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Chapter One

Strange days have found us
Strange days have tracked us down
They're going to destroy
Our casual joys
We shall go on playing
Or find a new town
                                    ~Strange Days, The Doors

It was frustrating, Sam mused, to have the best he could do never be quite good enough. Missouri had certainly demonstrated it for him enough times, but whenever he tried to reach into the hazy depths of his own aura, he could never seem to touch the things he was reaching for. They drifted away, vanishing on unseen currents, disturbed by his attempts to grasp hold of them. It was seriously impeding his ability to make any kind of progress at finally getting some control over his alleged psychic gifts.

Sam opened his eyes and stared moodily out into the lush greenery of Kansas springtime. The air was heavy with the richness of fresh mown grass and the wisteria that wound its way over the wooden rail of the back porch on its way up to the roofline. Delicate purple flowers clustered like grapes, reminding Sam that he really should have eaten something between doing five hours of yard work and settling in to wrestle with his uncooperative mind.

There was an odd feeling to the day that was completely separate from his utter failure to make any sort of headway, like standing blindfolded at the edge of a cliff, all rushing air and unreliable footing. The feeling wasn't new, but some days it was stronger than others. And he was tired. He couldn't help but think that things would just be easier if he wasn't so damn tired all the time. Sam had thought that taking some time off the road and getting a full eight hours in the same bed for a few weeks would set things back on track, but it was hard to pay back a lifetime's worth of sleep debt.

It had been a little over a year since they'd cleaned up the most recent mess with the demons. Banished. All of them. All the ones of power and consequence, at least. One hundred years of open space to work in. Or one hundred years for Dean to work with -- Sam expected to be gone long before that.

Inside the house, Missouri slammed something in the kitchen, and he could hear the loud jangle of silverware being roughly handled. Despite the rumbling growl of his empty stomach, Sam decided that missing a meal was preferable to volunteering as a target for the sharp side of Missouri's tongue. She'd been in an increasingly bad temper for the last week, and had made it abundantly clear that if she wanted to talk to him about it, she'd let him know. So for now it was the worn paint of the back porch, hummingbirds, slow, fuzzy bees, and just enough of a breeze to keep the humidity from being oppressive. Sam was definitely old and battered by the world enough to appreciate the idyllic nature of the day, and the traitorous impulse to blow off a few hours and just enjoy it had occurred to him more than once. But he had been visiting with Missouri long enough that other kinds of needs were also starting to stir lazily to his attention, and they would be less easy to ignore. Better to work while he could. Lounging around soaking up the peaceful ambiance of an easy afternoon just for enjoyment's sake would have to wait for another lifetime.

He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and sank back into his center.

Or the closest reasonable approximation he was capable of.

The insistent blare of a car horn close by cut through the quiet of the neighborhood, dragging Sam sharply back to awareness from the deep meditation he'd been struggling to maintain for... He glanced at the all-weather clock where it hung protected up under the porch overhang and swore. Twenty minutes. Shit.

He groaned and uncrossed his legs, stretching them out on the sun-warmed wooden slats of Missouri's porch. It hadn't just been the noise that had pulled him back; there had been something ominously familiar about it….

It took Sam a second to place it because he was hoping so earnestly that he was wrong.

"Sam! Get out here!" Dean's voice was probably clearly audible for at least half a block in any direction. Sam winced as another horn blast echoed through the neighborhood. He got up hastily, wanting to head off any further disturbance before--

The back door banged open and Missouri stood there, flour on her apron and fire in her eyes. "Do you hear that damn demon out on the street disturbing this entire neighborhood?" she barked, waving a wooden spoon practically under his nose. "We had an understanding about him, Sam. You can stay at my house, and he can stay somewhere else. A very far else. You want to tell me what he's doing out there, making enemies of all my neighbors and--"

"Sam!" Another blast of the horn punctuated the impatient summons and cut her off.

Missouri's eyes narrowed to slits. 

"I'll get rid of him," Sam promised, edging back towards the porch steps.

"You do that." She started to say something else, then an emotion other than irritation surfaced in her eyes. It was gone before Sam could decipher it, but his earlier sense of unease was refreshed in its wake. "Or… just shut him up for a few minutes and then come back inside. I want to talk to you about something."

That sounded ominous. The uneasy feeling grew worse. Missouri was hardly reticent about speaking her mind, and anything she thought she needed a lead-in for was unlikely to be good news.

"Missouri--" Sam started, vastly preferring just to get the cards laid out instead of letting his imagination try to fill in the blanks. After the last few years, it was getting very creative when coming up with new problems to complicate his life.

The horn blasted again, interrupting him before he could press further. Seeing Missouri's eyes narrow even more, Sam dropped the conversation in favor of a strategic retreat. He backed down the steps, jogging around the side of the house and through the side gate before Dean could find something even more disruptive to do to get his attention.

The Impala was pulled up against the curb, the glossy black shine of her immaculate paint giving her the air of a portent of doom against the manicured lawns and pale suburban colors of the neighborhood. Considering who was driving, Sam decided that wasn't entirely out of left field.

"Are you wearing shorts?" Dean greeted him over the low rumble of the Impala's engine when Sam drew close.

"They're sweatpants."

"I can see your knees."

"So they're short sweatpants, I cut them off," Sam said, piqued. "I wasn't expecting to be out for a public critique, Dean. Did you drive over here just to interrogate me about my wardrobe?"

"It wasn't out of my way."

"Dean…" Sam sighed.

Dean shrugged. "I'm bored."

Irritation flickered across Sam's face, even though he'd been half expecting this kind of interruption for the better part of a week. "I don't know what you want me to do about it. I'm busy, and you're not supposed to be here. Go be bored someplace less likely to get me evicted. You're… disrupting things."

Dean raised a skeptical eyebrow. "And what exactly am I disrupting, Sam? Your deep communing with the birds and bees on the back porch? It's been three weeks since you said you just wanted to swing by for a visit. I've been more than patient. Get in the car and let's go already."

Sam crossed his arms, making less of an effort to keep his tone neutral. "And go where exactly, Dean? More aimless wandering around the middle of the country? Maybe take in a national park or two? Does that strike you as a real productive use of our time?"

"It'd be as productive as whatever the hell you're doing camped in Missouri's guest room while I twiddle my thumbs across town," Dean said, derision dripping from his voice. "There's only so much television a guy can watch, you know? I'd find something more personally entertaining to do, but I don't want to listen to you whine for the next thousand miles either."

Knowing the kinds of things Dean found "personally entertaining", Sam was suddenly grateful he'd decided to drop by and disrupt his day instead. "I thought you were stomping out gremlins on the other side of the county?"

"I stomp pretty hard, Sam. That was distracting for like two days."

"I'm learning things here, Dean. Useful things. More useful than the absolute nothing we've come up with on our own. I need some more time."

"Like what?"

Sam frowned. "What do you mean 'like what'?"

"You know," Dean waved a hand encouragingly, "all this 'usefulness' you're picking up. Give me an example."

"It's not like that. I can't just rattle you off some list . I'm learning… control," Sam struggled to describe what he was trying to accomplish. "Like how to see the way things work in my mind, how to… you know, do things, Dean. Things aren't as simple as we used to think it was, and it's not like just pouring some water out of a glass or learning how to fix an engine or anything else with concrete progress. This takes time, it takes focus, and it doesn't take having to worry about what you're up to when you're out of my sight!"

