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Sam wakes.

He has the impression that someone else was in the room just a moment ago, that they walked out in the very second Sam opened his eyes. Someone just left.

The room is empty now. He's on a bed, and the bed is warm, except at the edges where his body isn't and the sheets are so very cold. A block of dim, gray light from the open door sets the time at nothing at all - could be dusk, could be dawn, could be a rainy afternoon. On the wall, there's a poster of Ursula Andress in a white bikini. The picture's in grainy black and off-white, and its corners are coyly curled up with age. Sam stares at it, then remembers. This is Bobby's panic room.

Panic is built in to the room. Sam's heart beats faster as the need to figure out what he's doing here takes on sudden urgency. Has he been drinking demon blood? Can he taste it, is it sticky and dark in his mouth? Is his body temperature higher than it should be? Does he feel human?

He reaches back, for the first memory he can catch.

The sky is screaming overhead, stormclouds and sun. Sam's bones are shrink-wrapped in cold, bladed light. The light is prickling all over his skin, in his eyes and his ears and his nose, but through it he can still see Dean. Dean's sagging on his knees by the Impala, and he's battered half to death. His face is lumpy with swelling, colorful bruises. There's fresh red blood on his shirt, and on the hood of the Impala too.

It's the last time Sam's ever going to see Dean. It ends here. They end here.

Maybe nobody had left the room. Maybe Sam had only just arrived.

"It's okay, Dean. It's gonna be okay. I've got him."

The ground opens up in front of Sam, dropping straight through Hell and deeper yet, and everything's going to be okay. Adam and his archangel come at Sam, lit up blue with righteous anger, and he's shouting about destiny and he’s getting in the way of Sam's goodbye to his brother.

And they fall. And there's nothing afterwards.

Somewhere else in the house, a door closes. Sam's face jerks to the direction of the noise.

Gradually, his disorientation recedes. He's increasingly sure that it was just him in this room when he woke, and that he's been here for a while. He's in Bobby's house, so he's probably safe. There's someone else here, so that's probably Dean.

He's safe, and he's going to see Dean. He starts smiling and can't stop. He tries to be careful in easing the drip-needle out of the thick white vein in his arm but he's impatient and his fingers won't move quickly enough. The needle stings him as he draws it out.

He leaves the panic room, passes through to the stairs, and Castiel is waiting for him at the top, framed in a watery green square of light.

Sam smiles even more widely. "Cas! You're alive!"

"Yes," says Castiel. He frowns, at a loss, before adding, "As are you."

His hands flex, he makes a move towards Sam. Curious and confused, Sam falters at the bottom step. Then Castiel turns away and moves out of sight, and Sam follows him up into the kitchen.

It feels new to Sam, though nothing in Bobby's house is. There are particles of dust floating through the air that are older than Sam, cars rusting in the junkyard outside that Sam remembers passing running laps around when he and Dean were kids.

Castiel is standing by the sink. He’s wearing his clean but slightly disreputable trenchcoat, looking like he's just stepped in for a moment and doesn't intend to stay, perpetually passing through. He was wearing that trenchcoat when he burst into blood, Sam remembers.

"Where's Dean?" Sam says.

"Elsewhere," says Castiel. "And Bobby's not here currently, he's hunting a rugaru in Mississippi, but he says you can stay as long as you need to. He’s left a car for you, some supplies too."

Sam nods. "And where's Dean?"

"Elsewhere," says Castiel again. He abandons his apparent scrutiny of Bobby's vintage microwave, a block of chipped cream plastic, and turns to Sam. His expression is intent.

"This is very important so please listen. You've been living without your soul for the last three years, Sam. I was able to retrieve it for you, but it's very damaged. It's a miracle you've survived, in fact. It's important you don't try to remember anything. It could bring everything back, which could result in your death, or worse."

"What's worse than death?" Sam blurts out.

Castiel gives him a look. "Don't try to remember."

"I've been asleep for three years?" Sam says. He handles the words with care because they might explode in his hands and shake him apart.

"You've been asleep two days," Castiel corrects him.

Sam crosses to the window, and, reflected in the pane's freckled skin of dust and dirt, he sees his future-ghost looking back at him.

"But soulless for three years," Castiel says.

There aren’t any new lines on Sam’s face. There’s no gray in his hair. It’s only three years, after all. If he’s aged, it’s in more subtle ways. His eyes are no longer so wide and there’s a less forgiving set to his mouth.

"And you gave me my soul back?" says Sam.

"You needed it."

The house ticks on silently around them. Castiel waits without seeming impatient. Sam’s gaze slips beyond his own reflection to the dirty Fall evening laying down over the junkyard. He can’t see the Impala out there.

"Cas. C’mon, tell me. Where’s Dean? Is he with Lisa?"

After a moment’s silence, in which Sam fails to amend his mistake, Castiel sighs and leaves in a fleeting whisper of wings.

Sam considers the empty house. He looks from the soggy remains of food in the sink’s plughole to the black mold gathering the corner of the window to the cracked, peeling labels on Bobby’s bank of phones, and he finds no help, no sense of direction.

But on the tabletop, there’s a single glass with a last mouthful of whiskey in the bottom. Sam cocks his head and thinks about it. Picking the glass up and holding it into the dregs of light, Sam sees the curved smear of someone’s lower lip on the rim.

He touches the mark and his fingertip comes away wet.

:::

When he calls Dean's cellphone, Sam gets voicemail. He leaves a message, saying, "Hey, it's me-" Stops himself before he can add something painful and stupid like your brother. "I'm at Bobby's. Cas told me what happened. Can you- can you call me back?"

He hangs up and waits.

He runs through busy and ultimately unimportant activity, like a television left playing with nobody there to watch it.

He showers and shaves. His duffel bag is waiting for him by the door, and he finds fresh clothes in it. He flips through his wallet, through a series of business cards he knows he's never seen before. There are FBI cards with aliases he's never used, and addresses for storage units he's never been to. He keeps the cards in the order he found them and tucks them back into place with the diligent respect reserved for someone else's property.

Hunger surprises him so he helps himself to a plate of greasy leftover beef from the fridge. He checks out the car Bobby's left him. It's a dark red Ford, like cheap cherry soda, old but in good condition. Its tank is full and the engine starts without protest.

He calls Bobby, gets voicemail, and after that, Sam calls Dean again. He doesn't leave a message this time, but instead calls him once more straight after, to have his recorded voice play through as company in the prickling silence of Bobby's empty house.

"This is Dean. I can't get to the phone right now, but if you leave your name and number, I'll call you back."

Except he doesn't.

:::

The morning sky is smooth and bleached white by sunshine when Sam sets out for Cicero, Indiana. While he’s packing the trunk with a few guns and knives scavenged from Bobby’s stock, Sam’s planning on dropping down into Tennessee. He’s found a couple of reports on the internet that are worth checking out: three people waking up at their own funerals in Hendersonville, the body of a recently missing child found wrapped in the roots of a century old tree. He’s going to Tennessee.

Sam scuffs through brittle red-black leaves and spreads the map out on the hood, sternly flattening in down again when a breeze ruffles beneath it. He plans a route that skims the edge of Kansas while taking best advantage of highways and backroads. He plans it out, gets in the car and drives.

To Cicero, Indiana.

Sam’s known exactly where Lisa lives since he realized the position she occupied in Dean’s subconscious. For years, Lisa could have been either one of Dean’s best-kept secrets or simply not important enough to warrant a mention; Sam doesn’t know which it is. It was only after Dean sold his soul that she appeared on the horizon, like a sighting of dry land. And she grew and grew in Dean’s wanting, until Sam knew for sure that, without other direction to guide him, Dean would be heading for her.

Parked on the street outside the house, Sam looks for signs that this is where Dean lives. But the only clue he’d expect, the Impala, is nowhere in sight.

It’s probably in the garage, Sam decides. Can't keep a car like that out in plain view, any more than Dean could wander around with his knives and guns for anyone to see.

He climbs out of the car and walks to the front door. He chews his lip, heart thrumming in his chest as impatient as a child, and tries to catch his breath. The neighborhood’s nice, he notices while he waits. Summer barbecue, beer-and-football at the weekend territory, no doubt. The idea of Dean trying to fit in with this cookie cutter normality is deeply entertaining.

The door opens and Sam turns to meet Dean’s fluttering hesitation, to catch it before Dean is grinning and bright-eyed and dragging him into a hug.

"Can I help you?" says the woman. She’s not unfriendly, not at all, but she’s not Dean. She's not even Lisa.

Sam’s brain takes a second to reboot. "Uh, I was looking for, uh, Lisa Braeden."
He pauses and the inflection at the end poses it as a question. He’s looking for Lisa because she is more tangible, less likely to have slipped off her own name to try on a new one.

The woman cocks her head at him, her expression softening to sympathy. "Oh no, honey, I’m sorry. She’s gone. She and her boyfriend moved to Michigan a couple of years ago."

"They moved," Sam repeats. It’s the punchline to a worn-out joke, not funny at all.

She bobs her head. Her eyes have gone a little wide with uncertainty. "That’s right. To Michigan." Because ‘Michigan’ is the detail that will make all this clear to Sam, of course.

Sam stares at her, and she stares back at him, willing him to say okay then and goodbye and to move on without making a fuss. Sam is a stranger here and he doesn’t fit. His face and his stance and his carefully practiced politeness don’t fit with the neighborhood’s nicely mown lawns.

The woman gets a faintly desperate smile on her face when Sam continues to be tall and unfamiliar on her doorstep. "I have a forwarding address?" she offers.

So Sam leaves Cicero and drives into a bluer north, into Michigan, to Battle Creek.

There are explanations for all of it. Explanations for not being there when Sam woke in the panic room, for not returning any of the escalating number of calls Sam makes. For moving house and leaving Sam no idea where he’s gone.

Sam stops at a diner because he’s hungry again – and Dean’s going to find that so fucking funny when Sam tells him, make some joke about Sam finally developing an appetite. He wolfs down gritty, overcooked burger and oversalted fries so fast he gives himself indigestion, and he’s watching the sky roll by while he tries to breathe around the food he’s shoveling in. It’ll be afternoon by the time he gets to Battle Creek. Maybe Dean will have a job to still be at, and what kind of job will that be? Sam can’t wait to find out.

Once he reaches Battle Creek, he drives more slowly to scope out street signs. He’s searched the depths of suburbia hundreds of times before looking for a victim’s house or a witness’s, distinct from all the others by nothing but a number or the color of the paintwork. It’s a disconnect to pull up outside a regular house and expect to find Dean inside.

The Impala’s still nowhere to be seen, but there’s a green kid’s bike propped up against the garage door. Sam tries to estimate the size of the kid that’d be riding a bike like that, and then how old Ben must be now. Seems about right.

He cards his fingers through his hair, checks his reflection in the mirror, and feels pretty ridiculous for doing it. He climbs out of the car and heads to the door. He rings the bell and waits.

It takes Lisa a couple of moments to answer the door and the first thing Sam notices about her is her hair. She’s had it cut. Last time he saw her, it was long and loose around her shoulders. Now it’s a bob, but the ends are feathery not blunt. It’s not a recent change. Sam is reminded that there are three years that he’s forgotten.

Lisa doesn’t smile when she sees him. Sam smiles anyway.

"Hi, Lisa, it’s been a while, right?" She’s still not smiling, which is all the encouragement Sam needs to abandon any attempt at acting like they’ve ever had anything to talk about that isn’t Dean. "Is Dean here?"

Lisa stares at him, her hand still gripping the side of the door to swing it shut as soon as she’s had enough. "No. Of course he's not," she says.

She says it like it’s a personal insult for Sam to even ask. Sam didn't mean it to be, which leaves him unsure how to navigate the conversation from there. Lisa watches him with a dangerous expression that’s just daring him to piss her off a little more with another question he doesn't realize is wildly offensive.

"Uh, you know where I might find him?" Sam tries.

"He left, Sam. With you." She raises her eyebrows pointedly. "You don’t know where he is?"

Sam shakes his head. The world is growing huge and complicated around him and he doesn’t want to risk looking away from Lisa’s face because she's where Dean is supposed to be.

Something flickers in Lisa’s eyes. Her grip on the door loosens slightly. The tip of her tongue touches the top row of her teeth as she considers him. She sighs, visibly relents. Sam has a confused idea that this is what being mothered is.

"Well, where did you last see him?" she says. Like Dean’s a misplaced set of car keys, a few cents slid down the back of the couch. Like Dean can be put down someplace and walked away from.

"I don’t remember," says Sam. It's such a stupid thing to say. What kind of idiot forgets where they left their brother? Especially a brother as big and significant as Dean, who's the recurring theme in Sam's life, who has his own musical motif and visual cues of rattling old rock and empty whisky bottles.

Losing a soul might be unlucky, but losing a brother as well is plain careless.

Lisa shrugs, her patience exhausted already. Sam's not her kid, not her problem. "I don't know what to tell you then, Sam. But he's not here, so you're gonna have to look for him someplace else."

She's polite enough to wait for Sam to back up a few steps before she closes the door on him. Sam retreats to the car.

It's not his car. It doesn't smell like the Impala. There's no quiet, black-beetle clicking in the engine warmed in the sun, the way there is with the Impala. Its rearview mirror has a different reflection of the world than the one he'd find in the Impala's. His hands must bend into new shapes to grip the steering wheel, thumbs crooked just slightly out.

There has been a massive misunderstanding. Sam is sure of it.

Something raps against the window. It's Ben standing there, peering in at Sam.

Sam lifts his hand from the gun at his side and winds the window down, glass pane creaking against rubber like an old man's grumbling.

"Is Dean okay?" says Ben.

"Yeah," Sam says, on instinct, because Dean has to be. Sam glances at Lisa's house over Ben's shoulder and he frowns. "Uh, does your mom know you're talking to me?"

Ben shakes his head. He's hunched up against the car but Sam's got no intention of letting him in. Ben came out here without Lisa's knowledge because he'd never get her approval, Ben and Sam both know it.

"You know where he is?" says Ben. "He stopped answering his phone months ago. He wouldn't even pick up when Mom called."

Sam's surprised by the depth of glassy hurt in Ben's voice. He doesn't understand why Ben would be calling Dean anyway, what he'd have to say to him. Someone should explain it to Ben, Sam thinks. Someone should explain to Ben that the Dean he knows is not the real one, that he does not know that man and that he shouldn't get attached.

"He's not answering my calls either," Sam says gently. "Do you know what happened?"

Again, Ben shakes his head. "You came back for him, about two years ago, and he went with you."

Sam came back. Just like he's come back now. He's haunting his own life.

"Went where?" Sam presses.

"I don't know. He wouldn't say. Then, then he came back again. In the night. He was… different."

There are all kinds of 'different'. Hurt different. Possessed different. Sold your soul different. Each of them comes with the suggestion of 'wrong'.

"And?"

Ben folds in on himself. His gaze slips away like oil. There's something he's not telling, slyly sidestepping it. "And then he left again. And he didn't come back."

Sam thinks about that little secret Ben's keeping. He's obliviously transparent the way most kids are when they've never had to lie over anything bigger than a broken window or a missed curfew. The secret's nested in something dark and uncertain, like Ben hasn't figured out what he thinks of it yet.

The afternoon is already reddening at its edges as evening closes in. An insistent breeze is moving in through the trees, setting the last leaves fluttering in alarm on the branches like the wings of trapped birds.

"You still put salt at your windows and doors every night?" Sam says.

Ben nods, and Sam mirrors it, approving. "Good, make sure you keep doing that."

As Sam winds the car window back up, Ben says, "You want me to call if I hear from Dean?"

Sam searches his face for some sign that Ben knows that's not going to happen. Someone should let the kid down easy. He's not going to hear from Dean again.

:::

The diner is lit up like a Spielberg spacecraft. Its neon lights have a glow that hazes the starry night sky far above the dark line of treetops. The road is black on the other side of the windows. Sometimes a car sweeps by, tugged along by the tide of the highway, and its white headlights turn to red tail-lights with the sound of a sigh.

On the table in front of Sam, there's a plate with half a chicken Caesar salad on it. He was in the middle of eating it when he looked up and noticed that he was the only one sitting alone in the diner. A subtle fingerwidth of distance is present between him and everyone else in their couples and groups.

The chicken is cold now, bloodless and white and even less appetizing than it was before. Sam isn't hungry anymore. Just very fed up.

He takes out his cellphone and scrolls through the names, always coming back to D.

Mouth setting tight, feeling like he's breaking some rule he can't even cite, Sam stabs his finger at the phone and listens to the dial tone. It rings once, rings twice, rings three times -

"Look, Sam, no offense, but would you take the damn hint already?" says Dean.

And Sam is so surprised that Dean's answered that he just sits there a moment, tongue dry in his mouth.

"Sam?" Dean demands.

It doesn't fully register with Sam that Dean sounds impatient and unfriendly. Sam's aware of it but it doesn't mean anything to him. "Where are you?" he says.

"Doesn't matter," says Dean, and Sam knows him so well that he knows a single shake of Dean's head goes with that tone, eyes closing just a second longer than a blink. He can see Dean doing it. "Stop looking, okay? I'm fine. I don't wanna be found."

"Dean, what's happened? What's going on?"

"Nothing's going on, Sam," he says, and Sam recognizes that too. He's been hearing it from Dean since he was a kid and Dean was still trying to build a normal life for him out of old bones and rocksalt. "Just think it's time we went our separate ways."

"But I've got my soul back," says Sam. He lays it down for Dean timidly, like an offering, appeasement for the unspecified conflict between them.

"Yeah, Cas told me he was gonna do it. Good for you. I'm glad it worked out."

Sam scrunches his eyes up tight against the indifference in Dean's voice, bright and rough as the diner lights. He pinches the bridge of his nose as he talks. "Listen, Dean… I don't remember what happened, and –"

"You're not s'posed to remember," Dean tells him sharply. "Okay? So don't try. You hear me? Stop trying to remember. Stop looking for me, and stop calling me. Start over, Sammy."

Dean hangs up, abrupt as a slap.

:::

It's tempting to sit and rust in the diner. Refuse to move. Hold his breath until Dean relents and comes for him.

It's also tempting to do exactly as Dean said: bury his old life alongside the three years slowly decomposing at the back of his mind and start over.

But three years is a long time, time enough for plenty of things to happen. At least one of those things made Dean decide to leave. Nobody will tell Sam what it was, and they don't want Sam finding out for himself. It's a new verse in an old song: Sam is so well taken care of that even the responsibility of making any decision for himself has been lifted from him.

There is part of his head that is cut off, anaesthetized. It doesn't feel like it belongs to him. Sam imagines that's where those amputated memories are, wrapped to twitching, shapeless bundles in white gauze.

Three years and a cage in Hell are in there.

Sam sits on his motel room bed and prods at the memories with the blind touch of a tongue to a tooth to see if it still aches. A television plays the trills and buzzes of a gameshow too loud in the room next door, and outside two truckers argue in the parking lot. Sam touches the sterilized place in his head to see if anything's alive back there.

The medical report says the cop turned to blood. There's a lot of prevarication and ambiguous wording because whoever wrote the report is trying really hard to find a scientific way of saying a guy turned into a big red puddle.

The Impala rumbles into view, and Sam straightens up from his own car, which is big and black and shiny but cannot be mistaken for Dean's. Dean parks the car nose to nose with Sam's, and climbs out, talking on the phone he's got wedged between his cheek and his shoulder.

"Ben...I know you're lying. Because I lie professionally, that's how. Now tell your mom that you broke the damn thing and take it like a man. Okay? Okay."

He hangs up, looks over at Sam who's been watching, with an expression somewhere between amusement and incredulity.

"Wow," says Sam.

A flicker of defensive irritability registers on Dean's face. "What?" he demands.

Sam shrugs. The folder holding the police report is still open in his hand. "You, molding the minds of tomorrow." He laughs, half-shakes his head. "Who knew?"

"Yeah, tell me about it," Dean mutters. He tugs at the collar of his ill-fitting suit, while his gaze scans the city street restlessly.

Sam studies him a moment, then he flips the folder shut and asks the obvious question. "How'd it go?"

Dean's gaze snaps to him. "With?"

"You and Lisa," Sam says. "How'd she take it when you bailed?"

"Shockingly cool, actually."

Sam claps him on the shoulder and uses the gesture to get Dean moving. "Better for everybody," he tells him.

The movie's over. Sam has no idea what it means. It tells him only what he already knew: at some point, Dean left Lisa and Ben to come away with Sam. There's more in his head but it's like bobbing for apples, dodging away the harder Sam strains for it.

Sam will have to find his answers somewhere else. There will be other clues about what Sam's wayward body was doing while Sam's soul was not there to direct it.

The first clue is the wallet full of business cards. There are names on the cards, and those names will surely appear in police reports, which might at least tell Sam where he's been and what he's been hunting. There are the storage units as well, and those units must have things in them that were of interest to the Sam who was here.

Of the three cards for storage units, two are in with the other cards while one's tucked in on its own. This last one bears the unimaginative logo of a shield, in red, and is situated in Hamilton, Ohio. Sam turns it over in his hands, but the back is blank.

Hamilton seems like a good place to start.

:::

Outside the storage unit building, on a square patch of thinning grass, is a single tree. Its branches are naked and bony, but Sam remembers it in a different time. When he looks at the tree, it's summer, not Fall. The tree is in bloom, each blossom a fat, rounded, rotten-pink babydoll head. They quiver and twitch in the warm breeze.

Sam shivers and looks away.

He doesn't have much of a plan for getting into whichever storage unit was his. He has no idea which name he used or what details he gave. In the end, it doesn't matter. Sam walks in, and the balding guy at the desk sees him and shrinks back, eyes flaring wide for just a second. He hastily gulps down his mouthful of coffee and sets his mug down, china clunking hard against the desk's surface.

"Well, hi," he says. "This is a surprise. Haven't seen you in a while." His smile is hearty but all the while he's looking at Sam he's wringing his hands, over and over.

Whatever bad impression Sam has inherited from his other self, he goes with it. "I've been busy," he says curtly. "Let me into my unit."

"Sure, sure, just let me get the key." The guy doesn't so much as pause. He wants Sam out.

Taking a ring of keys from his waist, the guy unlocks a metal cabinet on the wall, rattles through it, before handing a single small key to Sam. Sam takes it, tries to remember if the shape of it feels like it's been in his hand before. It's nothing but dead metal to him.

He starts towards the door, then looks back. "Remind me, what number?"

For just a second, the guy hesitates. His desire to have Sam gone wars with his instinct that something is not quite right. Self-preservation wins. "Lucky 21," he says, and Sam's sure he can hear him giving a sigh of relief as Sam leaves.

The units are little more than lockboxes. They sit in row upon row like the chilled shelves of a morgue. Sam walks along slowly until he gets to 21. He stands in the spot, looks around – single bulb overhead shedding a light so raw it skins you, deeper shadow of a spiderweb in the top left corner of the room – and tries to recall being here before.

He fits the key into the lock, twists, and pulls out the drawer. It's not full, not three years' worth. The largest items are a blunt knife with a rusted blade and a bottle of oil that's overpoweringly scented of myrrh. But there's also a small silver coin, embossed with the crude iconography of a faceless saint. In a scrap of black silk are a few bone shards, small enough to be a cat's, and beside that, a vial of dark red liquid that slip-slides sluggishly along the glass when Sam tips it on its side.

More usefully, there's a fat roll of bills.

Tucked against the side of the box are a few books and papers. As he flips through a tattered copy of Dante's Inferno, Sam finds a slim pamphlet on the subject of falconry. It's outdated, probably from the sixties or seventies; if the yellowing paper hadn't told him so the style of the grainy photos would.

Sam stares at it. He frowns and slowly turns the pages. The pamphlet is cracked open on the section regarding training. Sam reads through a few paragraphs but gives up before he can figure out why he might be holding onto this. Maybe a hunt involving birds of prey? Sam's been on weirder hunts in his life.

He examines the Dante again as he replaces it in the box. One corner of the cover is blackened, as if burned at some point, but the only other damage is the usual degradation of age. Sam pulls a face and chucks the book back in; Dante's never been a favorite of his. Perhaps the other Sam had different taste in reading material.

Sam pockets the roll of bills. Everything else gets returned to the box. None of it means anything to Sam. It would have been too easy, he supposes, to have found a journal, full of names and places and dates.

His other self has left no map for Sam to follow.

:::

Most of the money Sam found in the lockbox goes toward a brand new laptop. He doesn't know where the other one was lost. If his other self managed to lose Dean, Sam shouldn't be surprised he couldn't hold on to a laptop.

One by one, Sam searches the internet for the names on the business cards he found in his wallet. He lays them out like a fortune teller's deck and tries to read the past from them.

There is a name that connects to a spate of child disappearances, and the subsequent discovery of two bloodied survivors and a heap of tiny corpses. Another name has a partner mentioned, FBI Agent Kirke, and though that's the only detail it gives him, it makes Sam smile, makes him favor the name on that card a little more than the all brotherless names. Other names give him deaths and abductions and fits of temporary (murderous) insanity. He draws a timeline for himself by fitting the dates to the names to the places, and he watches his past self hurtle across the states and back again like a wasp in a jar.

Then Sam discovers US Marshal Rand.

Too much staring at the screen in a dimly lit room has left his eyes swollen and hot in his head. The text is wetly blurred by his sight. But he doesn't need text, because this report is illustrated. Six glorious Technicolor photos of the crime scene.

Sam's looking at a room. There's so much blood splatter the walls appear to be one vast field of stars. Long-tailed comets are sprayed across the expanse, dribbling red to the sodden carpet. Patches of the white wall are visible like bare bone beneath the blood. But there's no corpse that Sam can see, no human remains except the blood from a body wrung-dry.

The other photos are much the same, until the fifth. The angle of the picture shows the room's doorway, a huddle of cops and CSI techs - and Sam and Dean. Sam and Dean are there, right there in the picture. They're both wearing suits, and Dean's is buckled into wrinkles at the knees where he's dropped to a crouch by the edge of the pool of blood. Dean's face is half-turned away, pinched and pale, and Sam wonders if there's something else he's not seeing in the picture.

Standing just behind Dean is Sam himself. He's holding a notepad in his hand but his gaze is raised to the photographer's: brow tight, lips tighter. He looks displeased to be included in the photo.

You can't see, in the picture, that Sam doesn't have a soul. Not really. There's no appearance of spirit-photography, no hint of transparency. It's only because Sam knows what's not there that he can see it. Sam is a tall, dark post in the room. He is solid and inanimate. The chambers of his heart are stone-dry.

It seems to Sam that a lot of people died while he was hunting soulless. People were shot in the knees or beaten. More than once, a single person was attacked in a remote location, in which they had no business being, and after that, the deaths stopped. To Sam's mind, facts like that make that person either the culprit, or bait.

The most recent report he can find is from only a month and a half ago, in Arkansas. The killings read like the work of a handful of different bad things Sam's hunted in the past, there's no obvious suggestion of one in particular.

The chief investigating officer's name is on the report and it's not much work to get a phone number for him. Sam starts to type his number into his phone, then he catches sight of the time and he realizes just how late it is, just how long he's spent looking.

Sam rocks back on the bed. His shoulders ache suddenly at the change in a position he's not sure how long he's been holding. He wipes his hand over his prickling, dry eyes. But it's okay, because he can rest at last. He won't wake in the morning, staring at the ceiling, frightened by the wide-open day. He'll start the drive to Arkansas tomorrow. He might even be able to find which motel he stayed at with Dean there, maybe even the precise room where they lived and slept and talked.

Dean won’t be there now, of course. Dean was there, past tense. Sam wonders how long he'll be able to stay on this pilgrimage to places his brother once could be found. A little longer yet, he thinks. Dean is still out there somewhere, and there's a reason for that distance.

People don't just disappear. Other people just stop looking for them.

:::

One hundred and fifty miles out from Plainview. Arkansas, the needle in the gauge of Bobby's creaking old Ford gives an arthritic click and lurches from half-full to nearing empty.

Sam pulls into a truckstop town, climbs out of the car and stands under the stripped sky, considering his options. There are a few bills left in his wallet, but he'd like a place to stay tonight, and maybe something to eat as well, if he's going to be spoiled about it.

There's a gas station, and right next to that, there's a bar. Pickings are going to be slim in a place like this, more wind and dust than people, but Sam should be able to hustle a tank's worth of gas at least.

