Dean doesn't mind.

He falls asleep, satisfied and overheated, to the steady rise and fall of Sam's breath at his back.

 

— — — — — —

Come summer, they move North with the warmer weather. Up through the rural Midwest. Dean's not in charge of keeping the tally, but he knows their numbers are over a thousand when Castiel finds him on his nighttime watch and tells him he's done well.

"Didn't figure I'd ever see you again," Dean says. He shifts against the tree, gun a familiar comfort in his hand, and he tries not to let his face show that he's a little bit relieved to see the angel alive.

"I'm sorry it came to pass this way," Castiel tells him. "I didn't know this was the plan from the start."

"What are you talking about?" Dean asks, and he feels trepidation light like kindling in his gut.

"It ends now. You need to take your people and follow the signs I give you."

"Follow them where?"

"To safety. Underground. Stay there for forty days and nights, and whatever you do, don't emerge too soon. If you do as I've said, you will be protected there."

"Why? What's going on?"

"Purification," says Castiel, and Dean's blood goes cold. "The world will be wiped clean. You and your people are to be spared."

"So… what, we're Noah in the ark?" Or in a cave. Whatever. Either way, Castiel gives him an unresponsive look, and then Dean is blinking away the stab of sunrise; light in his face and the angel's instructions too clear to have been a dream. He slept through the end of his watch, but he figures Castiel probably made sure the coast was clear.

He wonders how to tell the others, even asks Sam if they should try and lead people in the right direction but keep quiet about the messages from angels.

In the end the truth is too important. He expects a mutiny, especially when he sees skepticism in every single face as he tells them what's coming. But apparently they all have faith in the Winchesters' special brand of crazy, because when Bobby steps forward and says, "Let's pack up and go, then," the rest follow readily along.

Dean is the only one that can see Castiel's signs, but he's read enough of the Bible to know that the pillars of smoke and fire on the horizon are the signs he's meant to follow. They head North and skirt past a couple of ghost towns, stocking up on two months' worth of water and food as they go, and the Iowa border is barely behind him when Dean stops them at their destination.

"You sure, man?" Sam asks. They're just outside Harmony, Minnesota, and Dean has called stop in front of a white house in the middle of nowhere. It's huge, but it's definitely a house, and Dean is skeptical, too.

But the signs lead right here, and now they've vanished out of the sky. Dean crosses the gravel circle of a parking lot so he can read the giant sign that stands front and center. 'Niagra Cave.' Dean doesn't doubt anymore. This is the place.

They leave the convoy of vehicles outside, not bothering with the tents and shacks that normally go up at each new location. Instead, Sam and Dean and a handful of hunters make their way into the cave to scope the space out.

It's wired with electricity, but they'll have an army of flashlights anyway. Can't trust the power not to go. The cave is damp and chilly, leaving Dean's nose cold and his fingers stiff on his flashlight. But there's plenty of space, rooms and corridors that are mostly connected with cement stairs and railings. Dean pictures tour guides walking the distance up and down, flashlight beams aimed at the walls and entirely too excited about rocks.

It will be a cold 40 days, and along with the two-month supply of food and water that they carry into the cave, there are also a dozen trips for sleeping bags and blankets. Dean wishes they had time to find and raid a Cabella's for warm jackets, but they'll have to make do with what they have. He's got a feeling any unnecessary delay will cost them. They raid the gift shop instead, for all the extra sweatshirts and shells and hats bearing the Niagra Cave logo. There are plenty of children's sizes.

When everyone is accounted for and inside the cave, Sam and Dean bring up the rear. The main door from the gift shop is huge and heavy, constructed to maintain the temperature and moisture balance. It takes both of them to close it.

"This is really it," says Sam.

"Yeah," says Dean, then gives his brother a somber look. "Dude, it's gonna smell pretty bad after 40 days of people stuck in here."

Sam snorts, caught off guard and amused, and Dean smirks at him. What are brothers for, after all.

"That's what sponge baths are for," Sam mutters and elbows him in the side. "Why do you think we brought three times the water we thought we'd need?"

"In case the world ending means we get buried alive and have to spend an extra three months in this cave trying to find a different way out?"

"That, too," says Sam, rolling his eyes. "Good to see you're still an optimist."

They elbow each other back and forth as they descend the steep cement stairs down from the cave entrance. People are already finding the driest corners and setting up nests of blankets and bags and pillows. Settling in and getting comfortable, because it's going to be a long wait.

As they move past low ceilings and railings looking for Bobby and Ellen, Dean notices Sam is carrying a binder under his arm.

"Dude, what's that?" he asks, because he's pretty sure he's never seen it before.

Sam hands it over. 'Tour Guides: Maps and Manual' it says.

"I figured we could get a sense of the place. Maybe explore, without worrying that we'll get lost or stuck," Sam explains, grinning wide and eager.

"I'll be damned," says Dean, and grins right back.

 

— — — — — —

The days underground pass more quickly than Dean expects, even though they stay below for an extra two weeks just to be safe. The practicalities of life aren't all that pleasant in a cave, but there's plenty of space and they learn how to make do. There's an underground river that the binder helps them find — too cold and fast to wade into, but the extra water supply makes a lot of things easier.

Dean finds that he acclimates to the cold chill of the cave quickly, notices Sam does the same. It doesn't stop them from rolling up together in a single sleeping bag when the lights go out every night. The warmth is nice. Having his brother close is nicer. Dean worries a little that someone will wonder, but it barely registers anymore. It sure as hell doesn't stop him from kissing Sam goodnight once it's dark.

He learns new songs from just about everyone, because they didn't carry any tangible entertainment into the cave with them. People take to singing to pass the time, and Dean and Sam join in when they're not digging further into the recesses of the cave.

There's a room called the Chapel. A small jut of rock with a high ceiling, and a long drop that's blocked off by a white fence. Dean doesn't think it looks much like a chapel, but there are six pews and a podium built there, so apparently the cave owners disagreed. The cave brochure advertises rental of the space. Apparently people really used to get married here.

Seems only right to continue the tradition, and half a dozen couples take their vows before the forty days are up. There are priests to spare, all happy to officiate. Sam and Dean aren't witness to any of the weddings, but everyone in the cave can hear the singing.

When they finally set foot above ground, the world is an eerie shell. No idea what to expect, but Dean is surprised to step into warm air and see everything still standing. Harmony isn't far, other towns not far after that, but every one of them is an intact, empty husk. Disconcertingly silent, like the world really has been wiped clean.

Even the big cities still stand, but everything is devoid of power. There are no bodies, in the streets or anywhere else. No lingering smell of sulfur to mark a world that belonged to the demons. Everyone is just gone.

Everyone but the stubborn convoy of humans, blinking because the sun stings too bright after weeks underground. They set up camp by a river, the same routine, but Dean feels something different this time. A smoothing edge as he realizes they can let their guard down. They're safe.

They may not be many in the grand scheme of things — and Dean's head sort of hurts when he thinks too hard about the fact that they're probably meant to repopulate the Earth — but he realizes they might just be enough.

"What now?" asks Sam, suddenly at his side.

"Now?" says Dean, teasing glint in his eyes. "Now we find somewhere a little more private and make up for lost time."

Sam's eyes flash with hungry intent, just what Dean wants to see, and it doesn't matter who breaks their staring contest first. Dean lets himself be pulled north along the riverbank, Sam's fingers a tight brand of ownership on his wrist.

Sam kisses him, up against a birch tree with the noisy gush of the river behind them, and Dean can taste his brother's smile.