Dean turned the engine off and slouched back in his seat, tossing the keys onto the dash like he planned to be there awhile. "Gee, Sam. If only there was some way we could be in contact when we're not in shouting distance. Like some kind of… I don't know, psychic bond or something. Wouldn't that be awesome? You wouldn't have to worry, I wouldn't have to worry--"

Sam shot Dean an extremely unimpressed look. "We're doing fine the way we are. We lived most of our lives in our own heads, I think we can manage to do it again for awhile."

"You're right, Sam," Dean said with exaggerated patience. "We did live most of our lives in our own heads -- and then whacky hijinks happened. I was ripped apart by hellhounds, and you screwed Ruby, the demon who hung me out for slaughter, right into a prison of your own design. How well did we do again?"

"The bond isn't severed, Dean. It's just..."

"Barricaded into utter uselessness?"

"I can still feel you," Sam said with a deliberate patience he didn't feel, "we're just not bleeding all over each other anymore."

"Yeah, I can tell you're alive. Usually. Hooray."

"Is this what you came over to irritate me about?" Sam demanded. "We've had this conversation. I've told you, I can't think when you're always right there, Dean. You said you were okay with this."

"That was when I thought you'd see reason after a week and let me take some of these freaking walls back down. Not ask me to keep adding them until I'm picking up more from passing cars than from the guy in the seat next to me!"

Sam rolled his eyes. "How about you go find some more gremlins and leave me alone for a few more days?"

Dean snorted his opinion of that. "How about you go get your bag and get in the car? We'll get you some shrooms or whatever the hell the kids are smoking these days, and you can expand your mind the traditional way. It'd probably be just as useful."

Sam's eyes narrowed. "How about you go--" But whatever Sam was about to suggest Dean do was cut short by the squeak of Missouri's front screen door. He glanced back at her unhappy face, then cast Dean a frustrated look. "Just… stay here, and try not to annoy anyone. I'll be back in a few minutes."

"She's going to say the same thing I did. It's time to go, Sam."

"No, she isn't," Sam said, irritated. "She knows what I'm trying to do, and that I need to be here to do it. Where it's peaceful, and quiet, and I'm not getting constantly interrupted by whatever petty crisis we've tripped over on the road."

Dean shrugged and grabbed a magazine from the seat beside him.

The blast of the horn just as he turned towards the house made Sam flinch and spin back to glare at his brother. Dean gave him a supremely innocent look and waved the magazine he'd been resting on the steering column. "Accident."



 "I think it's time for you to go."

 Sam almost choked on his mouthful of sandwich. He had known the conversation was going to be not great when Missouri had refrained from commenting on Dean's presence still darkening her doorstep, and then ushered Sam into the kitchen where she'd insisted he eat before they spoke. The sandwich was delicious, but it was still going to kill him if he couldn't clear his throat.

"Why?" he wheezed when he could breathe again. "Is it Dean? Because that's a problem I can solve. I can solve it right now if--"

"Dean out front isn't the problem, Dean in town is. He disrupts things for miles around when he's in the area, Sam. Exiling him to some classy little hole in the wall that rents by the hour on the other side of the city isn't solving the problem."

"It's not by-the-hour, I talked him out of that one. It was cheaper to go by the week at the place across the--"

Missouri's glare cut him off.

"I can send him to go visit Bobby for awhile," Sam finished instead.

"And here I thought you liked Singer," she said dryly. "Haven't you two tortured that poor man enough for one year? Besides, Dean doesn't strike me as the type that 'sends' particularly easy. It's a miracle he's not been making daily drive-by's here, and you think he's going to go take himself off a few states away for awhile and leave you out of his sight?"

Put that way… "No," Sam sighed. "But I need your help. I've been working on this for years, and I still feel like I'm fumbling with the basics. I need--"

"Years! Samuel Winchester, I should smack you right now. People work on this for decades and don't make much more progress than you've done. If that. Now, some of us are lucky, we get picked up young and taught early, but that's not the usual way of things. You're doing fine."

"I can't even keep my own barriers in place! I build them like you taught me, and then they just seem to melt. I'm still having to beg Dean to put up walls to keep himself out of my head. How is this progress?"

Missouri looked highly unimpressed. "Are these the barriers you're trying to build on that direct pipeline in your head between you and a literal power of chaos and entropy? And… you say they seem to melt? I know I'm surprised." Her sarcasm was sharp enough to slice bread, but Sam was considering her words and didn't feel the sting.

"That…" Sam frowned. "You really think that's the problem?"

"I really think that you're doing the best you can with what you've got," she said firmly. "It's a lousy set of circumstances, and you got tossed in at the deep end. Between the curse and its complications, angels whispering in your head, Dean, and everything else on your plate -- you've got a heck of a lot more to deal with than most people trying to learn the craft, and you're still making progress. It's slow, but it's steady."

"Too slow. There are things we have to do, that I have to do, and I can't when I--"

"What things? Last I heard you and that brother of yours didn't have a clue what the next step was, you're just fishing around waiting for inspiration to strike. And if that's what you're so worried about, well, you already know how to attract that kind of attention. It's just opening yourself to the possibility and waiting. Sometimes you have to wait longer than others."

"I haven't had a vision in months now. And it's not like they were all that helpful before either."

"Well I don't see anything wrong with your gift, other than," she shot another dark look towards the window where the Impala was still visible by the curb, "the usual. So maybe there's just nothing to know right now. You have to be patient, Sam."

"And cross my fingers and wish really hard?" Sam asked, voice heavy with resignation.

Missouri spread empty hands. "You go with what you've got."

Sam slumped back in his chair. "Wishing hasn't ever really worked out well for me, Missouri."

Missouri raised an eyebrow. "What about whining? Has whining worked out well for you?"

A smile flickered at the corners of Sam's mouth. "It used to work on Dean sometimes."

"Well, I knew it hadn't melted your daddy's heart," Missouri said tartly. "How convenient that Dean's waiting for you outside. Go away for a few months, work on it some more, and then come back and we'll take another look. But there's really nothing else I can do for you right now."

It was Sam's turn to raise an eyebrow. "You mind if I hang around long enough to pack my things before I leave?"

"I don't even mind if you finish your sandwich first," Missouri said generously. "In fact, I insist. I'll even cut you some pie."



"Here," Sam said, shoving a cellophane wrapped paper plate into Dean's hands through the open driver's side window. He reached past his brother to grab the keys off the dashboard and walked around to throw his bags in the trunk. By the time Sam slid into the passenger side Dean had his mouth full and his fingers sticky.

"Missouri made me pie?" Dean mumbled around a mouthful. Sam chalked his translation skills up to decades of exposure and grabbed a napkin from the glove compartment for him.

"Well, she made pie. I didn't see a name attached. And she'd probably appreciate it if you ate it somewhere else." Dean wrapped the cellophane back over what was left and made a production of licking his fingers, then tossed a jaunty wave towards the house and turned the engine back on. The familiar rumble soaked through Sam's bones and he was immediately overwhelmed by the desire for a nap. Earlier he'd ignored the impulse in favor of working, but after being unceremoniously kicked out, he was momentarily feeling less dedicated. He closed his eyes and settled back into the seat, planning a long blissful afternoon of absolutely nothing.

"Seriously?" Dean asked as they pulled away from the curb and made their way towards the highway. "Three weeks apart, and the first thing you want to do is pass out? I thought you'd catch all up on your beauty rest while you were on vacation."

Sam didn't even bother opening his eyes. "I'm old."

"You keep saying that like it's some excuse note to kick your feet up in a recliner and bitch about the youth today. Should I get you an oxygen tank, grandpa?"

"Have you got one?"