He scuffs through the dirt, looking over the couple of trucks in the lot as he passes. The door to the bar is set back under the shade of a wooden cover and Sam's grateful for it as soon as he steps into the blackness, the growing sweat on the back of his neck and between his shoulder-blades cooling almost instantly.

The bar's quiet, though Sam guesses not particularly so by its own measure and for this late in the afternoon. Just a little louder than the dull whine of the song on the radio is the cascading tap of a pool shot. Sam looks to the source of the sound, where three guys are gathered around a pool table. They lift their heads, prop themselves up on their pool sticks, and look right back at him.

It's a little too good an opening, Sam figures. So he tips his head to them and carries on to the bar. He takes a stool, orders a beer from the work-worn bartender, and doesn't need to look back at the guys to know they're still watching him.

Seems like a game of pool is looking less likely than getting jumped by three unfriendly assholes. With any luck they'll be assholes with money in their wallets for Sam to take after he's beat the shit out of them.

They saunter towards him, spread out in a loose pack of three, and Sam continues drinking and lets them come. Their approach is reflected by the bartender's gradual slowing as she watches. Her gaze flickers nervously to Sam, and Sam smiles back at her.

"Of all the bars in all the world, you walk into this one. How about that?"

Sam turns on his stool to look at the guy who's addressing him. He looks the guy over and upgrades him from asshole to asshole with combat training. The guy's in a flannel shirt and jeans, and there's a hitch in the way he leans his body against the bar due, Sam guesses, to the knife or the gun shoved down his waistband.

"How about that?" Sam echoes amiably.

"You wanna talk a walk outside with us, Winchester?" one of the other guys says.

The world turns a degree and Sam adjusts. He sets his glass down on the bar. "You know me?" he says.

He's met with laughter, a look exchanged between the three of them. They know him.

The bartender catches his eye and she glances towards the phone hung up on the wall, a question in the tiniest lift of her heavily plucked eyebrow. Sam gives a single shake of his head. It's a nice offer but police involvement is not going to help.

He unfolds himself from the stool and his shadow travels up the length of the floor like an oil spill. The guys tense a little, just at that, and Sam wonders if the version of him that was running around for three years would pull a move on them right now, if that's what they're expecting.

Instead, he strolls outside, screwing his eyes up as his vision burns out briefly in the sunshine. He stands in the center of the parking lot and works out everything he can do that'll compensate for what he can't: change the odds into anything better than three against one.

They make a loose circle around him, and Sam doesn't bother turning to face the one who's moving behind him. There's no way he can turn that won't put one of them at his back.

"Now, tell me this, Winchester," says the guy who spoke to him first. "What are you doing down here, when I hear your brother's up in New York?"

Sam's eyes widen but he catches himself before words can betray him. Dean's in New York. For the first time since he woke, Sam knows where Dean is now, not where he used to be. His heart beats faster because it's very important that Sam gets to New York before Dean can disappear from view again.

"Don’t tell me he's slipped his leash," the guy behind him says.

"You need to keep a tighter hold on your animal," says the third guy. "Someone could get hurt."

What's Dean done? What's been done to Dean? The language doesn't belong when the subject is Dean. Dean is annoying, frustrating, drives you crazy, but he's not an animal. Sam's the one everyone's got their doubts about.

There's movement behind Sam, the slightest sound, and the guy who's facing Sam, the leader, telegraphs it by the flick of his eyes.

"So you know what that makes you, Winchester?" he says. "Bait. You understand 'bait', don't you?" His grin is sudden and thunderous. "Sure you do, s'what you used poor Jimmy Kendrick as. You remember poor Jimmy Kendrick, remember his ripped out lungs?"

"Not a thing you'd forget," says the guy at Sam's side.

Sam holds up his hands in a placatory gesture, saying, "Look, c'mon, can't we talk about this?" And before the words are even settled on the air, Sam swings around and slams his fist into the face of the guy behind him and the impact jars the bones of his wrist, explodes hotly along his knuckles.

They're on him in seconds and Sam grunts as the breath is driven out of his body under the weight of them. Gravel skins his palms as he's knocked off his feet, but he closes his fingers around a handful of it and flings it into the eyes of the first guy coming for him. It gives him enough time to lunge for the other guy, meeting his face with his fist over and over, forcing him backwards, all the while remembering that there's a third guy somewhere, just out of sight.

Someone grabs him from behind, tries to pin Sam's arms backwards, but Sam jerks free. He spins around to punch the guy who's just tried it, and, as he does, he realizes the mistake he's making: he's putting his back to the third guy who's come out of nowhere.

A heavy blow catches Sam on the temple. His vision goes watery, narrowed to a slanted shard of the parking lot as blackness descends. His legs wobble and break beneath him.

For a second, Sam wavers there, on his knees in the dirt. Wind rises up behind him and Sam falls, again.

:::

When Sam opens his eyes, he sees a shiny silver nickel sitting amongst dust and lint tumbleweeds, against the baseboard, between the squat bow-legs of a piece of furniture. The nickel must have been dropped and rolled there, though how long ago is impossible to tell. It could have been there for years and years, cultivating its own little territory, or just since yesterday and it's still waiting for rescue.

Sam looks at the nickel a little while longer, before he considers his wider surroundings.

His cheek is pressed to wooden floorboards and he follows the flaking cracks in the oily varnish, that come together like parched river tributaries, to two pairs of boots, which are attached to legs, attached to the guys from the bar: one sitting, one standing.

He's feeling enough hot pulses of pain to know that the beating didn't stop just because he lost consciousness. His palms hurt the most. They're probably the most minor of his injuries, something he could have done with the stupidest of slips after one too many drinks at the bar, but he can't stop thinking about his red-grazed palms. The tightness of the knots around his wrists, tied behind his back, makes his hands feel hot and bloated.

One of the guys walks to the window and a minor earthquake travels through the floor and vibrates in Sam's ear.

"It's getting dark. Kent should be back by now."

"Relax," says the other guy. "We've got time."

Sam's ankles are tied too. His nose is crusty with dried blood. He can smell it, taste it in his mouth when he breathes in. He rubs his wrist against the rope, to see how much give there is, and the pain in his hands flares and falls like the wail of an air-raid siren. But Sam's pretty sure, if he can just pop his thumb out of its socket, he can work a hand free. And one hand leads to the other hand, leads to his feet, leads to the rest of him.

The guy at the window turns, and says, "You're not gonna make the call 'til he's back, though, right?"

A snort, the thick clatter of a gun being set down. "I look like an idiot to you? 'Course I'm not gonna call 'til we've got it. Would'ya just sit down and relax?"

The guy sits down, doesn't relax.

It is getting dark. The light in the lodge is barely a layer over the gloom. It's quiet outside too. Sam can't hear traffic or voices. Slowly, the atmosphere in the lodge is cutting them off from the rest of the world. The silence and the shadow are fixing them in place, slicing through the tendons that connect them to civilization, until they'll be as lost and forgotten as that shiny silver nickel down the back of the bureau.

"Goddamn this," someone mutters, rumbles across the floor and snaps a lamp on, then the radio.

The other guy laughs. "You're getting jumpy in your old age, Benny." Then he leans across and turns the radio up louder.

They listen to the music, bubbly pop songs from decades gone, cut with crappy advertisements for local car dealerships and diners, which tell Sam they haven't taken him all that far.

At last, the guy finishes with his gun and rises to his feet. He stretches his back, groaning, then crosses to the window himself. He peers out for just a little too long.

"Kent should'a been back by now," says the guy in the chair, Benny, quiet and stubborn.

"Nah, probably just got held up by security." He comes away from the window like he knows he can't keep on standing there and argue that everything's fine.

"We got a plan B?"

The other guy moves away, boots disappearing right off the edge of Sam's circle of vision.

He doesn't answer the question. "There anything to eat in this place?" Closets open and slam shut, one after another. "Christ, we should'a told him to pick up pizza."

Benny leans forwards in his chair. "Hey, Wazowski, I'm asking you if we got a plan B!"

"Kill Sam and wait for Dean to come to us. Works either way." He fishes his cellphone out of his pocket and flips it open. "I'm calling Kent and telling him to pick us up a fucking pizza."

He gets a sigh and a pause, then Benny grudgingly says, "No pepperoni on mine."

Madonna's on the radio, life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone, but there's a tinny muzak tune competing with her all of a sudden. It repeats, over and over, under the music, and nobody moves for a moment.

"That's Kent's phone," says Benny. "That's Kent's fucking phone."

"Where's it coming from?"

Benny's on his feet now, and Sam recognizes the click of a gun being loaded. "Right outside the fucking door. Jesus, Wazowski, it's right outside the-"

"Would you shut the fuck up!"

One covering the other, they converge on the door. When they swing the door open, it blocks Sam's view, but he doesn't need to see, not when Benny's cursing like a crazy man, going, where's the fucking rest of him? what's he done with the fucking rest of him, Wazowski? that fucking animal, I'm gonna fucking kill him, gonna fucking tear his goddamned head off-

The lights go out, the radio cuts off. They're in thick, black silence. Sam hears the scuffle of their boots as they retreat into the lodge, the door creaks as they move to shut it, and then something happens.

It's too dark for Sam to see exactly what but he's pretty sure something just came in. Someone.

He wrenches harder at his wrists, not sure if it's sweat or blood slipping against the ropes.

Benny screams, high like a child, and the floor thunders as Wazowski runs right at Sam. He grabs Sam by the hair, hauling him half off the floor, and there's a blade's thin line of cold suddenly pressed into Sam's throat.

"You take a step closer and I'll slit him open!" Wazowski shouts.

"Nah," says Dean. "You're not gonna have time."

And while Sam is still celebrating Dean's presence, his nearness - because that's Dean, that's Dean's voice, Sam knows it in the dark, knows it over the phone, knows it in his own head – Wazowski jerks his wrist, the blade stings, and then Dean is crashing down on top of them like a weight of water, and in the middle of it all, Sam's knocked out again.

:::

"I had a crazy dream," Sam says.

The smell of the Impala is immediate and comforting: gun oil and alcohol and leather. To Sam, it smells like Dean and still a little bit like John too, though it shouldn't, the years should have grown over the last traces of him. Maybe to Dean it smells like Sam.

Sam's on the backseat and there's a funny taste in his mouth. He smacks his lips to clear it and tries to sit up. His head feels swimmy.

"A nightmare," Sam clarifies, to the back of Dean's head. He frowns, says, "Where are we going anyway?"

Dean looks back over his shoulder at him, a face of black hollows, painted red and white by the garish night, and Sam shrinks away from him before he can help himself.

"Go back to sleep," says Dean.

The road ahead is lit up like it's on fire. They're going to Hell.

:::

The next time Sam wakes, he's on a bed. His head still hurts and night-time lurches around him, suggesting movement with no distinct detail. The bed is not particularly comfortable, and when he smoothes his hand over the covers, he finds they're stiff polyester. It's a motel bed.

Sam sits up. The shadow in front of the lighter square of the drapes shifts.

"Good morning, sunshine," says Dean.

"Dean!" Sam fumbles for the lamp that should be on the bedside table, but there's nothing there. "Dean, what the hell's going on? Where've you been? Who were those guys?"

He searches the darkness, strains to put together Dean's face in it. He watches Dean stand in the way his darkness stretches up against the neon back-lit drapes.

"Hunters," says Dean. "We pissed 'em off last year. Guess they're not ones for forgive and forget."

He paces a few steps then turns back again, and the urgency leaves Sam's body as he realizes Dean has no immediate plans to leave. Instead, Sam sits on the bed and watches the shadow-play of the darkness of where Dean is pacing and prowling like a bored cat.

He wets his lips and says quietly, "What's going on, Dean?"

Dean waves a dismissive hand. "I told you, nothing's going on." He's stubborn as a god and just as resistant to questioning.

"Like hell! Why wouldn't you meet up with me? Why weren't you there when I woke up? I've got no clue what the fuck's been happening in the past three years-"

Dean laughs and Sam's sure he can make out the shiny glint of his smile. "We hunted stuff. Drank some beers. Think I might'a got laid a couple of times along the way. It was great."

Sam can feel his breath getting away from him. The easily amiable tone of Dean's voice is designed to rile him up, to work him up so that he's not capable of hanging onto the thread of the argument, just the rage that's stiff in his bones and flooding his blood.

He forces himself to calm down. He concentrates on the beating of his heart, breath shuddering out of him, and waits for each throb to linger a little longer before the next.

Across the room, Dean cocks his head like a hunting dog, and Sam catches the whisper of his indrawn breath.

"No," Sam says. "No. Something's going on, and either you can tell me yourself, or I'll figure it out, you know I will, I'll keep looking until-"

When Dean comes at him, Sam expects to get punched. When Dean moves that fast in Sam's direction, he's either looking to shield Sam from a threat or wanting to do some violence himself. And Sam's pissed off enough to be ready to meet him swinging.

But Dean stops right in front of his face, propped up on the bed, leaning over Sam, and Sam's not sure what to do about it when Dean's so close, doing nothing at all except existing in the same space as Sam's skin.

Even the dark can't hide Dean's face from Sam at this proximity. And Dean looks good, Sam thinks. He looks different too, and Sam can't place it until he sees that there's something alive behind Dean's eyes for the first time in years. There's something looking back out at him that's flushed and healthy and bloody. That boy who Sam idolized and hated, who set the bar impossibly high in their father's eyes, who was stuck together with bravado and faith and a handed-down leather jacket, has come back.

And he's angry.

They hang like that: Sam half-stretched back on the bed, while Dean's arms bracket his shoulders. Sam's pinned down by Dean's unexpected intrusion into his personal space, and how he does nothing with it.

"No, you won't," Dean says. His voice is a whisper but it's cold and grim as old age. "Why don't you get a job, Sam? Get a job, get a girlfriend, get a fucking mortgage. Or carry on hunting, fight the good fight. But not with me."

Sam jumps on it. "Why not with you?"

So Dean tells him why not.

Sam has always felt slightly embarrassed by Dean's mouth. He's embarrassed by the things that come out of it, he's embarrassed by the sheer fact of it, its shape, its color, the things it suggests. He's looked on it as an unmanageable third brother. It gets them into trouble. It causes too much attention. It never knows when to shut the hell up, or it shuts up like it's stitched that way when all Sam wants it to do is give him one straight answer.

And that oh-so-pretty mouth is filling up with teeth.

Tiny white knives slice through Dean's pink gums, curving through the flesh like cat's claws. The teeth keep on coming. It's not like it hurts at all, so easy and smooth, natural, as though Dean is supposed to have a fresh crop of murder in his mouth.

Sam stares, horrified, and Dean, still leaning over him, holds in place and lets him. Sam's never seen anything as clearly in his life as he's seeing those teeth.

Finally, Dean eases back and away, slinking back into the unknowable night. His head turns towards the window, where the neon flash seems less pronounced than before.

"It's getting light," he says. "I gotta go." His voice is too soft to come from such a slaughterhouse.

He moves to the door, and Sam doesn't call after him.

"Things are different. I don't wanna hunt with you anymore, Sam, not how you are. And if you come after me, I'll stop you."

He doesn't explain how Sam is now, what it is about Sam that makes him a bad fit for Dean. Sam's pretty sure he means now you've got a soul. He's so struck by how weird it is that getting his soul back makes him an unmatched pair for Dean, that he doesn't stop Dean from walking out the door.

:::

This could be the cage. Because, of course, there's no way Sam would know, is there? Bored and angry archangels are clever and creative torturers. They could have built a whole, horrible world for him and be entertaining themselves watching him bash his head bloody against its bricks. There is no reality check that can't be subverted by the will of angels.

Alternatively, this could be how it is now. This could be it. If Sam has learned anything, it's that nothing is ever so bad that it can't get worse.

Dean is a vampire.

Also, Dean doesn't want Sam around. The last time that happened, Dean was fifteen and going through a phase of badly wanting to be James Dean, which lasted until John flatly refused to let Dean have a motorcycle, now or at any time in the future. The day after that edict was passed, Dean showed up in the library, sat next to him while Sam did his homework, and flipped paper pellets at the wall.

Sam can't write off this life and start a new one. This could be James Dean all over again. This could be vampire James Dean.

The motel room that Dean has left Sam in is dated and depressing. On the wall, there's a print of abstract art, a tumble of red and yellow polygons, in a cheap and shiny silver frame. The bedcover is a repeating geometric design in black and purple of the kind Sam remembers from the very early nineties.

Sam's duffle bag is on the floor by the chair where Dean sat and watched Sam sleep.

He picks up his bag and walks out into the parking lot. It's morning already, and Sam guesses Dean must be sleeping somewhere. That's not so bad; he never was a morning person, after all.

Bobby's old red Ford is waiting for him, keys visible on the dash. Dean's left Sam with everything he needs to start out fresh.

Sam climbs in behind the wheel, starts the engine and turns the car out onto the road.

There's a moment he remembers very clearly, one of the last he does remember: He's in the graveyard at Stull, and his arm is drawn back, fist clenched with the force of mountains, and the sun catches his eye, and just for a heartbeat, Lucifer is blind, can't see a damned or blessed thing. That's when Sam sees Dean.

That's the moment Sam hangs his humanity on.

:::

Any time Sam's called him since he woke, Bobby hasn't answered. It's probably significant. Sam doesn't care. He calls him again, and again, for as long as he has to, until Bobby picks up.

"What do you want, Sam?"

Sam wets his lips. His hands are jittery. "Did you know about Dean?" he says.

A pause. "What about him?" says Bobby. He's going to make Sam say it. Could be he's trying to make sure he doesn't give away any information Sam doesn't already have, but more likely he's just being an unhelpful old bastard.

"That's he's a vampire," Sam says impatiently. "Did you know?"

"Yep, I knew."

Sam scrapes his fingers through his hair and works his jaw to ease the tension out of it. It's going to be one of those conversations, not a single inch of progress to be made without sweating and straining for it first.

"What happened?"

Bobby snorts. "What do you think happened?" There's another pause, and Sam's heart sinks at the idea that Bobby actually expects him to answer that. "Hunt went bad. Dean got turned."

"Was I there?" Sam says, and he wishes he didn't sound so afraid of what Bobby's going to say.

"Reckon so. Details aren't real clear. You and your brother were hunting with your granddad-" He must hear the beginning of Sam's startled interruption, because he sweeps right on with, "He's dead now. Again. Long story. Anyway, Dean got jumped, and that was that."

Sam takes a deep breath. He tucks the phone between his cheek and shoulder, while he splays his hands out on the steering wheel, warmed by the brassy late sun. His hands won't stop shaking.

A truck hurtles by on the highway and Sam's parked car sways like long grass in its wake.

"I need to find Dean," Sam says.

"Why?" says Bobby. "You gonna hunt him?"

It's not the brutality of Bobby's tone that stings Sam into silence. It's the fact he'd even ask Sam that. He's unsure, briefly, whether it's right or it's wrong that he never asked himself that.

"No," he says. "Of course not. He's my brother."

How Bobby must hate that phrase. He keeps on hearing it, because Sam and Dean keep on using it as justification for the stupidest, most selfish things. Sam hears how much Bobby's hates it in his whistled hiss of breath sucked in through gritted teeth.

"You know, I should'a had the guts and the sense to tell you boys this a long time ago. But I was a damn stupid coward and I kept on looking the other way. You and Dean are better off without each other. Whatever you think it is, love or loyalty or whatever, it's not. It's just plain wrong."

Bobby's voice is trembling at the end, wet with mild rage. Sam lets him talk himself out. He notices his hands. They're not shaking anymore. They're as still as a stopped clock.

Then, very calmly, he says, "Do you know where my brother is, Bobby?"

Bobby hangs up. Couple of hours later, there's a text message on Sam's phone. Brownsville, Kentucky is all it says.

:::

There's nothing in Brownsville, so far as Sam can tell. No case, no bodies, no monster, so no reason for Dean to be there. He's just passing through, will be gone like yesterday once the sun goes down, and Sam is grateful to Bobby for giving him this chance to reach Dean before it's too late again.

He drives around town, stopping at each motel, until he finds the one with the Impala parked in the lot. The guy at the desk in the manager's office recognizes the description Sam gives him, says Dean took a room really early this morning and hasn't surfaced since.

Sam grins to himself and smiles at the people he passes. He's winning this round of hide and go seek.

There's a coffee shop across the street. An old man is sitting by the window reading a newspaper, rubbing the corner of each page between his thumb and forefinger before he turns it, and on each table there's a small potted fern.

The woman behind the counter gives Sam a polite but hesitant smile, and Sam touches a hand to his face, remembering bruises and dried blood. His feet have barely touched the ground since he knew which way to turn.

"There's a customer bathroom," she says, voice dropped low for just her and him, though the old guy with the newspaper hasn't even looked in their direction. "I mean, if you wanted to… freshen up."

Sam looks back over at the Impala in the parking lot, black as ever in the full glare of the sun. He looks at the door of the room Dean's sleeping in, bites his lip. He looks back at the woman and smiles, thanks her.

He's quick in the bathroom, hunches over the clean, pill-white basin, letting the water run and cupping handfuls of it to splash over his face. The water dribbles down his neck, soaks the collar of his shirt, which presses damply to the t-shirt beneath in turn, but it takes away the sweat and blood of the beating.

When he straightens up, he catches sight of himself in the mirror. He's surprised by the intensity of his own gaze, the haunted light that turns his eyes shadowy and bright like fits of madness. His mind's been wiped clean of those three years, but he carries them on his face and in the set of his shoulders.

The Impala's still safely in the lot when Sam emerges from the bathroom but his heartbeat softens at the sight of it anyway.

He orders a cup of frothy, over-caffeinated coffee to-go, and while the woman's preparing his order, his gaze strays to the rack of pastries. He ends up buying a box of small pink-frosted donuts as well.

As he crosses the street back to the motel, Sam turns his face up into the sun, into the warmth, into the pristine, ironed-flat sky, while birds wheel and dive at the edge of his vision like perfectly unfinished thoughts. He's smiling again. He feels smug, like it's a goddamned surprise birthday party he's springing on Dean, instead of just himself.

There's nobody around to see Sam pick the lock on his brother's door. He inches the door open, conscious of the slant of sunshine that pushes in behind him like an over-eager dog, nudging in between his legs and sniffing at the darkness. He balances the coffee cup on top of the box and edges the door shut behind himself.

The room is dark, drapes pulled together and clipped shut, but even in here there's a rosy glow of outside's sunshine. Dean's old green jacket is hung over the back of a chair and Sam can't help touching it as he passes. He sets the coffee and donuts down on the desk and moves to the side of the bed.

Dean is on his belly, in his t-shirt and shorts, one corner of the pillow trapped loosely between his sleep-soft lips. His body's in an easy sprawl, tight and supple and unfamiliarly pale. His thighs are white, so's the dip of his back where his t-shirt's ridden up.

He's not asleep, probably hasn't been since Sam approached his door.

"No coffin then," says Sam. "Too bulky to fit in the back of the car?"

Dean screws his eyes shut, then flips over to rub his forehead against the pillow with a groan. Sam watches the flex of tendon and muscle in the back of his legs, and he's amazed at how different his brother's body looks in this new skin. It's as though someone's just ever so slightly altered his settings, drawn the same picture but in watercolors instead of oils.

Sam missed it happening. Dean faded over three years, and Sam's only just now faced with this whited-out version of him.

"Are you stalking me?" says Dean. He puts a hand up to shield his eyes against virtually non-existent sunlight as he looks back at Sam over his shoulder, one arm propping him up against the pillow.

Sam points to the desk. "I brought you coffee and donuts. You still eat that stuff?"

Dean looks at the coffee and donuts. His brow pulls together in a frown, something more than displeasure in its expression. He looks at Sam again, sighs, and gestures for him to hand him the coffee.

At Dean's first swallow, Sam knows the whiskey glass he found in Bobby's house was his. Dean was there.

"I thought you were in New York," he says, when Dean drinks the coffee without taking his eyes off Sam but doesn't venture so much as a word.

Dean rises up off the bed and Sam draws back, too small a distance for Dean to notice it, but his cheeks burn. Dean knocks the lid of the donut box open and helps himself to one.

"That was last week," he says.

And he holds Sam's eye as the tip of his tongue catches a smear of pink frosting tucked into the corner of his mouth, licks it up. It's a challenge, coming out of nowhere and Sam has nothing to give it context. He doesn't know what to do with it, how he's supposed to meet it.

"Bobby seems pretty mad at us," Sam offers instead.

Dean laughs, and Sam likes the sound of it, even with its rough edges.

"Well, we ain't exactly been his favorite people of late."

Sam smiles, but he's not sure at what, just at Dean and Dean's presence. "How come?" He studies the knot of his hands in his lap as he says, overtly indifferent, "What was I like without a soul?"

He looks up again when Dean doesn't answer. Dean's eyes are on the box of donuts but his expression is too fixed for Sam to believe he's simply considering which one to pick next.

Then he looks up, plainly looks Sam over, and Sam feels uneasy before he's even heard Dean's answer.

"Oh, you were something else altogether, Sammy."

Sam swallows down a sudden thickness in his throat. "Like how?" he says, the words sitting too heavily on breath.

Dean shrugs. "Different," he suggests. He mouths it back to himself, considering, then gives a satisfied little nod. This is enough for him.

"Is there a magic question I need to ask to get a little detail?" Sam says. He's rolling his eyes before the words are out, half an irritated smile twisting his lips. "Right," he says, drawing it out as he nods to himself. "You don't want me remembering. Fate worse than death. I remember, Cas's little welcome home speech."

"Obviously didn't pay that much attention," Dean points out, popping a donut in his mouth. He doesn't sound bothered. In fact, it sounds pretty much exactly like he's playing along until Sam gets fed up and leaves.

He's not looking at Sam. He's looking at the donuts. And then when he looks up, he's looking at the window, cocking his head at an angle to try to sneak a peek between where the drapes meet, like a kid locked out of a party.

He's been so much like Sam's brother, acted like Dean in every way Sam would expect, that Sam has to say the words in his head to remind himself: Dean's a vampire. It doesn't sound ridiculous, just impossible, like one half of the sentence directly contradicts the other on some very basic level of grammar or structure.

Dean's a vampire.

Sam blurts it out. "Are you worried about hurting me? Is that why you don't want me hunting with you?" he says. He lays it out and waits to hear yes beneath the evasive bullshit Dean's no doubt about to feed him.

"Is that a polite way of asking if I'm dangerous?" Dean says. He sounds pretty dangerous at that moment. It's carefully asked, forcibly friendly like he doesn't want to offend Sam with his misunderstanding.

He lifts his gaze to Sam's, and waits, pale and burning-eyed.

"No, it's a polite way of asking what the hell's wrong with you."

Dean gets in before Sam can continue, already hooking a fingertip into the corner of his mouth to draw back his top lip. "You having problems with your short-term memory too? Need me to flash you these babies again?" The threat's passed already. He's joking around again, apparently amused and bewildered by Sam's irritation.

"I don't care about your fucking teeth!" Sam shouts. And when it makes Dean grin, because it's such a damn stupid sentence to have to say, Sam wants to punch him. He's not going to, he just wants to. The wanting makes his hands harden into fists, makes him tower over Dean.

Last time he punched Dean, he was Lucifer.

He stops, catches his breath.

"I don't get it," Sam says. He's calmer, not softer. He can't be soft after being jerked around by the only thing that's ever survived knowing him. "You hunted with me just fine before. What's different now? I've got my soul back, why can't we just be like we were before?"

Dean's jaw is a line of battlements as he looks at Sam. He's carved out of stone, immovable face set permanently to anger. "Because we're not like we were before."

"Because you're a vampire?" Sam shoots back, eyebrows raised that Dean should be so thickheaded and stupid to think something like that changes Sam's world to the slightest degree.

Dean turns his face away sharply, mouth jarred half-open with the effort of cutting himself off. When he sighs, it's a quick, hard noise that makes his chest dip. He scrapes both hands through his hair, claw-like fingers raking his skull. Leftover product stands his hair up in bristly spikes. Sam notices again that Dean is only wearing his t-shirt and shorts, and remembers that this is the middle of the night for him, after a true night spent doing god knows what.

"Look," he says, determinedly reasonable, "obviously you've been through a lot and you've had to deal with –"

"We didn't just hunt together," Dean says. He meets Sam's eye as he says it, holds his gaze with level significance. If he gets any paler, Sam thinks, he'll be nothing but shadowed green eyes and freckles. And teeth.

