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The Things We Carry With Us

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Title: The Things We Carry With Us
Author: Lovesrain44
Genre: Slash
Word Count:47,654
Pairing: Sam/Dean
Warnings:: Angst, emo, h/c, incest, terrible weather, touristy local tidbits, and far too many descriptions about food.
Summary: Sam and Dean are on the road, saving people and hunting things, like they always do. Dean discovers that Sam is attempting to turn himself into a monk, and so he does his best to get Sam laid. Sam resists because, of course, who needs to have sex with a girl when Dean's around? (Takes place some time after Heart.)

The Haircut

It starts off with a haircut. Or rather, Sam thinks, it started off with Dean's mouth open and going, as if because he keeps it closed so much, when it opens, he has no control over it.

"You need a haircut," Dean says, one morning while they eat breakfast. They're at Jack's Grill, which they discovered in some nameless town en route to Mammoth Spring, where they're going to hunt down what is, by all reports, a good, old fashioned kelpie.

It is pure luck that has brought them there, some whim of Dean's to turn into the parking lot at the last minute, because they have the best hash browns that Dean has ever tasted. He swears this again as he shoves them in with so much enjoyment, lips glistening with grease, that it makes Sam want to try them. So he does.

Sam reaches out a fork for an end piece and when that slips off his fork, he uses his fingers to grab some. The hash browns are the perfect blend of crisp and salt and scorched bits where the grill got too hot and Sam's tongue falls in love with them as they slide down his throat. Dean never puts ketchup on them, just loads of salt, and that's just fine with Sam because ketchup is for French fries, not hash browns.

Watching Sam, Dean moves along to his bacon, using his fingers too, and for a moment, they chomp along, silent, each of them reaching for a gulp of hot, sweet coffee to make it perfect. Because it is, it really is. A breakfast like this is rare on the road, where the cook understands how eggs should be treated, with respect and a firm hand. How bacon should be crisp along the edges, but with curls of fat still sweet and soft to let you know that you're eating part of something that was once alive. How toast should be thick and soaked with real butter in the middle. And how there should be plenty of raspberry or strawberry jam, not in packets, but in a covered jar with a spoon stuck in.

Because these are the things that make Dean smile. And today the jam is strawberry, which makes Sam smile.

Sam's got an omelet, one of those ham and cheese ones, because it's hard to screw up an omelet that simple, and the cook has done it justice. But it's the pancakes that are drawing him again, the little pile of three that he ordered as a side. Those are his main pleasure this morning, chopped up first and then dotted with chunks of butter placed around and syrup drooled over the top. It's a mess, sugary and glistening like Dean's lips, and pretty soon, Dean's fork comes over, just as Sam is making inroads through the pile, and takes a chunk.

Sam hears the moan before he looks up.

"Good?" he asks, though the question is needless. Dean's eyes are rolling back in his head, almost dramatically, almost overdone, because he's learned, as has Sam, that if the waitress catches you acting like this, and she usually does, she will come over and want to know if something is wrong. At which point, Dean will wax poetic about the food and the service, at which point the waitress usually, though not always, manages to bring over some sweet rolls and more butter and forgets to add them to the bill.

The waitress comes over now, and pours more coffee for them both, and then, with the coffee pot resting on the edge of the table, asks, "You gentlemen doing alright?"

Sam nods and smiles up at her, chewing, and lets Dean carry the day for them both.

"Oh, man," says Dean, not having to fake it, not even a little bit. "I think I've died and gone to heaven, because--"

And here Sam's mind takes over the rest of the sentence. With waitresses, he's got about, oh, ten pat speeches, and this is one of his favorites. Sam follows along with him as Dean finishes--because the last time I tasted pancakes this good, my mom made them for me.

Yeah. That was over twenty two years ago, but the waitress doesn't know that. Nor does she need to. Nor does Sam try to explain it to her. The speech has the desired effect. The waitress smiles, and preens a little bit, as if she herself had made the pancakes, and Sam knows that the sweet rolls will soon be forthcoming. He just hopes he's got enough room for them. For some reason, they never carry out whatever food is given to them. They make it a rule to eat on site, in front of the giver. With gusto.

Soon, she's back and bringing her not sweet rolls but sticky buns, the rolled kind with pecans stuck in and brown sugar glaze drizzled over everything. She places them on the table with a little nod and a pat to her apron pocket, and while they spout their profuse thanks, she drops off the bill, minus the rolls, and sashays off towards the kitchen. Dean opens his mouth and not to shove hash browns in.

"You need a haircut," says Dean again, reaching for his roll, pulling the butter dish closer. He spreads butter over the top of the glaze and bites in with all his teeth. Chews for a moment, and then swallows. "What'll Dad say when--"

Then he stops like he's been pole axed and he looks at Sam with wide round eyes, his coffee cup half way to his mouth. Like he thinks he might should want to apologize for the slip, for upsetting anyone, least of all Sam, and because he can't, simply can't believe he doesn't remember that Dad is dead.

There's no way Dean could ever make Sam get a haircut, no way he would even want to, not the way Dad ever had. But he's gone and done it, associated the haircut with Dad.

Sam's throat closes up and he locks up the feeling the remark gives birth to. There's too much Sam can say about Dad, but he doesn't. Not with the memory of how Dean had looked on the day they'd cremated Dad, because as bad as Sam'd been messed up that day, it wasn't half, or even half of a half of what it had been for Dean. Dean's emotions had been exposed like the underside of a badly butchered carcass, raw and red and frankly bleeding all over the place.

There's a comeback on his lips that is 100% forced sass and belligerence and runs along the lines of Dad can just go suck my hind tit if he thinks I'm gonna get a haircut just because he says so. He'd made that remark once, just once, and Dean had curled back a fist to punch him and then, instead, had crumpled to laughter so hard, he sank to the nearest chair and laughed till he cried. Arms over his head saying hind tit, hind tit over and over again, till Sam had to smile too, and went the next day for a trim. Just a short one. Just for Dean.

Sam thinks about saying it, but doesn't. Instead he butters his sticky bun, now, slathering the soft butter on with a knife and bites into it, tongue springing to life at the crisp edges and the crunch of sugar and cinnamon, though some of the sweetness has gone out of it. He chews and swallows for a minute, taking a slug of coffee, and gives Dean a minute.

Not that a minute will do Dean much good, nor an hour, nor even a lifetime. Dean never carries anything with him, but he never leaves anything of import behind. Dad is one of those things. The way Sam sees it, he's one of those things, too, never to be left behind, not ever. Every time Dean lays eyes on him, Sam is willing to bet that there is a list in Dean's head that is added to, the list that starts off with the heading Sam.

There's subcategories too, like Sam Needs or Sam Wants, and if it's ever in Dean's power, the list is fulfilled. Nothing is ever scratched off this list, nothing ever goes away. Instead need or want is checked off, and then referred to later, in case the need or the want comes up again. It's exhausting to think of this, how Dean manages it, and Sam sometimes wonders how he manages to resist this giving thing that Dean has, and even now, how to circumvent it without pissing Dean off. Because there is, amidst the bossiness, there some smoking, slow swirling thing so that the love comes out like a bark, or an order, or exasperation.

"Haircut, huh?" says Sam now, now that Dean's most of the way through his eggs. Eggs with cheese on top, no less, the waitress being the sort to have suggested it, only fifty cents extra, and Dean, smiling, had agreed. There is nothing better on eggs than cheese, unless it is butter.

Dean looks up now, white, a little closed off, hand gripping the fork a little too hard. But he's all there, eyes on Sam, watching Sam eat. Letting himself sink into the ordinariness of the moment. Nothing wrong here, just a friendly conversation between brothers.

"Yeah," says Dean, around a mouthful as he chews. "You're looking a little girly, there, Sammy, especially the lovely way it drapes across your shoulders."

"Does not," says Sam, almost by reflex. That's the way he does it. Make it normal. Get shit from Dean, throw it back.

Dean laughs a little bit, eyes sparking to life, smiling as he chews, and slugs down more coffee. "Curls, dude. Real curls."

Sam knows Dean is right. He feels the heater hump to life somewhere behind a wall and feels the current of warm air past his cheek that pulls his hair over his eyes. He pushes it back and sighs.

"You cut it?" he asks, but not as if he doesn't already know the answer.

"Yeah, sure," says Dean, going back to the last of his hash browns with a great deal of solemnity as if they were a sacred object and he their most faithful follower. Sam can't blame him. The hash browns are pretty damn good.

*

They drive all day along the loopy, wooded roads to Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, and check in at the Riverview Motel. Their room, which overlooks the river, has sunlight streaming through the windows, tracing the carpet with glints and arrows.

Sam strips and sits perched on the edge of the tub in his boxers, with his feet inside. They've long learned that cutting Sam's hair means you have to either vacuum as you go or toss each hank of hair straight into the toilet. Otherwise, you'll be wearing Sam's hair for days, and everything you own will be too, regardless whether it grew out of your head or Sam's. Sam will rinse off right after, to keep him from itching with it.

Only once he settles in for his haircut, Dean can't find the scissors. As Sam waits, his toes tapping the bottom of the tub, Dean rummages around. He even goes out to the car, and Sam can hear the trunk slam shut, which indicates a lot of irritation.

Dean comes in. He's got his hunting knife out, and as Sam turns to see this, Dean flashes the blade into the light with a flick of his wrist.

"Yeah?" he asks permission.

Sam nods. He's very shy of knives around his head except when they are in his brother's hands. This is not unknown, just unspoken. The knife is sharp, he knows that too, and Dean will be as quick as he can, and will try not to pull. Tomorrow they will either find the errant scissors or they will buy some new ones.

Dean stands behind him, picks up a hank of Sam's hair in his fingers, and starts. There is a skra-skra sound as the knife goes through the hair. There is tugging too, for although the knife can slice through paper without tearing it, there are edges to hair that the knife blade is having trouble with. Dean will have to sharpen the blade afterwards. Sam leans his head back a little to let Dean know that he is pulling. Dean eases his fingers around the spot, and starts up again. Tendrils of hair land in the toilet with little whiskery sounds as they bounce off the porcelain and Sam feels the heat of Dean's breath as he leans to the side to check the length.

"Curls gonna go," Dean says, chuckling under what must surely be a smile.

"Yeah," says Sam. The long hair bothers Dean, and whether this is because it would have bothered Dad, or whether it's an old habit, doesn't matter. If it bothers Dean, then to give into this is almost painless. At that moment, with the soft quiet settling around them in the small tile lined room, Dean could shave him bald headed if he wanted.

Sam sighs. He thinks it is to himself, but Dean speaks up, his hands stopping.

"Did I pull?"

"Nope," says Sam. "Just falling asleep here."

"Huh," says Dean. He continues, lifting the hair from Sam's neck and, pulling just a little bit, slices it off. Every once in a while, his fingers move to cup the spot on Sam's head that he's just cut from, warm fingers easing the feel of the tug, stroking down to the skin. It's rather like being petted in the right direction for a long time, and almost lulling him into slouching. But if he slouches, he will fall asleep, which he did one time, tumbling into the tub, waking up just as Dean's hands grabbed him and saved him from smacking his head.

Dean's hands are careful around his ears, lifting the hair back and away before he cuts, raking through the cut hair to check the length again, and smoothing stray hairs back from Sam's forehead. Sam closes his eyes, and feels tufts like spider webs float down his back. Dean can't catch them all, and for a moment, they feel like kisses, sending shivers through him, down his legs. Whipping into his groin like little bolts of lightning. It is not wrong, this, his body's reaction, friction or heat or fear can do this just as easily.

More hair flitters down his back, and then Dean's hand wipes him off, sweeping down, brushing, warm, curving around his ribs, doing it again, and Sam feels the jags from his stomach leaping around, and something hums in his brain. This is just Dean, cutting his hair, doing something he's done before and will again, to save money, to save Sam from having to put up with a stranger waving a sharp object around his head.

"Almost finished," Dean says, the knife skra-skraing again, hairs pulling from the crown of Sam's head, fingers moving around his skull while Dean shapes Sam's hair to his liking.

Then Dean leans close and, with heated moist air straight from his lungs, blows a curve across the back of Sam's neck. He's not doing it for any reason other than the obvious one, to get stray and invisible hairs off of Sam so Sam won't itch later. But Sam's skin is jumping up, tightening, and his cock is hard and hot against his stomach, pushing against the elastic waistband of his boxers, his balls tightening up, getting ready. His brain is shocked at his body's readiness, so quick, so soon. Wanting. Wanting what? Nothing. There is nothing to want.