Dean rolled his eyes. "You aren't old. And even real old people don't sleep twelve hours a day, Sam."

"Maybe they should. And it's not twelve hours."

"Maybe you need some more vitamins or something. It's probably all those plants you eat."

Sam sighed and opened his eyes reluctantly, since Dean obviously wasn't going to shut-up anytime soon and let him sleep. "I'm sure it is, if you mean actual sources of nutrition. Pork rinds and beer don't exactly constitute a balanced diet."

"I know, you have to balance them with burgers and fries. It's like some kind of pyramid, they showed it to us in school a few times."

Sam cast Dean a suspicious sideways glance, but Dean's attention was firmly on the road and his tone was rife with sincerity. Sam abandoned it as a lost cause.

"If I was sick, wouldn't our little thing take care of it?"

"'Our little thing?' We have a code word now for my screwing you into a mattress while you're soaking up my blood? Maybe we should name it. How about Brenda? Then we can talk about it in public."

"How about no," Sam turned his head to glare at Dean's profile. But as before, Dean's attention seemed exclusively on the asphalt in front of them.

"We'll see," Dean said noncommittally. "But seriously," he shrugged, "I have no idea. Have you even been sick since we got back together?"

Sam thought about that for a minute. "Not that comes to mind," he finally said. "I don't really feel sick now, just… tired. And I can't believe it's some kind of vitamin problem, I still eat pretty much what I've been eating for years. Maybe I have mono."

That did raise Dean's eyebrow. "The kissing disease? Have you been kissing other guys, Sam?"

"There's other ways to get it."

"Other kissing related ways?"

"Other-- no." Sam rolled his eyes and peeled the saran wrap off a corner of the pie so he could pick at the crust. He'd been too busy being stunned in the house to really enjoy his own piece. "They just call it that. It's in saliva. Maybe someone sneezed on me."

"I thought you were pre-law, not pre-med. And stay out of my pie."

Sam ignored the order. "You get a lot of people living in close quarters and things get passed around. Mono, flu, meningitis. It's a big deal in the dorms."

"Usually when you hear about things being passed around at college, it's class notes or friendly co-eds. Now you're telling me it's really all about germ warfare? I think you're shattering some of my illusions here, Sam."

"That's because I went to a real college, Dean. Not one featured on a late night skin flick special."

"You mean the fine ladies of College Girls Gone Wild have been lying to me all these years? That's crushing," Dean said. "But I still I don't think you have mono."

"And this is based on your extensive medical experience, Dr. Winchester?"

"Nope," Dean said easily. "It's based on a solid couple of decades of being thoroughly screwed by the universe. And that's just in this world. Add up my years Below and… yeah. That's a big number." He glanced over at Sam. "I see that expression, and you can knock it off right now. I did the time, I can talk about it if I want to, and you can just pencil in your angsty guilt trip for later when I don't have to be here for it." When Sam said nothing, Dean nodded in satisfaction and continued. "Anyways, mono would be easy. Normal, something anyone can get. If you're actually sick, you would have something like space pox from the planet Xenon, and soon it will spread around the globe wiping out major cities and populations before mutating into some kind of gelatinous mass."

"Gelatinous mass?" Sam raised an eyebrow. "The space pox or the planet Xenon?"

"Both?" Dean offered.

Sam got tired of Dean's wounded sidelong looks and covered the pie again. He slumped back in his seat, licked his fingers clean, and laced them over his stomach. "So, between cleaning up the gremlin problem, and showing up at Missouri's, you pretty much just parked yourself in front of the television for three weeks."

"Some sci-fi channel was having a movie marathon. They had free microwave popcorn in the lobby."

"For three weeks."

"Well, I guess they had a ton of shitty movies to show, Sam. It was as productive as anything you were doing."

Sam ground his teeth but refused to rise to the bait.


Chapter Two

You know it just done slipped my mind
My memories undefined
You know it just done slipped my mind
They must have spiked my wine
My mind and body are still out of tune
I hope they run into each other real soon
                                      ~It Slipped My Mind, The Doors

"Wake up."

I'm awake," Sam mumbled.

"And I'm the homecoming queen. Move your ass, Sam."

Sam blinked in the late morning sunlight and tried to remember where they were. Ohio? Oklahoma? He was pretty sure it was one of the "O" ones. Or it had been when they'd left the motel that morning.

Two weeks since Dean had dragged him out of Kansas, and nothing of any note had changed. Every day brought new scenery and the same old grind. Not even really new scenery; Sam was fairly confident that he could draw a comprehensive road-map of the continental United States from memory. It wasn't even a question if he could do the highways and interstates. A few too many beers and a bar bet had proven that, years ago.    

Two weeks out of Kansas, and one week since Dean had pressed him into the cheap mattress of another nameless motel and soothed the curse between them. If you could even call it a curse anymore. Sam hadn't offered even a knee-jerk, token resistance. He had struggled hard with himself, and occasionally with Dean too, to reach a place where he was okay with what happened between them on the nights when the curse drove them together.

Almost as okay were the nights when it didn't, and he ended up sweaty and pinned down under his brother's weight anyways. But when Dean reached for him and all he felt was a distant gratitude for something to do beyond another night of fruitless meditation and blind internet searches, well that was was… a little beyond what Sam was willing to accept about himself. It seemed like there should be some middle ground between hand-wringing angst and wherever he was now that he could seize and hold. Some platform of moral contemplation where he could be accepting of the reality of their situation without completely surrender his guilt and his frustrated anger over the double-edged choices life had dumped on him.

Though that was probably just residual resistance and an innate instinct to over-analyze things that Dean kept bitching about. It was certainly less mentally exhausting to just skip all the philosophical crap and simply make sure they kept lube on hand.

It was a strange affair they had. Dean claimed that he didn't feel the need for sex like he had when he'd been alive -- and Sam believed him. There was something almost pragmatic about Dean's approaches, a feeling more of ownership and dominance than real sexual desire, though sex was certainly the language Dean expressed those impulses in. And he expressed it fluently. He'd had the better part of two decades of practice when he was alive to draw on for inspiration, God alone knew what he'd been up to in Hell, and then the last several years of exploring Sam on a regular basis. Even with the thick barricades blocking most of Dean's curse-brought ability to read Sam's moods and reactions, the result was frequently impressive.

Sometimes even before the bleeding started.

Sam wasn't nearly so adept with things on his end, but Dean seemed to appreciate his efforts anyway. Or at least appreciate that he was making an effort. Sam had always been plenty expressive when they let the curse run long and Dean's blood was in the air, but whatever was between them now -- curse, bond, the ides of fate -- they had chosen to keep it intact, and to Sam that meant making something more comfortable of whatever was between them, even when he wasn't drunk on Dean's blood or so desperate he barely remembered how he got this bruise, or that one.... At least as comfortable as was possible between an Entropic demon and a directionless psychic, the fate of three Planes of existence resting squarely on their shoulders.

Between brothers. Whatever that meant to Dean now. Some days Sam was surer than others that he knew what was going on inside Dean's head.

Lately things had been rougher than usual, with Dean seeming to have reached new heights in his ability to be consistently irritating. Instead of contemplating his really questionable love life, Sam was spending more time contemplating how to keep Dean occupied on the road, doing something other than delivering an unbroken monologue of needling remarks and cutting observations. Before Sam gave in to the growing desire to punch him. Dean's retaliation would likely only result in one of two things; an extensive hospital stay, or time spent in even closer company with Dean while his curse-bound-blood knit Sam's broken bones.