He goes on looking at Sam, like all Sam needs to know is right there. Sam shrugs, quirks his lips down at the corners helplessly. "Okay. What else?"

"He wasn't you," says Dean. His own shrug has too sharp an angle to be a mirror of the one Sam just showed him. He swallows, and says it again. "He wasn't you, and I wasn't me. And he was… real eager, and it made sense, and… It was what we had."

Sam shakes his head. In each hesitation, each pause as Dean picks his words, Sam's heart slides a little deeper into the pit of his belly. "What are you talking about? Who wasn't me?"

"How you were before."

"No," Sam says. He's refusing all of it. Whatever it is, he doesn't want it. His mouth won't work, and Sam has to chew the words out through gritted teeth. "What do you mean? What are you saying?"

Dean shrugs again, incongruously tries a smile, as if he wants to sweeten Sam up before he kicks him in the balls so Sam might still like him after. "I'm saying him and me had some pretty exciting times between the sheets, Sammy."

He doesn't sound ashamed. He doesn't sound sorry. It's the unvarnished truth, and the best thing Sam can come up with is at least he doesn't sound like he's bragging about it. He shrugs again, no edges or angles this time, just there you go.

It's horrible. Sam's face is twitching, shaky, searching for a suitable expression, and for an awful moment he thinks he's going to cry. He's actually going to cry.

If the room were brighter, he'd be able to see the tell on Dean's face that has to be there. He peers at him doggedly through the half-light, waiting for Dean to give himself away.

"No," Sam says wetly. "You're lying."

Dean shakes his head, his tongue a curl against the inside of his cheek. "'Fraid not."

Outside, a car squeals out of the parking lot, and Dean's face turns reflexively at the sound, but Sam can't take his eyes off him. He's still watching Dean when Dean looks back at him. Dean doesn't appear comfortable under the scrutiny, but he doesn't break down and admit that he's lying to Sam either.

Or he's not lying. The possibility enters the room, comes to stand right beside Sam and won't budge.

"You had sex with me?" Sam demands. Saying it out loud makes his cheeks burn red.

"No," Dean says. He's so adamant. He shakes his head at Sam, fingers splayed in front of himself to keep the mere suggestion of it at bay before it can get its dirt on him. "I know you, and I know not you, and that was not you. It looked like you, but it was not you-"

"It was me, it was my body!" Sam shouts. The words come out frothy with rage, but they're hard too, like he's spitting up stones. His face feels wrongly stretched, pulled out of shape.

Dean shuts down. Sam sees it in every inflection of his body language: face, stance, gaze. His mouth flickers, and Sam wonders if he's feeling those teeth pressing at his gums, ready to descend, hollow and hungry.

"They said it was all of you that was gonna come back. Which was basically nothing at all. It wasn't you."

He says it like certainty. Absolute, unshakeable truth. And maybe he's right. Sam wasn't there, Sam doesn't know. But it does nothing for Sam, because he's inherited this. His body played accomplice to his soulless self, and they messed everything up, and Dean let it happen. Dean took part in it.

He stabs a finger at Dean, and it wobbles dementedly in front of him. "You had no right," he says finally. The words are mangled and blunt-ended.

The line of Dean's jaw flexes, and Sam's savagely glad to see that weakening, just for its mayfly lifespan, before Dean is solid again. Dean nods to himself slightly, like he's thinking it over and finding no argument.

He shrugs a third time, final, letting Sam roll right off him. "That's why we can't hunt together anymore."

He's destroyed it. He fucked Sam and fucked up their lives and now Sam's left with fucking nothing. He's got nothing. He's standing in a wasteland. He's cold and light-headed, and he doesn't know how Dean can cope right now because the motel room seems really bright to Sam, and it's getting really really bright at the edges.

He sways on his feet, and Dean makes a half-step towards him. Sam jerks away from him and Dean stops.

"Don't touch me," Sam says. "Don't… I don't, don't ever want to see you again."

He thinks he hears Dean make a noise, cut-off and breathless, but he's already stumbling towards the door. He flings it wide open and escapes into the white sunshine where Dean can't, or won't, follow.

:::

Sam doesn't get very far. There's a bench at the edge of the parking lot, right by Dean's room, and Sam sits down on it.

He sits there for a long time.

He keeps thinking he should get up and leave. There are plenty of places he could go. Bobby's, for one. Sam thinks harder then adds 'his car', and 'away from here' to the list. He wills his body to move, any second now he's going to get up and start walking.

Gradually, he stops being angry and panicky. Because he stops thinking about – everything, in its entirety. His heartbeat slows to standby. His breathing is restful and measured. He's wound down to utter stillness, switched to functionally dead.

He doesn't know exactly how long he sits there, but it must be a while because the afternoon turns cool and gray clouds lower across the sky. Streetlights come on in an amber chorus. The glass windows of the diner, which were sheets of white radiance at noon, turn black.

Behind him, the door to Dean's room clicks open. Sam listens intently but doesn't look back. He hears the rustle of fabric as Dean pulls his jacket on, and he hears the scuff of Dean's footsteps stutter to a halt when he sees Sam.

He hears Dean sigh.

"I wanna hunt with you again," Sam tells the night frost, which is just washing in like the sea's tide.

Dean sighs again. "Sam, no," he says. He sounds so disappointed, as though he thinks what happened in the motel this morning had been progress and Sam's backsliding.

"It doesn't have to be different," Sam says in a high, scratchy voice. "I could…" He stops. He has nothing to end the sentence with.

"You couldn't," Dean says, not entirely cruel. "You're not him. He's gone."

Sam's head snaps around at the faintly wistful note in Dean's voice. Even half-turned away from him, it shows on Dean's face. Sam's belly contracts painfully at the sight of it. Dean had liked that soulless part of Sam. He missed it.

His departure from Bobby's before Sam woke up with a soul begins to make an upsetting kind of sense.

Sam brushes the back of his sleeve over his eyes and clears his throat unobtrusively. "We're still brothers, Dean. That hasn't changed. And I'm feeling kinda lost, and I could really do with having something familiar around."

Neither one of them makes the obvious protest. Dean is not as familiar as he used to be. There are points of him that are brand new, points that cannot be mapped from the man Sam grew up with.

"Trust me, Sam. You don't need the complication." He sits down next to Sam on the bench, and if Sam doesn't look at him, he's almost glad to have him there. "C'mon, it's easy. You read the obits, you find one that sounds weird, you go check it out, you kill whatever the hell you find. You don't need me for that. You can do it on your own."

"Yeah, but I don't want to." It's an echo from years ago, something Sam only remembers when he's hearing it again.

Saying it probably doesn't count as playing fair.

Dean moves beside him – scrubbing his hands through his hair, fingertips dragging along his lower lip, any one of a half dozen gestures of wearied exasperation Sam would recognize – but Sam keeps his eyes straight ahead and away from so much as the slant of Dean's shoulder.

"We'll do a couple of hunts," Dean allows. "Get you back in the saddle. Then you're on your own." He stands up and starts walking. "Grab your stuff. Got a possible job in Maine."

It's a reprieve, that's all.

:::

The Impala is not big enough for Sam and Dean and the knowledge that Dean's been having sex with Sam pretty much since he got out of the cage. Dean reaches over to take sunglasses from the glove compartment and Sam's knees skitter away and crash into the door. Dean takes a deep breath, jaw clenched so tight his skin's as smooth as china, and puts the sunglasses on.

"You gonna do that a lot?" Dean asks, calmly but in a tone that makes it clear he'd like to know now before they go any further.

Sam gives him a poisonous look that nearly equals the heat in his cheeks.

"Okay then," says Dean, and turns the music on loud.

It's the same music Dean's always played. In fact, it's the same tape. In the hissing, spitting gap that trails one track, Sam's already waiting for the track he knows is going to follow. The quality of the recording is getting a little bad. Sam hears ticks and clicks he hasn't noticed before, the voices are muffled. But he doesn't need the music to play how it should for him to know it.

He shoots a quick glance at Dean, considering whether he deliberately picked the oldest tape he had to put Sam at ease. Because it's working. The combination of the car and the music, and the ever-black road shooting out in front of them like an exercise in perspective, takes Sam's attention away from how little distance there is between his body and Dean's.

Dean is watching the road. The sunglasses are what scared Sam before, he sees that now. They aren't black hollows in Dean's head after all. He doesn't look all that different really in this light, just a little paler for keeping out of the sun.

"How'd it happen?" Sam says.

Dean looks at him out of the corner of his eye. "The vampire thing?"

Realizing what the other thing is, Sam ducks his head in a quick nod and avoids looking at Dean while he adjusts the position of his seat, in case the other Sam who sat here had legs just a little shorter.

"It's not a real exciting story. I got caught out. Happened before anyone could do a thing to stop it. Freaked out at Lisa and Ben, and figured it was best to come away with you, and stay away."

Ben's awkward evasions make much more sense. Sam doesn't press for details on what exactly a vampire freaking out looks like. All he needs to know is that Lisa and Ben clearly survived it.

"And you drink human blood now?" Sam says. He doesn't want to sound judgmental. When it comes to drinking blood, he's living in a big glass house. And surely there's an argument to be made that drinking human blood is a damn sight less twisted than drinking demon blood.

"Yep," says Dean. "And coffee, and whiskey. Occasionally I like a nice iced tea with a couple of novelty shaped ice cubes."

Sam nods slowly and folds his lips together closed.

The road rushes by outside in a fluid avalanche. The tape finishes, whistles in the silence like a lost voice, before clunking dead. Dean slots it out, flips it over and shoves it back in. The music starts again.

Dean wets his lips and says, "You're not gonna ask?"

"About what?" Sam says guardedly. His shoulders have instinctively edged away from Dean and he tries to force them back where they should be before Dean notices.

"Whose blood I'm drinking?" Dean prompts, and Sam relaxes, until Dean turns to look at him again. Above the black frame of the glasses, Dean's got one eyebrow raised. "Do you care whose blood it is?" he says, and his tone is unexpectedly neutral.

"Of course I care! What kind of question is that?" Sam fidgets, adjusts his seat again, although the damn thing's been in a perfectly comfortable position since he got in it. "I mean, do I need to ask? I figured I didn't need to because you'd have it under control."

"I do have it under control," says Dean.

"Well okay then," Sam shoots back, before shutting the hell up.

Neither of them is happy. Sam's breathing is coming a little faster, his foot is tapping an agitated rhythm against the footwell which fights the beat of the music. And Dean's face is so fixed on the road he might as well be dead behind the sunglasses.

"Wow, I did not miss this," Dean says. He grins at nothing in particular, shaking his head. It sounds like he's only teasing but he doesn't say anything further to make it definite, even though Sam watches him closely, waiting for it.

"Bad guys," Dean says instead. "I drink bad guys. Demons too, if the meatsuit's still alive. All tastes the same to me. I don't drink 'em empty unless I can't save 'em."

The statement is jarring. Sam's eyes widen, mouth opening on automatic to question it, before he catches himself. Heart beating hard in his belly, he measures each breath until they're level, then he licks his lips and opens his mouth to speak.

"You're thinking with your teeth again, dude," says Sam. He straightens the city plan as wide as the confines of the car will allow him. Dean huffs and bats the edge of the paper off the steering wheel.

"I'm tryn'a drive here, Sammy. You mind letting me at the wheel once in a while?"

Sam ignores him. He runs a fingertip along one blue line, follows it until it intersects with the thicker red of the old subway route.

"It's smarter to take them out at a distance," he says. "And you know, they've had at least five of the kids down there for a week or more, chances are at least a couple of them are going to be beyond our help. You might have to put them out of their suffering."

Dean takes his eyes off the road long enough to shoot Sam a look. The streetlight shines off his cheekbones, gets lost in the hollows of his eyes. Registering the silence, Sam looks up from the map.

He raises his eyebrows, faintly impatient. "What now?"

"You suggesting I drink a couple of the victims?" Dean says. He smiles and turns his face away, shakes his head at the street. The city is empty but the night buzzes like flies. "I'm not doing that," he says, good-natured and not open to persuasion.

Sam pulls a face, like he's surprised he's supposed to care. "Fine, whatever. It was only an idea. But we're not going in guns blazing just so you can get a shot at a couple of arteries either."

He shakes the map out wider with a loud snap of paper, half-covering the steering wheel again and grinning to himself when Dean huffs even louder and shoves it clear once more.

After a moment, Dean tsks and shakes his head again. "Drink the fucking victims," he mutters. He's frowning when he cocks his head at Sam, but there's a grin on his face too. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

"What's wrong with me?" Sam echoes. "What's wrong with you?" He sounds aggrieved but apparently not enough so to take his attention off the city plan. "I'm providing drinkable bad guys as fast as I can, man, but your little dead man allergy kinda limits my sources."

"So drink the fucking victims? Jesus, could you sound any more psychotic?" Dean laughs, head tilting back slightly to let it out. His eyes are lit up, creased at the corners with too much fondness. "Freak," he says.

"Monster," Sam shoots back.

They're practiced lines. Dean's expression opens up with simple, radiant exhilaration as he dips his foot to the accelerator.

"-helped me get it under control early on, y'know, the hunger and everything," Dean is saying. "He made sure I fed enough so I could stay in control of the hunger, so I wouldn't end up snacking on some poor joe who just happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time."

Dean swipes his hand across his mouth, shrugs, before continuing.

"I mean, I'm not saying I'd'a ever wanted this to happen, but, well, I can't pretend I haven't saved a hell of a lot of people I wouldn't have been able to otherwise."

He looks to Sam, and Sam has been quiet too long. Sam has been struggling to place himself back here and now. To be himself again, in this moment that's happening now. There's that same bar of light across Dean's cheekbones, a stripe of orange paint laid down by the lights that line the highway.

"It's good," Sam croaks. Dean raises an eyebrow, and Sam realizes that it's insufficient. "That you survived, I mean. 'Cause, I'd'a thought-" He breaks off. He doesn't need to end the sentence. He wishes he'd never started it.

"You think I should'a killed myself?" Dean asks.

It's not what Sam was saying, though he guesses the inference is there, if you've got a mind so inclined to guilt and self-loathing as Dean's. It's not what he was saying at all, but he's quick to reject it. "No," he says instantly. "No." He has to say it fast, in case 'yes' still has the power to knock Dean dead on the spot.

Dean nods in a curiously stubborn way, like he's won Sam's agreement after hours of arguing instead of one simple question to which there was only one answer anyway.

"I'm not saying it's how I wanted it to be," Dean says. Right then, his mouth doesn't look capable of smiling as he did for Sam's lack of soul. It's just not designed to fill out like that. His mouth is made for small unhappy moments. He says it again, just for himself. "Not saying it's how I wanted it to be. Just how it is."

:::

They stop once for gas, a second time for snacks for Dean and a bottle of water for Sam. Dean apparently doesn't have anything more to say, and Sam doesn't have the heart to attempt making small talk with him. If there's nothing but sports or the weather left for them to talk about, Sam might as well walk away now.

A patch of the night sky scuffs too thin under the circling of the stars and morning leaks steadily along the horizon. Dean sees it coming and rumbles unhappily in his throat. He eyes the dawn the way he would an unwelcome caller who won't stop ringing the doorbell.

He turns the car into the parking lot of a lonely looking motel. The surrounding fields, flat and scrubbed bare, are the last shade of green before gray. Still pre-dawn, the air is damp with dew and smells of moldering vegetation, like stale breath. Sam watches Dean walk up to the manager's office, crossing a patch of grass and leaving wet footprints like black paint on the sidewalk.

Left behind, Sam swings the car door open and climbs out. He reaches in the back to grab his duffel bag, grabs Dean's too then stops and thinks about it. While he's alone, he should take this chance to brace himself for sharing a room with Dean.

He doesn't want Dean seeing him naked but he'll try not to make that obvious. And for his part, Dean will try to always be looking somewhere else, doing something else so that it's clear to Sam that he's not seeing him naked. And they're both going to be so aware of each other and where their bodies and gazes are in relation to each other, that it's going to be impossible Sam to forget that this body he's trying to hide had sex with Dean. They were having sex for years. His body and Dean.

Sam's belly churns at the thought, sick and ashamed, and he lets out a sudden, helpless breath. He concentrates on looking normal as Dean approaches.

"You're in the room next to me," says Dean, peering back over his shoulder, apparently studying the humming red Vacancy sign, because everything is more interesting to him than Sam's face.

He puts the room key on the hood of the Impala in front of Sam, and maybe he didn't even notice Sam's hand stretched out to take it. Sam turns the key over in his hand and considers all the implications that go with thanking Dean for it. He stays quiet.

"Sun should be low enough around five o'clock for us to get on the road again. You've got cable, wi-fi, plenty to keep you busy while I'm down."

Sam shoulders his bag. "Probably just gonna hit the hay, I think."

"Right, that's right," says Dean, nodding. "You're sleeping again." He shrugs at the look Sam gives him, clearly regrets saying anything but follows through regardless. "You didn't used to. I mean, without a soul. He didn't need to sleep. I could go down around four in the morning, come up at six in the evening, and he'd still be working out or watching infomercials."

Sam would like to say something in response to that. He'd really like to take part in the conversation, because Dean has offered something and Sam should try to connect with it. Instead, he stares at Dean and frowns, while he tries to figure out what exactly he can say.

"Oh," he says. "Neat."

"Yeah," says Dean, which is about as far as the conversation can go.

Dean looks worn out, and it's probably just the sunlight coming in that's making him cringe and hunch over the way he is. Dean puts a hand to his brow, shakes his head like it hurts, and scoops up his own bag. He stumbles on the way to his room, and anyone watching him would no doubt think he was hungover.

"See you tonight," Sam calls after him, and Dean nods without looking back, waves a hand in goodbye like he's sailing away.

Sam feels the silence between them as a sense of mourning, and the funeral march follows him into his single motel room. He hears Dean kicking off his boots, a thump like the slam of a coffin lid. He listens to the drapes hush the morning as Dean draws them together along the rail. The walls are so thin Dean is a ghost in the room with him, moving around in domestic activity.

Sam is careful to be quiet, to muffle his own movements as he sets down his bag and undresses. He pads into the bathroom, puts toothpaste on his toothbrush and sticks it in his mouth.

In the mirror, his reflection is looking back at him. Sam's brushing slows then stops.

He's guarded in his examination of his own face, his shoulders, his chest. His body is unpredictable. It's newly unreliable. He doesn't know what it's going to do next.

What for years has been mute and deaf and invisible has revealed its own consciousness. More than that, Sam can't escape the suspicion that his body has its own autonomy. After all, didn't it wait until Sam was out of the room before it merrily went on its own way, acting out desires and impulses Sam never had? It did what it wanted. With Dean.

And then when Sam came back, it kept it a secret from him. It stood behind Sam's eyes while he chased after Dean and never said a word about why Dean was running. His body has known this whole time.

Sam has been betrayed as much by his body as he ever was by his blood.

He gets into the shower and he scrubs with growing ferocity. Under the water, his skin blooms pink, flushed and raw and still intangibly dirty. Sam keeps on scrubbing but he can't get his soiled bones clean. With every flicker of muscle, the fact of what he has done with Dean is rubbing against him, laced under his skin.

He stands under the water, lets it run over him. He's shaking now, beyond sobbing, wrung out. His body burns red, and the sensation pricks at something in the cotton-ball softness of his mind. It's a small distraction, a temporary cut in transmission, but it gives him mind enough to turn off the water.

When Sam leaves the bathroom, the mist from his shower has wiped his reflection from the mirror, like a moment of aphasia.

The motel bed sheets have a layer of shiny sheets on them like the cheap, sugary frosting on a birthday cake. Sam slides between them and tries not to move too much, he's uncomfortable with the way the sheets whisper as they touch his skin.

It's undeniably day outside now. Birdsong comes from nowhere at all, because Sam doesn't remember any trees when they parked, no branches they could perch upon. Cars hum past on the road with increasing frequency. Further down the line of rooms, some people are leaving their room: they shut their door, keys jangling in hand, and they talk about the best route to get back on the highway, and whether they remembered to pack the travel iron and you'd sure as hell better hope you packed it 'cause I told you twenty times to pack it and I'm not showing up all creased on my mom's doorstep.

Sam is not at all sleepy. He feels obliged to sleep, like a kid kept home sick, but he can't drop into it. Maybe he's losing his soul again, because soulless Sam didn't sleep, Dean said. But Sam doubts it. He'd feel lighter without a soul, wouldn't he? Not so weighed down.

He gazes up at the ceiling, while the sunshine edges around the corners of his window, and listens to the occasional creak of Dean's bed when he rolls over.

:::

Dean has not left without him. Sam supposes he shouldn't be so surprised.

Dean's propped up against the hood of the Impala, hands shoved deep in his pockets, face angled upwards like a swimmer's to break the surface of the evening's damp air. He straightens to his feet when he sees Sam.

"You ready?" he says. Then he does a double-take and delighted laughter bursts out of him. "Hey, that shirt!"

Sam's shirt is his pale blue and white checked one. He looks down at himself, smoothes the fabric down at the front. The shirt is nothing special but it's one he likes.

"What about my shirt?"

Dean's still staring at him, still grinning. "Haven't seen it in fucking years. Thought he'd ditched it. Said it smelled kinda funky, y'know?" He sees Sam's face fall and laughs again, even louder. "C'mon, it does!"

Dean unlocks the car door and climbs in, and doesn't seem to notice he's left Sam behind, the front of his shirt bunched up in the protective clench of his fist.

Sure the shirt smells a bit weird. It's only because a bottle of shampoo cracked in the bottom of Sam's duffel years ago and leaked all over it and has never fully washed out since. It's not a bad smell, maybe a little unexpectedly floral. Sam has worn the shirt plenty of times since then and Dean has never noticed any smell, and Sam knows for sure Dean would have mentioned it if he had.

"Probably keeping it for next time he needed to start a fire," Sam suggests acidly, but Dean doesn't hear him over the engine's waking roar.

Despite the better mood Dean seems to be in since sleeping, or since spending a few hours away from Sam, the only conversation he makes is to ask Sam if he wants any breakfast. Sam takes this in a roundabout way to mean that soulless Sam didn't require food either.

It's taken Sam a while to come up with a comparison that fits the way Dean talks about that other Sam. When he figures it out, marvels at how suitable it is, he wishes he hadn't bothered.

He's Dean's ex-boyfriend. The way Dean talks about him it's clear he's on Dean's mind a lot, to be spoken of fondly and silently missed, remembered in every minute detail. And Sam can't compete with a guy who has such inhuman superiorities that he doesn't need to eat or sleep. Sam can't compete with a guy who got to Dean in a way that Sam's soul just won't let him.

It was goodbye Dean had been saying at Bobby's, not hello, not welcome back.

"You see much of Cas lately?" Sam says.

Dean shrugs, but it's not dark enough to hide the tautening of Dean's mouth. "Not so much. He's an angel of the Lord in a Heaven gone all to hell, he's got his own issues."

"That all it is?" says Sam, and he's right to press, because Dean's mouth flickers again.

"I guess you could say we had kind of a disagreement."

Sam nods slowly. "About my soul?" Dean doesn't answer, but he doesn't need to. Sam's got it all figured out. "It was Cas's idea to put it back."

"Well it sure as hell wasn't yours," says Dean, his tone deceptively light, speaking to the road. "You didn't want it back. Fought like hell. You were better without it."

Sam's throat closes up and he lifts his chin, turns his face to the window sharply.

The night is a velvety smog of the shape of trees and bushes and the occasional scattering of factories and farm buildings. Red light rides behind them, staining the paintwork and the backseat on which they've pretty much all taken a turn at bleeding half to death. It's yellow light strobing over them in front, reaching as deep into the car as Dean's hands on the steering wheel. And all the while outside are roving the green and white glints of light from passing cars and roadside civilization.

Dean licks his teeth fretfully. "Better off without it," he clarifies. "That's what he said. He didn't have a soul, so… no feelings. No morals. No doubts. No conscience. Nothing to stop him getting the job done."

"Nothing to stop him screwing his own brother?" Sam's angry and hurting enough to lash out with an edge that'll cut them both. It's the first time he's ever put those words together, even in his own head. It sounds as dirty as it should, and there's a scandalous thrill in saying something so wrong.

The car bumps over an uneven patch in the road, and Dean jerks the wheel to compensate. He clears his throat, like the jolt shook something loose inside him.

"Guess not," he says.

"What happened to your conscience?" says Sam. They both hear where he lays the stress.

Dean takes it with surprisingly little heat. "I dunno, man." His eyes flick to Sam, sees him still watching. "Early on, he made a couple of passes, but he backed right off when I made it real clear the answer was no. Then, hell, I don't know. I got turned, and by then, y'know, I was certain it wasn't you that'd come back and I guess… Well, I guess I just didn't see any reason not to anymore."

One hand braced on the wheel, he looks to Sam. His face is as shadowed and silver as the moon's with stars for eyes, and he's asking Sam if he can understand. It's the closest he's come to apologizing, but it still doesn't reach the mark.

Sam denies him any forgiveness. His gaze slides down, away from Dean. He studies the cloudy watermarks left on the window by the damp air.

"How could you be certain it wasn't me?" His voice is quiet.

Dean stares at him a moment longer, then laughs, shaking his head as he looks back at the road. "Because I know you better than anybody else on this planet, Sam. Hell, I pretty much raised you. I think if anyone's qualified to spot when you ain't you, it's me." He shrugs. "Didn't have your soul." Like it's as simple as that.

"Didn't bother you that it was technically incest?" That's another of those dirty words Sam's never used before. It carries a quality of onomatopoeia in his head, a slow slipping, like descent, a sibilance like the slide of sticky bodies.

"Dude, I drink human blood. You think I'm gonna sweat a little incest?"

Sam peers into his face, tensed to pounce on the first sign of strain in Dean's attitude. And Dean laughs at the scrutiny, laughs like he doesn't think it's at all inappropriate to be laughing in a conversation like this. It makes Sam burn with the injustice of it.

It's not fair that Dean should be able to find this funny. It's not fair that Sam's the only one with his insides twisted up about this.

Unexpectedly, his gaze falls to Dean's thigh. It's just a few inches from Sam's hand, cased in denim, strong and sculpted beneath the fabric. A crazed compulsion is growing in Sam's chest to put his hand on Dean's thigh. Just lay his hand there, high up. To pinch and squeeze the flesh. To see if Dean can be as careless about the crime he committed when Sam's hand is between his legs.

Sam stares at Dean's thigh fixedly, until the intensity eats away at his vision, and everything else turns orange and corrodes like an overheated film strip. His breath is coming faster, shallower. He could do it. Just reach over, dig his fingers in and feel the flesh give and yield beneath the blunt pressure of his hand. And then when Dean went tense and jerked out of reach, Sam would ask him again if the incest didn't bother him.

Dean's thigh is right there, and Sam's heart is beating hard just watching it. Just reach out and press his fingertips into the flesh and muscle. Just touch Dean the same way that emptier version of himself did.

He's mocked by the sudden certainty that that other Sam would probably have had his hand shoved down the front of Dean's pants in the amount of time it's taking Sam just thinking about touching Dean's thigh. That other Sam wouldn't have thought about it. He'd have simply done it.

Sam's hand stays limp in his lap. He's a spiteful child compared to the example set by the man he didn't used to be.

:::

They wind up stopping at a roadhouse, because Sam tersely informs Dean he doesn't want anything to eat the couple of times Dean offers to stop at a diner. Dean doesn't lay any significance on Sam's refusal, simply tells Sam instead about all his previous bad experiences regarding trying to order breakfast this late at night.

"Reheated egg, Sam. It's like… like, remember that guy in Vail, Colorado? With the melted eyeballs? I swear to God, that's what was on my plate. All quivery and wet and goopy."

The roadhouse is built from wood marinated in liquor and damp fog, which accounts for the smell, but inside the atmosphere is cheerful, busy without being crowded. The music on the jukebox is unabashed country rock, and, above the bar, a mirrored clock with a beer company's name stamped in black across its face tells them what the time was five hours and some ago.

Sam takes a table in the corner, while Dean gravitates towards the bar. The tabletop is smooth and artificial under a plastic veneer. On the wall, there's a dark-framed photo of the roadhouse when it was first constructed, some fifty years ago. It was an auction hall then, and the men who stand in front of it are bleak-faced, square-shouldered types, who only know excess in the stiff flourishes of their facial hair.