Dean moves his fingertips across Sam's spine and then up his skull, lacing his fingers through Sam's hair. He leans in, oblivious it seems, as Sam pulls his shoulders forward and crosses his forearms over his lap. Not that erections aren't normal, they are, but now? Right now? His brain curses and his body flits away from this. It doesn't care. There have been hands upon it, and fingers, and breath. Whispers of touches that feel like kisses. It is awake. It remembers. It has been a while.

"Hey?" says Dean.

Behind Sam's closed eyes, there is a weight that tells him that Dean is leaning down.

"Sam, you okay?"

"You know," says Sam, almost croaking with it. "We're done here, right? You done? You're done. Think I'll take a shower now, Dean."

There is a touch on his shoulder. Dean's palm. It is hot. Sam's body wants to lean into it. His brain scolds. Sam shudders.

"Sam, you--hey, how long has it been?"

There is no hiding it. Not with Sam perching on the edge of the tub, his toes curling and uncurling against the scratched porcelain, his thighs quivering, his hands casting half moons into his own skin.

Dean takes his hand away. Sam can hear him rinsing the knife off in the sink, and the rub of the towel as he dries the metal blade. The flush of the toilet. And Dean's cough as he doesn't leave.

"I'm gonna guess here, Mr. Oh-So-Silent. You just tell me if I'm right."

Sam doesn't want guessing, doesn't want the discussion, doesn't want any of it. Dean can never understand how a body can just shut down for that long, because his never has. Never will. Not until he's dust in the ground. Maybe not even then. Not his brother. Not Dean.

"Don't," says Sam. "Just close the door behind you."

"Madison, right?"

Sam's whole body jerks at this. Bull's eye. Target dead on. And why oh why is Dean so damn observant? Sam can't move.

Dean doesn't say a word. There's a little pause, and Sam can hear Dean breathing, but what is there to say? Sam allows himself to open his eyes and take in the chipped tiles and the grout that can't ever be stripped of mold completely, and he reckons that just adds to the bathroom's rickety, backcountry charm.

He's trying to concentrate on the small details, and not on Dean behind him. Dean who knows an erection when he sees one, knows the cause, now, and has no answer for it. Even if this is added to the Sam list, regardless of the subheading, there is no way he'll ever be able to take care of the problem. Not unless he drags a girl in here and convinces both her and Sam to get it on. Sam will find his own girl. When he's ready. Today does not look good. Tomorrow doesn't look much better. His brain tells him this. His body is furious.

"Okay," says Dean, and Sam hears him walking away, closing the door behind him. Two seconds later the TV is snapped on and any sounds or mutters Dean might make are masked by the local weather report.

Sam stands up in the tub and peels off his boxers, letting scraps of hair tumble at his feet. He eases his erection with the heel of his palm as gently as he can. Not mad. He can't be mad at his own body, not when it's remembering Madison like this. Not when it misses her as much as the rest of him does.

He breathes in and out for a minute, and then messes with the taps, letting cold shower water come down on him for a second before it heats up and plows down like a rain storm. He dips his head into the spray and picks up the soap. Concentrates on getting all the hair off him, on finding every bit, on soothing his skin out of its jumpiness, and talking it out of any more quicksilver responses to his brother's touch.

When he gets out of the shower, he reaches for a towel and realizes he brought no clean clothes in with him. There are only the hair-woven boxers, and with all the trouble and fuss over leftover hairs, he cannot put them back on. There are sounds from the main room, and when Sam gets a towel wrapped around his middle and opens the door, he sees that Dean is putting on his boots and grabbing up the keys. He checks for his wallet, and with the hand that is not holding the keys, he opens the door. He looks at Sam.

"Going for a drink. Back later."

This is cryptic even for Dean, and Sam frowns at the door as it closes. He listens for a bit to the sounds of the Impala starting up, the metallic and full throated rumble familiar and easing some of the sting of Dean's departure. The space that Dean leaves behind him is empty.

Sam pulls on clean boxers and t-shirt. The TV talks to him as he wanders into the bathroom to brush his teeth, gives him information on weather for the county tomorrow, and follows this up by many ads about pills and creams and fast food. He looks at himself in the mirror for a minute, thinking that Dean has, yet again, cut his hair shorter on the right than on the left. He uses his free hand to brush the hair back, making it look more even. It doesn't matter anyway, there is no one to see. Besides, hair is just hair.

As he finishes brushing his teeth, he leans forward and spits into the sink and feels better. This is normal, things are normal. Dean has gone out to get a few beers and talk to pretty girls and think about playing pool and think about the road. He is not, Sam hopes, thinking about the Sam list or making additions to it. There is nothing to be done anyway.

Sam has a new book that he got at the used book shop next to the gas station in Puxico, MO, several hundred windy and tree lined miles from Mammoth Spring. The book is about devils and exorcisms and crops filled with spoiled rye and towns gone mad with fear.

He turns down the sound on the TV and slips between the covers and takes up the book to read it. It is not a fun book, the few pictures are reproductions of woodcuts, but it absorbs him as he relaxes into the pillows, and his hair dries in uneven layers around his ears.

The TV settles into a pattern of noise that Sam ignores, and the book reads predictably. The spoilage in the rye caused a sickness that led to actions that people thought were possessions. Only one of these possessions cannot be traced to the person having consumed rye, and Sam reaches out to grab the motel pen, thinking that if he can, he will trace the name and come up with a pattern that is interesting. He thinks for a second that maybe they could go up near Boston, but he knows it is out of the way, and it would be hard to convince Dean to go up there just for the heck of it as the summer is over. Too cold. Not yet it isn't, Sam will say, and probably win the day about their choice of gigs. As he has been.

He writes the name down in the margin and dog-ears the page. Then he puts the pen back.

He hears the rumble of the Impala. The door opens. Cold early autumn air cuts through the heat that has probably been on high for some time, only Sam'd not noticed. He notices now, and notices the clock. It's been hours, but the book has taken him, and only now gives him back.

Dean comes in and barely glances at Sam. He closes the door and locks it. Then he takes off his boots and goes into the bathroom to pee. Sam hears the toilet flush and the hand washing and thinks that while normally there might be conversation, tonight there won't be.

This is probably his fault. Yes, it most likely is. He's given Dean something new to worry about, to imagine he's responsible for. Shaking his head, Sam puts the book on the nightstand and turns off his side of the light. He places the clicker on the nightstand, nearer to Dean's bed than his own, and slides low beneath the covers. The feel of his feet pushing against the sheets is nice and cool, and he closes his eyes. The room is warm, but sleepable, and he imagines that Dean will open the windows to let the air circulate, so that he can sleep warm beneath the blankets while the air is fresh on his face. That's the way he likes it. That's the way they sleep.

Dean comes out, not tiptoeing, turns off the TV, checks the door again, and walks between the middle of the beds. Sam opens his eyes and looks up. Dean does not look happy. Dean turns out the lights, and in the darkness, he doesn't say anything, so Sam rolls away and listens to Dean getting undressed.

Sam traces the meaning of the sounds without thinking about it. The clink of a belt, the slide of cotton over skin, the flump of blue jeans as they hit the floor. Dean picks them up, he always does, and folds them and tucks them away. It wouldn't ever do to have crap on the floor where you might trip over it if you had to move fast to chase something or get away from it in the dark.

Then the bed dips behind Sam as Dean crawls in under the covers. The sheets crackle as the static smacks around, zapping Sam in the small of the back. He arches away, thinking Dean's just doing this to hassle him, because Dean's got his own bed, and then Dean's hands are on him. Pulling him till he's flat on his back and Dean is over him. Dean's arms are tucking him close, one arm up over his head, the other on his arm.

"Hey," says Dean. There is beer on his breath, a warm current of hops against Sam's neck and in his ear. Not a lot of beer because Dean knows better, knows his limit, but there's a hint of Jack too, Sam is almost certain.

"Hey," says Dean again. "Been thinkin'."

This is usually a good thing, Dean's ideas are always good ones, sometimes brilliant ones. His hands are familiar, and Sam's body is still, accepting.

"What?" Sam asks.

"You need this," Dean begins. His whole frame seems to sigh. "Can't be good, goin' on like this, an' I don't want you to."

"What?" Sam asks again. His body is starting to wake up, to remember how warm and good it is to have another body lying next to it, but Sam's brain can't make sense of it, and is, in fact, raising its voice to be heard. "What are you talking about?"

"You miss Madison. I get that. But you don't have to miss everythin' else."

"Everything being…." Sam lets his voice trial off as the heater humps to life once more, creating a background buzz that mercifully is devoid of any squeaks.

"Everything." Dean's answer is cryptic, possibly as cryptic as Dean's ever been, and as Sam turns his head to demand what the hell, his body jumps as Dean's hand moves onto his stomach and soothes warm skin with cool. "This," he says now, his fingers slipping below the elastic band of Sam's boxers.

Sam's brain sits up protesting while his body says yes, yes, now is good, and then his brain is silenced, for the moment, into stillness.

Dean's fingers, still cool, calloused on the edges, slip over Sam's cock like a glove, fingers curling. Sam is pulled against Dean, and Dean shifts close and the humming begins in Sam's brain. Taking up right where it left off when Dean had been cutting his hair.

Dean strokes him, once, up and down, and then stills. He seems to be waiting in the darkness, as the heater hums and Sam's skin is jumping beneath Dean's hand. Dean does this again, and Sam has the notion that the room begins to spin, and he imagines, as his cock goes rock hard, that he can feel the blood not simply pooling there, but racing there, as fast as it can, joyous at last to have a reason. A real reason. A hand-other-than-his-own reason, which, for all that, it hasn't felt since Madison died.

Dean's mouth is on his ear now, as Dean moves up, his bare thigh against Sam's bare thigh, his ribs pressing into Sam's ribs, and he takes a breath and whispers.

"You can stop me if you wanna," he says, almost not audible, even this close. His lips, as they move, are like kisses, like the kisses Sam imagined along his back as the hair skittered down. As soft as dandelion crowns, weathered white and ready to drift away. "I'll stop it, right now, if you wanna."

Sam shivers at the heat in his ear.

"I will, an' you don't hafeta, an' in the mornin' we'll go on like we always do. But you can't, I mean, don't want you to--"

Dean's voice breaks off as if what he doesn't want Sam to do is beyond his ability to speak. Sam can fill in the blank with any number of ideas, but his brain has gone dark in shock. There is a phrase stored up at the front however, which framed itself the second Dean's hand wrapped around his cock. Way back. Before the rubbing started, or the soft whispers in his ear. It's ready to be said. There are many words he can't identify, but they all mean the same thing. Stop. No. He just has to give it the nod.

His brother has, it seems, already heard this message, this phrase, in the silence, and is pulling his hand back. Away. Off. He shifts, and his hand catches on Sam's cock, and presses, just a fraction of a second, hard against the base. A fraction, but long enough for Sam's body to wake up and shudder and press into Dean's hand, into the warmth and cool together, his hips moving forward, his head going back, Dean's lips brushing his jawbone, moist and sweet. And he sighs. Hears Dean's choked breath, and feels the Dean's arm slipping under him, feels Dean lean in.

"'kay," says Dean, his voice a little thick. "I got you."

Sam imagines for a second the expression on Dean's face. The serious intent signaled by the furrowed brow and the frown of concentration. There will be a stillness that settles over his brother's features, which even with his eyes closed, Sam can see. It is all he can see, or think, because as Dean takes on the task he has set for himself, that Sam has agreed to, there is nothing else.

Nothing but Dean's face in his mind's eye, and the press of his chest against Sam's shoulder, and a hand, warm, moving on him, becoming slick. He's testing the hardness with careful fingers, making the pressure come and go, flipping his thumb up along the edge of Sam's cock rather like he might gun a motorcycle. Racing his engine. The thought might make him smile, if he could think it clearly, but he cannot. His head falls heavy into the pillow as he presses into Dean's hand, his fingers coming up to grab at something, anything, turns out to be Dean, Dean's hip, hot under the cotton t-shirt that slips up under Sam's fumbled grasp.