Dean wouldn't be even remotely sorry.

And it was hard to say there was anything even particularly new about the recent annoyances. Sam couldn't point to a single thing Dean was doing that should have set his teeth on edge, but everything was just... grating, and was giving Sam a more or less permanent headache. Which might just be a predictable outcome of months and months of frustration. The aimless wandering wasn't new, but it was still maddening to be at it so long and still have no more clues than they'd had when Dean first showed back up and announced his grand plan. Freeing the Angels of Entropy from Hell sounded all good and wonderful --except that it really didn't sound that good or wonderful, but Sam had been assured repeatedly that it was a worthy goal-- but it was also the kind of thing that really needed to come with directions, and so far none had been forthcoming from any quarter.

Sam's new sleeping patterns weren't helping either. Nothing had noticeably changed in the days since they'd last bent to the curse's needs. Which might mean it wasn't an illness, or might mean nothing at all. It didn't bother Sam himself much -- he was just tired, not bleeding out. His personal suspicion was boredom as much as anything. Wanting nine hours of sleep instead of his usual six didn't strike him as quite the crisis as Dean seemed to regard it. Humans were supposed to need eight, it made sense to Sam that humans who'd spent decades abusing their bodies might need a little more. Everything had a price that eventually caught up to you, and if he had to pay his with a few more hours of shut-eye instead of grinding joints and crippling pain, then... he was still coming out ahead.

Dean didn't seem to see it in quite the same light.

Sam stifled a yawn and looked around at a scrub desert that stretched out as far as the eye could see. Dean whistling while he pumped gas at a station that looked like it was already ancient before their father was born was the only sign of life on the landscape. Maybe before their grandfather even. It was hard to tell in the west sometimes, where it was almost always bone dry and arid. Things aged to a certain point, and then they just preserved, standing for years in the same state they might have been seen by an earlier generation.

The tiny store attached to the gas station was badly weathered, by probably decades of baking sun and battering wind. The ancient sign leaning against the building that had might have once read Conoco hadn't fared any better. Sam didn't see any sign of a clerk, and the only cars around were stripped heaps abandoned and half buried by blowing sand.

"Where are we?" he asked as he swung his feet out of the car.

"Somewhere west of Albuquerque."

"Not Ohio then." Sam stretched the kinks out of his back, still trying to get his bearings.


"Don't worry about it."

Dean's look took in the low growing mesquite, sandy soils and the flat top mesa's that framed the horizon to the north. "If you think we're in Ohio, I am worried."

"I can tell the difference between the northeast and the southwest, Dean," Sam said, irritably.

"Can you tell the difference between when your eyes are open and closed? Because I think you've spent more hours asleep than awake since I picked you back up."

Sam stifled a sigh. "I'm on vacation."

"You just had a vacation not even a month ago."

"That was work-related."

"What work?" Dean snorted. "We've been spinning our wheels for years at this point."

"Well, it wasn't relaxing."

"If you relaxed any more, you'd be dead."

"You would know."

"Yeah, I would. So get up and move around some before you calcify. At least you're not still claiming you're old."

Sam cast him a look that could have stripped the remaining paint from the building, but did as instructed and stood up to stretch. The building was locked up tight. He didn't think sunflower seeds and a place to take a leak really justified a broken window, so Sam kept an eye out for rattlesnakes and made a circuit around to the back of the building to deal with the more pressing need.

Dean was waiting for him in the car when he got back.

"All set?"

"Yeah. Where to now?"

"Onwards, I guess. Road goes thataway. You going back to sleep?"

"Maybe," Sam said, noncommittally. The answer was probably closer to 'definitely,' but he didn't want to listen to the argument again.

Dean started in on it anyways. "This is starting to be less just weird and more of an actual problem, Sam. Maybe we should just find a clinic somewhere and get you tested."

"You want me to just walk in and tell them I don't think I'm getting enough vitamin-whatever and do they mind checking for me?"

"Sure, why not? You're paying, what do they care what kind of lab work they run? But you might get better results if you start the conversation with 'I sleep twenty hours out of every twenty-four and do you mind seeing if I've got some kind of tapeworm or something?' I hear doctors like those kinds of things."

"I don't have a tapeworm."

"How would you know?"

"Where would I have gotten a tapeworm?" Sam demanded.

"Where do most people get them? The store? I don't know."

"I'm just tired, Dean," Sam repeated his usual manta patiently. "Wanting a few more hours of sleep isn't a crisis. I'm not twenty anymore."

Dean looked like he wanted to say something, but then snorted his opinion and let the argument lie in favor of turning up the stereo and putting another fifty miles under the wheels.



It had been six weeks since Dean had dragged Sam out of Kansas, and nothing had changed. No visions, no visitations, nothing but mutual annoyance and a thorough road trip to confirm that the continental United States was still as intact as ever.

"This is stupid," Sam announced late one night, as he rolled socks together on a scuffed plastic table under the fluorescent lights of a twenty-four hour laundry. Dean sat on the adjacent table, eating cold pizza and messing with his phone. Or Sam's phone. Sam didn't have the motivation to investigate. Dean usually limited his entertainment to changing ringtones around, which was pretty petty and easily fixed as far as indulging his impulses towards chaos went. The one time he'd changed the language setting to Czech had been interesting. At least that was a new fight to have.

"You lost the bet," Dean said without looking up. Something on the phone beeped in protest. Unfazed, Dean slid his thumb across the screen and Sam caught the distinct flicker of his own background screen. He sighed, but made no protest.

"It wasn't a bet," Sam realized the socks he was matching actually didn't, and pulled them apart with more force than necessary. "It was a game, and I wouldn't have lost if you hadn't spotted the zeppelin museum before I did."

"Then maybe you should have listened when Dad told you to eat your carrots."

"Really? Carrots? That's what you're going to go with?"

"How else do you explain my amazing eyesight? Also my fantastic physique, excellent taste, and--" the phone beeped again and Abba's Dancing Queen spilled into the air around them. "Oops." Dean shut it off with another hasty swipe. "Pretend you didn't hear that."

"The billboard was a quarter mile away!"

"Why, Sam," Dean began in tones of mock hurt, still not diverting his attention away from the phone in his hand. "Are you accusing me of using some kind of unfair advantage to cheat at the alphabet game just so you would have to do my laundry? That's like... the lowest of the low. Only a filthy, no-good, son of a--"

"Yeah, I agree," Sam said, giving him a dirty look.

"It's not like we haven't driven this way a bazillion times, Sam. Maybe I just remembered it was there," Dean suggested with deeply unconvincing innocence.

"And maybe we can solve crime with the power of dance," Sam retorted.

"Only if this Laundromat has magically transported us back to 1980. What's stupid?"


"You said 'this is stupid.' I assumed you weren't talking about the laundry."

"No, not the laundry." Sam rolled the last two socks together then grabbed his duffle bag from the floor and dropped it onto the table so he could start putting his clothes away. Laundry was done. Dean could put his own damn clothes up. "We should be looking for answers, for anything that might help us. Instead, we just wander around the countryside doing a whole lot of nothing and--"

"Waiting for you to get a clue?"

"I'm not the only one in this, Dean! This was your quest, and if our only game plan is waiting for whatever's going on in my head to wake the hell up and point us in a direction, then what exactly were you going to do if I opted out of this little adventure?"

Dean shrugged. "My only plan was for derailing Lilith's agenda. Which we did, and it was awesome." He smiled briefly at the memory, then grew more serious again. "Anything after that was going to be winging it."