Dean is smiling when he turns away from the bar, bottles in hand, but somewhere between the pretty bartender with French manicured acrylic nails and Marilyn-blonde hair and Sam, the smile is lost.

He puts a bottle of beer in front of Sam, sits down across from him and says, "C'mon, Sam, admit it. This ain't working out so great for you. No harm in calling it quits. Nobody says we have to pretend each other doesn't exist, I'll still send you a card at Christmas. But this, living and hunting together, this isn't gonna work."

Sam was watching the condensation melt off the glass, pooling around the base of the bottle, but he freezes. He lifts narrowed eyes to Dean.

"Have you been doing it on purpose?"

Dean's mouth looks soft and innocent, then unfurls in a smile. Everything Sam says to him is so fucking funny. "Doing what?"

"Going on and on about how much better I was without a soul?"

"Wasn't you," Dean says perfunctorily, gaze on something more interesting across the room as he raises the bottle to his lips and drinks.

Sam is warming to his sense of unjust rage. His hands spin out in a sharp, jerky gesture, all stiff fingers and straining palms. "I can't compete, okay? I need to eat and sleep and piss, I can't fucking compete! But I'm not going anywhere, and I don't wanna be him either. So just stop it."

Dean shoots him a look, brows drawn together. "You can't beat him, Sam, so do us both a favor and stop trying."

The music is too loud for Sam to tell whether Dean is saying you can't beat him or you can't be him. It makes a difference, Sam is sure of it.

A group of girls drift by like dandelion seeds on the breeze, and Dean's gaze swims around to follow them. His reaction is base physical. Hips shifting in his seat, his jaw drops unhitched in a sighing moan, almost a whimper, as he looks after them.

Sam looks the girls over, finds them all fairly pretty, but there's not one of them that should have been able to wreck Dean so utterly and so instantly.

"Jesus," Dean murmurs. He sounds pained, and Sam's skin prickles at how plainly turned on Dean is. Dean is dark-eyed and dazed, paler than ever, while his mouth his open and bitten-red.

"What the hell is your problem?" Sam mutters.

Dean's gaze snaps to him, and his whole face tightens, strained and bone-gaunt. His strung-out mindlessness from just a few seconds ago, that loose helplessness, has cut to single-minded awareness of the presence of those girls.

One of the girls in particular. Sam sees Dean's gaze track her as she turns back to the bar to collect a paper napkin. Her hair is sandy brown and she's wearing a tight knee-length denim skirt. She's pretty, but not the prettiest.

Dean takes another mouthful of beer, swallows, wipes the back of his hand over his mouth, and does it all without taking his eyes off the girl.

"You know, Sammy, at certain times of the month I really am a girl's best friend." There's an edge of hoarseness to his voice, like he's just barely holding himself in check. His mouth works and flexes, wet and desperate. "Fuck. Can smell it all over her."

Sam blinks, and his nose wrinkles up in automatic disgust. He leans away from the table, still trying to gather his composure. "Whoa, Dean, I did not need to hear that."

Dean's getting to his feet, and his attention is still all over the girl, devouring every move she makes. "Hey, I get my hit while I'm making her feel awesome. Where's the harm?"

Before Dean can get too far from the table, can be out of reach, Sam's hand flicks out and catches his wrist. Dean stops dead. The moment has sudden, fraught potential. Dean looks down at Sam's hand on him, and he's not smiling. His skin is white and it shines with sweat. His eyes are haunted with need.

It's the first time he hasn't looked human to Sam, even when he was baring a mouth full of knives at Sam.

Sam licks his lips. "You're not gonna hurt her?" he says quietly.

The threat passes. Dean rolls his eyes and brushes Sam's hand off. "Not gonna hurt her," he agrees. He starts to leave, then turns back, as if struck by a sudden thought, a joke he wants to share. He wipes his hand over his lips, and leaves a smile there. He watches closely for Sam's response. "FYI, that's why the other Sam was more fun. He'd'a called me back to know whether I was in the mood for a threesome."

It's the first time Dean has shared that name with the soulless body Sam has filled up. Soulless Sam has been 'him' and 'he' until now. But the name does belong to both of them. Sam has been placing a virtue on being the original model which isn't justified. Maybe he's the genuine article, maybe he's a reversion to old coding which fucks up the performance of new programs.

Maybe he's just the same shadow cast when the angle of the light hits, the same journey of breath through lungs, the same space taken up by Dean's side in the car. Same, but different.

In a detached sort of way, he can feel sorry for Dean at last. Because Sam's taken the place of someone that Dean didn't want to go. It must be painful for him, Sam supposes, being so constantly reminded of what he's lost.

Dean waves as he walks out with the girl, and Sam gestures for the bartender to bring him another bottle.

:::

They reach the small town outside of Lewiston, Maine, just before next day's dawn. Dean's in a stupid kind of state after spending a couple of hours with the girl, and so it's up to Sam to get them rooms. He walks Dean in to his and, while Dean flops down on the bed, smiling to himself like an addict, Sam draws the drapes shut. He surveys Dean with unsettled disapproval, and Dean smiles up at him. He's licked his lips raw and pink through too much chasing of the last taste of the girl's blood.

Sam slaps him on the ankle, says, "Can you get it together long enough to tell me what we're doing here? Dude, c'mon, what's the case?"

Dean kicks at him ineffectually, before he stretches out on the bed, ass and shoulders pushed down into the mattress while his chest and spine curve up in a Roman arch. The bedcovers creep and slither beneath his tight, white body, and Sam fumes and fidgets from one foot to the other, turning his frowning face to the door.

"Kid killed his sister," Dean says at last.

Sam raises an eyebrow. "And?"

"Kid's nineteen, sister was twelve. He came home from partying, took a knife, stabbed her sixty eight times, and he has no idea why. Tox screen came back showing he'd had a couple beers, but no drugs. Seems perfectly sane."

"Yeah, perfectly sane for a knife-wielding murderer," Sam says, one corner of his lips lifted in a sardonic smile.

Dean sits up on the bed, shoulders hunched and the angle of his spread thighs and knees makes his bow-legs even more apparent than usual. He knuckles his eyes sleepily. "No, man, after he was arrested, the docs spent some time with him, and they're all saying he seems one-hundred percent compos mentis. Apart from the fact he murdered his sister."

"Okay," says Sam. "Sounds like it could be our kind of thing. Possession, probably. Guess we start with interviewing the kid."

Dean's back hits the bed again, and he reaches up, drags a pillow half-over his face. "Guess we start with sleep." He snuffles into the pillow. His voice is a slur. "Too fucking bright. All that goddamn sunshine. It's out there fucking taunting me. One of these days I'm gonna kick its big fiery ass."

"And get your foot burned off in the process." Sam pats his ankle again, an affectionate clap, as he passes to the door. "I just hope you're eating enough oranges to compensate for all the vitamin D you're not getting."

Dean blindly flips him off.

After Sam has closed the motel door behind himself, and he's faced with the orange-pink sun sitting low on the horizon, he realizes he's grinning. He realizes he just spent five minutes with Dean that weren't painful.

:::

Bradley Harrison is a good kid, except for the fact he's facing life in prison for Murder One. He's long and gangly, and when the guards bring him into the room, he's wearing his orange prison jumpsuit as neatly as a school uniform. He perches on the metal chair across from them, hugging his knees to his chest.

"I don't know what else I can tell you," he says, his voice barely rising above a whisper. "I've gone over this for the cops, and for my lawyers, like, a million times, and they've written it all down." He's painfully near tears, they're already unshaping his face.

"We want to hear it from you," Sam says.

He and Dean are FBI this time around, but it's the same suit he wears for any time they play dress-up. The suit is mostly unchanged, though there's a flattened nickel in one of the pockets and Sam thinks it's been ironed a little better than he usually does it. It makes sense that that other Sam would be a neat freak, one more tick in the 'better' column.

"See, when something like this happens," says Dean, "we gotta figure that there's a little something more going on than meets the eye. 'Cause, you never wanted to hurt your sister, did you, Bradley?"

Dean is leaning in across the table towards Bradley, coaxing him to trust, and while Bradley's wet, wavering gaze is fixed on Dean's face, Sam spots a small creamy splodge on Dean's neck, just above the paper-crease line of his shirt collar.

They came to the jail at four in the afternoon, which was the earliest Dean felt he could face the sun, and Sam had sat in Dean's motel room, reading through newspaper clippings, while Dean slathered himself in sunblock, rubbing it in until his white skin turned creamy pink, like an old lady's foundation.

He missed that little spot on his neck.

"You don't want anyone else to get hurt, do you?" says Dean.

"No," says Bradley, a single breath drawn out of him by Dean's steady, concerned gaze.

Before – before Sam came back without a soul and did things with Dean that changed the relationship between their bodies forever – before that, would Sam have reached over and swept the sunblock up with his fingertips? Would he have done that? Or would he have gestured and said hey, man, you missed a spot?

He's not sure. He can't remember. He shouldn't have to think about these things.

"So you need to tell us everything. Tiniest detail," Dean says, holding up his thumb pressed to his forefinger. "Even if it seems crazy."

Bradley nods but he doesn't seem convinced.

There's a pause, Sam's cue, and Sam tears his eyes away from that little spot of sunblock. "Firstly, does the name 'Christos' mean anything to you?"

The shake of Bradley's head is so small it's just a shiver, but it's not a flinch and his eyes remain watery and human, his whole demeanor too pulpy to be demonic. Sam suppresses a sigh and, beside him, Dean relaxes his grip on the canister of holy water he's holding under the table.

"Did you see any black smoke? Maybe smell some sulfur? Meet anyone weird, maybe they were there one minute and gone the next? Anything like that? Anything at all?"

Even as Dean's running off all the possibilities, Sam can see they're losing Bradley. His baffled frown is getting deeper and his lips keep twitching, like he's fighting the urge to ask them just what the hell they're talking about. Finally he breaks.

"No, man, no!" He's dissolving into wet eyes, wet mouth, and wet horror. A fine trembling's set up through him, until he's all but rocking on his chair. "Nothing happened. Nothing at all. I just... I came home and I was stoked, and I just," He's not looking at them. He's not in the prison anymore. His hand is a fist, holding tight to the phantom sensation of the knife. "I wanted to hurt someone. More than I've ever wanted anything in my life."

He swallows back tears but they're running unchecked down his cheeks. His gaze rolls heavenwards, the face of a martyr searching for some divine interference even if it'll come too late.

"But I never wanted to hurt her. She was just a baby. I swear to God I didn't want to hurt her."

:::

"Well, he was a real mine of information," Dean mutters, corners of his mouth turned down in a dissatisfied pout. He scans the photos and flyers tacked to the wardrobe door, and heaves another sigh.

Bradley's bedroom is the center of a cave-in. The walls slope towards them, piled up precariously with dumped clothes and school books and other assorted teenage detritus. There's an unwashed funk in the air, but it only seems to confirm the impression of Bradley as a normal nineteen-year old boy.

Bradley's mother had let them in and stood in the doorway, watching them search, while she wrung her hands together and breathed like each one was her last. She's downstairs now, sitting by the window in the crepuscular blue light, her face sagging with grief and premature aging.

"He's going through a pretty hard time," Sam says distractedly. He rattles the dresser drawer open and flicks through empty cigarette lighters, several unopened packets of condoms, cards for a couple of clubs in town "I'm sure he'd love to have all the answers too."

Dean drops to a crouch to stick his hand under the bed, then pulls it back out again with a grimace. "Used tissues. Kid can't toss it in the trash can?" He straightens up and looks around the room. "This is a total bust, man. Kid's not into anything except nasty-nasty sex with his right hand."

Sam doesn't argue; the chances of finding the answer in Bradley's things had only ever been slim.

Besides, the way Dean's turned his head, Sam can see that spot of sunblock on his neck again, just in the dip between the tendons that run into Dean's shoulders. His heart beats faster just looking at it, and Dean looks back at him, eyebrow raised.

"You, uh, you've got-" Sam begins to gesture, then he seizes his pounding heart in his hands and steps in to Dean's space, lays his hand on Dean's shoulder to hold him still, and his breath slips out of him in an agitated little huff as he catches up the lotion from Dean's skin.

He has the barest sensation of Dean's skin, smooth and not Sam's own and unexpectedly hot – because Dean's dead, isn't he? Technically? – before Dean shoves him away.

"What the hell?" Dean demands. His eyes are blazing green.

Sam's belly rolls over. His cheeks are burning. He has sunblock on his fingertips and he doesn't know what to do with it. He glances around for somewhere to wipe it off. He can't rub it into his own skin because it's been touching Dean all afternoon, been on his body soaking him up, like sweat, like come.

"You had a little bit of sunblock on your-"

"So?" Dean snaps. "Don't fucking…" He trails off, because they both know what material this conversation is made of.

Sam breathes so deep he can feel it in the pit of his stomach. "I should be able to touch you without you freaking out," he says.

"You should keep your fucking hands off me," Dean shoots back. It's a relief to Sam that he's not passing this off as a joke already; it feels like progress at least. Dean is flustered, tongue tripping the words out quickly, while his gaze darts around like frightened rabbits.

"If you hadn't slept with him, I would be able to touch you without it being a big deal," Sam points out. His voice is leaden with anger but it comes out level.

Dean ruffles his shoulders like he's shaking off a shiver. He puts his back to Sam, his broad black-suited back and the scruffy crop of his hair and the slice of the soft skin at the back of his neck, and says, "Don't want you pawing at me," as he stomps out of the door.

Sam stands in Bradley's bedroom and tries to pull himself together. He remembers standing in a bus station with Dean, and Dean putting his hand on Sam's cheek, and smiling at him, cocky and glorious. He remembers Dean's arms locked tight around him - closing tighter and tighter the same way Dean's terrifying love for him had overwhelmed him before Stanford - forcing the breath out of his body until all that was left was the after-burn of Jake's knife in his back. He remembers hip-checks and swats and thumbs pressed to the knot of his jawline.

He wipes the lotion off on his other hand, wipes until it's melted into nothingness on his skin.

:::

 

Next door, Dean's room is silent. It's dark too, or it sounds it to Sam, a deadness of silence and darkness he can hear through the wall between it and his own. Their relationship is stiff and hard to manage again. It has to be positioned, bent and forced into place, and it takes both of them working at it.

For his part, Dean would answer the cellphone if Sam called. For Sam's part, he doesn't call.

Sam stares at his laptop screen and pores over the town's past murders and missing person reports and any scrap of information that hints at deeper mysteries. But it's a regular town, with the regular number of people vanishing and regular counts of murder in regular ways.

He leans back in his chair, stretches out with his elbows pointed upwards like wings and his hands in fists at the nape of his neck.

His sense of misery is oppressive, and it's not all that different to the inescapable hopelessness of hearing the cogs and gears of the apocalypse machine spinning faster. It's fitting that his relationship with Dean is carried out in the twilight. He only sees the dusks and the nights with Dean. It's the end of an epoch, all things must pass, this too will fade.

He imagined himself on the road with Dean forever.

He rises to the window, draws back the corner of the drapes. A few blurred dots of light from the town hang in the fog at the end of the street. Tonight, the night is gray, not black. Even the dark can't penetrate the fog.

A small figure cuts into sight, and Sam recognizes Dean instantly. He's moving fast, coming back to the motel, and Sam should let the drapes fall before Dean can see him, waiting and watching at the window.

Dean is alone on the street. He looks this way and that, waits for a car to pass, before he crosses towards the motel. He's comfortable in the dark, easy with it, and when he passes through the narrow wedge of light thrown by a streetlamp, Sam sees that he's grinning. It makes him look young again, Sam thinks.

He's stopped aging. It's one step towards reversing. With each year that passes that Dean doesn't change, Sam will see him more and more as the sunny blond boy of his childhood. And one day, soon, they'll pass each other in time. Sam will step out in front, and Dean will stay behind and watch him go.

Dean as a fixed point is almost a pleasant thought, until the screaming entirety of the future opens up in front of Sam. It’s one immense white wall, unbroken and featureless. And Dean is so tiny against it. He's bloodless and bloodied and there is nothing left to keep him alive except an animal's mindless drive to survive. Dean will be on the road forever, driving forever, wearing the roads to dust beneath the wheels of the Impala, until he'll drive somewhere he's been a hundred times before and he won't recognize it.

It's a physical hurt inside Sam's chest, like the arteries snaking into his heart are squeezing shut, and he can't breathe through it. His sight flutters around the sudden spring of tears in his eyes. The future is horrible, and it's coming at them so fast. A crazy desperation rises up in Sam, a psychotic determination to save Dean from what's coming. Kill him to save him, if he has to.

Someone bangs at the door. Sam is still bent over, shaking and aching, and he grasps at the foot of the bed to steady himself.

"Sam!" Dean calls. "Open up. It's me."

His breath catches again in a rasp at Dean's sheer stupidity of thinking that Sam needs to be told it's him. He swipes the backs of his hands over his eyes, scrapes his fingers through his hair. By the time he gets the door open, he's pretty sure he's normal, not normal enough that Dean doesn't give his appearance a weird look, but normal enough that he doesn't comment on it beyond an unthinking,

"Dude, you look like hell." He comes a few steps into the room, too caught up in his news to remember to be awkward around Sam. "Think we got something. Girl went crazy in a club, slit her friend's throat with a shard of broken glass and then stabbed herself in the face. Nobody has any idea why she did it."

Dean is inappropriately cheerful considering there's blood and bodies and weeping. And he's inappropriately cheerful considering that in the past he fucked his brother and in the future he's going to be nursing his withered heart all alone.

Sam's fingers tingle with wanting to touch him while he's still smiling.

:::

Halleigh Channing was being recorded on her best friend's iPod just minutes before the attack started. Beneath the oscillating light of the club, and with the iPod toning the scene to magenta, it's hard to make out much of Halleigh's face beyond sticky lipgloss and glittery teardrop earrings.

Dean braces a hand on the back of Sam's chair and watches the downloaded video on the laptop over Sam's shoulder. Sam is conscious of him there, which is why he keeps very still and fixedly watches Halleigh laughing and dancing and singing.

The video glitches for a second, resumes, then glitches again into warped howling voices and bodies that distort and melt like wax. Then Halleigh is stooped to the floor, fingering the largest shard of glass from the bottle she just dropped.

"Oh my god, you're so fucking clumsy!" says the girl recording. Her voice booms abnormally, crackles at the edge of each word. She's laughing and the recording goes muffled as she moves. "Hal, leave it, leave it… you're gonna hurt yourself!"

Halleigh's fist is dark and blood-shiny, the slice of glass she's holding is sawing into her own fingers. She looks up at the camera – and Dean leans in, moving into Sam's peripheral line of vision, and Sam knows Dean's looking for black eyes, but all he can see is the desert-plain of the front of Dean's t-shirt where he's used to not seeing the bull-headed amulet hang anymore.

Halleigh's eyes are not black. She's still smiling, still swaying in time to the music, but her gaze is void, as colorless and transparent as baby spiders.

The angle of the video slants like it's going off the edge of a cliff as Halleigh lunges. Blood blots the screen as she brings her fist down, glass glinting, and the girl recording begins to scream. The iPod falls to the floor and decorously records the ceiling while its soundtrack turns to more screaming, garbled begging and heavy breathing, scuffling and shouting, and the increasingly wet rending of flesh.

Someone is crying at the end of the recording. In the middle of the stunned silence, someone is crying, saying oh god, oh god, oh god, a prayer that goes no further.

"Pop quiz," says Dean. "What club was she partying at?"

Sam almost turns in his chair to face him but catches himself in time. Dean is too close for it to be safe to make eye contact. He occupies himself with shutting down the laptop as he shakes his head.

"No idea. What club?"

Dean claps him on the shoulder heavily. It's carelessly rough, so very careless Sam knows the significance in it. It's physical contact, initiated by Dean, and Sam hears Dean's last word on the sun lotion argument in the weight of Dean's hand on him. He wonders if Dean's thumb, tucked just into the hair at the nape of Sam's neck, is an underlining or a miscalculation.

"Verve. Which, by a stunning coincidence, just happens to be the same club Bradley was at the night he went psycho on his kid sister." He sounds smugly satisfied at figuring it out, because it's basically a personal victory for him at the office.

Up until that moment, it has never occurred to Sam to question whether Dean still cares about the civilians. Dean has always cared, cared too much. Dean empathizes like an addict, stealing other people's suffering whenever he can, but simultaneously, he has taken his triumphs where he can.

Sam has never wondered about Dean's principles before.

He eyes Dean as he flips through the police report from tonight. He considers the set of his expression, whether there's a depth of feeling there, something more than the shallow contentment of a job done well. Does Dean continue to hunt because he cares, because it's the right thing to do? Or is he just too much of a predator not to?

"Either of those girls survive?" Sam says.

Dean is chewing his lip thoughtfully and he doesn't look up from the report. "Halleigh might. Too early to tell." He flicks Sam a glance over the top of the papers. "You think she might have more to tell us than Bradley?"

Fidgeting, Sam jerks his head in a shake. He grinds his teeth together, working words from a need to be reassured that Dean has not changed in fundamentals, despite the fangs and the incest. "Fucked up though, isn't it?" Sam says.

"Real fucked up," Dean agrees. He's not really listening, not until Sam can't help a sigh. Dean puts the report down and obligingly, indulgently gives Sam his attention. "Okay, Sam. What in particular is fucked up?"

It warms Sam a little, that Dean will still make the effort for him.

"Bradley's gonna go to prison, for the rest of his life, for something he didn't do, or was made to do, or, whatever. And Halleigh, if she survives, which is probably a big if, she's gonna have to deal with that too. All I'm saying is…"

His confidence in the conversation has dwindled as Dean's face has hardened to cold, flat-eyed hostility. Sam stares at him, suddenly unsure of his own position with Dean, his own safety.

"What?" he says.

Dean smiles, that silky, sulky smile that promises no mercy. "Guess you think you know what they're going through, huh?" He tucks his tongue in his cheek, cocks his head like he's stretching for the fight. "You weren't possessed, Sam. Nobody made you do anything you didn't want to. You weren't here."

"No, I… I didn't mean…" Blinking and stuttering, Sam recoils in his chair from the sudden appearance of a guilty conscience he didn't know Dean had. Then he catches himself and he goes still. He can't help himself. "It was my body," he says, and he sounds no less certain of it for saying it in a whisper.

"And it was his body too," says Dean. "As far as I knew, you weren't coming back."

Sam could pick holes in that, pick it through into a lacework of nothing. He's pretty sure he could make a fairly valid comparison between fucking an uninhabited body and necrophilia, but he doesn't think he has the stomach to.

Instead, he spreads his hands out in front of himself and says, "I wasn't trying to start anything with you. Really. I just, I was just thinking how much it sucks for Halleigh and Bradley."

Dean snorts, shakes his head in flat disbelief. "Sucks for the kid sister and for the best friend and for Bradley's mom and for just about everyone caught up in this."

He deflates visibly, and Sam is struck that his big brother, even as a vampire, is smaller than him. Dean sighs and it makes him smaller still.

"I'm sorry this is what you came back to." He looks Sam in the eye as he says it. "I am, I'm sorry."

Sam could pick holes in that apology too, and he hates himself more than a little for it. He's not stupid enough to dare asking whether Dean's sorry he came back at all.

:::

Sam is losing track of the nights. They run into one another, like an inkblot swallowing one after another, to become one big black stain. Until Sam can’t tell them apart anymore. There isn't any reason for nights to be less distinct than days. There is still weather, still paint-strokes of color in the sky, still nights when Sam wakes feeling okay and nights when he wakes feeling bad.

But the sun is always setting when Sam steps out of his motel room, and it's like only ever catching the closing credits of a movie, like walking in on a party just in time to clean up.

He hopes Dean recognizes that daylight is a sacrifice that Sam is making to be able to live with him that the soulless Sam who fucked him never did. He hopes Dean recognizes that but he isn't quite at the point of pettiness to come right out and say it. I care about you this much, he wants to say, did he? Would he have done this for you?

They park a couple of blocks away from Verve, and while Dean heads straight to the trunk, Sam pauses a moment to seek out the last glimpse of the thorny white sun, trapped in the gap between a convenience store and an apartment block. Venus is already a cold, hard point in the sky, like the head of a nail. A fretful breeze worries at the fallen leaves in the gutter. It picks them up, carries them along, skirling and scurrying, before it abandons them just a little further down the road.

Sam is struck by a twinge of nameless dread, and he tries to even out his breathing, turning back to join Dean at the trunk.

They select their weapons in focused silence. Gun chambers click as they're checked and closed. Knives have their edges tested. Their hands pass each other over in a choreography they've been refining for years.

Under a loose flap at the side of the trunk, Sam finds a couple of hexbags and a string of charms they haven't needed since they inked their chests with devil's traps. His hands still curled around the butt of his colt, lower lip jutted out the way it does when he's concentrating, Dean glances over and sees what Sam's found. Rolling his eyes, he laughs.

"Dude," he says. "You and Lucifer LARPed The Exorcist. I don't think you gotta worry about some Z-list demon or ghost jumping your bones anymore. You're bulletproof." He snaps the gun together with one professional slam of his palm. "And I'm scarier than a lot of the stuff we used to hunt. So I think we can leave that crap behind."

He tosses the hexbag back into the trunk. Then he pauses, gaze skimming over the heaps of polished metal and sharp edges. He angles a look at Sam before he slams the trunk shut.

"You should take a couple of these pieces before you go," he says. "Lot of it belonged to Dad, so it's only fair you have some of it."

He starts walking, and his gait takes a new grace when he's weighted down with weaponry. Sam falls in beside him, reflexively clipping his step to keep pace.

"When I go where?" he says.

Dean looks at him again, eyes wide and ghostly in the fading light. It's dark enough now that his face is mostly hidden. "When you go solo. I talked to Bobby, y'know, get him to pick up that old Ford you were driving, and he says you can pick your own car from one of his when you're ready."

This is the plan that Sam agreed to. This has always been the plan. Dean helps him adjust over the course of a couple of hunts, and then they shake hands and walk away from each other. It was the deal they made and while it somehow vanished out of Sam's memory, it's apparently been in Dean's all along.

Sam isn't sure how Dean expects that to work. It's never worked before. Not Stanford, not the apocalypse, not either one of them dying. They run in orbits that always come back together, like planets moving on ancient stellar math.

Sam definitely doesn't like why Dean wants it to work. How awesome can a guy without a soul be anyway? How awesome could that soulless version of him be that Dean could prefer him to the Sam who saved the whole goddamn world just for him?

He heaves a sigh and keeps silent.

Verve is a tall brownstone building on the corner of the block. The windows on its upper story are screened in black, each one bookended with a thin stone column, suggesting an elegance in the building's former life that hasn't made it through to this one. Music from the club plays loudly enough to be audible from halfway down the street, though not so loudly it's more distinct than a repetitive thump, like something banging along through the sewers.

A line of young women and men snakes out from the door and, seeing it, Sam rolls his eyes, catches Dean by the sleeve of his jacket and draws him down a quieter side alley to the back entrance.

Inside, the club is made up of slanted segments of hot light, which rotate through red and green and blue. It's too loud for most conversation, packed to cramped, unwelcome intimacy. The crowd parts around them, but not easily. To pass through, they have to twist and turn their shoulders, their bodies. Dean's gaze slides appreciatively over the shining sea of skin, which is tanned to a spectrum of colors by the club lights. Sam, though, keeps his eyes to himself, frowning faintly at the unwanted contact of so many strangers.

Dean cuts towards the bar, barely visible behind the rows of people, and Sam spots a high table with two equally high silver stools, and he fills the space of both of them until Dean returns.

"So what exactly are we looking for, you think?" says Dean, kissing the mouth of his beer bottle and leaving his own lips wetly red.

Sam shakes his head. His mind's still back at the Impala, still thinking about how it's supposed to go: Dean standing quiet by his side while Sam chooses the dowry of guns he wants to carry away with him.

Dean peers at something in his jacket pocket. "EMF's dead, I think, though it'd be pretty fucking impossible to hear it over this fucking noise." He wrinkles his nose, glancing up towards the nearest set of speakers like they've personally offended him. "This isn't music, man. This is just noise."