The pressure in his spine begins to build, water behind a dam, months of it, and Dean's hand is at the switch. Slipping and then holding, moving. Catching a bit as Sam turns towards Dean, into the hand, needing to press, this motion changing the angle so that Dean is pushed back, the hand on Sam's cock pulling sharper, each pull tweaking as Dean's hand slips over the head of his cock, wet and hot like a mouth swallowing him down.

A snap of sharpness and then Dean's hand comes down again, moving faster, as Dean's breath is faster, wrecked like the air in Sam's throat, his hair, still too long, slipping into his eyes, into his mouth and he feels his jaw tighten. Wanting to keep back the sharp keen that's leaping up inside of him, and it escapes him, in spite of this, as Dean's hand begins that ever quickening pace, and slams down, just right, and pulls up, hard, and then does this again, and then again, till Sam's pitched breath comes out like words and he's pressed so close to Dean their foreheads are touching and he can feel his brother's hot skin with his own and thinks just then, that he sees stars.

His spine heats up and melts down and jets out of his cock, spears out, into Dean's hand, pulses hot as his cock jerks against Dean's palm. He is hot all over, his body following, pushing, pulsing and he is pressed up against Dean as Dean lets go and wipes the heel of his hand against Sam's thigh.

Dean tries to pull up Sam's boxers but they are ripped now, and the elastic has had enough. Sam spills himself into Dean's arms, thinking that he will fall, he will most surely fall with the darkness all around where no one will find him. But Dean finds him. As he always has. With warm arms to collect the bits of him that he's left behind, steady pats, circles of hands, both on him now, he is against Dean's chest, in the cave of his arms, his head beneath Dean's jaw, and now, his feet hang over the edge. He sighs, heart thumping, lungs pushing hard, his head dropping into Dean. Between them, Sam's boxers are soaked through and everything feels sticky. No one moves away.

"Okay, now, Sammy?"

Dean asks this though surely the answer must be quite, quite obvious.

Or maybe it isn't. The heater has shut down, for the moment, and the room is still. Quiet.

Sam swallows and the sound echoes in the dark. He feels Dean tensing as if his answer is going to be bad.

Sam swallows again, his throat is so dry, and then nods against Dean's chest. Makes it clear. "Yeah." His voice is low, so he coughs to clear it and says again, "Yeah, Dean."

Dean relaxes beneath him and doesn't complain about Sam's weight as he might otherwise have done. But he shifts and Sam moves off of Dean, settling in where there's a wet spot, determined that Dean won't have to deal with it. Their bodies separate, and for a moment, only their hands, clasped to each others forearms, are touching. There is enough light in the room to see the dark edge of Dean's face, but nothing more. His brother's face is looking at him, and they are still again.

"Gonna sleep now, Sammy?" Dean asks this question, the obvious one, but there is more behind it that wants expressing. Sam can feel it in the line of Dean's body, taut again next to him in the bed. The covers quiver and Sam doesn't know if this is from him or Dean. Dean needs something from him and Sam is going to give it to him, straight out and no fucking around. Just be sure that Dean is sure that everything is okay.

"Dean," he says, and feels Dean's body pull to attention. "You are--" he stops here, his mouth working. "That was--" he tries again, not really sure what to say. Thanks for the hand job, my brother, it was the best ever?

It is going so badly, this part, this part that is up to him to make it go okay. He fumbles for Dean's hand and pulls it to his head. He leans into Dean's palm, as if it were Dean caressing him, and not Sam making his hand do this. He feels Dean start and then stiffen, and Sam pulls the hand towards his chin, cupping his own cheek with it, and smiles, nodding into the hand. "Dude," he says, finally. "Seriously. Seriously good."

Now Dean's body relaxes and he cups Sam's face. Pets him there, lets Sam lean into his hand, and Sam hears his brother sigh. "Dude," says Dean in response. Answer and confirmation.

With a small, gentle pat, Dean touches his fingers to the soft skin beneath Sam's eyes and the hand pulls away. Dean shifts on his back, and Sam knows, though he can't see, that Dean is well on his way to stealing the covers. Moreover, he is not moving back to his own bed. Which, considering, is okay with Sam. He pulls his feet up and rolls away, folding his hands under the pillow, feeling his ribs and spine relax. His heart slows down. Remembers Dean's words. In the mornin' we'll go on like we always do. Nothing had changed. Nothing would change. That's what Dean had meant.

His brain has checked out and his body is following, swift as a bird, and he feels the darkness sweep up on him. The hand job must have been on the Sam List. If so, there's now a check mark by it. And beyond that, more important than that, is the fact that Dean had rolled back and fallen asleep, with only Sam's needs cared for. It is selfish and unfair and Sam feels a flicker of anger at yet again Dean taking care of Sam and not himself. Not letting anyone take care of him, least of all Sam. The exhaustion soaks into him, and his body waves off his mind's attempt to organize itself around this anger. The body is happy and doesn't care. But Sam cares. More than anything. It just isn't fair.

Mammoth Spring

Sam wakes up early, but then he usually does. Usually he does a coffee and donut run, too, which puts Dean in a good mood for breakfast. But this morning, he stands by the edge of the window and pulls back the curtains just enough to let him look out, but not enough to wake Dean with the morning light.

It seems an impossible task to go on as they always have. Not with the thoughts churning in the tumbrel of Sam's brain. So he stares at the river. At the river and not at Dean, who is a sleepy, warm mound under the covers. Sam tries not to think. Thinks about other things. Thinks about where they are.

Most rivers flow fed by runoff and rainwater and snow melt. But the Spring River is pushed by water that boils from the ground so saturated with minerals that it flows pale as ice in some places, green as jade in others. Now, with the sun still behind the hotel, the river is in shadow, a dark and glossy black path of movement at the bottom of the hill. For such a cheap motel in the middle of nowhere, the view is amazing. But then, being in the middle of nowhere, probably no one cares.

Dean stirs in the bed, and Sam's attention snaps there, unable to keep itself away, and he's unable to forget what Dean had said: and in the morning we'll go on like we always do. Or maybe Dean was seriously drunk and won't remember. Or maybe he will remember and they won't go on like they always do, and Dean will leave him by the side of the road.

He feels more lonely than if Dean had never touched him.

"Dean," he says. He figures they might as well get this part over with. "Dean, get up. Daylight's burning."

Dean makes a sound that translates into where's my coffee, bitch?

Sam answers. "They have a continental breakfast downstairs, but you hate those, and so--"

Dean pushes himself to a sitting position. The blankest and sheets fall around his hips, but instead of looking at his hair that looks like a hastily brushed dog, or that lush mouth all relaxed with sleep, Sam makes himself pay attention to opening the curtains. Dean makes another sound and Sam thinks the sounds mean: five minutes. Shower.

*

It takes a little longer than five minutes, so Sam's stomach is making its protests known to everyone in the little spot in town along the main street that Dean drives them to for breakfast. Dean's his usual morning self, not very jovial and mostly quiet and so, thus far, they are going on as they always have. Dean bumps into Sam, his muscles taunt beneath his leather jacket. Sam looks at him, but all Dean seems to want is to get Sam to hurry so he can slide into his side of the booth, as always, and smiles at the waitress and begs for coffee with his eyes. And with such eyes, still soft with sleep, the coffee soon arrives.

As Sam watches him take the first hot black sip, he realizes he shouldn't be staring. Not at Dean's eyes, which are always green, but surely not this green. Nor is he going to stare at Dean's mouth or anything that is Dean. Which is hard, considering that Dean's sitting right across from him. What is the difference between looking and staring? He finds, suddenly, that he has no idea.

When the waitress comes back, Dean orders enough food to feed three lumberjacks. Sam finds his mouth watering at the thought of biscuits and gravy, so he orders that.

"You know they're going to mess it up," says Dean.

It feels familiar to straighten in his seat and rearrange the salt and pepper shakers like he's getting irritated and trying to contain it. But it's an old argument, started at least a year ago when both Sam and Dean had both had the best biscuits and gravy in some podunk café in the middle of Illinois. The gravy had been hot and silky and spiced with pepper, and the biscuits had been so fluffy, they'd both joked about having to hold them down with their hands lest they float off. But not only can neither one of them remember the cafe (let alone the name of the town), they've never yet encountered anything as good as those biscuits and gravy.

"I gotta keep trying," says Sam. He pushes his hair back from his eyes and realizes that Dean hadn't cut his bangs short enough again.

"You'll never find them," says Dean right back. He clinks his spoon back and forth in his mug, even though there's nothing to stir because he drinks it black. Sam thinks Dean does this because he likes the rhythm; it gives him time to think.

"It could happen," says Sam, finishing the argument. It's practically a ritual by now.

When the food comes, they eat. It's not bad, and if there's not enough pepper in the biscuits and gravy, Sam can add that. And wash it down with some flat tasting orange juice.

"Yeah, well, it's no Jack's Grill," says Dean, pushing his toast into the yolk of his eggs and shoving it in his mouth.

"Well, what is?" asks Sam, shaking his head. "At least we know what town that's in."

By the time they pay the bill, Sam feels his shoulders coming down. It feels normal now, and maybe it's that he's not hungry and they have a case to focus on. Sam can't stare at his brother if he's got work to do.

He follows Dean while he checks that the Impala and does not think about Dean's hands upon him in the dark. When they're just about to step away, Sam remembers something.

"Do I need Dad's journal?"

"No," says Dean as he walks away. He pushes his hand at Sam like he's pushing away the idea of it. "We know what's going on. It's a kelpie, or something very like it. It came up as a blip on the weird radar, and so here we are."

Sam catches up to walk beside Dean, shoulder to shoulder along the sidewalk. "But why here? We're in the middle of Arkansas."

Dean shrugs, and his look at Sam feels right and easy. Like it should. Besides, neither of them are stupid enough to climb on a kelpie's back, if it is a kelpie, so there's practically no danger.

"Well, we still have to make sure we're going after the right thing, Dean."

Dean nods as they head up the street. The road, and therefore the sidewalk, slopes up away from the river. The stores seem a little countrified, in keeping with what big city folk like to see. There're wooden walkways and wooden stairs into shops. There are coffee shops and candy stores, and little cafes with useless tables out front, and streams of people passing to and fro in the delicious late September sunshine. The breeze from the river keeps the air sweet and people seem happy.

"Look," Dean says, pointing.

He seems drawn, much to Sam's surprise, to the patterns and colors of the cloth draped in the nearest shop window. Normally, Dean is all business, and notices only what needs to be noticed. Though he tends to take in everything else, just in case.

When Sam looks at him, brow furrowing, Dean points again.

"Look at the sign."

Sam looks at the sign: Member of the Guild of Irish Weavers and Spinners.

"So. Irish? Kelpie? Hello?" Dean smirks in that way that says he thinks it's all too obvious.

Sam bites back a scathing retort about stereotypes because Dean might be right about this one.

"Let's go in," says Dean.

Dean leads the way and Sam follows. There is a dry, dusty soapy smell, and a tang of wet wool, of burning wood and melting fat. It's strong but not unpleasant, and Sam moves into the store, feeling the wood creak under his feet. Of course, a store as nice as this one is would be able to afford to fix that, but, of course, that would take away from the rustic charm.

The store is filled with cloth for any use that Sam can name, and even some he can't.

Along every wall, filling the dark shelves, there are table runners, and placemats, and floor throws, and soft wraps, scarves, and hats, and socks. There are swathes of cloth that look like the might be good when Christmas came, simply to hang up and look festive. There are shirts and sweaters and rolls of patterned cloth that can, as the sign indicates, be made into kilts. He's a little overwhelmed at the start and drawn in by the line of sweaters of creamy white, cables and patterns standing up beneath his fingers, curling away like sea foam

He is surprised to find Dean at his elbow, holding a strip of white cloth with ivy woven in at the borders, as fresh and real as if the greengrowth had come to life within the cloth.

"What's that?" Sam asks, ignoring the familiar scent of Dean underneath the heavy scent of lanolin.

Dean turns away and goes back to put the cloth where he found it. Sam follows, and when he reaches Dean, he gives his brother a push with an elbow to make him talk.

"Mom," says Dean. "Mom had something like that. Before, you know, before. It only came out on Sundays. On the table, under the candles."

Sam has no memory of this, which only makes sense, seeing as he wasn't even into solid food when the fire had come. "It's pretty," he says now, his brain unable to come up with anything more than that because he's never lived anywhere long enough to have something as nice as that for use only on Sundays.