"That's great, Dean." Sam zipped his bag closed with a harsh jerk, then dropped Dean's duffle onto the table next to the remaining folded pile. He stepped back in clear invitation. "That's fantastic. Next time some kind of entity from another plane of existence wants you to do it a favor, how about you get a few more details before you agree?"

Dean tossed Sam his phone back, then slid off the table and started putting his own clothes away. "I wasn't in a strong negotiating position, Sam." 

"You were in a better position than we are now, Dean."

There was silence for a long moment while Sam fumed and Dean finished packing his own bag. "This is all old news," Dean said finally. "What are you really pissed about?"

"There's nothing here!" Sam exploded.

Two aisles over, a woman walking a restless baby glared at them, and couple of college-age looking guys playing cards by the door glanced over to see what the shouting was about. Dean gave them all a bland, reassuring smile and lowered his voice. "We don't really need to share our problems with the rest of the class, do we, Sam?" Sam glared but didn't respond otherwise. "Now, what do you mean there's 'nothing here'? We weren't really expecting big things out of--" Dean eyed the tag on the dryer across the aisle, "Linda's Discount Wash and Go, were we?"

"This country, the entire place is just… too young, too new, too limited. We need to be in Europe. We need to be looking through libraries and source material of the kinds of things no one around here can even dream of. They've got books of prophecy, and artifacts, and histories, and--"

"Moldy libraries, hunchbacks, bats, belfries, etcetera, etcetera. Yeah. I know. But it’s all crap, and you know it." Dean, disinclined to continue the conversation with an audience, shouldered his duffle bag, grabbed Sam by the elbow, and steered them towards the door.

"How can you say that!" Sam demanded when they were back in the parking lot, alone under the sodium lights. "How can you just write off entire collections of the greatest repositories of this kind of information on the pla--"

"I can write them all off," Dean interrupted harshly, "because there's not damn thing there that can help us. And I know that, because when we tried to get on a plane to go visit said wonderlands of information, you got all the way to the boarding gate and then you couldn't take another damn step. All five times we tried it. You couldn't get on a plane, you couldn't get on a boat, we can't get much past Tijuana before you start squirming around like you've got ants in your boxers, and it's not the cold that makes you miserable when we head too far north. Unless you're going to confess to some sudden and deep seated fear of travel, which I really think I would have noticed at some point in the last thirty-odd years, Sam, I'm going to go with our original decision, which was that whatever we're supposed to be finding or doing, it's here."

"Maybe we should try again," Sam growled, but then lapsed into silence for the short walk to their motel across the street. Dean locked the door while Sam flung himself down dispiritedly on one of the beds. It dipped alarmingly under his weight, but Sam barely seemed to notice. Dean tossed his gear on the bed closest to the door and gingerly took a seat in the battered folding chair that had been left leaning conveniently against the radiator. Moving it caused an immediate reduction in the rattling racket that had filled the room.

"I hear your frustration, Sam. But everything has been here. The cage, the crypt, the Seals we were involved with, Lilith, angels, demons, you, me... That's all been right here in the good old U S of A."

"Because this is where the cage opened."

"Sure. Because the crap with Lucifer's fan club went down in freaking Illchester and everything's revolved around that. But we're still dealing with things on a cosmic sort of scale with some predestined crap involved. Those kinds of things don't really come together by accident. And it's still all been right, freaking--"

Sam rolled over on the mattress to face him, hazel eyes dark and unhappy in the dim motel lighting. "I've got it, Dean."

Dean risked leaning the chair back on two legs. "I'm just saying that when we tried to hop an ocean and check new digs, you flat out said you couldn't. And whatever's in your head that's been guiding you along so far has been doing a pretty good job, so I'm inclined to trust something you're that adamantly opposed too, you know? It's not like anything else has been killing itself to shine some guiding light on us."

"It's not guiding me now."


"I'm just saying, Dean. It's been, you know, forever."

"It's only been about a year since we stuffed Lilith and her playmates back in the box."

"That wasn't part of this. Not really. It was important, but it wasn't part of the quest."

"I don't know what you want me to say, Sam."

"Nothing," Sam said despondently. "I don't want you to say anything."  

"Okay." Dean watched as Sam toed off his shoes and closed his eyes. He doubted Sam planned to sleep in his current position, not with half his legs hanging off the bed, but something in the drawn expression on his face had Dean counting back the days. As much as Sam had mangled the curse over the last few years, and with as many barricades as Dean was holding between them, it was hard for Dean to tell when the curse was pulling on Sam anymore. Before it had practically been a neon light, Sam's emotions and physical state saturating the link between them, always there in the back of Dean's mind. He knew when to push and when to wait, knew when the saw-toothed edge of need was cutting into Sam's mind, and even more when it burned like a physical ache in his body. He could tell with less effort than thought when Sam would cave to good sense, and when he would resist the inevitable.

When he would be welcomed in Sam's bed without any conversation at all.

Sam had always had an annoying need to make simple things unreasonably complicated, and his insistence on the barricades had driven them to a calendar-based approach. Because Dean didn't trust Sam to speak up on his own, and because Sam had gotten good over time at hiding when he was feeling the raw edge of the curse, he had four weeks to come to Dean himself before Dean forced the issue. Sam got his mental privacy, Dean got... well, mostly a headache, but also Sam's generally willing compliance. And if everyone wasn't entirely thrilled, at least they were equally annoyed.

And sometimes, outside of necessity, Sam would go to Dean on his own anyways. For Dean those times were the best. A voluntary capitulation of need from Sam that fed other, less affectionate, impulses in Dean that he tried to keep from flavoring whatever passed between them in those moments. Dean figured Sam knew, but knowing it and feeling it were different animals entirely.

One was much easier to ignore.

So Dean counted the days back since their last little liaison and blood-letting party, then eyed his brother narrowly. "Tonight?" he asked. Sam didn't answer immediately, but he didn't need an explanation either, so Dean just waited.

"No," Sam finally said, not bothering to open his eyes.

"You sure?"

"I've had enough togetherness for today. I just want to sleep."

Dean snorted. "How is that new?"

Sam's eyes opened to slits, just enough to glare. "Some of us are still among the living, Dean. I'm not going to apologize for actually having to rest occasionally."  

"Whatever. You care if I leave the bathroom light on while I read?"

Sam squirmed up on the mattress, mumbled something incoherent against the comforter and flipped half of it over his body. Dean waited until Sam relaxed into a deeper sleep, then pushed him onto his back so he could unfasten Sam's jeans and drag them off before grabbing the comforter from the other bed and folding it down over Sam too. The air conditioner only had two settings, off and arctic winter, and it was too damn muggy for off. Sam's eyelashes barely twitched during the manhandling.

Dean frowned down at him.

There was just something unnatural about Sam's sleep. It was too deep, too... pervasive. But try as Dean could, there was no hint of actual manipulation that he could find. No sign on Sam's aura that there was outside interference, and the blood that really should have cured any physical ailment while topping off Sam's demonic reserves made no changes at all. Sam insisted there wasn't a problem in the first place, that needing a few more hours here and there was normal. But Sam had never witnessed himself being handled like a rag doll in a motel room without even a flicker of true consciousness. He'd never seen himself blink slowly mid-sentence and then slump against the Impala's door in practically a coma, only to awaken hours later and insist he was fine. Sam's overly patient tones and the word "fine" were both things Dean had had more than enough of.  Sam wasn't fine, and Dean had already taken steps to test out the only real theory Sam had offered. Steps he was going to have to have taken anyways eventually, so he had little compunction about going ahead with his plans. Even without Sam's technical permission.