There's a stage in the center of the club but it's empty, and Sam's not convinced the live music would be any more to Dean's tastes. After all, they're not likely to be playing music that was ancient when Dean himself was born.

"Maybe I should try talking to some of these fine folks," Dean mutters. His eyes hold a speculative gleam as he studies a tiny blonde with fake eyelashes so long she could start a hurricane with a few blinks.

Sam takes hold of his sleeve again, misjudges slightly and feels the bump of Dean's elbow bone. But he doesn't let go, not even when Dean's face goes still and he looks down at Sam's hand on him.

"Listen," Sam says. He can't bring himself to look at Dean, concentrates instead on the steady trill of bubbles to the surface of his beer. "You know, nothing got taken away. Everything he was, that was just… pieces of me."

"You water down tequila, it's not tequila anymore." Dean rubs his face with his hand, and whether incidentally or by design, the move effectively pulls his arm out of Sam's grip. "Look, do we have to talk about it? Can't we just do the job and leave this crap to one side?"

Sam watches Dean lift the bottle to his mouth again, distractedly follows the curve of his lips around the glass, while he tries to make his point. "He's me, Dean. Everything that you liked about him, is right here. Everything you had with him you, you could-"

"Could what?" Dean cuts in, brutal as a bullet wound. "Huh, Sammy? You wanna be a little bit clearer what you're saying? 'Cause it sounds an awful lot like you're hitting on me right now, and I'm sure that can't be right."

Sam gazes at him helplessly, too stricken to continue. He doesn't know what he's saying, but he thinks maybe he does know. He holds back from saying it, keeps it back, because once it's said, there's no making it unsaid. Fifty years from now, Sam will still have said it.

He can't commit to that.

He drops his gaze to his hands, studies the ripple of color over his knuckles. "I just don't understand why I can't hunt with you."

When Sam looks up at him to gauge his response, Dean's expression is curiously sympathetic. His eyes are soft, his mouth a small regretful pout. He swallows and turns his face to the seething throb of dancing bodies.

"Because I said so, Sam," says Dean. Weary frustration makes his voice sharp. He shakes his head, like Sam's trying to argue already, and says, "Because you and me being together, I mean, together on the road, after everything with him? That is just a level too messed up even for me."

What makes Sam angriest, what really makes him knot up in rage, is that Dean broke them, and he doesn't even seem interested in trying to fix them.

It offends Sam on a very basic level that Dean apparently accepts that falling into bed with that Sam-shaped absence has the power to undo their lives like this. He wants to walk away, as though Sam is a one-night stand that can be walked away from. As if his relationship with Sam isn't worth more than a really badly thought out fuck with someone who was just a single layer of a human being.

Dean has never picked anyone over Sam before. Even when Dean stayed with John, Sam can believe that it was only because he didn't ask him to go to Stanford with him.

He sits in the club and is eaten up by it. He feels the blind fury, the hurt injustice of it stitching his skin tighter and tighter over his bones, until he can't even move he's so wrapped up in it.

And Dean goes on watching the people dance, tapping a fingertip on the tabletop in bored counterpoint to the beat of the music. He turns, looks back over his shoulder and says something to Sam.

Sam watches his lips move, takes in the apathetic glaze to his heavy-lidded eyes, and he hates him, and he would kill for him to say just one word that would feed this elemental need Sam has to be with him.

Dean snaps his fingers in front of Sam's face. He leans in closer, in case the music's too loud for Sam to hear him, and Sam takes in every detail of his freckles and the dip in his chin and the line of his eyebrows, all of it discolored by the revolution of unnatural light and the dark that flashes out between each shift.

"Hey, take it you didn't dig up anything interesting on this place?" he says.

Lips folded together, Sam shakes his head.

Dean pauses, considers Sam's expression, then knocks back the rest of his bottle. "I'm gonna see if anyone knows anything," he says, and he gets up from the table. And he walks away.

:::

The club is loud, like a communal headache. But nobody speaks to Sam. Sam passes through the crowds and people look at him but nobody speaks to him. He's a step out of synch with the rest of them, he exists in the silence that's waiting for the music to end.

There is nothing about the club to suggest what happened to Halleigh and Bradley here. If the blood is still visible from the night before last, Sam can't see it for the people dancing over it. All the respect they had for the dead was used up in the eight hours they were closed last night. It's a hearty fuck you to death, or it's a basic matter of profits.

Sam's mood is ugly, and he has enough distaste for the people partying around him to feel like a member of an entirely separate species. He completes his third circuit of the club and has seen nothing more suspicious than retro haircuts and softcore porn fashion sense.

There's nothing for them here, so he looks around for Dean, to tell him they might as well head back to the motel, to their separate rooms. Dean is at the bar, talking to a good-looking guy a few years older than himself. Dean's propped up, body leaned in towards the guy, and it looks friendlier than a standard interview of a witness. Then again, Dean's interaction with anyone he meets always stands a good chance of dipping into meaningless flirting.

As Sam approaches, Dean spots him over the guy's shoulder, and he lifts his chin slightly in greeting. He pats the guy on the bicep and straightens up to meet Sam. The guy turns to see what's got Dean's attention, and he's even better looking than Sam had previously judged.

He's tall, not quite as tall as Sam but nobody ever is. A thick studded bracelet bands one wrist and his t-shirt is bubble-blue, stretching neatly over his muscled chest. His dark eyes flick up and down over Sam once, before he glances back at Dean. His smile is rich and thick.

"So, are you two together?" says the guy.

Dean huffs a stiff little laugh, and he touches the back of his wrist to his forehead. "Boy, did you ever pick the wrong night to ask that question." His gaze is stuck to the shiny surface of the bar, and even that refusal to meet Sam's eyes needles at Sam.

"Calum," says the guy, sticking his hand out at Sam. Sam gives him his hand, although his shoulders won't relax.

Grinning, Calum shakes Sam's hand. He keeps his eyes on Sam's face as he says, "You've got a really pretty boyfriend." He cocks an eyebrow at Sam, squeezes his hand a little tighter, strong palm to thick knuckles. The hair on his arms is heavy and a shade darker than his sandy blond crew cut. "I'd love to fuck him while you watch." He grins, like he just can't wait to see how Sam takes it, like he's impressed with his own audacity.

Sputtering on an unfortunately timed mouthful of beer, Dean's eyes fly wide open, shiny and green, and he grips the side of the bar as if he needs the support. Calum laughs, but there's nothing in the glint of his eyes to say it's a joke.

"Uh, no," says Dean, "I don't think that's gonna happen. Sam isn't exactly…"

He makes the mistake of looking at Sam. It's probably a throwback to times he looked to Sam for support, a little help in getting himself out of the grave he's dug for himself. But Sam wants to hear what it is that he isn't exactly.

Dean cuts off at the sight of Sam's narrow-eyed unfriendliness. His smile uncurls itself, like his lips are a pink ribbon slipping free, and he wets his lips, like he's nervous, like he's slutty and wanting it, like he doesn't want it but he doesn't want it to show. Sam's got no goddamn clue what that look on Dean's face is.

Dean's cheeks are flushed, and Sam wonders how that's possible, if his body still functions exactly as it did, except it's running on other people's blood. There's a collective of strangers in Dean's heart now, a crime scene marked by a bloody fingerprint from each person who's seen his barbed wire smile. In the most literal of terms, they are no longer blood brothers.

"Sure, sounds like fun," says Sam. Of course Calum doesn't hear how clipped the words come out, he just hears an agreement, but there's a weary kind of resentment showing on Dean's face.

He flashes Calum a broad smile that's so obviously fake it's almost contemptuous, and says, "You mind if I have a word with my boyfriend about this?"

"Sure," says Calum. "I'll wait outside for you both." His last look is not at Dean, but Sam, and Sam doesn't know how to respond to the hint of conspiracy he sees Calum giving him in his farewell grin. He doesn't have the patience or inclination to think about it.

Not when Dean is watching the ground, smiling a crooked, pissed-off little smile that tells Sam to expect a punch some time in the very near future.

"Okay, what exactly are you try'na prove with this?" he says. He looks up at Sam through the dark fringe of his long eyelashes. "We don't do this, Sam."

Sam cocks his head at him. His nostrils are flaring he's trying so hard to keep his breathing level. His mouth is small, strained with the effort of holding back screaming rage. "Apparently we do," is all he says.

:::

Sam sits in Calum's catalogue-bought chair in his apartment so high it looks out at nothing but the top of the block across the street, flat and black as set scenery, and watches Calum and Dean make out on the bed.

The executive toy on the desk that Dean set going during his initial bored ransacking of the apartment is still spinning in silver motion.

Calum and Dean are standing on their knees on the beds, and their hips are swaying and grinding together slowly, like they're dancing while they kiss. It's a slow kiss, but not tender. It's wet and deep and all about fucking; their tongues shove into each other's open mouths, sliding slickly, messily against each other, faces tilting and jaws working hungrily as they try it at every new angle. They sound dirty together, moans and grunts and the press of their lips on each other.

Not without casting a look at Sam over Dean's shoulder, Calum breaks the kiss, and he draws it out by pulling and dragging at Dean's tongue-fucked mouth with his own lips, until Dean's lips are soft and swollen and dark, and the faintest glistening strand of spit between them splits.

Calum skims his hands possessively down the planes of Dean's body, and, unresisting, Dean watches the progress of Calum touching him, watches Calum's hands sweep down his chest and belly, and only squirms slightly when Calum toys with the nub of his nipple beneath the ashy-cotton of his t-shirt.

When Calum lifts the hem of Dean's t-shirt and peels it off of his body, Dean goes with it, lifts his arms up over his head like an obedient child, and doesn't move when, having discarded the t-shirt, Calum ducks in to mouth at the marble curve of his pectoral muscle. Dean holds still, distractedly studies the top of Calum's head, while he's touched and kissed and petted. It's only when Calum bites down on the corded muscle of Dean's neck that Dean stiffens, bucks against him helplessly, his eyes rolling back in his head and his mouth opening in a silent gasp.

Sam's eyes narrow at the sudden blaze of arousal that transforms Dean's features. He sits rigid in his chair, barely breathing, certainly not moving, terrified of the moment when he will remember something of this. That look on Dean's face might be familiar to him, and Sam can scarcely dare raise his eyes to see it.

But Calum doesn't notice, or doesn't care that he's got a response from Dean. Instead, he buries his face in the hollow under Dean's arm to breathe in the maleness of him, then he licks a torturously slow path down Dean's ribs, like he's tasting Dean's skin.

At last, he straightens up to kiss Dean on the mouth again, and Dean lets him, obliging and indulgent. Opens his mouth up for Calum, slides his tongue next to his, while his hand works deftly between their bodies at the buckle of Calum's belt.

As Calum's hands travel down the curve of Dean's spine, they draw Sam's gaze along with them, as if eagerly pointing out the features of note in the landscape of Dean's body. Calum touches the blunted wingtips of Dean's shoulderblades, bounce down the cut-out notches of his vertebrae and come to rest on the provocative roundness of Dean's ass, apparent just above the top of his jeans.

Excluding Sam from his gaze for a significant first time, Calum looks Dean directly in the face, his jaw set in challenge, and tugs on Dean's belt, to bring him closer to him. Dean's hips jerk at the force with which Calum yanks down his fly and drags his jeans down his hips, the rattle of his belt buckle unexpectedly loud in the quiet of the room.

Calum groans, low, in the back of his throat, as he palms Dean's perfect, pale ass. He squeezes the flesh greedily, slaps it, until the skin is almost the same color as the slick redness of Dean's dick, sticking up prominently between them.

On display, for Sam and for Calum, Dean's body is pale and tight and hard. Sam's seen it naked before, even disallowing for the fourth person in the room, the one who's locked up behind a wall in Sam's head. In a life spent in cramped spaces, close enough to taste each other's skin in every breath, Sam has seen Dean's body before. He's seen his cock, even thick and half-hard when he wakes in the morning and heads to the shower. It's always been an incidental, though, a familiar but unnoted bystander to some other more relevant activity.

Sam wishes it were less recognizable to him as his brother's naked body.

This time, the slide of Calum's hand down Dean's back has is smooth with intent. His middle finger separates from the spread of the others and disappears between the cheeks of Dean's ass. Sam can't see what Calum's doing, but he knows it in the steady, circular motion of Calum's hand as he works at Dean, the press and flex of his wrist and the greedy curiosity in his eyes as he watches Dean's face.

The noise Dean makes when Calum fucks a finger into him makes Sam fidget and clench. It's the same sound Dean makes when Sam holds him in against his own body and slots a dislocated limb back into place. He swallows down the sudden rush of his breath, forces himself to settle back in the chair. That's the only reason Dean's raw little cry is familiar to him.

While Calum fingers Dean, short, rough jerks of his wrist alternating with deeper, slower thrusts, fucking him on his hand until Dean's whining and squirming, he cups Dean's cheek in his other hand and uses his mouth. What he does to Dean's mouth is not a kiss. He leaves Dean's mouth open to lick the plush wet arch of Dean's upper lip, before he coaxes Dean's lips together so that he can nip and suck at the sealed line, then forces his tongue between them, bullies his way into Dean's mouth, playing at forcing Dean to kiss him.

He knows, Sam thinks. He knows Dean could stop him at any time he likes and is enjoying having this power over Dean that Dean is letting him. And he knows, from the number of conspiratorial looks he throws in Sam's direction, that Dean's permission hinges on Sam's presence. It's not just Dean's body he's getting off on, it's Sam's compliance.

And Dean is punishing Sam for this escalation in their argument by going along with it.

"Jesus, I don't know which of your holes I wanna fuck first," Calum tells Dean, and Sam's startled by the intrusion of a voice in this. He cocks his head at Sam, finger working a sudden circle in Dean's ass that makes Dean shiver. "What do you think?"

He turns Dean in his arms on the bed to face Sam. An arm across Dean's shoulders and his hand teasingly tugging on Dean's dick, flushed and wet in the circle of his fist, Calum presents Sam with his brother.

When Sam only stares back at him from his resolute position in the chair, Calum apparently loses interest. He kisses Dean's throat and begins lazily riding his ass, humping him from behind, while Dean bows his head and lets him. Calum's voice is pitched low, just for Dean, but the room is otherwise too quiet for Sam to miss what he says.

"I'm going put every inch of my dick inside your pretty little hole while your boyfriend watches."

Sam lets out a short shuddering breath, can't help it. It's just the rhythm of their bodies that's affecting him. It's a floorshow of skin and dick and ass, and it's being put on just for him. Of course he gets hard. His dick is aching for someone to touch it, but he won't. He sits through the indignity of it, refuses to draw attention to it.

His heart pounds in time to the pulse of blood to his cock, which is thickening and leaking between his legs, straining huge and wet against the seam of his jeans. But Sam is cold and unreachable, distant as memory. If he touches himself now, he'll have to remember something that will make a mark inside his head that will never fade. Or maybe he won't remember anything at all. And that will be worse. Because he'll be jerking off to the idea of Dean while he's tip-to-top full of soul.

So he sits there, stiff and uncomfortable, and does nothing but watch.

Calum continues to beat the head of his dick against Dean's hole, groaning to a climax, and Dean's eyes are closed, eyes fluttering beneath oh-so delicate lowered lids.

But Dean is smiling. "Aren't you gonna take it out?" Dean says. He's talking to Sam.

That's when it hits Sam like cold, clawing terror. He doesn't need to take his dick out, doesn't need to show Dean how needy and desperate he is. The beating of his heart has told Dean everything. Dean has heard the rush of his blood, all of it running to his dick. Sam has ached and hardened, and Dean has been listening in on it, he's been listening in on the rabid, waking wet dreams of Sam's subconscious.

Dean was not supposed to know that Sam has been wanting what his soulless self did, and he was not supposed to know that Sam has been unable to follow through. He's cheated Sam. He's played dirty.

"No," Sam breathes, stricken. "No, that's not… not fair."

He stares at Dean hatefully, until Dean raises his head, apparently no more than tolerating Calum's attentions, and grins even more sharkishly for him.

"Tequila and water," he tells Sam.

:::

It's morning when they leave Calum's apartment. The rising sun stamps its image on Sam's cornea and he sees copper pennies glinting on the ground everywhere he looks. Without a word of discussion, Dean takes the passenger seat, sticks his sunglasses on, and sinks into his jacket.

They slow to a crawl as they drive back past the club. The doors are closed and the sidewalk is littered with fast food containers and empty bottles. Cheap pearls from a snapped string dot the gutter, a couple resting in a puddle of sticky vomit, orange as primroses.

"No police tape," says Dean. "Guess that's a good sign."

"Unless it happened someplace else, like it did with Bradley."

Dean sighs and doesn't disagree, choosing instead to nestle deeper into his jacket. It's the most sunshine Sam's seen Dean take so far.

"There isn't a cure for vampirism, is there?" says Sam.

It seems the least of what's wrong and he very much doubts that they'd find their way back simply if Dean were human again. They're so deep in the woods that fangs and human blood are minor concerns.

"Not for me," says Dean. He's milder in the wake of having his point proved. It will be a little while yet before Sam has the heart to start another round of the fight, so Dean can afford to be tolerant.

"Why not you?" Sam says, taking his eyes off the road a moment to look at Dean, but seeing nothing but sunglasses above the raised collar of his jacket.

"There was a cure, but it took a couple of things. Blood of the sire and me not chowing down on any humans. There was an old Campbell recipe that would'a done it but we found out too late."

"How do you mean, too late?"

Another deep sigh from Dean.

"Dean," Sam prompts, flicking him another look. "I'll find out one way or another. You tell me and I don't have to try remembering it myself. So c'mon, what do you mean, too late?"

"Samuel wanted to hunt me. Sam found out before he could get to me and he killed him." Dean gives a dusty laugh. "'Course it was a couple months later we're looking through his journal and find there was a cure. Which would'a been real handy if we hadn't already decapitated and burned the guy who turned me and I hadn't already fallen off the wagon."

Sam watches the road, swallows down the thickness in his throat. "And that was the only cure?"

He hears the rustle of Dean's jacket as he shrugs, or makes himself more comfortable in his seat. "I've heard some vague stuff. Rumors of possibilities of maybes, but they all take at least blood of the sire or not drinking human blood, and the boat's sailed on both of those." He's quiet a moment, before adding, "I know what I am, Sam. I've accepted it. It's okay."

Sam only shakes his head.

:::
"Killing yourself doesn't do anybody any good," Sam says. He's sitting on the bed, the motel room wrecked around him, and he's watching Dean turn this way and that like a crippled bird, following him with his gaze while he remains completely still.

There's a broken lamp on the floor, colorful wires sprouting from its end like a bouquet of headless flowers where the plug's been yanked clean off. On the wall there are a couple of fist-sized holes in the plaster. One of the drapes at the window is only hanging from a couple of rings.

It's night outside. The sound of traffic – sirens and horns and music from cars stopped at lights - doesn't seem any softer for the late hour.

"And how about the next poor sucker I'm gonna eat?" says Dean, in a voice left hoarse by tears. "You don't think it does him some good?"

He looks terrible. He looks sick. Eyes so red they're half-sunk in blood and skin the gray of one big bruise. He won't settle, he moves around the room like the walls are bristling with knives.

"That's not going to happen. I'm not gonna let it," says Sam.

Dean stares at him, waiting for some deeper explanation of how Sam intends to stop him. But the how doesn't matter, it's settled, so Sam just stares impassively back at him.

With a dry sob, Dean wheels away. His fingertips are still bloodied from where he chewed them open earlier on his new teeth, though the wounds are already healed. There's blood in his hair from the frantic sweep of his fingers through it, backwards and forwards, like he's searching for cracks in his skull.

Dean fumbles for the bag on the bed, and Sam checks a sigh as Dean takes hold of a machete in his desperation-drunk hands. When Dean turns around, offers it out to Sam, saying Sam, please, you gotta, Sam gives up and sighs for real.

"Give me that."

He stands up and removes the blade from Dean's grip, one hand circling Dean's wrist to steady him while the other unpeels his fingers from the machete, like he's taking scissors off a child. He flings the machete carelessly onto the bed.

"Nobody has to die, Dean. We can manage this, okay? And you're gonna save way more people the way you are now. You're faster, and you're stronger, and you're just better. Killing yourself would be a waste."

There's that frozen set to Dean's gaze again as he listens to Sam. He believes not so much that Sam will make it better, but that there's a chance that he can.

When Sam goes quiet, Dean lets out an almost silent breath, shoulders dropping with it. He takes a step back, and the plasticky glass of the broken lightbulb cracks under his foot. He sits down heavily on the bed, breaks at the waist, and his head falls forward to be caught in his bloodied hands.

Sam studies him a moment, eyes narrowed in consideration, then sits down next to him. Wordlessly, he claps his big hand on Dean's thigh, squeezes slightly. Dean lifts his head, looking up bloody-eyed through his lashes, and Sam reaches for him.

"No, Sam, don't, don't," Dean mutters, but he goes all the same, stiff-shouldered and straight-spined into the circle of Sam's arm.

"It's gonna be okay," says Sam. He rubs Dean's knee, tightens his grip when Dean's leg tries to slant away from him. "It's gonna be fine."

Dean rolls his eyes, licking his lips as he swallows down the clog of old tears. "How? How's it gonna be fine? I'm a monster, Sam."

His fingertips traveling up and down the length of Dean's thigh, Sam nods. "But we're gonna be an incredible team."

:::

Sam sleeps fitfully. If he dreams, they're bad. His sheets are wrinkled and over-heated by the time he gives up on getting any rest.

He could go out. He's not trapped indoors like Dean is. He could take the Impala and drive to a coffee shop, sit outside in the afternoon sunshine and feel the heat penetrate each cell of his body's architecture.

He could at least open the drapes in his own room.

Instead he sits at the desk in front of his laptop, watching the video of Halleigh on repeat. He takes it through, frame by frame, scanning the screen from top to bottom, left to right. He watches Halleigh rise to her feet, the drip-drip-drip of blood from her fist. Her lips are moving, and Sam leans in closer, trying to make out the shape of the words.

She's singing along to the music. It's not a song that Sam recognizes, but that's not saying much; Dean's own appetite for music is voracious and stands no competition.

Sam isolates the audio and runs the usual checks for EMF: slowing it down, running it through goldwave. Finally, having exhausted any other option, he tries running it backwards. Beneath the louder, warped gabbling of Halleigh's friend, the background music has become something else. The lyrics, which were formerly an overwrought condemnation of an oppressive parent, dissolve to one word.

Murderer.

The voice is deeply unnatural, a compressed and cut-off whining from the uncanny valley that rises and falls in all the wrong places. It mimics a human voice while never having heard how humans speak. There is, however, no mistake in what it is saying. Just one word, over and over. Murderer.

Sam leans back in his chair, rubs the crick from his neck. At least he's made progress. His eyes travel to the wall that stands between his room and Dean's. Then he checks his watch. It's a little after three in the afternoon, late enough that it wouldn't be unreasonable to wake Dean.

Whatever bad memories surfaced while Sam was sleeping, they've brought a quiet sense of foreboding. It's easier to sit in the stillness, while Dean rests, untroubled and untroubling, on the other side of the wall. There's a luxury in doing absolutely nothing, in allowing the world to continue. He can afford just a short respite from living through the erosion of his relationship with Dean.

It can't last, of course. All too soon, there are sounds of Dean stirring next door. Sam charts the progress of him waking and getting up: out of bed, into the bathroom, back for clothes. He rises to his feet at Dean's approach to his door and is ready to meet him just as Dean knocks.

"Hi," he says. "Was just coming to find you." He doesn't know why he's telling the lie, but it passes by Dean without comment.

Dean is in t-shirt and jeans, barefoot, and he doesn't look much better for sleeping, dark-eyed and pale-lipped. It occurs to Sam to wonder how long vampires can go without human blood, and whether Dean's last meal counted as such or just a light snack. If the other Sam, despite all his misdeeds, at least took care of feeding Dean, Sam thinks he should be able to do the same.

Dean slumps down at the table, head sinking into his hands with a groan, and Sam regrets the lack of even any coffee to offer him. So far, he's doing a shitty job of convincing Dean that he can be as good as that other Sam.

Sitting back down across from Dean, Sam says, "It's not the club. It's the music. The music's haunted."

Dean peers up at him through the hedge of his laced fingers. "Suicide song or satanic rock haunted?"

Sam raises his eyebrows. "Uh…?"

With another groan, Dean slips back in the chair, ruffling his fingers through his hair as he does. "You got stuff like Gloomy Sunday, written by this guy who committed suicide, which lore has it encourages anyone who listens to it to take the big swan dive." He gestures as he talks, and Sam watches the play of his soap-white hands. "Then there's the backwards messages in songs like Stairway. Backmasking or reverse speech, stuff that shouldn't be there but kinda is if you listen for it, y'know, like, here's to my sweet Satan."

Dean tips his head towards Sam, flashing him a grin, and Sam's cheeks heat at the reminder of someone else he's been, or someone else who's been him.

"It's love songs for Lucifer, basically, so, c'mon, you tell me, does Led Zep make you go all gooey inside?"

Averting his eyes to fuss with the laptop, Sam says, "Haha, very funny," sounding as blank as he can. "It's the backwards speech option, but I don't think it can be any kind of natural coincidence."

He plays the audio, and he has the freedom to simply watch Dean's face instead of the screen while Dean is focused elsewhere.

"Huh," Dean says after he's heard it through a few times. "Guess we've got our smoking gun."

With the laptop closed, there's just the desk between them, and it doesn't quite feel companionable. It feels like the precursor to another confrontation. Sam carefully avoids making eye contact. Dean must feel it too, because he gets to his feet and crosses to Sam's pile of notes on the counter.

"So have you got any idea about the music? Or, like, how we exorcise music?" Sam says. "I mean, if the ghost's in the recording, is it enough to destroy just the one track or…"

Dean shakes his head, points a finger towards the laptop, as though the audio's still playing. "That's not a recording. That's a live band playing." He pauses, eyes narrowing and snapping his fingers as he thinks. Then he smiles like dry white lightning. "Yeah, I remember. Baby Axe, they're a three man emo-band. Bradley had a flyer for them on his wardrobe door. Think he's a fan?"

"If he is, it'd make sense that he'd been at one of their shows the night he killed his sister."

Sam flips the laptop open once more, fingers rapidly tapping away at the keyboard until he finds the band's website. The website is a grungy mix of black and magenta, and the sight of the band's logo, prominent on the page, reminds Sam that he saw the same flyer in Bradley's room that Dean did.

It only takes a few minutes of searching before he finds what he's looking for.

He gives a short laugh and turns the screen towards Dean. "Big surprise, Baby Axe was playing at Verve the night Bradley killed his sister and the night Halleigh attacked her friend."

He flicks through the gallery of photos from various shows, pictures in black and white and in color, and he shakes his head. "You think they know they're doing it?" he says.

He looks back over his shoulder, and Dean is right there, leaning in over him to study the screen. He's close enough Sam can feel that strange, stolen heat radiating from his body. Sam's breath catches and he turns his face back to the laptop.

Voice wobbling only slightly, he says, "Guess we could always ask 'em, right?"

Dean doesn't answer. There's a frown knitting his brow as he studies something on the screen, something in one of the show photographs. The band is presumably leaving the stage, sweaty and smiling, one of them triumphantly holding his guitar aloft. At the back, just off-center, the singer is reaching into the crowd to clasp the hand of a pretty girl who's straining towards him.

Sam cocks his head at the picture, because something in it is speaking to him.

"I've seen her before," Dean mutters. "Where the hell have I seen her before?"

Sam stares at her, and it hits him out of nowhere. He kicks away from the table so fast he bangs his shin painfully against the leg. Dean follows close behind him expectantly, as Sam rifles through his pages of notes, his earlier research into the town and the club. With a soft ha! of triumph, Sam pulls the sheet of paper free and brandishes it at Dean.

"Casey Adams," Dean reads aloud. "Age twenty-two, went missing a year ago." He looks up at Sam, blinking as if mildly dazed. "Huh. Guess we've got a pretty good idea what happened to her. Was Baby Axe playing at the club that night?"

Sam is already back at the laptop, to scan through the list of previous dates. "Same night," he confirms. He leans back in his chair and looks up at Dean. "So, what are we saying here? Someone in the band kills her and she's using the music to get back at them?"

Dean shrugs. "Seems likely."