There is a moment as he looks at his brother, at Dean's profile, as the mouth tightens and those eyes darken, the lids falling down as if to close something off. Sam sometimes thinks of it as Dean's switch, totally in Dean's control, and fluid, oiled every day. On. Off.

Dean turns to go further into the store, making Sam follow by the pure virtue of his going.

A girl behind the long wooden counter looks up as they approach. She has red hair that crinkles into gold, like it was shot through with threads. She doesn't seem to see Sam at all, but when she sees Dean, she smiles. Sam sighs. Feeling invisible is old news.

Just as they get to the counter, Dean turns to Sam and says, low, "Think she's a true redhead?"

Sam chuffs Dean's head with the back of his hand, hoping that the girl didn't hear. But the store is hush hush quiet, so it is likely that she did. The stain of pink on her face tells Sam that he is right.

"Hey there," says Dean. He leans up against the counter on one elbow, in full slouch, tipping his head and looks up through his lashes. Dean's beautiful when he does this, but then Sam has always thought so, even if it irritates him sometimes how easily Dean does it.

"Hey," she says with the slightest of southern honey in her voice. Well, it is Arkansas after all. Her mouth is sweet and her hair curls around the back of her ears just he way Sam thinks Dean likes it.

The girl notices Sam, and for a second they stand there, looking at each other. Then Dean gives Sam a jerk of his head, which means: go away, I've got this one.

Feeling a huff of annoyance, Sam marches across the wooden floor and out the heavy, old fashioned door because of course Dean has this one. If it is a pretty girl, he always has this one and it has nothing to do with what happened the night before. Nothing. But as Sam steps out from the temperate air of the shop and into the vagaries of autumn sunshine, he shivers.

It's stupid. He shouldn't be affected like this, but of course he is. He suddenly can feel Dean's hands on him, sweet and soft, Dean nuzzled up behind him, a curve of skin and breath. Doing for Sam what he couldn't do for himself. And now, it's like Dean woke something up inside of him, like a sleeping creature, which being now awakened, wants more.

Don't start what you can't finish, Dean.

But Dean has and does and as Sam sits on the top step in front of the shop, he thinks this is a battle he'll have to fight on his own. The feelings of desire will fade in time, or it should, if he leaves it alone. Leaving things alone, however, is not Sam's strongest talent.

*

The door to the shop opens, and Dean stomps down the wooden stairs, jerking his chin for Sam to follow him. Sam follows, trotting at his side.

"You'll be pleased to know that the she is true redhead, and that I got her talking."

Sam ignores why Dean would even know anything like that, and asks instead about the case.

"Talking?" asks Sam.

"Talking about kelpies."

"Yeah?"

"More specifically about jealous neighbors, namely a Mr. Robert Shane, whose wife doesn't weave as well as she everyone else in town."

"She just told you all that, flat out?"

"I have my charms, Sam, and I know how to use them." Dean waggles his eyebrows in a suggestive fashion, but in light of what happened the night before, Sam is not inclined to encourage him. After all, those charms were used on him, and he still doesn't know what to do with it.

"Seems strange," Sam says, as they walk along the sidewalk, separating around some red and yellow newspaper dispensers and oddly placed light posts, and then coming together on the other side.

"What does?" Dean's question trails off as his eyes scan the street. Sam knows he is looking for another weaving shop.

Sam tugs on Dean's leather jacket and points, glad to be touching Dean, even as he's glad for a second of normal, because this is something he does all the time. Dean nods and they cross the street, jaywalking against the slow traffic.

"What does?" Dean asks again as they are just about to open the door and go into another quiet cave of wool and cloth and beautiful, red headed girls.

"Well, that she just came out with it, that she already knew who it might be." The kelpie is obviously a recent addition to the tourist trade in Mammoth Spring, otherwise people would be acting a lot more skittish than they are. But, as the sun pushes some warmth into the air, and people pull the joy out of the morning, no one acts as if anything is wrong.

"Beats the shit out of me, Sam," says Dean, ignoring the scowl of a mother with two young children who are eating ice cream from messy cones nearby. "But we're not the only ones who can read and who know about weird things, supernatural things. Plus, she's Irish, and she--"

Sam waves him off. "Enough with the stereotypes, Dean," he says. "And quit thinking with your dick, let's just go see what else we can find out."

"Thinking with my dick, huh?" Dean looks at Sam, full on with those glittery green eyes of his, just for a minute, and Sam knows he has to lock this down before this particular conversation goes any further.

Sam gulps, and looks away, knowing that if they were still keeping score on the Eye Chicken game, Dean would be totting up the points and crowing about it all day. "We can't just go after him without more evidence."

"Agreed," says Dean, smiling, still looking at Sam. And either he's thinking about the Eye Chicken game too, or because last night was just a one off and they really are going to go on the way they always have, or he's messing with Sam because he can, and Sam simply does not know.

He shakes off Dean's gaze with a shrug of his shoulders and looks down the street towards the closest sweet shop. "Want to get some ice cream?" he asks.

Dean nods and looks away, smirking.

*

They eat their ice cream cones and trundle into at least three shops to look around to stir up some stories. Dean uses his silky charms to get more red headed girls talking, while Sam looks at sweaters and scarves and thin, fine table runners. One of the shops even has a large loom in it, with a little card propped up on it that talks about warp beams and heddles, shuttles and reeds, even though the whole thing looks like a huge game of cat's cradle to Sam.

While he stares at it, and stops himself from crawling under it to see if that way he can figure out how it works, Dean talks with the sales girl. She has blonde hair this time, but that doesn't seem to be bothering Dean.

Sam turns away to poke at the some pretty fierce looking wool combs when he notices an older woman wearing a white shop apron staring at them both with narrow eyes. Suddenly he feels like he's all thumbs and elbows and that Dean's got a "lock up your daughters" sign on his forehead.

He opens his mouth to warn Dean, but the woman comes over to Sam and moves the combs away from his hands.

"You'll hurt yourself with those, young man," she says, "if you don't know how to handle them." Her nametag says Irene.

"I don't," he says, looking over at Dean, trying to send signals with his mind that Dean should shut up now and move on. "I'm writing a paper, that is, me and my brother are writing a paper on cottage industries--" He pauses, watching Dean reach over to push a strand of Blond Girl's hair behind her ear.

"Like weaving," Irene supplies.

Sam turns his attention fully on Irene. She is not beautiful; her hair is scraped back in a bun and her skin is seamed from being out in the weather, and he wonders if that is because she shears her own sheep, and he wouldn't doubt it. But her eyes are sharp and he gets the feeling she knows he's lying. It makes him uncomfortable, not just because she caught him at it, but because there ought to be a better way. They ought to be able to talk to local people who are under the threat of something supernatural and be honest with them.

Dad and Dean have worked hard to train this impulse out of him, but, at this point, they are about to fail again, because there's a power in honesty, and Sam knows this. They've not gotten very far with Dean's meet and greet sweet talking of all the pretty shop girls in town; maybe it's time for a different tactic.

He opens his mouth, only nothing comes out. He's not sure if it's better to be a bit uncomfortable and lie about what he's doing, or ask straight out: who the hell raised a kelpie and set it free?

"And?" she asks, prompting him. Then, surprising him, she says, "Never mind, Mara called me. I know what you boys are asking about."

Sam feels bad that he'd not taken the chance and been honest with her before she says this. But he nods, giving in, not even keeping up the pretence for form's sake.

"The kelpie," he says. "All the stories lead to that."

"The kelpie," she says.

"Yeah," says Sam. "A green-black horse with diamonds in its eyes and waterweed for hair. Pounding on doors with its hooves and taking away as riders those unlucky enough or stupid enough to climb on its back."

"Well, that's a pretty story, young man," she says, and her voice is tart. "Did you know that since July, three people have washed up on the shores of the river? Would you believe some kids found their bodies? According to the Chamber of Commerce, it's ruining everyone's good time and harming tourism. Not to mention it's given the local paper some real work to do for a change, determining whether freedom of the press overrides or is overridden by the people's need to know."

"Yes," he says. He tips his head down to look at his feet, encased in dusty and beat up sneakers. Sometimes, on the road with Dean, doing what they do, he sometimes forgets that real people and real people's lives are affected by what they do. Or what they fail to do. "We read the articles in the paper about it." Then he looks up, and looks her right in the eyes. "My brother and I, we can help you."

"A kelpie is dangerous to mess with," she says. "Especially one that someone has set loose on the town. On purpose."

"Mr. Shane," says Sam, softly. In case he's wrong. In case he's a friend of hers. "At least that's what all the shop girls are saying to my brother."

To his surprise, she nods, and for a moment, the shop lights glint in her hair, strands of black among the silver. "The shop girls," she says, "for all their silly chatter, are right. Mr. Shane is a good man, and an upstanding one. At least he was. His wife, Mrs. Shane, regardless of the quality of the wool they raise, can't knit a mitten."

Sam keeps his mouth shut; he couldn't either.

"Her husband raises alpaca wool, a fine and silky even before it's washed, but the articles made from it by Mrs. Shane are bulky and hard and nasty to the touch. And she's too prideful to take lessons or let anyone instruct her. But we think it's Mr. Shane who raised the kelpie in her defense. The people who died were all weavers, you know, blue ribbon weavers who beat her out at the last fair."

Sam hears the footfall behind him and turns his head to see Dean there at his side. In spite of the feeling that Dean has been half-laughing at him and messing with him all morning, he's glad Dean is there. Normally Sam is very good at talking with people, all kinds of people; all genuine empathy and sweet manners. But with Dean standing there, bringing with him his smiles and charm, Sam feels a push of confidence that had been erased by the fact that the woman caught him lying.

"We don't know how he raised it," she says, giving Dean only half a glance before bringing her attention back fully on Sam. "But we need to get rid of it before it kills more people."

"We can do that for you, ma'am," says Dean, with a voice that's as bold as if he'd been part of the entire conversation.

Sam picks it up. "Have you found a calling stone or any evidence of a calling ceremony, anything like that?"

She shakes her head. "We can't get anywhere near his land," she says. "He knows our faces, knows what we would be there for."

"Tell us where his shop is, Irene," says Dean, turning up the charm with his smile and his sparkling eyes. "And we'll take care of him for you."

"It's called Shane Spindle, at the top of the main street." She makes a gesture with her hand that's almost flippant. "But be careful around him.

Irene doesn't even look at Dean. She looks up at Sam and considers him for a moment. Then she says, "He's an angry man these days, he's has no children, just lots of land and a wife who is, frankly, a bitch."

Sam feels his face twitch at her language. He uses words like that all the time, and so does Dean. But to hear her say it tells him the force of her emotions; she's angry about the deaths, and tourism be damned, weaving means a lot to the town, and with so many shops, lots of people depend on it. He can see that.

"We'll do what we can," he says, and Dean nods.

They head out to the street, and Sam leads the way to the first coffee shop they come to. He buys without asking Dean what he wants and they drink their coffee while standing on the sidewalk, eyeing the metal café chairs askance.

"Her pride will not let her bend to the knowledge and power of any weaver," Dean says, his voice rising dramatically, mocking Irene. He takes a large swallow of his coffee as he smirks. His lips are moist with coffee and he licks them.

"Knock it off, Dean," says Sam, snapping. He doesn't want to be distracted, how can he be, it's just Dean, and last night was just a one off.

"Just having some fun, Sam, quit being such a stick in the mud."

"Well, quit being such a jerk, then."

Dean opens his mouth, and Sam can see the choicest of replies clicking behind his eyes. But apparently the needs of the job outweigh Dean's need to hassle his brother, because he only shrugs. "If he called the kelpie, then whatever he did that with, it has to be close to home."

Sam agrees. "Then it's on his property somewhere," he says. The coffee is almost too sweet and he thinks longingly of the coffee from Jack's Grill. Of the sweet rolls. The butter. And the good mood they put Dean in. Maybe they can find a place like Jack's Grill in the next town. Sam takes another swallow.

"Whatever he used," says Sam, "according to the lore," he adds for emphasis, "whatever he used to call the kelpie will be buried on will be buried on one of the points of the compass."

Sam knows that depending on how big Shane's property is, this could mean miles of walking to find which corner the bundle is buried in.

"So," says Dean, brightly. "How old is he, and how far can he walk?"