Only time would tell if it improved anything or not.


Chapter Three

It took a long time to
become the thing I am to you.
And you won't tear it apart
without a fight, without a heart.
                           ~Become You, Indigo Girls

Dean favored roadside bars outside of city limits, places where people knew how to mind their own business. Where no one called the cops if the occasional dispute over a game of pool spilled out into the parking lot with split lips and busted knuckles. Dean had always won most of those fights.

He won all of them now.

Sam favored quieter establishments. He liked bars where the tables were clean and the atmosphere inviting. Where people did call the cops if a fight broke out and there was more than one beer on tap.

Places that suited both of their tastes were few and far between.

"When you said we’d split the difference, I kind of thought at least my feet wouldn't stick to the floor," Sam muttered, as he ducked into the smoke-hazed main room of a place that had almost certainly never been visited by a health inspector.

Dean's grim mood from the last few weeks had started improving as soon as he'd crossed the threshold. He drew in a deep lungful of the stale air and looked around, satisfied. Bare light bulbs were strung randomly over tables and the bar itself, while corrugated aluminum paneled the back walls and reflected the harsh light with an unappealing metallic glare. Even with the creative approach to interior design, there crowd was pretty healthy for a Tuesday night. "What are you whining about now? This place smells like easy money, and lots of it."

"That's not what it smells like to me," Sam said, not bothering to hide his distaste of the place. He shifted, subtly checking the floor's adhesion factor again. He could hear the crackle of his soles peeling free even over the tinny country music and the restless din of the crowd. "How do you even find these places?"

"I'm drawn to them," Dean assured him, "it's like a gift. Besides, I'm sure it's not the whole floor. They probably just spilled something here."

"Nightly since nineteen seventy-five?" 

"It's not like we were planning to eat off of it, Sam. This is a bar. Alcohol, remember? The food only exists so you can drink more." He glanced at Sam's face, then elbowed him in the side. "You keep scowling like that you'll scare off all the easy marks." The locals had given them both a good once over, and then turned dismissively back to their own business, but there were plenty of people loitering around a couple of pool tables in an alcove at the other end of the main bar room that looked ripe for the right kind of pickings.

Sam rubbed at his ribs and glared. "I thought you said you wanted a drink."

"I said I wanted to find a bar," Dean answered, distracted by his evening plans.

"Which is usually where people go when they want to drink."

"Or to score loads of easy cash off drunk rednecks. Did you miss that lesson or something? Go… drown your sorrows or something. You're raining bad vibes all over my mojo."

"I'm raining bad vibes?" Sam echoed incredulously, but he was talking to himself. Dean was already threading his way through the maze of chairs and tables to reach the pool tables. Abandoned and with nothing better to do, Sam drifted over and took a seat at the bar with vague plans to nurse several drinks throughout the evening until Dean had either gotten them thrown out or was bored enough to leave. They were running about fifty-fifty on their exits lately.

He could have insisted on being left at a motel room, but there was something about the undemanding companionship of a crowd of people just out enjoying an evening that appealed to Sam on a basic level. Amidst the tangle of psychic powers, reality rending conflicts, demons, angels, prophecy and nightmare -- the world was still the same world it had always been, and reminding himself of that provided a certain thread of comfort.

Of course, he only had to turn his head and catch sight of Dean for a concrete reminder that just because the world was as it had always been, didn't mean his own personal reality hadn't been firmly upended. General musings on the unfairness of life and trying to remember if he'd packed his toothbrush in the motel that morning were good for a couple of hours while he halfheartedly watched the basketball game playing silently over the bar.

"Hey there."

He turned his head to meet a pair of flirty blue eyes set in an attractive, smiling, face. Sam, who'd been a sucker for pretty blue eyed girls long before he'd met Jessica, smiled back reflexively. The girl tucked wavy brown hair behind one ear and nodded towards a nearby table where another woman was watching them both with an expression of mortification. "I'm Ella. My friend Sidney over there thinks you're cute." Ella's smile widened a fraction. "She has pretty good taste. Come here alone?"

Sam blinked at her, thrown for a loop by the unexpectedness of the conversation. No one had tried to pick him up in years. Much less women who, if they weren't actually in college, were certainly in the right age range. He glanced over to find where Dean was in all this, but his brother was still entrenched in his pool hustling and seemed oblivious to whatever Sam was up too.

"You don't think I'm a little old?" Sam asked her finally, at a loss for where to steer the conversation. Over at the table Sidney buried her face in her hands as Ella raked him with an openly appraising look.

"You're what, twenty-seven? Twenty-eight maybe?" Ella asked. "That's not that old. I'll be twenty-two in April. Sidney's twenty-three. Besides, age isn't everything you know." Ella's smile grew even more inviting, but Sam's bemused friendliness faded a little at her estimation. She seemed serious about the guess on his age and that was just…weird. Thirty-eight years of mostly rough living hadn't been exactly unkind, but no one should have been guessing his age a decade off.

Ella smile faltered a little as, not understanding the problem, she felt him withdraw from her. "I just wanted to see if you were interested in having a drink with us. No rings involved."

But Sam was barely listening, instead he was looking down at where his hand rested on the bar. Looking just like his hand always looked. Except… he let go of his drink and turned both his hands over, examining the fronts and backs with a scrutiny he usually only gave weapons and useful texts. Most of the injuries he'd picked up since Ruby entangled herself in his life all those years ago had left no visible mark, but there had been some. The little nicks and dings from a life on the road that scabbed over and healed in the weeks between the power exchanges that left everything renewed and mending. An ugly suspicion began to creep into his mind. He cast a harder look over to where Dean was still playing pool, but his brother seemed as oblivious as before.


Sam forced his attention back to Ella. "Sorry, I'm a little… distracted."

"No kidding." She frowned. "You aren't… on something, are you? You just look a little out of it."

"Uh, no. No, just--"

"You've got a girlfriend," she surmised.

"No," Sam answered reflexively, and then immediately kicked himself for missing the easy out.

"Bad break-up?" Ella tried again. She sounded a little hopeful at this point, probably trying to find an excuse for his lack of interest that wouldn't prick her self-esteem.

Sam wasn't used to people being so helpful in a conversation he was trying, badly, to escape. He managed a weak smile. "Something like that."

"It's cool," she said immediately, looking almost relieved. "We just saw you sitting alone and thought we'd check you out. Not many new guys coming to a joint like this." Sam didn't know why anyone would come to a joint like this, but asking her would probably cross a few lines of politeness and Sam was feeling rather grateful to Ella.

"Maybe another night," he offered. Ella waved noncommittally and made her way back to her friend. Sam took the opportunity to slide off his barstool and head for the bathroom.



"Yo, Sam? You in here?" Dean called as he pulled open the bathroom door with a grimace. The handle was actually tacky, and he was grateful that germs weren't something he was concerned with anymore. The door itself hung a few inches crooked in the raw wooden frame and squealed loudly enough to make his ears hurt as he forced it to move. Dean didn't have the impression a lot of the male patrons bothered with the official bathroom when they needed to take a leak, as there was a lot more traffic going through the propped open rear exit.

He'd seen Sam vanish through the actual restroom door almost twenty minutes earlier, but distracted by the game, it had taken him awhile to notice when Sam didn't return. The kneejerk instinct to check Sam's mental state had slammed into his own, frustrating, barriers -- but even through the dense psychic weaving Sam was thrumming with… something. It didn't have quite the right rawness to it to be fear, but it was intense, and deep and nothing that Sam usually felt like. Dean forfeited a couple of hundred on the game without a thought in favor of hunting his brother down.