He's looking a little more alive, and Sam feels a touch self-satisfied for having brightened Dean up, however indirectly. He glances again at the laptop screen, grinning to himself before he turns it on Dean.

"And it looks like Baby Axe is playing at another club in town tonight. Guess we'll have to go see if they're any good."

:::

The first time Sam shaved after he woke resouled, he found three hairs on his razor, stuck to the metal by dried foam. They were short and dark and unquestionably his own. He plucked them off and didn't think about them, but as the days have passed, Sam has been experiencing a growing sense of alienation from his razor. The idea of using it, of putting it to his skin, is indefinably unsanitary to him.

While Dean is out getting coffee, Sam goes in search of Dean's razor. Possessions have always washed between them, some clung on to but most carried on the tide of shared ownership from one to the other and back again.

Dean's room is a twin to Sam's own, given personality by an unmade bed and an assortment of empty liquor bottles on the desk. The bathroom door stands ajar, and the hot fog from Dean's shower is still dissipating. The air is still frilled with the smell of his soap.

Sam carefully removes the flannel shirts from the top of Dean's duffel, rolled the same way Sam's are, the way John taught them. Beneath the shirts are a pair of jeans, a sewing kit, another bottle of Jack – Sam feels his way blind through the shapes in the bag, until he finds the razor.

But his straining fingers brush a curiously shaped bundle at the bottom of the bag, and Sam stops, can't help himself. The bundle unfolds in his hand into a contraption of leather straps and jingling buckles and a curved metal grille.

It takes Sam a moment of turning it and twisting it to understand what it is he's looking at.

It's a muzzle, a cage for a mouth. Sam looks at it a little longer then unwillingly realizes it's designed to be worn by a human. Or a vampire.

He doesn't understand.

Sam is still kneeling on the floor of Dean's motel room, the muzzle resting in his palm like a sleeping animal, when the door opens. Sam knows he's about to be caught out, that there's one hell of a fight about to start, but he can't seem to bring himself to move. His body doesn't answer to his commands. He's locked out of everything but his gaze on Dean's muzzle in his hand.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" says Dean. He's quiet, still out of sight "Put it back in the fucking bag."

Sam moves his hand slightly, and one strap slides from the cradle of his hand. The buckle rattles as it falls, the sound sets a string inside his mind vibrating. "What is this?"

"None of your goddamn business. Now put it back in the fucking bag."

"Did he make you wear this?" Sam says. His throat is closed by something hard to swallow down. "Did he make you wear this when he fucked you?"

"Sam, I swear to God, you don't put that fucking thing back in the bag-"

"I don't get it. I thought you were…" in love with him. Sam can't say it. Even now, he can't approach that truth, not when Dean's there to make it truer. "How could you let me do that?" Sam demands.

Dean snatches the muzzle out of Sam's hand. The scratch of his nails across Sam's palm leaves the skin stinging. Without the muzzle to hold his attention, Sam turns his face up to Dean, whose gaze is black and blistering with fury. He stuffs the muzzle back into the bag, jerks the bag shut and throws it aside.

Then he turns to Sam. There's a snarl in the curl of his upper lip away from his teeth. "I'm not gonna keep explaining myself to you. I'm not gonna give you details about how we –" He cuts dead, he's talked himself to somewhere he didn't want to go.

"You weren't here. You won't understand, and I'm not interested in trying to make you." He cants his head briefly towards the duffel, more particularly to what's inside it. "You stay the hell out of my stuff. You stop trying to involve yourself in something that's got nothing to do with you."

It has everything to do with Sam. It's Sam's body, and what it did to Dean, and what Dean let Sam's body do to him. And it's Dean, which means that if only because of that, Sam would be involved.

Surprisingly shaky on his legs, Sam gets to his feet. His gaze won't rise any higher than Dean's knees.

"Muzzles are for animals and monsters," he says in a controlled voice. "He shouldn't have been –" He wets his lips and forces the next word out, "fucking you if he thought of you as either."

Dean jabs his fingers into Sam's chest and shoves him towards the door. He shoves again when Sam stumbles back a few steps, and keeps on driving forward.

"None of your goddamn business," he snarls, and pushes Sam clean out through the door.

:::

After an hour or so has passed, Sam hears Dean come out of his motel room and the distinctive slam of the Impala door moments later. He waits but there is no following growl of the engine. Just silence.

After another ten minutes has passed, Sam looks outside and sees Dean sitting behind the wheel of the car, face front forward. It's too dark to read any expression on the set of his features but Sam understands that he's waiting. He's waiting for Sam.

Sam puts on his jacket, leaves the room and crosses the lot to the car, climbs in beside Dean. They sit in silence, both of them watching the empty street that runs beside the parking lot.

"Maybe you were both just really kinky," Sam offers.

"Yeah," says Dean.

His hands flex and tighten around the curve of the steering wheel. Sam listens to the wet roll of his throat as he swallows, the lighter sound of his tongue over his lips. Then Dean sighs and starts the engine. A wave of nausea comes over Sam, and he turns his face to the window and tries not to give in to the urge to be sick.

:::

Baby Axe play the kind of music that neither Sam nor Dean can stand. It's too modern for Dean and too whiny for Sam. However, the size and noise of the crowd in the club allows them to avoid speaking to each other without the lack of conversation having any significance, so Sam has that to appreciate at least.

They stand near the back of the audience, and after a few initial glances at the EMF meter, Dean abandons it. There are no incidents of violence in the crowd and not a note played that suggests anything unnatural. If Casey Adams is haunting Baby Axe's music, she's only doing it at the club they played her last night at.

By the time Baby Axe finish their set, Sam has been ready for too long already. He surges forward, keeping his eyes on the door through which the band is disappearing backstage. Security is a guy with the build of a bulldog, and he moves forward to intercept Sam and Dean, only to fall back as Sam flashes him a press-pass.

Press is more likely to get a friendly response than cops or the FBI.

"Just wanna get an idea of what's next for the band," says Dean with an ingratiating smirk. "Where they get their inspiration, you know, the usual stuff."

Backstage is too small for it to take long to track down the band. They're in a lounge, celebrating with beer and groupies. An attempt at giving the room style has been made with tropical green leather couches, but there are chips in the gray paint on the walls and two of the bulbs in the spot lighting in the ceiling are dark.

It's not hard to separate Toby, the lead singer, from the rest of the party. Toby's separated himself. He's sitting on a couch in the corner, leaning forward, distractedly chewing his own smile as he watches the others. His thumb flicks backwards and forwards over the cap of the unopened bottle of beer he's got a white-knuckled grip on.

At Sam and Dean's approach, Toby looks up and smiles. "Hi, guys. You enjoy the show?"

"Yeah, it was great," Dean says easily, again with that faintly mocking grin. While Sam takes a seat across from Toby, Dean insinuates himself between them and the rest of the room.

"Mind if we ask you some questions?" says Sam.

Toby's weak chin dimples. He straightens up a little on the couch. He flashes another smile, while his summer-blue eyes dart between the two of them. "Sure. You're journalists, right?"

"Something like," Dean agrees. His friendliness is obnoxious in its insincerity, and Dean makes no attempt to pretend otherwise. Toby eyes him uncertainly, before latching back onto Sam.

"What do you wanna know?" he says.

Sam removes the folded sheet of paper from his jacket and offers it to Toby. Toby takes it, looks down at it, and his face twitches, like the threads of his skin are being snapped tighter.

"I've never seen her before," he says, and tosses Casey's 'Missing' flyer on the low table in front of them. His throat wobbles as he swallows. "Who is she?"

Sam raises an eyebrow. "You're not a very good liar, Toby."

"You're a fucking awful liar," Dean puts in.

For a moment, it looks like Toby is going to argue a little longer about it. His jaw firms to a mutinous line, even while his hands are shaking. Then he makes a low, pitiful noise, and looks past Dean to the rest of the band, deeply preoccupied in the party.

"Can we go somewhere else?" he says.

:::

Toby makes a couple of attempts to light his cigarette but he's trembling too badly and the flame of his lighter vibrates like a ripple on water. Propped up against the hood of the Impala, Sam watches dispassionately. Toby whimpers at yet another failed attempt to match cigarette end to lighter, and Dean tsks and rolls his eyes before reaching over to do it for him.

He lets Toby take a single desperate pull, then says, "Right. Start talking. What did you do to her?"

"I didn't – I only… The guys were wasted," Toby says on finally. "They think I was with them." He bites his lip, removes the cigarette from his mouth only to chew on the corner of one of his painted nails. "I met her at Verve, after a show. She said she needed a ride home, and I said sure, but I swear, man, she knew what we were really talking about." He looks to both of them, pleading with them with wide eyes.

Sam's own eyes narrow. His mouth goes small. "What were you really talking about?"

"Sex!" Toby says, flinging his hands out like it should be obvious. "We were gonna have sex!"

Face tilted up to the sky, Dean turns away and laughs with a snap like breaking bones. Sam scrapes his fingers through his hair and keeps his eyes on Dean, because he's easier to look at than Toby right now.

Dean looks back at Toby and shakes his head. "Let me guess," he says. "All of a sudden she changes her mind and doesn't want sex, just the ride home she asked you for?"

"Yeah," says Toby. His voice is so tiny, and Sam would almost feel sorry for him, because he still doesn't understand what happened. But there's a girl dead because he only understood what he wanted to.

"I tried to calm her down but she was crazy, lashing out," says Toby. Terrified, Sam's brain supplies. "We kinda struggled and she- She hurt herself." The words stop coming. He shakes his head at the ground, still bewildered. Ash drifts from the end of his cigarette like falling leaves.

Sam and Dean share a look. They've seen all this before. As nasty as the demons can be and as cruel as the angels can be, there's nothing like the basic grubbiness of humanity.

"You need to show us where you put her body," says Dean.

"She was in the crowd a few nights back," Toby tells them, blankly earnest. "We were in the middle of a set and I looked into the crowd, and she was there, just, singing along with everyone else." He looks up at them, and there's a demented hopefulness in his eyes. "You think maybe I didn't kill her after all?"

"You killed her," Sam says. "You killed her, and now you need to show us where you put her body."

Toby stares at them. His face is open with incomprehension. Overhead, the moon is a broken china plate, white fragments behind shredded clouds. A bird calls from the distant line of trees and, as if in answer, Toby's head bobs in a nod.

"Let me get my jacket."

:::

Toby left Casey's body in a shallow grave in the woodland outside of town.

Any stirrings of pity Sam might have been feeling for him go dead.

Worrying the corner of his thumbnail with his teeth, Toby jerks his head towards the thicker darkness of the gathering of trees. "It's in there somewhere."

"She," Dean corrects him grimly, collecting a couple of shovels from the trunk of the Impala. "We're talking about a girl you murdered, not some piece of trash you threw away."

Toby ducks down lower in the backseat of the Impala, and Sam casts him a cool look.

"Stay here," he tells Toby. It probably doesn't really need saying. Toby is a child who's misbehaved, and he's going to wait for the grown-ups to tidy up the mess he's made before he goes back to his toys.

They leave him behind and move deeper into the forest.

It's not just Casey hiding somewhere out there; the wood is wet and alive, far from deserted. Only fractured moonlight makes it through the branches, and the wind moves through the trees with the sound of an entire sea caught in the leaves above their heads. An electrical buzz of insect life trills from the damp ground. Something, an animal, thrashes in the bushes within easy hand's reach of Sam, but it's invisible in the shadows. Sam's flashlight cuts only a narrow razor slice of vision.

"You any idea where to look?" he mutters.

"If she hadn't been dead so long, I could sniff her out," says Dean.

Sam glances over at him. "But you can see, right? I mean, in the dark, you can see?"

"Yeah." Dean grabs Sam's elbow and tugs him a few steps to the side. "Tree root," he says, by way of explanation.

Casey's body is buried not too far from the road. Toby went only so far as someone making a hurried first attempt at hiding a corpse would be expected to. The passing of a year has laid down a tattered covering of moss and skeleton leaves, like cobwebs over boxes forgotten in the attic, but the mound of a shallow grave is immediately recognizable to Sam and Dean.

Dean drives the blade of his shovel into the ground with a rasping, stony crunch. He gives a pleased grunt. "Ground's wet. Shouldn't take too long to get her up."

They dig together, shoulder to shoulder, their bodies moving as separate parts of a single machine. The rhythm of their digging is counterpoised by the rhythm of their breathing, and Sam works to the small sounds of exertion Dean makes at each swing of his shovel.

It takes very little time before Sam plunges his shovel in and hits something softer, more yielding than the dirt. The earth smells wet and far from fresh, and slimy things wriggle and scurry between the black clumps that fall away from Casey's corpse, her bones not quite yet rotted bare.

The smell of sour decay, like spoiled fruit, fills Sam's nose. He grimaces and removes the salt canister from his bag. He sprinkles the bones and the lines he lays down cross the streams of gasoline that Dean is emptying out.

"Time to light her up," says Dean. The snap of his lighter produces a flame as sudden as panic. It's an uneven light that turns the angles and the fullness of Dean's face into something that's gaunt and pretty at once.

Maybe in that light, Sam appears to Dean like that other version of himself.

Dean tosses the lighter down and fire instantly eats up the length of the bones. Casey's blonde hair curls and sizzles around her moldering skull. The stench of the smoke is noxious and the heat sears Sam's cheeks and makes his vision melt.

"It feel at all to you like we're punishing her for what he did?" Dean says.

Sam can't exactly argue with it. "We're just trying to stop anybody else getting hurt." Destroy those poor, sinned against bones to stop the damage done by their dislocated spirit.

They watch until Casey's bones have blackened and crumbled. The fire shrinks to a few crackling embers that smolder a bloodier red than the brilliant orange of the flames they were. The silence between them has been unsettled but unbroken.

Sam turns back in the direction of the Impala, and the sound of Dean close behind comes with him in the gloom. Toby is waiting for them by the car, his hands making fretful, curious shapes as he fidgets. He gives himself a shake as Sam and Dean approach, and lurches towards them.

"You got rid of the body?" he says.

Dean flicks him a glance and passes him by to stow the shovels back in the trunk. "It's done," he says grudgingly.

His chest shivering as his breath comes too fast, Toby licks his lips and gulps noisily. "The band's doing really well. There was this guy in this magazine, said we could be the next Nine Inch Nails."

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam sees Dean pull an incredulous face at him, but he continues regarding Toby with an obvious, basic dislike. Toby's smile is little more than a spastic twitch of his lips.

"I fucked up and it won't happen again, I promise, but I can't…" His hand fidgets into his jacket and out again, bringing a gun that shines like the smooth planes of a piece of coal. "It was just one mistake and I can't let you ruin this for me."

"Oh, you cannot be serious," says Dean. He takes a step towards Toby, saying, "Listen here, you little punk. You should be fucking grateful we don't-"

Even Toby seems surprised when the bullet rips into Dean. Dean goes down without a sound, without a pause, like he's dropped right through the earth. Darkness snatches him up greedily and Sam can only make out the irregular shadows where his body might be.

There's pain in his chest, and he wonders for a moment if he was so distracted by Dean going down that he missed Toby shooting him too. The pain is tight and stony, like Sam's ribs are collapsing around his heart, and his breath struggles to make it out of his lungs.

But no, just one bullet, just for Dean.

Toby and the gun can't compete with Dean being hurt, and Sam shoves past him without a single moment of wary hesitation. He drops to his knees by Dean's side, and eases the hot, boneless weight of his body into his lap, like he's done too many times before. Dean's eyes are shut, long lashes a shadow, and when Sam's hands move frantically over his chest, they come up warm and wet. Sam's palm leaves a dark mark on Dean's cheek when he cradles his face, thumb touching the delicate dip at the corner of Dean's lips.

Sam's heart breaks, like it does every time Dean dies. No matter how many times Dean is subsequently resurrected, Sam's heart has never mended from the first time he came to this place. He's panicked and furious and every time this happens, his world spins a little further off its axis.

"Dean," Sam whispers. "Don't. Not now. Not when we're-"

It's silent on the roadside, even with Toby freaking out behind him.

A violent shudder wracks Dean's chest, startling Sam so badly his hands fly away from Dean's body. They're back on him in an instant, gripping him fiercely as Dean pants, shudders again like he's caught in a bad dream. Then his eyes flutter open.

He blinks at Sam, as if bewildered that he should be there.

"Caught me by surprise," he murmurs. His gaze travels to Sam's hand, the one on his shoulder to the one on his hip. With a sleepy, disgruntled noise, he shifts out of the cradle of Sam's legs and chest. Sam has to let him go.

But he's still conscious of Dean right beside him. Fingertips touch as Dean plants a hand on the marshy ground to prop himself up, and Sam's hand inches closer, blind and desperate.

"Another bullet comes out of that gun," Dean tells Toby, "and I'm gonna be pissed."

Toby's face is made long and thin by the open droop of his mouth as he looks at Dean. Now that Dean is up and moving, Sam is able to concentrate on the gun once more. He watches its muzzle, moonlight catching on it as Toby's hand wobbles. The way Dean rises to his feet is sleek and easy as silk, while the after-effects of adrenaline leave Sam nowhere near as elegant.

"I'm sorry," Toby says. He swallows, stumbles back a step as Dean moves in. "I'm sorry," he says again.

Frowning, Dean smacks the gun dismissively from his hand, and Toby surrenders it at once, instead crossing his arms in front of his face in weak defense.

"Just because you can't kill me like that, doesn't mean I'm not gonna take offence at you putting a fucking bullet in me," says Dean. He hasn't stopped moving in on Toby, and Toby hasn't stopped giving ground.

So far, Sam has stood by, passive and separate. Residual shock keeps caving his chest in every time he tries to draw breath. He just watches. In a few seconds, Toby is going to back up against the wrinkled trunk of a tree, and Sam can see the collision about to happen, like watching a vase wavering in the moment before it topples, but his mouth is empty, functionless.

A gust of wind comes from nowhere, shakes the slick oilskin leaves on the trees, and Toby spins around, as if expecting to find Dean there too. His gasp is a strangled noise, and he throws one last terrified look at Dean, before he takes off running into the woods.

With the noise of Toby crashing through the tangled undergrowth still loud, Dean slowly looks back over his shoulder at Sam. His eyes are heavy-lidded, just a glint of green in the murk like the bright, dissonant taste of poison. His mouth slides into a smile, because his cards are coming up all aces.

Then he's gone too, and the trees only whisper as they swallow up his wake.

So Sam's left alone. Thin drizzle spits down on him, carried in the currents of the wind. If he closes his eyes, feels his body sway in the breeze and the spray on his cheeks, he can imagine himself standing at the crumbling edge of some huge ocean.

Only his hands are warm, because Dean's blood is drying a second skin on them, sticky in the creases between his fingers.

Somewhere, not too far away, Toby cries out. Sam starts running.

:::

Branches slap and scratch Sam as he pushes through them. There is no easy path to follow, none left by Toby or by Dean. The landscape dips and rises as Sam chases over the uneven terrain. All Sam can hear is the sound of his own breathing and the waxy slithering of leaves.

Then Toby shrieks again, a third time, then doesn't stop.

When Sam finds them, Dean has got Toby by the throat and the hip and is hauling him into a better position as Toby tries to crawl away. Dean handles Toby the way a cowboy handles an errant steer. Toby kicks and thrashes, fingers scrabbling deep lines into the dirt to claw at nothing at all. And Dean only grunts as he rides out Toby's struggling, shakes him impatiently, and doesn't let go.

Dean's jaw is jutting forward, lips parted, and Sam stumbles to a halt to watch those tiny pinpricks of white that are just showing grow into wicked teeth. As it happens, as his mouth fills, Dean grunts again, needy, breathy. His hips writhe in small, pushy circles and Sam doesn't want to believe he's turned on but isn't sure he can't.

With one thick tug on his t-shirt, Dean bares Toby's throat, and Toby drops into whimpering.

Sam is expecting to see Dean lower his head to that pulsing, living cut of flesh. He's expecting to see blood already. So when it doesn't happen, it takes Sam a moment to realize Dean is looking straight at him, mouth forced open around his fangs and his eyes lit up with hot urgency.

In this light, Sam must look like the soulless version of himself after all. Because Dean is asking him if he's allowed, he's asking Sam for permission. He's not going to move unless Sam tells him he can.

It's up to Sam.

Dean's blood is still drying on Sam's hands. The horror of that gunshot is fresh enough that he's still feeling it. And if Sam wants to take back his place with Dean from his soulless self, he has to be willing to take care of Dean as well as he did. Dean is so hungry, face exquisitely drawn with it, but he's holding that inhuman starvation so tightly, doing it for Sam. And while it took Sam a while to come to terms with it, he knows by now that he is capable of whatever Dean needs him to be.

Toby squirms under Dean, still pleading with him while tears run down his face.

"Go ahead," says Sam.

When Dean lowers his head, tucks it into the crook of Toby's neck and makes Toby scream, Sam's cock twitches at the stripped violence of the scene. Of Dean, in the center of it. He can't look away. He's not horrified by the sensation. The arousal is unattached and unspecified. It doesn't have to belong to Sam. It's simply a reaction.

Dean drinks in a strong, surging rhythm, and when he tips his head back to draw breath, his mouth is red as fairytales. In the respite, even while Dean is still gripping him in place and blood leaks from the dark patch on his throat, Toby moans, thrashes weakly.

Dean smiles down at Toby as he crawls in over him, legs spreading as he straddles Toby's hip. "Oh, you keep right on doing that, buddy. Harder you fight, harder your heart beats." He mouths at Toby's neck dreamily. He's not even drinking, just rubbing his lips in the blood, just enjoying it. "Faster your blood pumps."

The next time Dean drinks, it's a meatier sound, more ripping, more sucking. His grip on Toby flexes and tightens. The hunch of his shoulders suggests a dog at a dinner bowl it's not quite done with: try taking it away and you're liable to lose a hand. Toby's not silent but he's not even whimpering now. Instead, he's making a strange, high whistling noise, like the air's running out of him.

"Dean," Sam says. He eyes Toby impassively as he draws in closer. "Don't kill him."

Dean breaks away immediately at the command. He's breathing fast and his chin is bloody. He licks his red-red lips. When he smiles at Sam, he bares gory teeth. With a shove, he pushes Toby's body off his lap, rolls him into the dead leaves on the forest floor. Toby doesn't move. Still panting roughly, Dean gets to his feet and brushes the dirt from the knees of his jeans. His tongue won't leave his mouth alone. It's filthy the way he licks and sucks his lips, all but kisses the blood from his own mouth, and something twists inside of Sam and he has to look away.

Instead, he drops to a crouch by Toby's side and examines the damage Dean's done. The flesh at Toby's throat is soft and wet, but Toby's gaze is mostly clear when it tracks to Sam. Sam removes Toby's cellphone from his pocket and lays it on his shivering chest.

"Call 911 after we're gone," he tells him quietly. "Don't ever sing again. Don't go back to Verve. Don't ever think that because a girl's getting in your car she wants you to fuck her. You do all that, and Casey might just leave you alone."

:::

They don't talk on the way back to the car. Dean seems comfortable with the silence, and Sam is left with his own thoughts, or the absence of them. He's aware of Dean at his side in the dark, still smacking his lips, humming tuneless snatches of old rock songs to himself and in general good humor with the world.

Sam is aware of his own breathing and his own silence.

As the car comes into sight, Sam heaves a sigh and raises a hand to pluck a withered leaf from the shoulder of his jacket. Dean's song cuts off dead. Sam glances over at him, and Dean's eyes are narrowed as he looks at him. Toby's blood is a dark flush over his shining, shocky-white skin.

"Is that my blood?" Dean demands.

Sam peers down at his hands. They're black in the night. There's somebody else's blood on him too.

"When he shot you," Sam says. He screws his eyes shut briefly before he continues. "I got it on me then."

"Shouldn't have fucking touched me," Dean mutters furiously.

He grabs Sam by the arm and drags him back towards the car. He pulls so hard and so fast that Sam's legs nearly tangle beneath him.

There's a strength in his hand that Sam's never realized before. Dean's a vampire, and he has the strength and speed that goes with it. Sam is accustomed to the knowledge that, while Dean is full of dirty tricks, Sam himself is stronger. But Sam, full of soul or empty, is apparently no longer able to physically dominate him. Surely that means that whatever Sam did to Dean while he was soulless, Dean was not helpless. Sam's sure it has to mean that if Dean didn't want to wear a muzzle, then he wouldn't have.

Dean stations him at the rear of the car, barks, "Hold your hands out," at him, while he gets something from the trunk.

One hand holding the shirt cuffs of Sam's obediently offered hands, Dean flips open a flask with a rosary strung around its neck and pours it over Sam's skin. He's thorough in washing Sam over, even while he skitters back a step, cursing, when the holy water splashes against his legs.

It's not entirely unlike the times Dean would clean him up by the roadside when they were kids together. He'd use old tissues and sun-warmed bottled water, while John got gas or talked to a contact on a payphone. Sam is used to tolerating Dean's awkward, motherly attentions.

Absent-mindedly, he considers the road and the trees and the way the world changes color by degree as the moon fades from the sky, while Dean uses his grip on Sam's shirt to manipulate his hands this way and that.

"You gotta be careful," Dean says, softer now the risk has passed. "It's a disease."

The water is coming at a slow trickle from the flask now. The last few drops splatter the back of Sam's wrist and sit there, like melted snow.

"All it takes is one taste of my blood, and then you're in the freakshow too," Dean says.

The words seem familiar. It's possible Sam said something like them once, maybe he was the one who told Dean that in the first place.

He stares at his wet hands, washed clean of Dean's blood. His cheeks are cold and he's shaking in the early morning chill. He wipes his hands dry on his jeans.

:::

Dawn provokes a ghostly clarity of light on the road. Sam and Dean drive through the pale, sleeping streets of the town, back to the motel. As soon as he's out of the car, Dean breaks away to his separate room, but Sam lingers.

Toby's blood is a dirty shadow down the lower half of Dean's face. There are smears on his cheeks, one stripe at his temple to touch the corner of his eyebrow. His stubble is stiff and stained ruddy gold.

Sam wants to have a conversation about what happened tonight. Sam has lived up to the duty of care already set and he wants Dean to acknowledge it. He doesn't want gratitude; he wants it understood that he can do this for Dean.

He touches Dean's arm lightly to get his attention, before, studiedly nonchalant, he says, "So when will you need to feed again?"

There's enough shadow in the veranda outside the line of motel doors to offer Dean protection against the rising sun, and he moves into it before he answers.

"Couple of days, I figure."

"You'll let me know?" Sam presses.

The corner of Dean's mouth lifts in a crooked smile. "Oh I think you'll notice when I start getting desperate."

"But you'll tell me when you need more, right?" Sam says. He takes a step closer to stand in the shade with Dean, fixes him with an earnest look. "You just tell me, man, and I'll find you more."

"What are you, my dealer?" Dean demands. His smile's holding on but his eyes are bright with angry confusion. His gaze flicks upwards, brow tightening slightly as he sees something about Sam that catches his attention. Then he meets Sam's eyes again, unsmiling at last. "What are you tryna do here?"

Sam shrugs, a little defensive and a little lost. He rolls his shoulders to loosen the winding tension there. "Just look after you. Like he did."

Wringing the back of his neck with his hand, Dean rolls his eyes. His gaze isn't friendly when it settles back on Sam.

"You know, I thought I'd already made this pretty clear, Sam, but he did a hell of a lot for me that you can't. I keep telling you, you're not him and you can't be him. It's not gonna be like that with us and I'd really appreciate it if you stopped trying."

His eyes flick upwards on Sam's face again. He presses his lips together for a second, nostrils flaring as he breathes. "And do something about that."

Sam raises a hand to his head, following the direction of Dean's gaze. There's a tender spot in his hairline. It's slippery and warm when he touches it: he's bleeding. A tree branch hit him, he remembers now; he remembers the burst of dull pain. He looks at the glistening redness on his fingertips, realizes Dean's looking at it too.

The ground spins faster beneath Sam's feet, and Sam goes with it. His hand wavers towards Dean, and Dean breathes it in before he can help himself. Just a few drops of Sam's blood and Dean's trembling.

"You can smell it, can't you?" Sam says, distantly curious. "You ever tasted my blood before, Dean?"

He's not teasing. He wants to know. His wrist feels unsteady, like it's just waiting for Dean's fingers to curl around it. Then he'll bring Sam's hand to his mouth and he'll slide his tongue down Sam's fingers, lick him in between his soft, wet lips, and he'll suck the blood from Sam's skin. How would that feel, Dean's mouth on him in a way that's hot and slick but not a kiss?