*

They find Shane's Spindle at the top of the hill. It has a flight of elegant steps leading up to a building done in white paint and gingerbread trim, and from the top of the steps, the view of the springs is like green glass. The store is more modern than the cute, old fashioned ones down the hill. Also, unlike the other shops, it has more things built for the purpose of weaving, rather than things that have been woven. There are hanks of wool, and spinning wheels, and looms, and carding combs, and shuttles, and spindles, and, according to the brown-inked label, antique niddy-noddies. Whatever those are.

In the corner are a few samples of what is, undoubtedly, Mrs. Shane's work. Compared to the other shops, where the cloth was smooth or rough on purpose, the articles hanging up and priced, overpriced surely, look rather more like a child had been at it, rather than a woman who knew what she was doing. Sam's looked at enough weaving today to think he can tell the difference.

Mr. Shane pops out of the back room, and, seeing them standing next to his wife's goods, comes over to them. Sam watches as Dean sizes him up, middle aged, fit, graying around the edges, but sharp for all that. Shane's eyes aren't missing a thing as they look them both over, so seeing this, Dean steps away, shrugging.

"I'll go wait outside," he says.

This leaves Sam to do the careful questioning.

He starts by admiring the shop. "You've got some good stuff, here. More looms and…things than the other stores."

"I raise the wood on my land," says Mr. Shane. His voice booms. "I cut and season the wood, and have a little factory built out of an old barn where I build my looms and shuttles and so on. They're all hand made."

Sam nods and wishes he had more coffee to keep his eyes from glazing over.

"The only thing I don't make are those of metal, bolts and washers and harness pins and whatnot."

"Wow," says Sam.

"Yes, indeed." Mr. Shane puffs right up. "My land, my wood. I've got trees right up to the banks of the river for at least a mile." He makes a half circle with his hand. "Right where the Spring River takes its first big curve west.

"That's a lot of land to grow all those trees," Sam says.

"I can't walk the whole thing," says Mr. Shane, "on account of my knee, you know. I'm marking trees now, for harvest next year, when I'll hire someone to do the cutting. It'll take the wood a year to dry and cure after that."

Shane raises his own alpacas too, and goes on about that for a good five minutes while Sam takes notes about where the alpaca pens are and how far up the road the main house is. Shane seems proud of his patience and his industry, and so he should be. Sam's not sure Mr. Shane is the one who called up the kelpie, but Irene and all the red-headed shop girls in town seem to think so, and his wife's bad weaving contrasted with his pride and obvious wealth puts him in good running to be their number one guy.

"That's so interesting, Mr. Shane," Sam says. He pulls out a stub of a pencil and grabs a flyer from the counter to write down a fake number. He hands the paper to Shane.

"I'll be calling in a few days to talk about an order. And, oh, your woven articles here are very fine."

They're not, of course. Mr. Shane's eyes go dark, and Sam nods to himself. This is their man.

Once outside, Dean is waiting. He's one store over, leaning up against a post holding up the roof of the porch. He's got one leg propped up, hands in his pockets, eyes scanning the street. Idly, nothing of concern here, just civilians passing by, no one giving him any mind. There is sweat on his neck, and the edges of his leather jacket have fallen back to show a length of jean-clad thigh. There is sunlight in his hair--

Sam turns away and makes himself concentrate on something else. Like the weather.

The day is getting a warmer now, and it's pleasant as the wind whisks up from the water and brings the scent of green with it, bright with the last drizzle of summer.

"Well?" asks Dean, not moving from the post. He looks at Sam almost serenely and Sam knows this is because of the fact that he's had some fine coffee, the weather is fine, and the current hunt is relatively easy.

"We got him," says Sam.

Hunting the Kelpie

It's best to hunt the whatever spell that raised the kelpie by daylight anyhow, for even though neither Sam nor Dean are stupid enough to fall for the kelpie's call, she is free and running hard as night falls, and they would be hard pressed to resist her when she came and knelt in front of them, her diamond eyes promising them fair travel into the west country, where all good souls go, where everyone you ever loved is waiting for you.

They drive along the river to Shane's land, and trespass right past the gate, and in broad daylight too. Shane is at his shop in town, and who knows where his wife is, but there are no dogs, only alpacas starting at them from behind wooden pens.

They drive past the house, along a dusty white road that doesn't look like it gets much use. Dean parks the car in a little open space among some trees. Their leaves are just beginning to turn, but there is no wind in the glen, so it's almost as warm as summer. Dean shucks his coat. Sam does the same, and grabs the little brass compass from the tin box that holds odds and ends like string, a stray pen knife, a half a stick of gum. He pops it open and fiddles with it as he finds true north, then he nods at Dean.

They walk the dirt road leading from the main house to the river, and then follow the river, and take another road that crosses down. This road leads to another, and soon they find themselves at the river again. Sam lines up the compass with true north again, and walks forward when he stubs his toe. It is a cairn of stones, right where the most northeast part of Shane's land should be, and Dean is at his side in a moment, swatting the gnats that swirl around him, and touches the top of the cairn.

"Just take it apart?" Dean asks.

"Evidently," Sam says.

All the books say it. The power is in the combination of the articles inside of the cloth of pure white wool, and in the desperation of the person putting it together. Neither the cloth nor the contents have any power to stop anyone from taking it apart, hence the cairn, which, as it sits at the corner of the road and a little path that runs to the river's edge, looks merely like a direction marker and nothing more.

Dean reaches up and begins taking the stones down, and Sam slips the compass in his pocket and helps. Their hands grow hot, the gnats rise in clouds around them, and whether this is normal in the woods in this part of the country, or part of a counter spell, Sam doesn't know.

They are sweating by the time they get to the bottom of the cairn, to find the folded cloth and kick it open. The gnats descend, and Dean snatches up the mess of wool and feathers and moss and runs to the river with it, leaning over to cast everything into the slow-moving water. In the shade of the trees, it is dark, glassy water and the bank is slippery. Dean overbalances, and falls in with a splash loud enough to roust the birds from the trees.

Sam tries to grab him, not sure whether or not to laugh at the expression on Dean's face. Then he follows Dean in the river, going under all at once when his sneakers slip on the stones. The icy water swallows him whole. As he tries to stand up, his hair is in his eyes, and there is water in his mouth, but his feet hit bottom, and he's able to hold his place without getting pulled downstream. Dean is close at hand, spitting and swearing about his leather boots even before he's managed to climb up the bank. Streaming with water, he grabs onto a tree and holds his hand out for Sam.

Now Sam can laugh. The water is clean and almost sweet and the gnats, having been denied their supper of sweat, have swarmed off. The kelpie's spell has been broken, too, though Sam is worried that Mr. Shane will simply build another one.

"Who's going to deal with Mr. Shane?" Sam asks as they head back to the car, chilly and dripping large black dots into the dust. They both are soaked through but the day is still warm enough, though it is cool in the shade, and no one will die while astride the kelpie. Not today. Shane hadn't look too worried about being caught, maybe thinking no one would find out, or maybe he was going to dismantle the articles anyway. They will never know. If it comes up again, they'll just have to come back.

Dean shrugs. "I don't know, let the locals deal with it. They can lynch him or stone him or whatever people in Arkansas do." He's frowning at his boots, which squish wetly with each step. The Impala is waiting for them under the overhang of branches.

"Should I take my boots off now and drive barefoot?" Dean asks him as he unlocks the door. "Or just suffer through it?"

Sam shrugs at him. He stands next to the car and takes off his sneakers and dumps the water out of them before he gets in.

Dean decides to keep his boots on, and drives them back up the windy, hilly road to the lodge, frowning the whole time. Sam knows Dean's pissed about the boots simply because he's not saying anything more about them. If he'd not cared, he'd be ranting and raving the whole way.

When they get to their room, the first thing Sam does is to pull out his compass, and attempt to swipe at it with the edges of his t-shirt. The thing's so old, it's probably been through a hundred dunkings, but Dad always told them to clean up after a hunt, so that's what he does. The first thing Dean does is unlace his boots, slowly and carefully. The laces are waterlogged and so tight that Sam can hear the strain when Dean pulls on them.

He's taking so long taking them off that Sam grabs some clean dry clothes and goes into the bathroom to strip down to his skin. There is enough hot water for an army of shower takers it seems, and he hums as he washes up and rinses the grit from the river water from his hair. Then he gets out, and dries off.

The dry clothes slip on like a blessing, and his stomach talks to him through his shirt. His hair is damp at the edges but drying, and out he goes, leaving the bathroom door open behind him.

"I'm going to take one," said Dean, and Sam nods, thinking that Dean won't take long and then they can head out to eat.

The sound of the shower is loud through the thin walls, and Sam can even hear Dean sigh as the hot water hits him. There are small mutterings that are indistinguishable in the low roar of the water, but the tone is even, and almost soothing. Dean is in the shower and all is right with the world.

For a second, Sam's brain insists on thinking about Dean naked in the shower, but that's stupid. And unproductive. And completely beside the point. What Dean had given him was a one-off gift. Nothing more.

Sam looks at Dean's boots. Dean prefers boots of this kind, lace up, sturdy. He only wears sneakers when it's too hot, like when they are in the desert.

The boots are soaked through, and the leather, no doubt, is ruined. Dean is probably going to have to get new ones, still, it doesn't hurt to try. Sam takes one of the t-shirts from the laundry bag and tries to wipe the leather down. He takes the t-shirt and stuffs the toe of one boot with it. Then he takes another t-shirt and does the same with the other boot. He puts the boots by the door, near the heat vent, which is on low, so the boots will dry slowly.

The shower winds down and within two minutes, Dean is dressed and out, releasing a cloud of steam and striding over to where he left his boots. He sees them where Sam has put them. They are stiffening as they dry. The tongues are melted, the laces are shredded, and the toes are curling up.

Dean grabs his sneakers and puts them on. He stands up and grabs the keys, using them to point at the boots. "Sacrificed to the river gods, I guess, 'cause I don't think they're going to make it."

"I gave them mouth to mouth," says Sam, trying to look sad. Dean had new boots coming to him anyway. He'd just been putting it off. "There was water in my compass if it makes you feel any better."

"It'll be okay," says Dean. He shrugs on his leather jacket. "Let's go."

As the sun is setting, Dean drives the car downtown to Bethel Street and parks the Impala in a good spot, under some streetlights right next to the nicest looking bar, a place called the Bethel Street Saloon. The sign has a country/western look to it, which normally would have turned Dean off except as they walk in, all the girls that Sam can see are wearing short skirts or very tight jeans.

"See?" says Dean.

Sam decides either Dean is psychic, or like a pig rooting for truffles, because he always knows the shortest distance between his dick and a piece of ass. Then Sam does not let himself think of Dean's dick or his ass. Any more. At all.

The bar, like a lot of bars in small towns, is a collection of décor that runs the haphazard gamut from recent updates like the rack where wine glasses hang upside-down over the bar, to the dark and very battered bar that looks like it had been put in when the bar was built. The lights give off a faded yellow glow, and Sam can swear he's crunching down on peanut shells with every step he takes.

Dean leads them to a booth that's on the edge of the dance floor, where an actual band is just setting up. He slides in to the seat that is, naturally, the side facing the door; Sam slides in the other side. Then, with a flick of his wrist like he's dealing out the final card in a tight game of Texas Holdem, Dean flings one of the menus at Sam.

Sam opens his mouth. He thinks he wants to protest, not at the choice of food, because if there's anything Dean knows how to find on the road besides good coffee, it is good cheeseburgers. It might be the venue, because once the band starts up, it's going to get loud.

Frankly, it's the feeling that he'd rather be alone to celebrate with Dean. The push-me, pull-you tug between them about what they do for fun after a gig is not new, it happens all the time. Dean usually wins because even if Sam doesn't go with him, Dean ends up celebrating exactly how he likes, typically in a bar. Which is usually fine, except without the high danger that usually accompanies a gig, with no wounds to lick or adrenaline high to come down off of, Sam is too able to ponder his thoughts. Which are right now reminding him that his brother is right there.

"Just order something, Sam," says Dean. His eyes track the menu in his hands, but not for one second is he not attentive to what Sam is doing. "We deserve to have some fun."

Sam looks at the menu, and is taken with the idea of eating something crunchy and fried in fat. "How do you think the onion rings are?" he asks.

"Delicious. Can't you smell the grease?"