"Sam?" The room was a long L, and there was no question as to where Sam was. Dean could feel only one living presence in the room, and the beat of that heart was more familiar to him than his own. The answer to what Sam was feeling was apparent as soon as Dean turned the corner.


Sam was so angry that his knuckles shown yellowish white through the tight skin of his hands where he gripped the sides of the porcelain sink. He didn't even bother turning his head to meet Dean's gaze, just stared at himself in the mirror, lips set in a thin, compressed line and eyes bright with fury. Dean wasn't even sure Sam could talk with his jaw clenched that hard, but it wasn't like the problem wasn't a big mystery. Dean had been half waiting for the explosion for weeks.

"What did you do to me," Sam demanded in a tight, low voice.

Dean felt suddenly tired in a way he seldom had since clawing his way out of Hell. Some fights he just didn't want to have. Which was why he'd acted instead of asking, and why he hadn't bothered to tell Sam after the fact either. It hadn't been up for discussion, so not discussing it had worked out well. For awhile. "What I had to."

"What you had too? Look at me! I'm like--"

"Thirty again?"

"The girls in the bar guessed twenty-fucking-seven, Dean. Twenty-seven! I'm almost forty. What the hell have you done?!"

Dean crossed his arms, unimpressed. "You know, Sam. A lot of people would be thanking me about now."

"Thanking you?" Sam straightened up to face him directly. "For what, Dean? This is my life. It's… it's my body. It's not some fucking toy for you to mess with on some whim just because you can! What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that--" The bathroom door squealed open and a giggling couple practically fell into the room. Dean glanced back at them. Sam couldn't see his face, but whatever the couple saw in it had them muttering a hasty apology and fleeing. "--Here isn't the place to have this conversation."

"No, but the motel is," Sam said, sarcasm thick enough to cut.

"At least it's practically deserted," Dean snapped back. "Not here."

Not here, with breakable things like buildings, and people, and the trust between them.

"Or maybe," Dean continued, "you think we should just go back out into the bar and let everyone get a good front row seat?"

Put like that… "I'm not getting in the car with you," Sam spat.

"Take a cab then," Dean said thinly. "But feel free to imagine my reaction if you aren't back within an hour and I have to come looking for you."



Dean barely waited for the door to slam behind Sam, who stormed into their room less than fifteen minutes after Dean himself had arrived, before he picked up where they had left off. The brief pause hadn't put a dint in either of their tempers.

"You think I did this on a whim?" Dean demanded. "Let's talk about whims . You said you would help me with this quest, you said we were in this together."

Sam stared at him, momentarily shocked free of his own anger by the unexpectedness of the attack. "I am helping you, we are in this-- what the hell does this have to do with--"

"You might not have noticed, Sam, but we aren't making a whole hell of a lot of speedy progress on this little adventure. It's been kind of a couple of years since we started this now, and we're still rocking a whole lot of zero in the progress category. You're the best lead we've have for any of this crap, and that lead isn't panning out too fast. Which I'm okay with, as long as you're actually with me, and not moldering in some roadside grave, leaving me here to kick it here by myself. We sent the major players back to the Pit for a century to get some breathing room, but you're not going to be breathing for a century. At the rate we're going, you might not even get another decade in the natural order of things. Maybe less. You duck awfully slow. You think this is the first thing I've changed about you? You change a little with every mouthful of my blood you swallow," Dean said derisively. "You think it's normal that someone of your advanced years, who's lived such a calm and sedentary kind of life doesn't have to down a handful of painkillers just to get out of bed in the morning? You've been reaping the physical side benefits of screwing around with the demonic for years -- sorry having it suddenly up in your face is so traumatic!"

"That's completely different, Dean."

"Oh, so you knew." Dean's sarcasm was almost a tangible thing.

"No, I didn't know! I mean…" Sam trailed off. He'd seen wounds the entire length of his torso erase themselves in hours as a side effect of the curse. It wasn't a big deductive leap to think it could be having a more subtle effect. "Maybe I did. But that's not the fucking point, Dean! What happens with the curse -- it just happens. I don't have any control over that. Shut up," he snapped before Dean could interject. "Not real control. It's a side effect, not a deliberate action. Whatever happens with that isn't the same as you doing this shit to me on purpose."

"You're pissed because you've gotten younger? Do you know how insane that sounds?"

"I'm pissed you did this without asking me! And yeah, I'm pissed I've gotten younger. I've lived my life, Dean. I've earned every one of those years, and I've earned every one of my scars!"

"Really?" Dean asked pointedly. "Pick up a lot of these scars in the last few years, have you?"

Sam's hands balled involuntarily into fists. "You had no fucking right to do this."

"It's done. And you're awfully excited about something you didn't even notice."

"I don't spend a lot of time staring at myself in the mirror, Dean! I mean… how long has this been going on?"

"A few weeks."

"How many is a few?" Sam asked, suspiciously.

Dean shrugged. "It's not that big of a change, Sam."

"Ten years?! It's kinda big, Dean!"

"It's not like I punched something into a computer! I just… wanted to run back your odometer a little. You weren't old before, and… you're, you know, less old now."

"Old? What the--" Sam's comment bit off as connections made themselves in his mind. "Is this because you think I'm sleeping too much?" He demanded, even more outraged if possible. "I start grabbing an extra hour or two of sleep and you take a decade off my life?!"

Dean scowled. "I added a decade, genius. I didn't steal one from you. And it's probably not even that much. I just… wanted to see if it made you better. Nothing else has worked."

"Because there isn't anything wrong! I've been telling you that for wee--"

"There is something wrong," Dean snapped. "I don't know why you can't see it, but there is. It's not natural, Sam. You said Missouri didn't see anything, you can't detect anything, and there's nothing I can find when I look myself, but there is something very wrong, and it's only getting worse. I'm just about out of fucking ideas here, and you just wander around all blissfully insisting that either you're fine, or you're old."

"That was a joke, Dean!" Sam was having trouble not yelling by this point, but his frustration was quickly exceeding what mere snarling and swearing could express.

"Well, at least it was a freaking theory! Which is more than I could come up with. And, you know, you're still falling into just as much of a coma, so it was a bad theory. Congratulations."

"Coma? What are you talking about?"

"You think it's your keen, highly developed hunter instincts that let me move you around like a rag doll while you're sleeping? You don't notice that you fall asleep between words sometimes, and wake up with the sun on the other side of the freaking car?"

"Maybe if we stopped for more than four hours at a time at night, I wouldn't! You're the one who claims to be too bored to let me actually get a good seven hours in a real bed. Or six. Or when was the last time we stayed in one place for even five? I'm barely closing my eyes some nights before you're dropping my shoes on my chest and telling me to get back in the freaking car!"

"That's not what's going on," Dean said, voice laced with impatience. "And since you won't even admit there is a problem, don't bitch at me about what I have to do to try to fix it!"

"This isn't a fix!"

"So you do admit there's a problem?" Dean asked, in a reasonable enough voice that Sam wanted to throw something at him.

"No," Sam growled, "I don't admit there's a problem. But if there was, then whatever the hell you've done to me clearly hasn't fixed it. So you can just presto chango me back to how I was before!"

"Hmmm." Dean slouched against the wall and almost looked like he was considering it for a moment, then shook his head with mock gravity. "No, I don't think that would be a good idea."

"Why not?" Sam demanded.