Heat and revulsion leave Sam dizzy. His outstretched hand is still shivering in the space between them, tipped with red.

"Sam," Dean says unsteadily. He wets his lips. "I don't drink you. It's a rule. It's our rule."

Sam has the knife ready by the time Dean gets back to their room. The blade is black and tacky with dead man's blood.

Dean doesn't suspect a thing. He thinks Sam is still in a bad mood from the night before. His back to Sam, he's humming along with the radio – Foreigner, Cold as Ice - while he packs his duffel and takes occasional slurps of his coffee.

As Sam comes up behind him, Dean starts to look back at him, saying, "Hey, you still sore?"

He's not quite turned around before Sam's got hold of him and is slamming the knife into his belly with a dull, muffled thud. Dean fights, just for a second, before Sam forces the knife in deeper. Another wrenching twist of Sam's wrist, and Dean's struggling becomes squirming, and he's crying out like he can't help himself.

Dean's blood is leaking onto Sam's hand, slippery and heated. He's got the knife so deep in Dean's flesh his knuckles are pressed into Dean's stomach, like he could punch right through. One arm wrapped around Dean's shoulders and chest, Sam has the other snaked snugly around his waist, keeping the knife buried in him.

Sam can't ignore the symbolism. Each jerk of Sam's wrist, fucking the knife wetly into the hole he's cut in his brother, makes Dean sob and shiver and arch away from him. The poison's got Dean trembling too, the smell of it is acrid, sour like infection. He's hot and dazed against Sam, and Sam knows his dick is getting hard against Dean's ass. He rubs his hips into Dean so he knows it too.

He moves his mouth to Dean's ear, nuzzling the softness of his earlobe with just a hint of teeth and tongue. Voice dropped into low intimacy, he makes him a promise.

"Next time you mistake me for food, I'll stab you so deep you'll be pinned to the bed. And I'll keep you like that for days. Days, Dean."

Dean's breathing is broken and shallow. He can barely keep his eyes open, dark lashes feathery over his feverish green eyes. But he surprises Sam by getting his hand on Sam's and scratching feebly at Sam's grip on the knife. Sam's fascinated by how easily a little dead man's blood can reduce something like Dean to this loose-limbed, helpless creature.

Dean's attempts to get free are pitiful, but Sam's made his point, so he drags the knife out of Dean's flesh. The sound of the blade's withdrawal is slick and heady and it makes his cock twitch harder. He allows Dean to crumple to the floor.

Propping himself up against the desk, Sam wipes the flat of the blade clean on one of the gun rags. Dean's blood and the dead man's blood get lost in the grease stains.

"I can't hunt with you if I need to worry that you think I'm on the menu. So, ground rule number one. You don't drink me. Ever."

His dick is getting harder still, to the point of being uncomfortable. And Dean, bent over on the floor, breathless and shivering, with his face hidden in his arms and his tight ass right there, isn't helping.

Sam frowns, licks his teeth agitatedly while he considers Dean.

"Dean," he says. Has to say it again because Dean's not listening to him. "Dean."

A moment's stillness comes over Dean, and though he doesn't look back at Sam, he turns his face enough that Sam's sure he's got his attention now.

"Do you wanna have sex?" Sam says.

It's quiet in the motel room, until abruptly, Dean's shoulders begin to shake again and a funny hitch catches his breath. He's laughing. He pushes himself up onto his knees, and looks back over his shoulder. His face is white, and though his cheeks are burning fever red, they're still not as red as his lips. His expression comes in somewhere between resentful and amused.

He raises an eyebrow. "You think giving me an orgasm's gonna make up for what you just did?" he says.

Sam shrugs, pulls a face that says it's worth a shot.

Dean looks at him a moment longer, before he says, "Well, I guess they do say make-up sex is the best sex you can have."

His hand is wet with his own blood but he's reaching for his belt buckle.

"I'm sorry," Sam says. He blinks back tears, wipes his hand roughly over his eyes. The words come out of him again, like they're all he's got left and he wants Dean to have them. "I'm sorry."

Dean shakes his head. The sky is overcast, and Dean's skin is about as gray as the clouds. "It's fine. Just get it fixed." He turns to his room. "I'll see you tonight," he says, and closes the door on him.

:::

There aren't any scars on Sam's neck that he doesn't remember getting. He studies his reflection with clinical exasperation. His own face and body look back at him from the bathroom mirror. They give nothing away, but Sam doesn't expect any help from them. They aren't on his side.

Inspiration strikes, and he checks his other major pulse points. There's a small silvering scar on his left wrist, and Sam considers it in the dim light. It could be teeth. Could also be a restless spirit or a demon or one of those pissed off hunters. Or maybe just a graceless fall.

If Dean left a scar on him, Sam can't find it. His body hides it too well and keeps its secrets, even if his mind leaks those other years like the juice of spoiled fruit.

And if he and the knife left a scar on Dean, Dean won't show it to him.

:::

Raindrops hit the windshield and burst into tiny, glassy craters, washed away in an instant by the wipers and fresh floods. The road is blurred, and the cars appear as little more smears of colored light carried by the darkness.

They haven't talked about where they're driving. There's no new job that Sam knows about. So long as they're aren't talking, so long as they're just driving, Sam doesn't have to give up on his brother. An emaciated sense of belonging draws him on with Dean, even now when there's nothing but thistles and weeds between them.

As they pull in at a diner, Sam straightens in his seat. He flashes Dean a confused look. "Why are we stopping?"

"You need to eat," is all Dean says.

It's probably paranoia that sounds a stress on you to Sam's ears. Even if it's not, it's not clear whether Dean is separating himself from Sam, as having already fed, or separating him from the soulless one who never needed feeding anyway. He could be emphasizing his own appetites, or the difference between this Sam and the other.

He could just have noticed that Sam's been too sick at heart these days to eat much.

Even the short walk from the parking lot to the diner leaves Sam soaked. Rainwater plasters his hair to his head, dribbles into his eyes and down his neck. His jeans are damp and chafing his skin in a matter of moments. But the diner is warm and homey inside, with lamps on each table and a small vase of red and yellow flowers at every window.

Sam follows Dean to a table and sits across from him.

"What are you gonna have?" Dean says, shoving a small menu on cream-colored card at him.

Sam wrinkles his nose and scans the listed items quickly. "Uh, I don't really-"

"Look, salad," says Dean. "With croutons." He glances up at Sam, as expecting, or hoping for, a sudden burst of enthusiasm.

Sam knows then that Dean is as aware as he is of how far they've fallen from each other. He's trying, for Sam's sake or for the sake of old times, but he's trying too hard. Which is worse.

Sam wants to make the effort too. If he really is expected to walk away from Dean, he doesn't want to do it when the way they are together is still so fractured. He feels time approaching, inescapable as being born, and while Dean may be immune to the demolition of age, Sam only has so long to put this right.

Sam takes a breath and lays his palms flat on the table.

The other Sam would never do this. The other Sam wouldn't want to talk about his feelings because he didn't have any. Nothing would make him unsettled and nervous. He would have nothing to bring to Dean to talk over and make better. He was self-contained and self-sufficient.

"I remembered some stuff," Sam says. He looks up to meet Dean's eyes. "He hurt you."

Dean doesn't react. Then he raises an eyebrow. "Which time are we talking about?" At Sam's incredulous upset, Dean shrugs and says, "He hurt me a lot of times. And I hurt him right back." He curls his tongue into the corner of his cheek, considering Sam and what to say next.

Shoulders sagging, he leans in a little towards Sam. "What you gotta understand is, he had no soul. And I'm a vampire. It wasn't a candlelit dinner and holding hands kind of relationship."

An apple-cheeked waitress is hovering nearby uncertainly, pen and pad in hand. Customer service is telling her to get over there and take their order, but she has enough preservation instinct to stay back. Sam flashes her a taut, apologetic smile, and she retreats to the counter.

He looks back to Dean, who's waiting for him, fed up with this argument but ready for whatever's coming next.

"You're telling me you don't have a problem with the way he treated you?" Sam demands. "You didn't mind the muzzle, or getting stabbed, or whatever other dehumanizing, abusive crap he did to you that I don't remember yet? You were okay with all of that?"

Dean shakes his head slowly, but it's in pissed off wonderment, not disagreement. He takes a moment to gather himself before he speaks. "I get that it might all seem pretty nasty to you, but you know what? It worked for us. He didn't expect me to be any better than I am. We were as bad as each other. Hell, we were practically made for each other."

That last statement panics Sam. He's known for ages that Dean was in love with that soulless perversion of himself, known it as a mute truth gnawing at him, but it's the closest he's come to hearing Dean admit it. It writes Sam, and his soul, out of history. He's relegated to a sidenote in some more epic affair in Dean's life.

"Just tell me then," Sam says. His voice is wobbling but his eyes are dry. He's not going to cry, he's about to lose his goddamn mind. "Tell me one thing you did to him that was as bad as what I've seen him doing to you."

Dean smiles then, a twitch of his lips like the gallows drop. Sam strains to read some kind of answer into it.

"One more job together," says Dean. "Then we're done." While Sam gapes at him, Dean leans back in his seat and scans his own menu idly. "Think I'm gonna have the steak," he announces. "Rare as it comes."

:::

The rain won't stop. It comes down like doom. The parking lot is slimy, glistening, and puddles collect in the surface irregularities like so many blind, stirring eyes. The covered doorway of the roadhouse is no shelter, the rain swarms in on the wind and crawls over Sam.

"We need money," Dean stated when he pulled in outside the roadhouse. "But, hey, why don't you go find us a motel? Leave this to me?"

Dead-faced, Sam climbed out of the car and gestured for Dean to go into the roadhouse. He turned his collar up against the rain, already licking cold down his neck, and followed Dean in.

Dean found his mark soon enough, one of a group of young guys on a roadtrip from California. They were a little bit drunk already, and they laughed too loudly and at nothing Sam could find funny.

Sam played his part to get the game going, then drifted back outside, to the doorway, where his fingers now scratch distractedly at the pocked wall, because there might be diamonds beneath the brick dust.

From here, Sam's got a good view of Dean's performance at the pool table. He's never convinced by Dean's fake drunk act, though Dean's marks buy it easily enough. Dean drinks but is never drunk. Maybe if it were blood in his glass instead of tequila he'd put on a more believable show.

Judging by the casual way the guy Dean's playing touches Dean's shoulder, it's coming up to Sam's next cue. If the guy's feeling confident enough to be putting his hands on Dean, then Dean's been evaluated as no threat and it's time for Sam to wind things up and take the money.

Sam sets his features in the correct expression and moves in, out of the rain. There are still a handful of pool balls on the table, and Dean's leaning heavily on his stick while he knocks back another mouthful of tequila. Dean's mark sees Sam apparently before Dean does, and he brightens up, like Sam's come to add something new to some already considerable entertainment.

Sam offers the guy a constricted, embarrassed smile and leans in to talk to Dean, pitching his voice just high enough for the mark to overhear.

"Dean, c'mon, you've lost enough. Can we please go while we can still afford a room for the night?"

He wonders whether his aggrieved concern rings true with Dean; surely Dean's seen it often enough lately to know that it's not a perfect replica of the real thing.

The guy's three friends move in and out of the hazy bowl of light thrown over the pool table, laughing and murmuring to each other. Their faces are alternately textured black shadow or golden detail. To Sam, they're otherworldly in their normality. They wear the same short haircut, the same long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, the same smile. They drink the same beer.

Sam used to be like them, for a year or two, while he tried to fit a new life over the misshapen bones of his old one.

When the guys look at him now, he suspects they're seeing something equally alien. Sam is big and bad, and he's worn down to flinty edges. His mouth won't smile. And he can try looking harmless, frustrated, but nobody wants to look him in the eye.

Dean tries to set his bottle down on the edge of the pool table, catches it before he can knock it over. "Dude, would you back off? I'm good for it. I'm so fucking good for it."

The mark throws his arm around Dean's shoulders, and they present a united front to Sam. "Yeah, man, back off. He's good for it." He's laughing at Dean, even while he's ruffling Dean's hair like he'd pet a dog, and Dean's acting too drunk to notice. "We're all consenting adults here, buddy."

Sam opens his mouth a push a little harder, but the mark's already opening up his wallet and laying a few more bills down on the rumpled stack already on the side of the table. By Sam's estimation, there's enough there for a room, gas and maybe some breakfast when they get up after. He catches Dean's eye and nods, and Dean straightens up, loses the smile and gets to work.

Swapping the ceramic sound of the balls tapping into each other one after another for the unrelenting beat of the rain, Sam ends up back at the doorway. While he waits for Dean to finish, he tries to trace a path between the flickering gray sheets of rain, to see if there's a way out.

Dean ends the game in a matter of minutes. Sam listens to him without looking back over his shoulder. The Impala is a glistening hulk beneath the rain, and they'll be back in it soon, driving like they've got somewhere to go.

"Well, gentlemen," Dean is saying, "this has been real fun. I ever make it to Hamilton City, I'll make sure to look you up."

He taps Sam on the shoulder as he passes. "Time to go," he says, and Sam breaks away from the doorframe and goes with him.

Dean's got the key fitted in the car door when someone calls after them.

"Hey! Hey, where'd you think you're going?"

Sam looks back, squinting through the rainwater dribbling into his eyes. He's not surprised to see the mark there, too angry to care about the rain. Dean would have sized him up before he played him, would have decided how risky a prospect he was. But it's not the first time a guy who should roll over decides instead that he wants to go down fighting.

Sam shoots a weary look over the top of the car at Dean. But Dean is watching the guy, and Sam tenses at the dangerous set to Dean's expression, dark-eyed and lip twitching like he wants to smile, or to snarl. Sam should have seen it earlier. Dean's looking for a fight and he can't pick one with Sam. Sam should have kept Dean on the road in the rain, should have done his job better, should have kept Dean away from breakable bodies.

"Dean, take it easy," Sam mutters.

Dean's smile is the spitting, scream spark thrown up by metal dragged on metal. He leaves the car and walks across the lot to meet the guy halfway. His gait is steady and measured. Sam lingers a few steps back, his body tight with the readiness to intervene.

"Problem?" Dean says.

"Yeah," says the guy. His face is all screwed up and red. He stabs a finger at Dean. "You fucking played me."

"And I won," says Dean. His gaze flickers to the guy's three friends, who have appeared in the roadhouse doorway, present but still keeping to the relative shelter from the rain and from the fight.

Dean pats the guy's cheek, thumb carelessly tapping the guy's mouth. "What do you want me to say? You were warned. You had plenty of chances to back out. But you decided you wanted to play."

And with the rain still pouring down over them and his hand still laid on the guy's face, Dean looks straight at Sam and says, "You had to know there was a real good chance it wasn't gonna work out."

At first, Sam accepts the blame for this. But only at first. He's amazed Dean doesn't see it. Dean did this, Dean and Sam's body, which was curiously proactive for something so empty. They've come to this because of that Sam-shaped mannequin and Dean's acceptance of what it did to him.

Sam licks the angrily flickering shape of his lips. "I thought it was worth trying," he tells Dean levelly. The words taste of rain and wretchedness.

"What the fuck are you talking about?" the guy demands, like this is still something to do with him. He smacks Dean's hand away, prods him hard in the chest. "I want my fucking money back."

Dean looks back at him with narrowed eyes and a quirked fuck-off smile. He gives the guy a shove of his own, which knocks him off his feet onto the puddled ground of the parking lot.

"Hey! Take your goddamn hands off him, asshole!" one of the other guys shouts, and it's the rallying cry they need to make them brave enough to surge forward.

Dean doesn't move. Sam flexes on instinct but forces himself to keep still. This is Dean's problem. He made the mess, he can fix it.

Dean doesn't move until the first guy throws a punch at him. Before the blow connects, he grabs the guy's wrist, jerks, and neatly breaks the bone, then he drives his elbow back, smooth and hard, and slams it in the face of the guy coming at him on the other side. The last guy doesn't even have chance to back off before Dean grips his head and pulls it down to meet his knee.

It's an efficient burst of concentrated brutality. It's seamless, not so much as the space of a heartbeat for retaliation or regrouping. Dean isn't even breathing hard when he's done, but his eyes are alive and Sam can see his quivering eagerness as he turns to the last guy, his mark.

His hair is black with rain, slicked to the curve of his pretty white skull. His fingers waver and dance as he readies himself.

"Stop."

Dean obeys at once. He stops as soon as Sam says the word, as naturally as if it were his body's own idea. Dean holds his place, head cocked contemplatively at the guy on the ground, while Sam stalks forward and snatches the wad of bills from the back pocket of Dean's jeans.

He holds them out to the mark, impatiently shoves them towards him again when the guy just stares at him, and eventually has no choice but to drop them in front of him, raindrops hitting the green-and-white hard and fast.

"Let's go," he tells Dean curtly, as he passes him on his way back to the car.

Dean follows without complaint, climbs in behind the wheel and even mutters an unapologetic apology when he shakes his head and flicks the rainwater from his skin to Sam's. Sam sits and drips, while Dean starts the car.

"Guess I'd better find us someplace to camp out," says Dean.

When Sam looks in the wing mirror, he sees the guys in the parking lot stood together and watching them leave. When it's Sam's turn to leave, maybe Dean will be watching. Maybe he will have gone already.

It keeps raining.

:::

There's a farmhouse just an hour over the border into Missouri. One of the windows on the ground floor is missing its glass, but the house appears otherwise safe and dry. Weeds wrap around the wooden porch in tormented tangles but the greenery is stitched through with tiny blue wildflowers. The rain has slowed to a grim drizzle, as miserably hollow as the predawn sky.

Dean picks the lock on the door and holds it open for Sam. "Home sweet somebody else's home."

The interior has been mostly stripped back to floorboards and bare walls though there are still rough wool curtains at the windows and a few pieces of unbroken furniture in some of the rooms. The air is chill with damp, smelling faintly of standing water and unwashed clothes. Rain can be heard pittering against the roof throughout the house. They pass through the rooms and floorboards creak in surprise beneath their feet.

"It'll do," says Sam. He runs his eye over the heap of faded, dusty tartan blankets on the single bed, wrinkles his nose in distaste. "I'll take the couch downstairs. You should get some rest."

As he starts to leave, Dean catches his arm. Dean makes the effort to look him in the eyes, but he takes a moment to work up to words. "I'm sorry," he says. His cheeks are lightly flushed, and Sam turns more towards him. "I'm sorry this hasn't worked out like you wanted. You were right, it was worth trying."

Sam's gaze travels to the ripped floral wallpaper – blue forget-me-nots and red roses – and he nods. He shrugs as he swallows. "Like you said, we don't have to pretend each other doesn't exist. You take the night-shift, I'll do the day-shift. Like a team, just… in separate parts of the country."

Dean frowns as he nods, then he opens his mouth like he's not done, not entirely satisfied with that, but Sam slips out from under his hand, and says again, "Get some rest."

:::

After Sam has closed all the drapes and put the house six feet under for Dean, he realizes that there is no reason for him to stay in the dark. He can go outside. He might as well go outside.

His hoodie is all the protection he needs from the thinning mist of drizzle, and there's something like a path running along the edge of the overgrown fields that square the house, a line worn through the grass where other people before him have walked away.

He follows the path towards a barn built of decaying wood at the edge of the trees, and behind that, to a dirt track that runs between more fields where the grass sighs every time the wind pushes a wave through its blades.

For longer than he can count, Sam kicks a pebble along the track. It's a small pebble, not old enough to have worn down to rounded smoothness, and it skitters out a few steps ahead with each kick, where it rests and waits for Sam to catch up.

Eventually the rain fades away altogether and Sam pushes his hood back to breathe in fresher air. The sky lightens to a murky white-yellow as the sun begins to rise.

When he leaves, Sam won't go to Bobby. If he goes to Bobby, he'll want to ask questions. He'll want to talk about Dean. Or Bobby will expect him to. Bobby is too much part of the history he shares with Dean. He needs to go somewhere where people won't see the second shadow he drags behind himself.

A richer yellow deepens the horizon. Gray is giving way to untouched blue. It's still cold in the air but there's a promise of sunshine to come, and it touches some basic nerve inside of Sam, a throwback to seasonal programming. The sky goes all the way up, higher than cathedrals.

Castiel is in Heaven, presumably, but he might come if Sam prayed. And if he did, what would Sam say to him? He's laden with the same complexities as Bobby. Castiel will answer Dean's prayers too, he'll pass between the two of them. He's just one step back to Dean.

A sigh shakes out of Sam. His next kick is badly aimed and the pebble leaps into the grass and is gone. He shoves his hands deep into his pockets and surveys the track in front of him. It keeps on going, winding through the abandoned fields and out of sight. If he looks back, he can make out the roof of the farmhouse above the thinning leaves of the treetops.

When he leaves, he's going to go to Canada. Or to Mexico. He's never been to either place before and he doubts that, even if Dean ever made it to either himself, he spent long there. He thinks a country border between them will serve as an adequate reminder that he's not allowed to go back. And it's just a red line on a map, a line on the ground that Sam can stand at and look over, and hope to maybe one day catch a glimpse of Dean haunting the other side.

He turns back towards the house and walks.

:::

Someone has opened the drapes. Sam can see it clearly from a little way off. The drapes are open in the room where Sam left Dean sleeping, and the drapes are open in a couple of the rooms on the ground floor.

Sam's belly and shoulders tighten. By its own accord, his hand sneaks to the compact weight of his gun tucked in the back of his jeans. The Impala is still the only car parked outside the house, but there are footprints in the mud that are neither his nor Dean's. Two sets. Two people. Going into the house, where Dean is alone and sleeping through the sun.

Sam makes his way around the rear of the house, to the broken glass door that leads into the kitchen. The room is undisturbed, but in the hallway there's a thick bar of sunlight lying across the floor, glowing like a neon warning sign.

In another room, someone speaks. A brief, papery scuffle follows. Then somebody laughs.

Flexing his grip on his gun, Sam inches silently towards the sounds. His back presses to the wall and his eyes travel over every inch of his surroundings as he makes his way into the house. He follows the voices to the big empty sitting room, with the sagging stained couch where Sam was supposed to sleep.

It's the hunters, Wazowski and Benny, in there. And it's Dean.

They've dragged Dean into a block of unobstructed sunlight, and he's on his knees, hands bound behind his back. Wazowski's on the couch, with Dean cringing and curling between the spread of his legs. He's got his hand knotted in Dean's hair and he's forcing Dean's face down into his lap, even while Dean grunts and kicks out uselessly. Sam can't figure out what the hell Wazowski's doing, until he hauls Dean upright by his grip in his hair, and Sam can see the flask he's feeding Dean from.

There's only one thing that can take Dean down to such wretched kitten-weakness. Wazowski's making him drink dead man's blood.

Benny's watching from the doorway, a big grin on his mangled face and a shotgun cradled in his arms.

"C'mon, beautiful," says Wazowski, stroking his fingers through Dean's hair before tightening his handhold. "You know it's polite to swallow. Swallow what I'm giving you and maybe I'll even give you a little break. Five whole minutes before you have to take any more, how about that? That's more mercy than you showed poor Jimmy Kendrick or Stack Kent."

Dean's face tilts up to Wazowski's, and from this angle Sam can't see the look in his eyes but his heart twists at the horrible idea that it's hopefulness, a desperate willingness to believe that there might be some respite ahead.

Beneath the stretch of his black t-shirt, the muscles in Dean's shoulders bunch and work. His knee slides against the floorboard as he starts to lose his position, and has to be dragged back into place by Wazowski.

"Come on, you can take it. Badass like you." Wazowski's lips twitch into a funny little smile as Dean drops again, rubs his face mindlessly against Wazowski's thigh, like he's getting some comfort from it.

"Wow, would you look at that? He's fucking lost it," says Benny. He takes a step towards them, his rifle swinging into a looser grip. "Hey, let me have him. I wanna make him drink."

Wazowski hasn't taken his eyes off Dean, hasn't lost that fucked up smile. "In a minute."

"Hey, they were my friends he killed too," Benny protests. "It's my fucking turn."

And the second Benny sets his rifle down, Sam steps smoothly into the doorway and puts a bullet in him.

He snaps his aim to Wazowski, but Wazowski's on his feet already. He drags Dean up against him, putting Dean's body between him and Sam's gun, and he's discarded the flask to grab a machete instead, the blade of which is jammed up against Dean's bared throat.

Dean is hazy-eyed and the dead man's blood paints his mouth unpleasantly black. His pallor is corpse-like, a green blush like the first stage of rot. Sam has no idea how much they've forced him to drink, or what else they've done to him.

Wazowski's smile is a manic baring of teeth. "Knew you couldn't have gone far. Your animal kept insisting you were long gone, but I stopped trusting anything that came out of this goddamn cocksucker's mouth a long time ago."

Sam steps neatly over Benny's body and makes a slow advance. The blade digs deeper into Dean's throat by way of warning, producing a hitched intake of breath from Dean, and Sam stops.

"You think you're a good enough shot to get one between the eyes?" says Wazowski. "You wanna risk it? First move you make, I'm slicing your creature's head off."

Sam considers the tiny target of the bridge of Wazowski's nose, rough skin visible between stiff black eyebrows. He is a good shot. Then he glances at Dean, and sees Dean is looking back at him, barely conscious through the pain but focusing all he's got left on meeting Sam's eyes.

It's just Dean between Sam and Wazowski, just Dean's stolen cherry-red heart between Wazowski and Sam's bullet.

"I really hope this is okay," Sam tells him, and shoots him five times in the chest.

Wazowski and Dean go down together. The machete's blade rings as it hits the ground and then there is silence.

Shoving his gun away, Sam scrabbles towards the two of them, all elegance and stealth lost to frightened panic. Dean is sprawled across Wazowski's unmoving body. His eyes are heavy-lidded, just a shadow of black and green, and he's blinking at the ceiling, seeing nothing at all. The front of his shirt is a dark, bloody mess. His fingers twitch feebly, plucking at the empty strands of the air.

"Dean!" Sam says. He pulls Dean into the awkward cradle of his chest and arms, one hand on Dean's cold white cheek. "C'mon, man, you're okay."

From the unsteady roll of Dean's throat, he'd probably retch if he had the strength to pull it off. His lips make butterfly-soft shapes that produce no sound. The tip of his tongue tentatively touches the corner of his blood-blackened mouth, and a nauseous shudder rolls through his whole body. Sam pulls the cuff of his shirt over his hand and wipes as much of the old blood from Dean's face as he can.

Dean's not recovering as fast as he did before.

Sam skims a fingertip along Dean's cheekbone, unnerved and fascinated by the slow flush of gray washing through the green taint to Dean's complexion. In the sunlight, his skin has a delicate, spiderweb translucence. It's ethereal and ghastly at once.

Sam's so mesmerized by the unnaturalness of it that he doesn't catch the labored pall to Dean's breathing at once. Then he curses himself, and scoots hurriedly across the floor, dragging Dean with him, into the shadows at the corner of the room.

He mutters C'mon, Dean, c'mon, but Dean's chest rises and falls in ragged pulses and his eyes flitter sightlessly. He needs more help than Sam is giving him right now.

The idea comes across Sam like the moment's coldness when the sun slips behind a cloud. There is more help Sam can give him. Sam can help him in a way that empty vessel Dean loved never would. Sam with a soul can give Dean what he needs.

Sam's heart beats an excited thud low down in his belly. He knows Dean would protest, but it's only Dean who's said it's wrong, and only because the wrong Sam told him so. This Sam latches onto the idea and feels hot and weak with the unerring certainty that this is right.

But with the same certainty he knows he can't have Dean's mouth on his body in that way. The idea of that kind of intimacy is hot and prickly.

Getting to his feet, he has to move carefully, keep his anticipation controlled before it can make him shake or turn him clumsy. He goes to the kitchen, takes a dingy mug, stained at the bottom with potentially decades-old coffee, and sets it on the counter in front of himself.

When the blade of his knife splits his skin open, he has a single second of remembering Ruby doing this for him. Not into a cup though, not so clean and so caring as he's being for Dean. With a suppressed grunt, he slices into his forearm and blood springs up along the line, brilliantly red against his tanned skin.

