It made things easier when Sam knew. He didn't have to wait till Sam was asleep, or till Sam got bored of watching him hustle pool and wandered out of whatever bar they were in at the time. He could just stand up, look Sam in the eye, and say, "I'm calling Xander," before walking out of the room, cell phone in hand.
Sam never looked happy when he did, though, and Dean never could figure out what bug had crawled up his brother's ass. Sam sure as hell wasn't the happy kid that Dean remembered, and hadn't been for years, but most of the time he was pretty easy-going. Dean was grateful for it, because it would take wild horses to drag it out of him, but he knew that he wasn't the easiest guy to get along with. Xander seemed to manage because he'd been with Spike, and nobody was more irritating than Spike (except Spike's Sire, to hear Spike complain, the big faker) but Dean knew that he was lucky his brother hadn't lost his temper with him. Well, much.
He wanted to know what was bothering Sam so much about Dean's association with Xander, but since their last conversation about it had gone downhill in about two seconds and had kept going down till the angry ending, he figured that it wasn't worth the headache that would follow. And there was no guarantee that Sam would spill the beans, anyway. Look how long it had taken him to admit that he was psychic- and he probably wouldn't have even done that if Dean hadn't balked so hard about going back to Lawrence.
And none of this mattered now, to tell the truth. (Which he was perfectly capable of doing, fuck-you-very-much, Missouri.) All he wanted to do was get away from his brother and call his friend.
He escaped from the hotel while dialing and started across the parking lot while listening to the lonely sound of the ringing in his ear. What if Xander didn't pick up? What if something had happened and he just hadn't known about it?
Thankfully, Xander answered on the fourth ring. "Hey, hotshot," came the affectionate greeting. "What's up?"
"Had a bit of a dust-up last night," Dean said. "You mind?"
"What, you calling? Never. So where are you, anyway? Still in the town of the dust-up?"
"Nah," Dean said. "Got out of there fast as I could peel rubber. Don't like going home."
Xander's intake of breath on the other end of the line told him that the comment hadn't been missed, as he'd half-hoped that it would be. He wasn't sure he wanted to talk about it, even if he'd called Xander for that very reason. Fear never was logical.
"I'd sympathize, but my home is a big fucking hole in the ground," Xander said. "If it still was there, though, I wouldn't want to go back either. You had to go back to Lawrence?"
See, that's why talking to Xander was so easy. He knew fucking everything. Dean knew for a fact that he'd never told the other man where he was from, and had only barely alluded to the events that had driven them out of their home and into this nomadic hunting life. And yet he had absolutely no doubt that Xander knew the whole thing, down to the last details that weren't in the official reports. The man's contact network must've made the CIA weep with envy.
"Yeah," Dean said. He reached his car and leaned against the driver's side door, hands in his pockets and phone caught between ear and shoulder. "There was one hell of a poltergeist there. Almost killed the new family that just moved in. Not good fun, let me tell you."
"I fucking hate poltergeists," Xander said. "But if you think the ones here are nasty, try going to Africa sometime. They put these American weaklings to shame."
"Thanks for your sympathy," Dean said dryly, and felt more than heard the grin in Xander's reply.
"Anytime, buddy, anytime. So, poltergeist. I take it you cleaned house?"
"Of course," Dean said. Like he'd have left town without the job completed. Please. "Or, actually, we didn't. Someone else did."
"Who?" Xander said, curious, and Dean took a deep breath before answering.
There was a long pause. "You're going to have to run that one by me again," Xander said.
So Dean explained the whole thing, Mary's ghost coming back and saving Sam from the poltergeist. Xander was quiet throughout, but Dean could feel him listening, feel him cataloguing details and sorting things through as he spoke.
"That's a hell of a dust-up, hotshot," Xander said finally, when he'd finished. "You're lucky you made it out of there alive."
"No, Sam's lucky he made it out of there alive. The thing didn't really care about me; it just wanted him."
"You know why?" Xander asked.
"Apparently, he's psychic," Dean said. "Guess he forgot to mention that his nightmares tend to come true all those times he couldn't sleep. Nice to know that I'm trusted."
"He told you this time, didn't he?" Xander said reasonably.
"Only because I wouldn't set one foot towards Lawrence unless he gave me a hell of a reason to go there," Dean said. "Before that he didn't even mention it at all. Tried to explain it away by telling me to just trust him. Dick."