"I told you," Dean shrugged, "it's not some kind of exact science. It's just intent, and focus, and wrapping you in as much entropy as I can pull through these freaking wards I'm hogtied with. Add some time for seasoning, and… there you go. I mean, you don't really want to wake up eighty, do you, Sam?"

"I really hate you, Dean," Sam said fervently.

"And I think I can really handle that in five minute increments, Sam."

"You think I'm going to be over this in five minutes?"

"I think you're so pissed off that you're forgetting the other reason for me to do this."

Silence filled the room for a few minutes while Sam tried to get his temper under control and Dean just watched.

"No," Sam finally spoke up, tired and with the anger banked somewhat. "No, I'm not forgetting."

"Did you really just plan to up and die on me in a few years? Quest or not?"

"I… didn't think about it." Sam frowned. "That's kind of how being human and alive works, Dean. I didn't think there was another option."

"This is the other option," Dean said flatly. "Outside of some really inadvisable rituals and maybe that Frankenstein thing."

"Yeah. No. So… what's this plan then?" Sam laughed with no hint of real levity. "Every few years you just roll the clock back a little?"

Dean shrugged.

"That's a shitty plan, Dean."

"Only if you weren't planning to go the distance with me."

"You know that's not the problem."

"I'm not sure I see a problem."

"You should have asked me! You should have told me."

"Well, I kinda thought it would be obvious. And if it happened slowly enough that it wasn't, then…"

"Then why bother telling me at all?" Sam finished for him. "I'm not a toy to play with, Dean. This is my body, and it's my life." Sam's anger was spiraling again, he made no effort to restrain it. "I put up with a ton of shit for this grand quest of yours. More than anyone should have to. My entire life has revolved around this crap in one way or another, and you don't get to try and tell me that if you hadn't sat down and discussed it with me, that I wouldn't have eventually agreed to this too. We are in this together, and you don't get to make these fucking decisions without me. I can't believe you did this!"

Dean's eyes narrowed. "There is something wrong with you, Sam. And you've resisted every freaking attempt I've made to sit down and discuss it. You treat it like it's some running joke that I'm annoying you with. This was going to happen, you just admitted it was going to happen even if I had given you the heads up. I didn't want to put up with the whining while I'm worried sick about what's going on with you. Maybe what's happening is fucking with your body and your mind, because it's not like that hasn't happened before. Remember, Sam? So maybe I talk to you, and you refuse because you're fucked up, again, and then what? I do it anyways? You say you hate me right now for doing this without asking you, how excited would you have been if I'd asked, you'd said no, and I did it anyways?"

"That's a bullshit argument, Dean!"

"Yeah, well. That's the best you're getting right now. You've added a few years and some flexibility to your lifespan. It's done now, it's not going to be undone, and anyone else on the planet would be freaking ecstatic. So why don't you shut the hell up and we can move on to something else that's going to make you unhappy."

"Jesus, Dean. What else have you done?"

"This is more about what I'm going to do. What we're going to do." Dean straightened up from where he was slouched against the wall. He let his battered leather jacket slide down and off his arms until he could drape it over the top of the television. Sam's gaze involuntarily tracked the shift of muscles in Dean's newly bared arms until he realized what he was doing and jerked his gaze away, swallowing hard. Dean's smile was lazy and edged.

"Yeah. It's that time again. Past time even. Which I'm really not happy about, Sam. We had an agreement about this."

Sam's eyes narrowed. "No. Not when I'm still this angry."

Dean's edges turned more predatory and his eyes darkened. Still human dark, but the threat was there. "Are we seriously back to this, Sam? You're obviously hurting, you watch me like you're aching for it when you don't remember not to, and if it's that clear then we should have done this days ago. You only get to say 'no' for so long before you don't get a say anymore and I don't care if you're angry with me. Just adds that little extra spice." He took a step forward and Sam stepped back, catching the edge of the dresser with the back of one foot and almost falling. He was going to end up backed into the bathroom counter if he kept giving ground, but not giving ground was sadly not an option with Dean still advancing. If he managed to get his bare hands on Sam's skin, Sam knew he would be lost to any kind of resistance. He'd had enough decisions taken out of his hands lately, and there were other considerations.

"Not while you're still this angry then," Sam tried, fighting back the first faint flutter of panic. Dean had won this particular fight before in worse circumstances, but that had been before Sam had understood the truth about his brother's nature, and had been exposed first hand to the scouring winds of entropy that raged at the core of Dean's being. The wards that had been broken before were strong now, and that kind of bleed-over shouldn’t be possible. He didn't think so, at least. But angry and frustrated… Sam didn't know how much Dean could pull through the divide anymore, and Sam would do a lot more than beg to avoid experiencing a polar force of nature shred the edges of his self again. Or worse.

Sam could see the moment Dean understood Sam's reluctance ripple across his face. He finally stopped advancing, in easy reach of where Sam was pressed against the edge of the sink. Sam half expected Dean to reach out anyways, and hated the part of himself that wished Dean would.

Dean's hands flexed as he watched Sam, indecision still shifting in his eyes.

"I'm going out," Dean announced finally.

"Okay," Sam agreed, cautiously.

"You're not going to step one foot out of this room while I'm gone," Dean continued.

Sam nodded, mutely. He just wanted Dean to go, and give them both some breathing room.

"We're going to deal with this when I get back. It's stupid, Sam. I thought we were done with all this crap."

"I know. I know. I didn't mean to put it off this long. I just… lost track of the days."

Dean snorted and patted his pockets down, checking for his keys and wallet. Sam's shoulders relaxed as some of the tension bled from the room.

Dean ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "You can't screw around with this, Sam. One day I'm going to be off running an errand, and you're going to be riding this way out on the edge, and a demon is going to kick the freaking door down and drag you off and you're going to feel really stupid that you can't even defend yourself because you couldn't be bothered to do something every fiber of your body wants to do anyways. Just because we deported most of the problem children back to the Pit for awhile doesn't mean there aren't plenty of lesser pests still running around who wouldn't jump at a chance to serve you up on a platter."

"It wasn't that, I was just…" Sam let his voice trail off and found something else to look at beside his brother.

"Tired?" Dean demanded. "Is tired what you were going to say? Too tired to get naked and recharge the old batteries a little? Too tired to answer a curse that's stamped across the fabric of your very being? That kind of tired, Sam? You sure you still want to try and tell me that there's nothing going on with you I should be worried about? That maybe we should be worried about?"

"I thought you were going out," Sam said pointedly.

Dean rolled his eyes and retreated, scooping his jacket back up as he reached for the door handle. "Not one toe outside this door, Sam. And if you even look reluctant when I get back, I'm just going to tie you up and do whatever the hell I want to with you anyways. You'd probably like that, you can blame it all on me." The slam of the door punctuated his statement.

Sam glared at the door for a moment, then turned to examine his reflection in the mirror over the sink. The lighting was better than at the bar. Even knowing what he was looking at, it still took some time to find concrete things to point at that made him look different than he thought he should. There were fewer lines at the corners of his eyes, and maybe around his mouth. Worry lines mostly, but there were definitely less than there had been. Maybe less heaviness to his jaw, a certain lightness to his complexion. He did look younger, but pointing to where or why was hard. Maybe hard enough that he didn't need to kill Dean quite so fast.


He was still lividly pissed, but Dean might have had a valid point somewhere in all his crap excuses. Something to think about later. Sam closed his eyes and tried to find a peaceful center, some breathing space in his own thoughts, then went ahead and got ready for bed. Whatever else happened later in the night, it was unlikely to involve a lot of sleep, and Sam was already exhausted.