Sam can, and when their waitress comes over, they're quick to order. Sam gets chicken tenders and honey mustard to dip them in; Dean gets the cheeseburger, loaded with everything, and a double order of rings for them to share. They settle on two bottles of beer, because the food seems like it's going to need it.

Dean reaches over to grab the catsup, to be in readiness when the onion rings come, and flicks his eyelashes at Sam. "Tomorrow we'll eat a salad, okay? I don't want to hear about heart attacks or anything. Got it?"

Sam won't let himself think that Dean is flirting with him; maybe the looking-through-the-eyelashes thing is how Dean always is in bars, only Sam never realized it before.

"Did I say anything?" asks Sam in protest, making his mind go back on track.

"No, but you looked it. You had that look--" Dean pauses to point to the middle of his own forehead. "That stupid thinking look. Just knock it off, we're here to have a good time. We did good today."

"We didn't really stop the kelpie, Dean," Sam says. He keeps his voice low. "He could do it again."

"I'll call what's-her-name and tell her what to look for. She'll keep an eye on him."

That's probably true; Irene seemed the type who could deal with Mr. Shane, especially when her town of weavers was at risk, and they can certainly tell her what to look for. Sam lets it go, and grabs at his beer when it arrives. It's not quite cold, as if someone had forgotten to put them in the fridge until way too late. Dean makes a face when he takes the first pull of his beer, so his is probably not much colder.

"The next one will be better," Sam says.

Dean shrugs and takes another deep swallow of the beer, his eyes casting around the bar, checking out the band still setting up, checking out the girls in short skirts. There's a jerky urgency to his movements, as if he can't get laid fast enough. Sam wonders if this will be one of the nights that he spends waiting up in the Impala till Dean gives the all clear that he's done with the motel room. Sam hopes not.

That is, he thinks he hopes not. Not that he wants a repeat of the night before, he's not into pity fucks, let alone pity hand jobs. But it was good, it had felt good, and how can he tell his brother, more of that, please? He can't, and he knows it. And yet. The memory is there with him, even as the waitress interrupts them by bringing their food on a plastic platter. He watches Dean take the onion rings and put them squarely between their beers. Watches his hands as he takes up his cheeseburger and bites into it, squirting mayonnaise everywhere. Watches his tongue--

"You gonna eat?" asks Dean, his eyebrows rising, his cheeks bulging as he chews. Bits of half chewed food spray from his mouth and Sam grimaces.

"Yeah," he says, and starts in on the chicken fingers. They're not bad, but there's nothing special about them either. The onion rings, on the other hand, are delicious, as promised, with just the right amount of breading over the thinnest, most finely cut slices of onion.

"And it's a vegetable," Dean points out, grabbing more rings to throw them on his plate. There's catsup on his fingers, which he licks off before he absently wipes his hands with a paper napkin.

Sam opens his mouth to say something snotty about that, when there's a loud twang and a clunk as the band starts up. And, yes, as they start playing a rousing rendition of "Flowers on the Wall," they are loud. He can feel his ears start to ring.

Dean marches his way through his cheeseburger and exactly half the onion rings. He signals the waitress for two more beers, and drums his fingers on the table while he watches Sam work on his remaining chicken fingers. Thankfully, the beers are cold when they arrive, and Sam sighs with appreciation as he takes a swallow.

Dean grabs his beer and stands up. "I'm going to go--" he says, waving vaguely at the bar and the dance floor. "Hurry up and join me."

Then he walks off, leaving Sam with a mouthful of bland, overly greasy chicken finger in his mouth. There's a half one still left on his plate, and there's two onion rings in the bowl just for him. He stares at the collection, and wonders why the chicken suddenly tastes like sawdust and the onion rings have lost their deep-fried allure. Of course he wants Dean to get laid, of course he does. That's what Dean loves most in the world. Getting laid, cheeseburgers, and the Impala. Though not necessarily in that order.

That he loves Sam is a given, but on a night like tonight, Dean's on the prowl. There's a slouch to his leather-clad shoulders, and an insouciant cant to his hips as he strolls up to the bar. It's no accident that any woman with eyes in her head swivels her neck in Dean's direction. Dean knows what he's doing, means for it to happen. And as he leans toward one sassy miss in a red shirt with pearl-snap buttons, Sam makes himself look away.

And then he makes himself gesture to the waitress and dig out a fold of bills. He doesn't want to wait around to sign the credit card, because not only are there people waiting at the door for a place to sit down, he wants to go back to the motel. Where he can think about his life as the younger brother of a guy with simply too much testosterone in his system. But he's used to that, surely he can deal.

When the waitress brings him the change, she's frowning at him, maybe because no one uses cash these days, who knows. He counts the bills between his fingers and lays down a five next to the mostly empty plates. And just as he's stuffing his wallet back in his pocket, there's a hand on his arm.

Sam looks up. It's Dean.

"C'mon, Sammy, I've got another beer for you at the bar. And maybe the next song will be something we can dance to."

He is too late to escape. Dean has him in his sights, and Sam can see the duo of bottles of beer sweating on the bar. There will be dancing and there will be fucking and Sam rolls his eyes, shakes off Dean's hand and follows Dean.

They get up to the bar. Sam grabs his beer just as the band breaks into a choppy version of "El Paso." Suddenly at his elbow is a small, dark-haired girl in a straw cowboy's hat.

"They're murdering this song," she tells him, her eyes sparkling.

Dean claps him on the shoulder and gestures to the girl with his thumb. "Sam, this is Alice." His voice is loud to be heard over the cords of the electric mandolin. "Alice, this is my brother, Sam."

Another pretty girl stands next to Dean, though she is not the one in the snap-button shirt. Sam wonders where that one went, and smiles around the mouth of his beer as he takes another swallow because it doesn't matter. Dean can slip into it, hell, into any girl, slick as you please, loud music or soft, and the pounding of his heart is probably all that he hears. That and the song of his little brain.

Sam glowers at Dean and gets a huge, fake smile in return.

"I'm going to go bribe the band to play something else," says Dean, shouting. His eyes are bright with the challenge. "Be right back."

Sam is left with Alice and No Name Girl. Not that he has to know her name, as she will be sleeping with Dean and in the morning they will go on as they always do, leaving the girls behind them. The thought makes him choke on his beer. Alice pats him on the back, too lightly to be of any use.

"I'm helping," she says, in a baby voice that is still, somehow, strong enough to make itself heard over the din.

There's a twanging sound as "El Paso" comes to a quick and blessed end, and out of the corner of his eye, Sam can see Dean handing over a whole wad of cash to the lead guitar player. Not that it matters, it's not their cash, it's Daniel Rabinsky's, and he won't even miss it. Out of the other corner of his eye, Sam can see Alice and No Name Girl whispering to each other as they look at him and smile, flashing white teeth and perfectly applied lipstick.

Dean rushes back as the band starts up again, this time to the quick beat of "Forever and Ever Amen." Not that Sam can admit to Dean that he knows the names of all these songs, but he does. Nor can he can figure out how Dean knew that this particular tune is one that can be danced to. Not without asking. And does Dean even know the two step? Sam puts his beer on the bar because Sam and Alice and No Name Girl are about to find out.

Dean slips off his leather jacket and puts it on a bar stool. Alice leaves her hat there for good measure, and the four of them head to the dance floor where other couples, whose faces seem grateful at the change of songs, are joining them.

Sam takes up Alice's hand, and puts his other hand on her waist. The music starts, almost in tune this time, and Sam's body remembers the steps, even as he gets the feeling that Alice is so tiny, he might run her over if he doesn't pace himself. His hand feels hot and his bangs fall in his eyes. Alice is laughing up at him, so charming, so cute as she dances backwards, and all Sam can do is seek out Dean.

Dean is just over there, talking close into No Name Girl's ear. There is a flush to his cheeks and a wide smirk on his mouth. Because of his flirting with No Name Girl, he's screwing up the two step as he does the leaning thing, thus messing up everyone behind him. Including, now, Sam.

But No Name Girl is laughing and Alice is smiling, and a whole roomful of women look like they wish they were dancing a badly done two step, too. That is, as long as they would be dancing with the broad-shouldered man with the dashing hips and a mouth made for kissing.

Sam jerks his thoughts back, and focuses on Alice.

"They aren't murdering this one," he offers her.

"What?"

Sam shakes his head. It's too loud for talking and he's slightly out of breath and the room seems overly hot. He should have taken his jacket off.

"What?" she asks again, and Sam realizes it for the ploy that it is, to get him to lean closer and brush skin to skin as he says what he needs to say in her ear.

He pretends he's distracted by something across the room, though he's not looking at Dean. Maybe another beer would help.

In short order, the song comes to an end, and whether it's because the song is short, or because Dean only paid enough for a certain number of minutes, Sam doesn't know. The band starts up with another number, one that Sam doesn't know, whose lyrics enjoin him to take her home an' give her a whirl, cause you know she's daddy's girl. He leads them both up to the bar, and signals for four beers. Halfway through his gesture at the bartender, Alice shakes her head.

 

"My friend doesn't drink," she says. "But she'll have a coke."

Sam leans over the bar. "Make one of those a coke, okay?" He slips the bartender a twenty and says, "Three beers and a coke for--"

He looks at Alice, his ears pounding, feeling the sweat trickling down his back.

"Milly."

"A coke for Milly," he says, feeling like he's roaring.

Dean soon arrives, with Milly, formerly No Name Girl, in tow. Both of them are sweating, and Milly smiles at Sam as she takes up the coke. Sam's not sure how lucky Dean's going to get with a coke-drinking girl, but he seems pretty pleased with himself, smirking at Sam as he sucks back a mouthful of beer, so maybe there's something he knows that Sam doesn't.

Leaning his elbow on the bar, Dean tips his bottle at Sam. "I'll give you first dibs on the motel room, little brother," he says. "Milly and I can stay here for a while."

This stops Sam for a second, and he pulls back from the bar, keeping an eye out for the beers, feeling the backbeat of the music thumping through the soles of his feet. Then he pulls Dean close with a tug on Dean's t-shirt. It is one thing to allow Dean to get laid. It is another to be thrown into the pit when he simply is not ready. And Dean knows that.

"I thought you were looking to get laid," Sam says low. "I thought that's why we came here."

Dean leans forward, his shoulder brushing Sam's, and as he whispers in Sam's ear, his breath stirs across Sam's skin.

"You're the one who needs to get laid," says Dean.

"You know I'm not ready for that." Sam tries to catch Dean's eye, so that he can make sure Dean understands exactly how impossible it would be for Sam to go home with any girl right now.

But Dean stays close, almost pressing against Sam. His voice is low, but carries under the twang of the guitar. "You should be," he says, "especially after I primed your pump for you."

Sam jerks back, and there's a little pause as the anticipation in his groin revs up to meet the shock of his brain. Dean's got an expectant look on his face. But Sam's body isn't turned on by a half-shouted conversation with a petite, dark haired thing in a straw cowboy's hat, nor does he want to give her a whirl, daddy's girl or no. Sam's big brain wants to go to the motel, and the only person his little brain wants to whirl is his brother.

"Dean," he says, putting his beer down on the counter. "I'm gonna go."

"Go?" Dean asks. Shouting. Eyebrows flying up then hovering low. Alice and Milly look shocked, but Sam doesn't care.

"I'll walk it," he'd said. It saves him the tired argument of actually taking the Impala for his own, even if just to drive back to the motel.

"You should stay," Dean had shouted. "Stay and--" His hand had waves at the crowd, at Alice, at the hustle and movement of skin and sweat and an inordinate amount of snap buttons. Stay and get laid for your own good is what he's saying, but Sam shakes his head.

Sam walks out of the bar as fast as the crowd and the music will let him. When he steps outside the door, the air is suddenly chill. It's full on night, and he has to orient himself as to the direction of the hotel. His jacket is too thin, and there's a brisk wind cutting around him as he walks with his hands in his pockets. He walks down the hill and across the bridge and stays in the shadows, just in case Dean decides to jump in the Impala and chase after him.

Dean's kindness in priming Sam's pump, however brotherly in nature, has permanently taken Sam's body to a place where his brain doesn't quite know how to get him back from. To Dean it was, had been, of course, obligation and duty and taking care of Sam, which is what he did, not counting the cost, not stopping to consider it. Help Sam, get him going, make it so that everything is okay for him, that was what was on Dean's roster. Hell, it was Dean's roster, plain and simple. And for Sam not to have followed through after Dean's assistance and get himself laid is tantamount to a sin. In the Winchester book, that is.