"Ooo, ouch," Xander said sympathetically. "So what are you going to do about it?"
"Do?" Dean asked. "I'm not going to do anything about it. I'll get over it pretty soon and things'll go back to normal."
"That never works, you know," Xander pointed out.
"Better than having a long argument where it somehow ends up all my fault," Dean replied.
"One of those, huh?" Xander asked rhetorically. "I hate that."
"Buffy," Dean said, who by this point, could probably name the shoe sizes of all Xander's friends, he'd heard enough about them, much less their endearing and less-than-endearing personality traits. Not that he ever minded. Xander's life, current and past, was fascinating, and his friends- family was probably a more accurate word- were no less interesting. Besides, Xander listened to him about Dad and Sam all the time, so fair was fair any way you looked at it.
"And Willow," Xander said. "I never could win an argument with either of them. Logic never seemed to come into it."
"Tell me about it," Dean said with feeling.
"Well, okay, since you asked. There was this one time-"
"Dick," Dean said, but he was laughing, and he could tell that Xander was too.
"You know you like it," Xander said, his voice all low and insinuating, and Dean grinned into the mouthpiece.
"Oh yeah," he said. "Which reminds me. When are you gonna be stateside again? You're still across the pond, right?"
"Um, yeah, about that," Xander said. And then didn't continue.
Dean's ears perked up. Xander, uncomfortable about something? This had to be good.
"Well, you remember me talking about Wesley?"
"The friend who helped you through shit, yeah, I remember. What about him?"
"Well, he's kind of living with me now."
Dean paused. Processed. Discovered that it just didn't compute.
"Wasn't he dead?" Dean asked cautiously. "For-real dead, not like vamp dead? Or am I missing something?"
"Oh, he was," Xander said. "He's back now."
"Huh." Dean was surprised, but honestly not that surprised. Weird shit happened to Xander and his friends, much weirder than Dean ever had to deal with, so it honestly wasn't as big of a deal to hear that Xan's ex-whatever had come back from the dead as it probably should have been. Apparently, immunity to weirdness was catching.
"That's one response," Xander said, sounding amused. "The rest of us were a bit more vocal, of course."
"Oh, of course," Dean said agreeably. "Was there screaming?"
"He landed buck-naked into the middle of a full Council meeting," Xander said dryly. "What do you think?"
"Gotcha," Dean said. "Lots of screaming, then."
"Definitely," Xander said. "And the old watchers scream like little girls, too."
"I would have paid good money to see that," Dean said. "Not that I have good money, but still."
"Then you will be happy to know that there is a video recording of the entire thing," Xander said smugly. "Dawn just happened to be taping the meeting to send to the posted Watchers."
Dean laughed. "You're gonna send it to me, right?" Silence from the other end of the line. "You wouldn't be so cruel, would you?"
"Nah," Xander said. "But it was fun making you sweat."
"You bastard," Dean said amiably. "So when should I expect it in the mail?"
"Your birthday's tomorrow, isn't it?" Xander asked. "I can get Willow to teleport it to you as a present, if you like."
Dean blinked, and swallowed hard. "Sounds good," he said, and even he knew that his voice didn't sound normal.
Xander, of course, who could always read him like a fucking book, immediately said, "Hey, what's wrong?"
"Just- my birthday," he said. "I didn't even know you knew, much less remembered. I should have figured- you know everything."
"Well yeah, but that's not the point," Xander said. "The point is, why shouldn't I have remembered? It's your birthday, man. I wouldn't forget something like that."
"Dad does," Dean said. "Has for years. And I doubt Sam even remembers when it is."
"Well, I've long held the opinion that all Winchesters are idiots. You excepted, of course."
"Thanks," Dean said. "But they're not really idiots. Sam's the smartest person I know, really. Stuff like my birthday just doesn't matter so much."
"Like I said," Xander replied. "Idiots."
Dean smiled involuntarily. "Thanks, man. Nice that you think so."
"I know so," Xander said. "I remember what you told me happened the last time I was in town. I mean, I thought you were a freak, but your brother takes the cake."
"Gee, thanks," Dean said dryly, but cracked a grin when he heard Xander laugh. "And that is officially enough about me. What's up with this guy Wes? He alright after his trip to the land of the dead or whatever?"