It dribbles into the cup and blots the china bottom. To Sam, it seems a pitifully meager flow. He clenches and his relaxes his fist, and wills his blood to pump faster. His heart can't beat any harder.

By the time he returns to the sitting room, he has maybe a little more than an inch of his blood in the cup. Dean has got his hands free and pulled himself up into a sitting position, his back propped against the wall. It's the only noticeable improvement in his condition.

Sam sinks to his knees beside him, slides his arm around his shoulders to take his shivering weight, and he's gratified by how easily Dean lets him. He's sure he can feel the heat of his blood through the chipped china sides. It'll be his warmth inside of Dean.

"C'mon, drink this, it'll help."

He brings the cup to Dean's mouth, tips gently. Dean's lips part for it on instinct. Sam watches intently, his breath caught inside his body, as his blood touches Dean's mouth. Dean makes a small noise, and Sam sees his tongue dip into the red, taste it. And when Dean swallows, the sound of his mouth so very wet, it feels to Sam like an act of reclamation, and his joy manifests as a slight stiffening of his cock, so slight a physical reaction that Sam doesn't really have to think about it at all if he doesn't want to.

Dean struggles to sit upright, to get closer to the cup, his hands coming up around it greedily, and Sam tightens his arm around his shoulder to steady him, and because he's not ready to let Dean go yet. Briefly, Dean squirms, tries to elbow Sam away, like he thinks Sam's trying to hold him back instead of help him, but Sam tucks him in against his side, murmuring, "Easy, easy, it's all yours," until Dean is too distracted by Sam's blood in his mouth to fight anymore.

His fangs have descended. Sam can see the silvery white flash of them, slicked red. Dean drinks noisily, wet and hollow sucking, his tongue lapping the sides of the cup for any trickle he misses. Sam is fascinated with wondering whether Dean can taste his soul in the blood, because the last time Dean drank from him, the blood must have been thin and flavorless. It won't have been as sweet as Sam's wetness in his mouth will be now.

They have the same blood inside of them again. There's a little piece of Sam slipping around inside of Dean's body, sliding into everywhere he aches, filling him up, making him hot and happy. His forearm is still stinging and sore, but Sam takes a secret pride in it. Dean is his brother again, it's incontrovertible truth, because who else would do this for Dean but Sam, Sam with a soul?

Perhaps his head is spinning from the blood loss or from excitement, but Sam thinks maybe it wouldn't be such a big deal if he were to let Dean drink straight from his veins. It's only skin, the same skin in fact, woven from the same genetic threads.

He can't quite bring himself to do it yet. Maybe one day. Maybe soon, if Dean will let him stay.

Dean drinks the cup empty, before he falls back against the wall, breathing hard and sucking the taste from his lips. The heaviness of his eyes is less concerned with suffering, more dazed and sated. His chest rises and falls as his breathing evens out, and Sam kneels beside him in the otherwise silent room, one hand curled over his aching forearm while he listens to the slowing wet sounds of Dean's mouth.

:::

They can't stay in the house. Sam works fast on the alternative. While Dean is still only barely conscious, Sam takes one of the blankets from the bed and wraps Dean in it. He bundles Dean onto the backseat of the car, and he's diligent in ensuring the blanket covers Dean completely. He doesn't like covering Dean up, not his face, like he's dead and this dusty tartan blanket is all Sam has as a shroud. He's not happy with having only the amorphous suggestion of Dean's body.

It's not an ideal solution, but it's the best protection he can offer Dean as he gets them away from the house and the bodies of the two hunters.

They haven't decided on their next case yet, so Sam chooses a direction and drives. His direction is south. The day warms unexpectedly and Sam is surprised by the novelty of being able to see the faces of the other drivers on the road. The daylight is rediscovered territory, familiar but a little exciting all the same.

Sam keeps an eye on the blanketed bundle in the rear view mirror, and he feels a thrum of relief any time Dean stirs or moans.

He stops once for gas, pulling beneath the cover of the gas station. In the store, he collects a bottle of water for himself, and a soda and candy bar for Dean. As he returns to the car, he notices movement in the back, smiles at Dean when he sees Dean peering out at him, bruise-eyed beneath the blanket.

"Here," he says, tossing the soda and candy into the back.

Dean gives him a small, grateful noise, and rolls over on the seat, disappearing out of view once more. The candy bar wrapper rustles as Sam starts the engine and pulls out. The tension in Sam's shoulders is easing.

:::

Dean sleeps through the day and into the night. Sam can't keep wasting gas by driving without a destination. They need a hunt. Maybe a couple, so that after this next case, there can be another, ready and waiting for them, so Dean won't have to notice if they drift beyond the limit he imposed on their time together.

When Dean wakes, Sam knows he will be angry. They will have to have a conversation about Sam feeding Dean his own blood. Dean will have to argue that because that's how he's built. He must suffer on everyone else's account, but nobody, and certainly not Sam, is allowed to suffer on his.

While Dean's initial response is predictable, Sam also believes that Dean will have no choice after Sam's talked him down but to reevaluate their relationship. Sam has gone one step further than his soulless self ever did. Not only has he enabled Dean to feed during a hunt, but he has shown a willingness to feed Dean himself at crisis points. Dean can't ignore that.

It has to be that Sam has established a more meaningful closeness with Dean than simply fucking him. He's given his blood for Dean. And he'll give more blood. He'll bleed dry for Dean if it's the only way to prove that he's worth so much more than that one dimensional picture of his face that Dean wants back in his place.

After casting another quick look in the rearview mirror at where Dean is still sleeping, Sam rolls his shirt sleeve up to his elbow and studies the line slit into his flesh. He flexes his arm and the cut stings when the tendons stretch beneath it. It's probably deep enough to scar.

There are other things he's going to have to do for Dean.

Wazowski and Benny were driven by revenge, acting in retaliation for crimes Sam doesn't know the details of but can’t doubt are legitimate. If Sam hadn't turned back to the house when he did, they would have tortured Dean before finishing him off with decapitation, and then no doubt come after Sam. Wazowski and Benny had to die; it was a question of survival.

But there will be other hunters, ones who are coming for Dean for reasons that are purer and simpler. And Sam can't blame them but he will have to stop them, whatever that means. They will be good men and Sam will take no pleasure in doing what he has to do, but he can't let Dean get hurt again.

The alley is haunted by the whoops and cries of the nightlife in the city. The bassline from the club bounces between the brick walls, and the discarded cardboard boxes tremble in time to the beat.

Sam turns a slow circle, then gives an exasperated sigh. Dean is nowhere in sight. He huffs again and debates whether to go looking for him, go looking for more vampires, or simply return to the car and wait.

A rattling crash echoes from a few streets over and makes the decision for him. Sam takes off at a run towards it.

He rounds the corner, stumbling into the orange flash of a streetlight, and stops. Dean is on the ground, and there's a man leaning over him, leaning into him. The guy is big, with a surprising amount of curly dark hair, and he's reaching for Dean. Sam starts towards them, before he's struck by the ease with which the guy manhandles Dean. He must be strong to position a fully grown man with such little difficulty.

Dean is unresisting, held up against the wall by only the guy's grip on his jacket collar. Dean doesn't fight, can't do a thing, as the guy bites into his own arm and smears his blood across Dean's mouth.

The corner of Sam's lip twitches triumphantly, because this is the best plan he never came up with himself. This makes sense on so many levels. This answers the question of what exactly he should do with Dean. And he didn't have to do a thing but let it happen.

It only takes a moment to be too late, and, arriving on scene, Sam shouts out, "Dean!" and charges towards them.

The vampire greets him with a grin, makes a dancing step towards him, and Sam responds with an ineffectual swipe of his machete. He owes it that much, he supposes. Rat-like, it crawls up the side of the building, and Sam allows it to leave.

Instead, he drops down to examine Dean, who is slumped against the brick, breathing shallowly. His gaze searches for Sam, like he's lost in darkness, and his mouth is a dark red smear.

Sam is falling and there's nothing to catch himself on. He's choking on the breath rushing out of him and his body is braced for impact, and the speed at which he's falling is tearing his heart out of his chest. And when he doesn't reach the bottom, when he realizes there is nothing to stop him falling, he's left alone in the silence and the stillness of the car.

He's shaking and his eyes are wet, and he's still falling. His cheeks are hot, burning like a sickness, but he's cold inside. Something spins inside his skull, leaves him reeling and light-headed. He takes several deep, desperate breaths then forces his fingers to loosen their grip on the steering wheel. The knuckles grind and rub like nuts and bolts that don't fit together.

At once, he remembers that he's not alone, and he turns quickly in his seat, leather squeaking, and is reaching out to Dean before he thinks it through.

He shakes Dean's shoulder, lightly, then more urgently when he doesn't stir immediately.

"Dean. Dean, I need to talk to you. I need to tell you something."

He needs it confessed. He needs it to be a known thing. He can't carry the weight of it alone.

Dean emerges from beneath the blanket looking rumpled and drawn. He yawns massively while he knuckles sleep from his eyes. He pulls a disgruntled frown at Sam but pushes himself into an upright position to face him.

"You never heard the saying about letting the dead rest in peace?" he says, and then looks alarmed when Sam chokes on it. "What is it?"

Sam only notices that his hands are still trembling when he tries to run his fingers through his hair. They're shaking so hard it's an aching vibration through him. He grits his teeth like he's biting down on something solid.

It's enough to drive the last sleepy vagueness from Dean's expression. He's alert and concerned, fixed on Sam.

"Dude, what's going on?" he demands.

"I… uh… I remembered something," Sam says.

Dean's face hardens in disapproval. "Oh, for the love of…! You're not supposed to be remembering stuff, Sam. It's dangerous. You could get hurt."

And Sam's about to wave his concerns away, but oh, he thinks, oh, how this is going to hurt Dean. He wavers, staring at Dean's smooth, pale face, without saying a word. He supposes he doesn't have to tell Dean this. Dean doesn't have to know that he was never loved in return, only considered as convenient and useable. He doesn't have to know how deeply he was betrayed.

Right then, Sam hates himself a little. Because he's going to tell Dean. He wants to tell him. It's better in the long-run, he wants to believe, better that Dean knows the truth. But it's unwelcome spite and a need for vindication that require that Dean know who exactly he tried to replace Sam with.

"I let you get turned," Sam says. "He did. He got there in time to stop that vampire from feeding you his blood, but he didn't. He just stood there and watched. He thought you'd be a better hunter as a vampire. More useful."

He's talking in a rush now, because Dean isn't looking at him. Dean has turned his face to the window, to the austere gray land built like clay beyond the road. His lips are a sealed line.

Sam watches intently for the first flicker of a response from Dean.

"And I don't think Samuel was hunting you," he says. "I think I knew that he could turn you back, and I didn't want him interfering. So I, he killed him."

Dean's attention is back on him at last. His brow is furrowed in sudden thought. Sam waits, expectant and cautious. He doesn't know whether there will be tears or punches or weeks of stoic, fucked-up silence.

Instead, Dean nods grudgingly and says, "It's a theory."

Sam blinks. He shakes his head, because Dean doesn't get it. "No. No, I was there. I remember how it happened. I remember it."

"No, I was talking about the thing with Samuel," Dean says, and Sam stops.

His stomach works on nothing, turning itself inside out into clenching emptiness. He swallows down the taste of bile, can't help the miserably bitter curl of his lips.

It's so wrong, says a plaintive voice inside him. So unfair.

"How long have you known?" Sam says.

Dean looks resigned to the point of disinterest. He knocks the blanket off his lap, scratches his cheek. "Since a couple of weeks after it happened. We were chasing an alpha vamp, and he had this whole psychic link with his baby vampires, or whatever, and he told me what Sam had done."

Sam works his head in a slow nod. The river of Sam's grief thickens to smoldering heat beneath his skin. The sheer intensity of feeling makes him fight to keep his breathing level, while his bones are melting to a point where they'll no longer strong enough to hold him up. He's left limp and powerless.

"Were you already having sex with him at this point?" he asks. He's surprised by how detached he sounds, as though it's a mild point of query that has no real relevance. It's a question about the weather, about the traffic.

Dean gives a short, breathy laugh. His gaze rolls back to the landscape. He shakes his head.

So it was after, then. Dean didn't spread it for him until after he found out what Sam had done to him. This is the relationship Dean has been so fiercely defending. This is the man Dean has missed more than he's welcomed Sam back.

Sam nods again. "Okay," he says. "I'm done."

He climbs out of the car and starts walking, away from Dean, through the dust, airless as the surface of the moon, towards the lightening horizon. Dean calls after him, but he's in the distance already. History, the stretch of all the years that make it up, is a glassy screen between him and Sam.

He expects the ground to run out beneath his feet and the dust to thin away to nothing, until he's walking on the featureless desert of a blank white page. But the perpetual motion machine of his heartbeat ticks like it doesn't know how to stop. His vacant gaze holds on the blurred glow where the sun will rise. He'll walk right into the sun and let it strip him down to smoke.

Then a hand comes down on his shoulder and wrenches him around. Dean looks panicked, Sam thinks, but he can't really see him, because it's just a ghost he's seeing, it’s nothing that belongs to his life now.

"Sam, would you just stop a minute? Where the hell are you going anyway?" His gaze flitters towards the horizon, and Sam follows the direction of his eyes to the watery sky that's slipping into morning. And Dean looks back at him, tries to hold his gaze, because the sunrise is an edge he doesn't want Sam to see they're about to fall over. "C'mon, man, come on back to the car."

He sounds placatory, like Sam's still a frustrating kid brother who can be coaxed into better, smarter behavior.

"I can't be him," Sam says. "I can't be him and I know he's what you want. And it's not right and it's not fair that he's the one you want when I'm right here." He puts up a hand, maybe to grab at Dean to emphasize his point, but he can't close the distance, can't quite figure out where to touch him. Settles instead for straightening the collar of Dean's shirt. "It's not right."

Slowly, the corner of Dean's mouth begins to lift, and Sam's eyes go wide with horrified outrage.

"Don't you dare laugh at me. Don't you fucking dare," he says. The words may be close to hysteria but they're threat enough to freeze Dean's smile even if they can't kill it altogether.

"Dude, are you jealous?" Dean says. "Seriously? You remember we're talking about incest here, right?"

Sam's shouting before he knows it, all but frothing at the mouth. "If you were gonna go there with anyone, it should have been with me, Dean! Me! Not some asshole version of me that… isn't."

His outburst drives Dean back a step. He's staring at Sam in helpless bewilderment, and Sam gives up. On the problem. On him.

How something so simple to Sam can be so entirely out of Dean's comprehension is proof of a gap that can never be closed. If Dean doesn't understand this, then he never will. It's tragic and unfightable, and all that's left is for Sam to carry on walking.

"No, no, stop." Dean gets in front of him again, holding up his hands in surrender. When Sam stops, looks at him with remote frustration, Dean swallows and licks his lips. "What do you mean, you know he's the one I want?"

Sam sighs. He casts a glance heavenwards before he can answer. "You left when I came back. Was all I needed to know."

"Yeah, of course I left. Things were pretty fucked up, man. I mean, I'm a vampire. That's what you were coming back to. And everybody kept saying he was all that was left of you, but then there you are, and it turns out I'd left you down there all that time while I was screwing around with-"

He cuts off. He bows his head, and if Sam leans in just a little, he can see Dean biting his lip uncertainly. Dean hasn't been so unsure of himself since Sam came back. It's new and delicate, and over before Sam can properly study it.

Dean straightens himself up, looks Sam right in the eye and says, "I took what I could get. They said he was what was left of you, so I took what I could get. But…" His smile is rueful, self-mocking. "It wasn't enough. He wasn't you. And I missed you. And I wanted you. So… I got you back."

"No, Cas-" Sam starts.

"Lied," Dean cuts in. "He owed me, big-time. Believe me, I'm not the only one been making some fucking terrible decisions. It wasn't Cas got your soul out, it was Death, as in, Death the Horseman. 'Cause I asked him too."

Even Sam's blood seems to have deserted Dean, because he's white, white like ash, white like sacrifice. He's cowering almost imperceptibly against the sun nudging its watery head into the line of the sky, but his eyes stay with Sam.

Sam starts to speak, then finds he has no breath to carry the words. He takes his time putting the question together, because he lacks the mental agility to handle language right now.

"You couldn't have just said something like this earlier?"

Dean rubs the back of his neck, face screwed up in ashamed awkwardness. "Honestly? I was having enough trouble looking you in the face. I thought it'd be easier on both of us if I made you go. Thought maybe you wouldn't have to remember."

Sam looks at him for a long while. His eyes go narrow, their light flattened by ill feeling. "That's what you thought, huh?" The words come out of a pinched mouth. It's not nerves making his hands tremble, it's the urge to form fists.

"You jerk," he says. And when Dean starts to smile, that smile that says yeah, but aren't I adorable?, Sam shoves him hard in the chest. Surprise wipes the smile off Dean's face, and Sam shoves him again with a jab of two stiff fingers that drives him back another step. "You fucking jerk."

"Hey!" says Dean. It's a warning protest, but Sam shoves him again anyway, and Dean shoves him right back.

They grab at each other, clumsy and uncoordinated, hissing and grunting as Sam tries to get hold of Dean in a headlock and Dean goes for Sam's middle, and then they're on the ground, scuffing through the dirt and dust.

Dean catches Sam's face with his elbow, and Sam's lower lip stings hotly, but he doesn't relent, barely notices the pain as he twists and writhes ferociously, scrambling on top of Dean. He grabs Dean by the collar, fingers digging into his collarbone and leaving behind red marks on his skin, and bounces Dean's head off the ground. Dean curses, and the knee he's slamming into Sam's groin loses all direction behind it and only knocks a gasp out of Sam, so he's choking on dust and the smell of Dean right up close to him.

Sam tries to get up on his knees to have a better position on top of Dean, and inadvertently gives Dean the chance to flip them over. The breath is slammed out of Sam again as his back hits the ground with all of Dean's weight atop him. Overhead, the sky whirls in gray and whitish-blue, but Dean's face, right over his, eats up most of Sam's vision. Dean gets one clumsy hand on Sam's mouth and the other on his throat, and he bears down viciously, until Sam hits the bar of his forearm into Dean's and topples him backwards.

His knee protests at the awkward angle at which it's trapped under Dean's body, so Sam yanks it out and scrabbles towards Dean, tugging and tearing at him before he can get upright again. Both of them panting and struggling, their bodies collide again, and Sam gets on top of Dean, pins him down in the dirt.

Still struggling and teeth gritted, Dean casts an enraged glare up at him. Sam doesn't know what the expression on his own face is but Dean abruptly stops fighting him. He lies under Sam, chest heaving for breath, and Sam can feel the play of Dean's muscles flexing as he readies for the next round if Sam chooses to start it.

Sam stares at him, still beyond angry, but fixated on Dean's face, the strangeness of it and the enduring familiarity of it.

"Did he kiss you?" Sam demands. When Dean stubbornly stays mute, Sam says it again, louder, angrier. "Did he kiss you on the mouth?"

And Dean has barely started to shake his head before Sam has crushed their mouths together. It's furious to the point of violence, but brotherly close-mouthed. There's no sharing of breath or spit, just the aggressive contact of their bodies. Dean's stubble is rough and scratchy, but his lips are soft. When he pulls away, Sam's mouth is hot and sore, and Dean is similarly flushed, pressing his lips together as if they've been left numb.

Firming his jaw, because he has made up his mind, Sam reaches down and unbuckles Dean's belt. Dean flexes tense beneath him, but his eyes are glittering and he doesn't look away from Sam's face. He's not backing down until Sam does.

When he's got Dean's fly down, Sam breaks eye contact in order to study Dean's dick as he works it free from Dean's shorts. It's hot in his hand, only half-hard but thickening against the curl of his fingers. Low down, his belly is quivering and his breathing is erratic and jumping. But his hand is steady as he fists Dean's cock slowly, watching its color darken and the first wetness of precome gather at the head.

The next time Sam looks at Dean, he's got his head thrown back, and there's sandy dust in his hair and caught on his eyelashes. The muscles in his neck are taut as he bites down on his lip. He's looking at the sky, at the rising sun, not at Sam.

So Sam puts their mouths together again in another dry kiss. He takes Dean's breath and keeps it for his own, treasuring it inside himself.

"You don't… This isn't you," Dean says.

Sam shakes his head vehemently. "Yeah, it is," he says. "This is me. This is me. This is me." He fucks Dean's cock into his fist in more demanding strokes, insisting on making Dean feel what's happening to Sam too. Dean can't seem to help the soft, almost pained grunts spilling out of him, and the sound of his dick slipping through Sam's fingers is wet and dirty, so very loud between them.

"This is us," Sam tells him, and it's such a perfect, solid truth that the clarity of it breaks Sam in an instant.

He crawls over Dean like a sickness taking hold, rutting into him, rubbing the hardness of his dick into Dean's hipbone over and over, muscles in his buttocks clenching as he jackrabbits his hips furiously, frantically, dry-fucking and humping the shape of Dean's body, while he imagines the white load of his come smeared over Dean's whiter skin. They're straining and gasping against each other, Dean's fingers wrapped around strands of Sam's hair and Sam grinding down onto Dean like he's going to fuck him right through the earth.

"C'mon, take it, take it," Dean mutters, arching into Sam's grip on his dick, into the thickness of Sam's dick pounding at him, spreading wet where the fat head of it is jammed against his jeans. "C'mon, Sammy, I'll get you there. Take it all."

Everything's coming flooding out of Sam. He wants to scream and come and shake his bones apart. His fingers tighten around Dean's hot, slippery dick and he can distantly hear Dean's breathing hitch into a sob, but he's outside of his own head in that moment. He buries his face in the crook of Dean's neck and muffles the shout wrung out of him by biting down on the line of Dean's throat.

He's aware of the sudden spasm of Dean's body under his, the wet heat that spills over his fingers, and his own dick throbbing against Dean's hip as Sam comes in his jeans.

For a while, Sam stays in the trembling darkness of Dean's body. Dean's throat is wet against his mouth, and Sam lifts his head shakily, is relieved to see no blood on Dean's skin, only the shine of saliva and the dark flush of a bruise beginning where Sam sucked too hard. The aftershocks are still a warm pulse through his muscles, heart beating too hard and his skin prickling all over. He feels sore and sticky where his dick has rubbed against his jeans.

Dean looks equally wrecked. He squints up at Sam through the sheets of morning sunlight. He doesn't say anything, just pats Sam on the cheek, letting his hand linger a moment, his thumb flicking over the curve of Sam's lips. Beneath the pale gold sunshine, he's stranded in the black shelter of the shadow Sam casts.

:::

Dean said getting two rooms was too fucking expensive, man, and Sam agreed, so they're sitting in a single motel room, watching each other from their respective beds.

Sam has opened the drapes so he can have sunlight on his half of the room, while Dean's is left in shadow. It's still light enough that Dean is clear to him, right down to the slightest nuance of his expression. But Dean seems comfortable enough with his gloom, has his back propped against the headboard and a bottle of whiskey resting in the cradle of his thighs.

"Are you at least gonna try to stop remembering stuff now?" says Dean.

Sam lifts one shoulder in a shrug. "There anything else you wanna tell me before I remember it for myself?"

"Dude, there's more than just your dick alter ego behind the wall. There's everything that happened to you in the cage. You start remembering that shit, and there's no telling what it'll do to you." Dean takes a steady swig from his bottle, wipes the back of his hand over his mouth. "'Course, not exactly like there's a whole load of magic moments from the last three years I want you dropping in on either."

Sam eyes him speculatively. Dean takes another drink and looks back at him.

"Why'd you stay with him, Dean? Why did you put up with all that?"

His tone is free of judgment but the question gets Dean rolling his eyes regardless.

"You get that by getting you your soul back I pretty much killed the guy, right? I didn't exactly treat him any better than he treated me."

When Sam continues watching him with a narrow, unimpressed gaze, Dean sighs, tries to take another mouthful of whiskey and grumbles when he finds the bottle empty. He flings the bottle under his bed and turns a baleful look on Sam.

"I fucking told you already. I missed you, and he was what was left. If you're looking for a Hallmark moment, buddy, I'm all out."

He lies down on the bed with a lot of fussing and grouching, punching the pillows plump and wriggling as he flattens out the wrinkles in the bedspread under his back. He folds his hands over his chest and closes his eyes.

Sam takes the hint and opens his laptop. Except for the clacking of the keyboard keys, the room is silent, divided neatly into night and day, and the dust motes that swirl in the shaft of light over Sam's side disappear from all existence when they drift into Dean's. Dean is not asleep, Sam can tell by the rhythm of his breathing and his relative stillness.

"Sounds like there's a ghoul infestation in Cheney, Washington. Couple of news reports about disturbed graves, one eyewitness account of seeing their brother-in-law, who'd been buried the week before."

Sam looks over at Dean's bed for his response.

"We'll check it out," says Dean without opening his eyes. Disgust wrinkles his nose. "Fucking ghouls. Like walking bags of battery acid."

Sam turns back to the laptop. "I'll keep looking. Must be something drinkable worth killing."

In the pause that follows, Dean says, "He said I was at flying weight. Like, he had me at this point where I was strong enough to be a good hunter but… still hung up enough on him that I wouldn't go too far. He did it on purpose. Knew exactly how far he could push me and exactly how much he had to give me to keep me coming back."

Sam nods. He swallows, presses his lips together while he deals with it. "He trained you," he offers.

"Yeah," says Dean. His eyes are open now, a flash of light in the shadow as his gaze searches the ceiling, seeing something else, something Sam might remember one day. "Flying weight, that's what he called it. It's something to do with training birds apparently. Don't ask me where the hell he picked it up."

Sam nods again, and tries to concentrate on the screen of his laptop because Dean will say more if he wants to and not if he doesn't.

And then, from faraway, somewhere years ago, Sam hears the buckle of the muzzle rattle, and it sounds to him like the bells on a bird of prey's tether.

"Dean," he says. He keeps his voice quiet, because the world is made of paper and is liable to collapse under the weight of what he's hoping. "Dean, I need you to see something."

:::

When they get to Hamilton, Ohio, it's dark, but the tree on the grass outside still seems summer-pink and overripe when Sam looks at it. It's a competing signal from memory to reality, and it only convinces Sam that he's right.

"You throwing me a surprise party? Hope you remembered to get me a stripper," says Dean, following Sam inside. "Seriously, Sam, what the hell are we doing here?"

Sam ignores him. He takes the key – lucky number 21 – from the metal cabinet and makes his way to the storage units. The beam of his flashlight is only a thin line but Sam knows the way now. The light bounces off the various fronts of the little lockboxes, then steadies as Sam draws closer to his own. He fits the key into the lock and twists, eases his unit out and sets it down on the table.

"I think the other me had a plan," he says. He pushes aside the scorched Dante, the out-of-date falconry training manual, tosses aside the knife and the myrrh. "I think he wanted to be able to turn you back if it suited him. I think he came here and left this here for when he needed it."

Sam thrusts the dark vial of blood towards Dean. He urges Dean with his eyes to take it, because his hand is wobbling.

"I think this is the blood of the vampire who turned you."

Shocked to sudden slowness, Dean reaches out and takes the vial from Sam. He unscrews the cap like he's easing the screws loose from the lid of a coffin. He lifts it to his nose, then the breath rushes out of him, his eyes flying wide.

"It's his," he says. "This is his."

"You're sure?" Sam insists, and Dean nods. He takes another sniff and then smiles helplessly at Sam, so lit up with delight that Sam is smiling back at him before he realizes it.

"We can cure you," Sam says.

Dean's already looking back at the vial but he snaps Sam a warning look. "Maybe," he says. "All I've ever heard is a lot of rumors, Sam. Let's not go crazy here."

Sam doesn't argue but he's not disheartened. There's a sketch of a suggestion Sam is yet to make to Dean, but its lines are growing more definite in his own head. While Dean cradles the vial in his hands and marvels over it, Sam eyes the slice of Dean's throat just visible over the collar of his shirt. He thinks about how much Dean enjoys being bitten there. And he thinks about how all it would take is one drop of Dean's blood in Sam's mouth.

He presses his lips shut in a smile, and doesn't say it.

Instead, he closes his hand over Dean's grip on the vial, and Dean lets Sam's fingers entwine with his own.

"Doesn't matter," Sam says. "Vampire, human, doesn't matter to me. You know that, right? All that matters is that it's you and me."

"It is," says Dean. "It's us."

~end

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