By the time he unlocks the door to the motel room, he knows he could find a nice girl with long curls and a sweet smile that made him feel good instead of bad, then he'd take her for a whirl, daddy's girl or no. Hell, he might even consider sharing the details with Dean, just to show him that yes, he, Sam, was fine. Everything in perfect working order.

But just because it's working doesn't mean you have to use it. Dean.

Not that Dean will ever understand that.

Shamrock

In the morning, through breakfast and checking out of the motel, the rituals of their lives demanded that Sam converse with his older brother to discuss where they are going next. Even though Dean's expression, however mild the conversation over the map and the local newspaper, tells Sam everything that he needs to know. That Sam should have taken a girl and had relations with her. Especially seeing what Dean had done for him.

But Sam can't change the past and he doesn't want to. Not any of it, which is a strange thing to think, considering how pissed Dean is. But they get in the car and start up the road, going on as they always do, at least mostly, with Sam in the passenger seat and Dean on the lookout for more coffee.

It's not always that when the air gets chilly they head west this time of year, out of the lush forests and hills of Arkansas. The contrast of the view as they go up 83 from Childress, Texas, into the backcountry, is marked. It's a place where nobody goes because there is nothing there. Or is there nothing there because nobody goes? Sam is not quite sure about that. Nor about whether he should mention his headache, a dull, pressing thing that has more to do with his being tired than the dull, aching landscape and the ever-constant wind that he can feel buffeting Dean's side of the car as he drives.

The sun is also blaring mostly overhead now, but it was, until about an hour ago, coming right at him from the east. Slicing through his eyeballs with white, making him pull down the sunshade which, in the Impala, doesn't cover quite enough sky. His is not to mess with it, though. Pull and tug on Dean's baby? He'd rather hand Dean is head on a plate, thank you very much.

So he shifts lower in his seat, and watches the brown grasses whip by the window, listens to Dean hum almost tunelessly to Meatloaf on the umpteenth cassette of its kind, and thinks about lunch. Maybe there'll be a town with one of those junky little local places Dean likes to go. Truth of it, Sam won't mind, though he'll make sure to remember to make a face about it, just to mess with Dean. His job. He's good at it. But in the meantime, he shifts his thighs on the vinyl seat, scratches his nose. He looks at the map and not at Dean. He does not think about how nice Dean smells, sunwarmed and relaxed. Nor does Sam think about the sounds Dean makes as he drives, the click of his ring on the steering wheel, the shift of muscle inside denim.

Instead Sam looks out the window. There are miles of nothing all around and they are only a spec in it.

"Where are we going to have lunch?" asks Dean, breaking into Sam's spell of fading away.

"Shamrock," says Sam. "It's right off I-40, so there should be something." He doesn't know what's there to eat at, really, because there are no AAA guidebooks to be had, and even if there was one, Shamrock is so small it would not be listed.

"Like the gas station?" asks Dean.

This is a somewhat unexpected question, and Sam picks up the map and squints at it. "I dunno," he says. He puts the map down, tucks it under his thigh on the seat between them. "Does seem a funny name for a place in the middle of Texas."

They drive. The landscape passes and they roll into Shamrock, which, it turns out, is where the gas station started. Or the conglomerate that owns it. Or whatever. But for all that, the town is worn, brown like the grass, dusty from the wind, and consists of a sea of low-lying buildings. The conglomerate has moved on, it seems, leaving behind only bones, the odd strip mall, and a taco joint that, by the faded sign, is called El Sombrero Restaurante.

Dean pulls in. Sam is not surprised. He doesn't even have it in him to pretend to complain because suddenly the thought of tacos makes his mouth squirt alive with saliva. He thinks he'll get all tacos, all crunchy stuff, and follows Dean into the place, assaulted by smells of salt and grease all at once, and the crackle of a fryer going.

The sign says for them to seat themselves, and that they do, with Dean grabbing the furthest booth in the back, slamming into the bench seat so he can put his back to the wall. This leaves Sam unable to watch the door. But Dean will watch it for him, and this is all unspoken as Sam slides into the bench seat across from him.

The waitress brings water and chips and salsa, and menus. Sam takes one of everything, smiles at her and begins to study the menu. He waits for Dean to mock him with his usual cutting remark. Something like, you going to memorize that thing or order from it? This doesn't come, and for a moment, Sam is content to linger over the dozens of choices that are, when you get right down to it, variations on a theme of corn tortillas, beans, ground beef, cheese, lettuce, spices, and sauce, green or red. Any way he slices it, that's what he's eating for lunch today.

He looks up. He keeps himself from staring and wonders if Dean can see what an effort this is for him today. Dean's not looking at him. Nor does he open the menu. And it's not that he knows what's on it, because he doesn't. But in a Mexican restaurant, Dean always orders the number one combo, and whatever that is, add extra sour cream to it, please. In an Italian restaurant, he orders the fifth thing down the menu, regardless. And on it goes. He's explained that it keeps him from having to think about the small shit, Sam knows, and more often than not, what he orders by the numbers turns out to be good.

"What?" asks Dean with a snap, like Sam's been going at him for hours and he's now reaching his last nerve. Unspoken, it follows: What are you looking at?

I'm looking at you and I don't want us to go on like we always do.

Sam doesn't dare say it.

"Aren't you gonna say it?" asks Sam instead.

"Say what?"

"What you always do."

"Wassat?"

"About me memorizing the menu."

"I never do that."

"Yes, you do."

"No, I don't."

The waitress comes up, not smiling, her hair in a greasy, brown bun, and they order. Dean gets the number one with extra sour cream, and Sam orders the number seven which has two tacos, an enchilada, and a bean tostada. He can taste it now. Dean adds cokes to their order, and the waitress goes away. Sam's headache comes back, settling down behind his eyes, demanding that he eat. He polishes off most of the chips in short order, scooping up mouthfuls of the salsa.

"You gonna drink that?" asks Dean.

"You gonna shut up?" says Sam.

"Asshat," says Dean, reaching for the basket of chips. "You'll spoil your appetite, young man," he says, keeping the basket just out of Sam's reach.

The all-out tussle is averted only on account of the pure fact of their drinks arriving. Sam grabs at his coke and sucks on it, waiting for it to hit his bloodstream, for his brain to get some of it, and then sits back as he sighs. There's no point in arguing over the small shit, but they do it anyway, as brothers have done since there were brothers, and will continue to do until the world blew up.

The food comes smelling like cumin and the grease of the cheese, and Sam lifts up a taco with both hands and consumes half of it in one bite. His body sighs, and his brain steps down. As he crunches his way through the mouthful, he watches Dean hack through a giant burrito, smothered in green chili. Sam watches him spread the sour cream over the top and ooze it in with the cheese and wants some.

He grabs his fork and taps it on the edge of Dean's plate to get his attention.

"Wait," says Dean, and Sam knows what he means. To the person who ordered goes the first bite, whether it's a smothered burrito in a dive taco joint or a slice of chocolate cake from a German bakery.

Sam waits. Dean lifts a mouthful of the burrito to his mouth and chews. Nods.

Sam slices his way through a hunk with the edge of his fork and puts it in his mouth. Sour cream is God's gift to all Mexican food, he decides, because it brings the bite of the spices out and soothes the heat of the chili.

As he polishes off the remainder of his first taco, Sam feels better. His headache will go away completely soon, perhaps before nightfall. He knows this like he knows which way is north, like he knows that parts of the country are so flat he can see the curve of the earth, and like he knows what's pissing Dean off.

It's not the driving, cause Dean lives for that, or their next case, which looks to be fairly straightforward, but which could get awkward if the right people don't want to talk about a hundred year old murder. It's not even the weather, for rain or shine, the Impala's got good tires and Dean can sing down the moon to any tape in his arsenal. Sam thinks that Dean's going to carry his irritation about Sam's lack of response to Alice at the bar the night before for many, many miles.

There's almost no help for it. Sam wants Dean, not Alice or anyone like her. But there's not way he an say this to Dean, so Sam munches his way through his second taco, gets a refill on his coke, thinks about empanadas and all that crunchy sugar. He starts to work on his enchilada, which has gone slightly hard as it cooled.

"Think they got those cinnamon things?" asks Dean, still shoveling it in, scraping his plate with his fork.

The waitress walks by and Sam tags her with a smile.

"Yeah?" she asks.

"What do you have for dessert?" Sam asks, realizing that it doesn't matter; they're going to order some of it anyway.

"Empanadas, sophapias, and sombreros."

"What are sombreros?"

"Flour tortilla, fried, covered with cinnamon and sugar, ice cream on top, and wine sauce." This she rattles off as though the words bore her, and Sam watches Dean's eyebrows fly up to his hairline.

"I'll have the sombrero," Sam says, "and he'll have the empanadas."

The waitress goes away and Sam digs into his meal, wanting to keep up with Dean, wanting to be done by the time the dessert comes. He hopes the sugar will distract them both because he really doesn't want to discuss what happened in Mammoth Spring, or, for that matter, what didn't happen and should have, according to Dean.

Not that Dean is, of his own free will, likely to enter into any conversation where real feelings might have to be shared. Exposed. But he is likely to bring it up yet again that Sam needs to get laid. As if there was a deadline to be adhered to, after which, if he doesn't get some shimmy-shimmy, Sam's balls were going to turn blue and drop off.

The desserts come before any additional hard words are exchanged, and Sam pulls the dish with the ice cream towards him, fork at the ready. Dean takes the plate of empanadas, but his eyes are on what Sam's got. His fork is at the ready, too. He waits. Sam cuts his fork into the ice cream which is already melting against the hot, fried, sugar-crusted tortilla. He swoops the mess into the wine sauce and pops it in his mouth.

Dean looks at him. Waiting

"Well?" he asks.

"It's a new one on me," says Sam around the mouthful. It's syrupy and sugary, tasting a little like blackberries. "But damn good." He gives the nod. Dean attacks and ends up eating half the sombrero. To be fair, he shares half his empanadas with Sam, so there's enough sugar for everyone.

Bellies full, they pay the bill, leave a huge tip on Lloyd Moskin's Visa card, and head out to the car. Dean does not let him drive, but then he seldom does. Sam contents himself with staring out the window, letting the stupor of too much sugar fading from his system fight with the rush of too much caffeine on an empty stomach. It's a bit of a dance, but he lets it continue, keeping an eye on the map and the mostly straight road. The clouds are coming down. It'll be chilly, but it doesn't look like snow.

*

They reach Canadian just as the sun is setting, and it's not the distance that's worn Sam out, it's the straightness, rocketed by a constant wind. With only a bend or two in the road the entire way, he feels like he's been walking a straight line all day. Canadian, as they pull into it, looks much like Shamrock did. Except the road curves through town as it descends into a pleasant little river valley, as pecan trees line the streets and hover over sidewalks. Sometimes places like this surprise Sam, with a splash of unexpected charm that invite him to settle down and plant some roots.

They pass several gift shops whose signs shout out that there are freshly harvested pecans to be had, pecan butter, roasted pecans, and coffee. Good eats. All those shops are closed. The gas stations are open, and there are three motels, just at the far edge of town. Sam just wants to lay flat and close his eyes in the darkness.

Dean pulls into the parking lot in front of the office of the Canadian Courts Inn, which, by the slanted light, looks like it's made of red brick that has been faded by the sun. Dean looks at Sam and then at himself. They're both tired, but Sam managed to get less food on him during lunch, so he's elected by the silent majority: his clean shirt.

Trying not to be peeved, Sam goes into the little office that is blessedly warm, and gets them a room. The lady behind the counter signs him up for two queens, and gives him directions to the local honkey tonk. She also hands him a real room key to room number 8, as well as information about the River Valley Pioneer Museum, which looks to be right across the street from the motel. The key and the information about the honky tonk Sam hands over to Dean as he gets back in the car to drive around to their room. The information about the museum he keeps to himself.

When Dean parks, they unload what they need from the car. As Dean unlocks the door to the motel room, Sam moves past him to step inside. The room is like many others across the country, decorated with bad pictures, orange, yellow, and green polyester covers, and supplied with thin towels and flat pillows. The floor, however, is pale tile instead of carpet. The bathroom, when Sam checks it out, is tiny, and lined with the same tile. Everything is old, but clean. They throw their things on the beds.