"He's doing just fine," Xander purred, and Dean choked and then started laughing at the fucking blatant sexual satisfaction in Xander's voice.
"You sound like a fucking porn star, man!" he said through his laughter. "Well, we know how much you're getting laid."
"A lot, yeah," Xander said, his voice back to normal. "Seriously, though, it's nice to have him back."
"I'm sure," Dean teased. "But I do get it. If I lost Sam and then got him back… Yeah. Nothing could compare to that, ever."
"Well, I don't love Wes as much as you love Sam," Xander said. "Though I suspect Romeo didn't love Juliet as much as you love your brother."
"Dude, they knew each other for like two days," Dean said. "Crappy example."
"You read Shakespeare?" Xan asked. "Color me surprised."
"I went to high school too, you know," Dean said. "Everyone had to read that thing in ninth grade."
"Ah, I well remember," Xander said. "And what torture it was."
"Tell me about it," Dean said. "Love? Those kids wouldn't know love if it bit 'em on the ass. And the whole suicide thing? They just died because they were stupid. Dumbest thing I ever read."
"Dean Winchester, literary critic," Xander said. "Who'da thunk it?"
"Shuddup," Dean muttered, and Xander laughed at him. But that was okay, because he was used to Xander laughing at him.
"None of which actually reached my point, which was that you have the Greatest Love of All Time for Sam and that's actually pretty cool. Most of us don't ever get that close."
Dean hesitated, but what the hell, it was Xander. Painful personal questions were their standard operating procedure. "Have you?" he asked finally. "Have you ever felt that much?"
Xander was quiet for a little while. "I didn't think I had," Xander said. "And then Wes came back and… I don't know."
Dean smiled into the empty night air. "I'm happy for you," he said. "I hope you get a chance to find out."
"Me too," Xander said, unusually serious.
They sat in silence for a minute, neither of them really sure what to say. But then Dean heard, muffled in the background on Xander's end of the line, a door shut and the sound of a male voice. Dean smiled slightly. "Sounds like your guy's home," he said. "Better let you go."
"Don't have to," Xander objected. "He's not gonna flip if you still need to talk."
Dean shook his head, even though Xander couldn't see it. "Nah," he said. "I'll be alright. I should head back in before Sam comes out to look for me, anyway."
"Would he really?" Xander asked with interest.
"Nah, prob'ly not," Dean said. "But it's nice to think about, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I know the feeling," Xander said. "Hang in there, though. It'll either get better or you'll kill each other, and either way you can call me whenever."
"I know it," Dean said. "Go have fun and get laid."
"Do my best," Xander said, and Dean was laughing over the predatory grin he could hear in Xander's voice when they hung up the phone.
Sam was in bed when he got back, wearing nothing but his jeans and playing with his handheld. Dean carefully averted his eyes and tossed his jacket onto back of the chair before kicking off his boots and crawling into bed fully clothed.
"Have a nice talk?" Sam said neutrally, not looking up from his handheld. Dean gritted his teeth and thought about pretending to be asleep already.
"Yeah," he said instead. He rolled over, figuring that that was the end of the conversation.
But Sam persisted. "Anything interesting?"
Dean resisted the urge to bang his head against the headboard. "His ex came back from the dead," he said. "They're shacking up and he's bragging about getting laid a lot. That's pretty much it."
Sam, predictably, ignored the really weird stuff in that sentence and went for the most mundane. Although it was probably a sad sign about Dean's life when sex was the most mundane.
"I thought you two were-" Sam said, and then stopped, apparently running out of courage before he could actually say it. Dean was tempted to say, "We were what, Sam?" just to watch him squirm some more, but decided to be merciful.
"It wasn't like that," he said. "We both knew he was gonna find someone one day. We're just friends, Sam. Yeah, we had sex sometimes, but him falling for someone isn't gonna ruin our friendship."
"You said if he found someone," Sam said hesitantly. "What about you? Don't you think you'll find someone someday?"
Dean was actually pretty surprised. This was an honest conversation, with Sam, about Dean's love life. And there was no shouting. This was new and different.
Which didn't meant that he liked the direction the conversation was going.
"Not really, no," Dean said. "Hell, Sam, you know what our life is like. I'm not exactly staying in one place long enough to find someone, you know?"
"You've never fallen for anyone?" Sam persisted. "Not even once? Never thought you could make it work?"
Yeah, he really didn't like where this conversation was going.
But Sam was looking so eager, and Dean knew that he wasn't going to let go of the question until Dean answered it. So, despite his misgivings, he answered.
"There was one person," he said. "But no, I never thought it could work." Which was the most he was willing to say about it, considering that he was talking to the person in question, and that person was totally fucking clueless.
"Who?" Sam asked eagerly. "Do I know her? Or him?" he added.
Oh, no. They were not playing the guessing game. Those playing the guessing game eventually guessed the truth. "Sorry, Sammy, but I'm not playing twenty questions. That's all you get."
"What?" Sam cried. "Come on, you can't leave it like that."
"Sure I can," Dean said. "It's nothing, anyway."
"Nothing?" Sam said, his eyebrows arched. "My big brother tells me that he's actually fallen for someone in his tangle-free life, and I'm supposed to believe it's nothing? No way, man. Not even close."
"It's personal, Sam," Dean said, an edge in his voice. "Now if you don't mind, I'm going to sleep." He rolled over and presented his back to Sam to make his point.
Sam audibly hesitated, then finally said, very quietly, "Are you at least going to take a shower?"
"Trying to tell me I stink, Sammy?" Dean said.
Another wounded pause. "I just thought you might want to take a hot shower before you crash, so you wouldn't be stiff tomorrow," he said. "You usually get sore the day after a hunt if you don't."
Dean sighed and rolled to his feet. "Sorry, Sammy," he said. Sam really was trying to be peaceable, which was rare enough that Dean should be appreciating the cessation of their frequent cold war, instead of being his usual surly self. It wasn't Sam's fault that Dean felt the way he did, and he shouldn't take it out on his brother.
Moving stiffly- Sam had definitely been right about that- Dean made his way into the bathroom. And then stopped dead in the doorway.
Sitting on the bathroom counter was something that looked suspiciously like a present. It was box-shaped, and had actual wrapping paper on it, and even had a pretty bow with an explosion of curly ribbon.
He stepped cautiously towards it, half-afraid that it might explode, and reached out to poke it with one finger. No explosion. No possession. Logic dictated that this was, in fact, a present.
"Aren't you going to unwrap it?" Sam asked. Dean turned around and stared at his brother, which was something that he usually didn't allow himself to do when Sam was missing pieces of clothing, but these seemed to be extreme circumstances.
"What is it?"
"It's your birthday present," Sam said slowly, like he was talking to an idiot. Dean tried not to notice the way Sam had draped himself against the doorframe, hands in his pockets and dragging his jeans down till his hipbones showed in sharp relief against his stomach muscles. Obviously, he failed at the whole not-noticing thing.
"I didn't think you'd remember," Dean said. His tongue felt thick in his mouth, and he couldn't seem to look away from his brother's dark eyes.
"Dude, it's your birthday. Of course I remembered."
"You didn't… Nevermind. I'll just open it now, right?"
"No, what is it? You were gonna say that I didn't remember before, right?"
"Something like that," Dean said, looking away.
"I didn't think you'd want to hear from me," Sam said. "Dad told me to stay gone, and you didn't write, so." He shrugged, almost a little too casually. "I wasn't going to just forget your birthday, though."
"Oh." He smiled, with difficulty. "I didn't know that."
"It's alright," Sam said. "Open your present, yeah?"
Dean nodded and turned away, thankfully breaking his direct line of sight to Sam's absolutely naked chest, and started to unwrap the present.
In the past he'd been the type to just rip the paper off the presents, getting to the good stuff as fast as possible, while Sam would slowly undo the tape and unfold the paper, savoring it while he had the chance. Dean remembered that it used to drive him nuts, and hell, he hadn't gotten a present from his brother in forever, so he might as well have some fun with it.
He managed to make undoing the tape last a good forty seconds, thanks to a couple of artistically-faked fumblings, and by the time he started working on the last piece, he felt a heavy hand cuff him on the back of his head. "Cut it out," Sam rumbled in his ear. "Just open the damn thing, would you?"
"Shoe's on the other foot now, isn't it?" Dean teased, but he ripped the paper free, more to get Sam to stop being so close than because he was actually giving in.
Sam didn't move back, though, and so he could probably feel Dean's muscles lock up in surprise when the wrapping paper finally fell away from the sizeable box underneath.
It was a beautiful wooden box, lacquered in black with several runes engraved on the top and sides. Dean reminded himself to translate them sometime when Sam wasn't breathing down his neck, and opened the box.
Inside was a simple straight dagger, with a balanced hilt wrapped in black leather for a better grip and a slender eight-inch blade made of tempered blue steel. When Dean picked it up and very carefully touched his thumb to the edge of the blade, his skin parted underneath the touch of the razor-sharp blade. It was obviously expensive, of much higher quality than anything he'd ever bought for himself, and despite it's unadorned appearance, was a thing of beauty.
"Sam," he breathed, running one fingertip over the length of the blade. "Christ, it's gorgeous."
Sam made a pleased noise behind him. "Really?" he asked, sounding way too much like a kid for Dean's piece of mind. It was bad enough getting turned on by all that warm bare skin inches away from him without being forcibly reminded that his brother was four years younger than him and Dean had practically raised him from the time he was ten.
"Yeah," Dean said. "I've never seen anything like this."
"Good," Sam said, relief evident in his voice. "'Cause I know you're not really into knife-fighting and you like guns better, but sometimes guns don't work and I made sure to get one balanced for throwing 'cause you used to be pretty good at it…" Sam trailed off, apparently realizing he was babbling. "Anyway. I'm glad you liked it."
"I love it," Dean said, and carefully placed it back in the box. "Next time we stop to spar I'll set up a target and start practicing." He turned around, forcing Sam to back up a couple steps or actually kiss him, he was standing so close. Sam backed up, and Dean pretended he wasn't disappointed. "Actually, you're right about knives. Remind me to pick up some regular throwing knives next time we see Caleb, okay? I don't want to get this baby damaged before it has to be." He touched the box, just a quick caress of his fingertips, but he knew Sam saw it and understood what it meant, because Sam started grinning at him like crazy.
Dean smiled back- couldn't help it, not when Sam's smile lit up his whole face like that, and Dean looked away fast because he was in serious danger of being caught staring, which wouldn't do, not now. Not when Sam had only backed up two small steps, and he was still standing pretty damn close, and Dean staring at him like this could give away something that he wasn't ever going to be ready to reveal.
Sam's smile faded a little, and his expression got oddly intense. Dean was trapped by his narrow-eyed stare, unable to move, his breath coming in pants. For one long, unbelievably wonderful moment, Dean thought that Sam was going to kiss him.
And then common sense reared its ugly head, and Dean realized that he was acting like an idiot. Sam probably just wanted to know what the hell was going on, and why Dean was staring at him like that- like he was starving for a taste. Embarrassed, Dean dropped his gaze.
"I'm gonna take my shower then head to be. We've got a long drive ahead of us tomorrow."
He wasn't looking, so he didn't see the disappointment that flashed across Sam's face. "Yeah, okay," Sam said, stepping back. Dean heard it, though, but immediately dismissed it as more wishful thinking. One present, one happy moment with Sam too close to him, and he was letting his imagination run wild on him.
Sam left the bathroom, and Dean pretended that he wasn't watching the curve of his back where it disappeared into his jeans as he went. Once the door was shut, he turned the shower on extra-hot and climbed in, letting the water pummel away his aches and stiffness.
He had to be more careful. He couldn't let himself make a slip like that around Sam again- next time might lead to Sam figuring him out. And Sam knowing his secret, knowing his most hidden desires- well, the thought made him sick inside. Sam should never be exposed to that.
But it wasn't just that. Maybe it was selfish of Dean to care about this more, but he didn't want Sam to find out because Sam would be disgusted, would push him away, and he would lose his brother forever.
So he couldn't make a mistake again. He had to be so fucking careful, and that meant making sure that Sam didn't get that close again. Dean couldn't think when Sam was standing that close, especially when he was only half-dressed.
But he didn't want to discourage Sam from his recent good mood, especially not when it resulted in Sam being less of a bitch to Dean. So there was a line that he had to walk, and he wasn't sure that he could do it.
Well, he had to try. If he failed- well, he didn't want to think about that now. If he failed then things would crash and burn, but he refused to believe that that would happen. He'd figure out how to get along with Sam while still keeping the distance that would keep his secret. He'd do it. He would. The consequences otherwise were unthinkable.
Dean would do anything to keep his brother by his side. Sam mattered too much to him to do anything else.