"We goin' out?" Dean asks, checking for his wallet.

Sam eyes him, keeps his mouth shut. Dean never gets tired of the road. He's just landed and he's ready to go. Sam just wants to stop, just for a minute.

"You go," he says. "I'm going to check out what I can find about that hotel girl."

"Sam," says Dean. He's looking at Sam, mouth frowning. "Edgar Norton already told you what there is to know. He's got a ghost, and he wants to confess. His father was one of those assholes who raped and killed that chick--"

"Virginia," puts in Sam.

"Virginia, long dead but haunting Harold's son, the only remaining descendant of those five guys."

"And he knows where the body is buried."

"Right. He called you and told you all about it, remember? Though God knows he got your cell phone number. So what is it exactly you need to look up?"

He wants to tell Dean about the guy from the book, the one who never ate rye and who might have actually been possessed. He wants to tell Dean how tired he is of the road, and how maybe if he gets one good night's sleep, he'll be good to go at the next town. Take in a dance or two. Maybe even kiss a girl, and give her a whirl. But not tonight. He needs one damn minute to himself. And Dean is going to give it to him.

"You're not going out, are you." This from Dean, the glower filling his eyes. He already knows and he is pissed. "You're going to sit here and mope, and let me have all the fun?"

"There's more ways to having fun than screwing girls, Dean," says Sam. He takes off his jacket. It is his message to his brother.

"Oh yeah?" asks Dean. "And I'd like to know what that is?"

"Nothing," says Sam. He sits down on the edge of one of the beds and starts untying his shoes. "There's nothing more fun than getting your rocks off, so why don't you go do it and leave me alone?"

"It's not just about rocks, Sam," Dean says. His eyes darken with his anger and Sam blinks at the mercurial shift in his brother's expression. And at the way his skin flushes when he's pissed off. When will Dean be ugly? It would be a lot easier for Sam if he were.

Sam puts up his hand and waves him off. His own statement is still ringing in the air, and Dean's response is just pounding into the ground and pretty soon they are both going to end up arguing about Mammoth Spring.

Sam wants to talk about what's really going on, but it's obvious that Dean just wants Sam to have sex. With someone else. Someone not his brother.

"Christ, Dean, will you just fucking leave it alone?"

"Alright I'm leaving it. You lose out. Loser." Dean slams the door behind him.

The room is empty as Dean tends to leave a big space behind him when he goes. Sam fills the space with activity, with a shower, with going through his clothes, sorting out laundry, feeling the grit from his socks beneath his fingers. Finding jeans that could walk by themselves.

Then he finds his pair of boxer shorts with the elastic broken. He wonders why he still has them, and throws them out. Then he realizes that the wastebasket in the bathroom is now overflowing with his ripped boxer shorts and that the other trashcan near the door is also small. He shoves the boxers in his duffle and thinks he will throw them away later. The now mostly-full laundry bag he leaves by the door. Dean will see it and know to get his dirty clothes together too, and perhaps, on their way to somewhere else, as yet unknown, they can stop and do laundry.

He turns on the TV and turns the sound down low. He thinks it is a reality show, so he finds the clicker and flips through the channels till he gets the Discovery Channel. It might be about sharks, or it might be about the Bermuda Triangle. Either way, some guy in a wet suit is prowling around some coral reefs. The view is soothing.

Sam gets into bed, taking with him a book he read some time back about hauntings from the Revolutionary War. Most of the hauntings, as he recalls, stacking the two pillows behind his head and flipping open the book, are made up. They all end too perfectly, with too much happily ever after, to be real. No one seems to really suffer at the hands of these ghosts, they're just scared shitless.

One or two hauntings might be the real thing. He wants to know what they have in common, what elements all hauntings share. That'll make it easier to figure out where the ghosts are coming from. Hunting ghosts is satisfying, even if he can admit it only to himself, because they are less unpredictable than most things. There are parameters to how a ghost behaves, and that makes him comfortable.

He skims the book and makes notes in the margins. When he finishes it, and sets it aside, and goes through the ritual of turning off the TV, leaving the clicker for Dean. Getting up to check the locks on the door and windows. Getting a last drink. Thinking about sleep, whether he can filch the second pillow from Dean's bed for his own.

He filches it. He needs those pillows, and Dean will understand. Dean could sleep on a rock and be rested in the morning. He won't miss the pillow he won't even use. Turning off the light, Sam scoots as low under the covers as he can without his feet hanging over the edge. Somewhere in the world, there's a mattress long enough for him to stretch out. One of these days he'll find it.

The sleep that comes is solid, but it only takes one click of a key in the lock for Sam to be awake. His eyes flicker as they react to the dance between full darkness and the pencil-thin line of light that sweeps over the wall. It is Dean, and by his careful walk, he's had a few beers. Not enough to keep him from driving, but enough to make him extra careful, extra quiet. If he hadn't had the beers, he'd be marching in the room like it was mid-day, never mind that Sam might have been asleep.

There are sounds of Dean taking off his sneakers and jacket. There is cloth on skin. Shirt. Jeans. Sam is fully awake now.

"Sam?" Dean whispers. "You awake?"

Sam freezes. What he does not want, what he most desperately does not want, is a repeat of Mammoth Spring. He does not want Dean taking care of him, he does not want Dean, as it were, lending a hand. Dean is just as drunk as he was that night, and the situation is much the same. Sam's body, on the other hand, remembers. Oh yeah, that. Remember that? That was nice. We want that.

Sam stays still. Keeps breathing. Waits for Dean to put his clothes away and then climb in with his brother Sam. Sam is almost holding his breath. There is a pause in the darkness behind him, the presence that is his brother standing between the beds. Everything is the same. Almost. That time, he'd not known what Dean had been planning. This time, he knows what Dean might be planning.

But whatever Dean is or is not planning, there is no weight on the bed behind Sam. There are no hands upon him, no whispered words, no promises that in the morning everything will be as it always has been. There is only the sound of Dean undressing and settling into the other bed, with his one thin pillow. There is no remark about stolen pillows, nothing. There is only the near silence of breathing, the hiss of a single car passing along the road outside. Night settling down. And in Sam's body a precarious tightness that his brain is shooing away that his body wants to keep.

Canadian

Breakfast at the Railroad Bar and Grill, which is attached to the motel, brings a meal so unremarkable that Sam knows he will be fantasizing about Jack's Grill forever. Sam's waffles turn to mush the second the syrup hits them. Dean's eggs are cold.

"This coffee is swill," Dean says. Sam sympathizes, his eyes flicking the cheese on Dean's chin. He motions to his own chin, gets Dean's attention, and then points at Dean.

Dean wipes it off.

"Only a true friend would tell you," says Sam. He's thinking about lunch, and they can find a decent local place that serves good food. Not crap.

*

After breakfast, they go visit Edgar Norton, who lives in an apartment in the only apartment building in town. It is a clapboard building with faded blue paint, but Sam is coming to realize that every color in this part of the county is faded, by the sun, by time, by neglect. Apartment number one is on the first floor, which is good, because by the looks of him, Edgar can't walk without his cane. Can barely walk with it, probably. The black shoes on his feet are polished for Sunday wear, but his feet swim in them, and the soles look brand new. His skin is paper thin and splotchy. He has almost no hair, and his glasses are like the bottom of coke bottles.

But he smiles and waves them to sit. He's wearing a sweater thick enough for an Alaskan winter's night, and the heater is going full bore. The air is dry, the room is stuffy, but the walls are covered with pictures of people who are smiling, and there is a large fluffy cat that Edgar pets and pets.

"Millie here saw the ghost first," Edgar says. "Then I saw her. It took me a while to realize who she was."

Sam sits on the ottoman near Edgar's chair and listens, thinking. Edgar is one of those rare people. His voice is faint, but he's coming in clear. Maybe it's his age, but he saw a ghost, and he didn't freak out and scream or disbelieve what he was seeing.

"How did you know who she was?" This from Dean in that voice he gets when he doesn't understand how a mere civilian has figured something supernatural it out. Maybe he's working off a bit of his hangover still, as well.

"She was wearing the same clothes as in the picture," Edgar says.

"Picture?" asks Sam, giving Dean a look. He'd give Dean's thigh a smack if it was within range to remind him to be polite. But he doesn't want to upset Edgar, who is petting Millie and nodding.

"The picture of her. Some guy came through in, oh, I think it was 1926, and took pictures of the whole town. Some historical project. Millie worked in the hotel; it was called The Canadian Courts Inn, then. Still is."

Edgar stops petting the cat long enough to motion to the wall. Dean moves first and takes the picture down. He hands it to Edgar who takes it, his hand shaking under the weight.

Dean takes the picture back. "Which one is she?" he asks.

"The pretty one." Edgar points and Dean hands the picture to Sam, pointing. There are four girls, all in a line. They are pulling up their skirts to show their stockings; they are wearing dresses that want to be fashionable, but that hang like homemade sacks. They all have short air and giggling expressions as they squint at the camera.

They all look the same to Sam, but the one that Edgar points to, the first one in line, has a shine in her eyes and a sweet smile. "That's her. That's Virginia."

Edgar looks a little uncomfortable now, and Dean hangs up the picture.

"It's nothing you did, sir," says Sam, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. He makes Edgar look at him with the sound of his voice. "You told me on the phone that your dad, he didn't want--"

"My daddy didn't want to do it, but they made him." This upsets Edgar to the point that his voice cracks, and he buries his thin hand in his cat's fur. "There were oil wells popping up all over the place, you know, everything was out of control. There was lots of money to be made, and you had to prove that you were a man."

"And your dad told you that he did this?" Dean asks, making Sam look up at the shocked sound in Dean's voice. Sam is pretty sure he's comparing Harold to John Winchester, just for a minute. Harold would confess a sin, whereas Dad wouldn't. There was so much Dad had kept from them.

"He told me when I was as old as he was when he'd--" Edgar stops and his mouth moves over his false teeth. "Told me never to make a mistake like that. To never hurt a woman. It was only years later that he finally told me the rest of it. That after they did what they did, they killed her and just tossed her away. My dad said they buried her on the banks of the river, just on this side of the bridge. The new one the built in the '50's."

He looks up at them, and his eyes are damp. "Not far," he says. "They didn't carry her far. They were too drunk."

"And so she came to you," says Sam, his brain wanting to turn away from the story with its nasty overtones. "Told you."

"She reminded me because I already knew what had happened to her," says Edgar. "I don't have long, and I want to fix this. She only startled me that first time. She waves to me to her, like she wants me to go with her. Only I can't." Edgar sighs, and starts petting his cat more slowly. "I'm going to fix this for my dad. So he can rest. So I can, when I go."

There's nothing like this in any of the books that Sam has read. There's no fear on Edgar's part, no blame. Only a desire to help, to set things to rights. To fix what is broken. It makes Sam sit back, and he has to rub his thighs with both hands, till he can dip his head and swallow hard. Then he looks up. "We'll take care of it Mr. Norton," he says. He means it.

"What can I do for you boys, then?" asks Edgar. His hands are buried in Millie's fur. "My daddy taught me never to let a debt go unpaid. How much you boys charge?"

Now even Dean is affected. Sam can tell by the way Dean's face softens, how his mouth moves without any sound coming out. His shoulders come down, and he leans in towards Edgar like they are old friends, even though Sam knows that old people give Dean the willies.

"Hey," Dean says, his voice low. "My daddy taught me never to take money for something like this."

"But I need to give you something, my wallet's over there--" Edgar raises one hand to point. Sam sees a wallet sitting in plain sight on the bookshelf. It is shiny from use, and has the edges of many green bills sticking out of it.

Dean straightens up and shakes his head. "Can't take it, Edgar," he says. "Sorry, no."

"Well, there is something," says Sam, chewing the inside of his lip.

Dean looks at him, eyebrows going up. There's a rule about taking things from people they help.

"I know," says Sam to Dean's unspoken comment. He brushes this aside with a jerk of his head. "Mr. Norton, do you know of someplace good to eat in this town? My brother and I had the worst breakfast at--"

"Tell me you didn't eat at the Railroad Bar and Grill," says Edgar, grimacing. "You wanna to go a place on Second Street. It's called The Bucket, and Betty runs it. Betty's from back east. Order the Ruben, you won't be sorry. And the fries, oh, my, I don't know when I last had one of her fries. She fries in lard, you know."

Sam's mouth begins to water. He looks at Dean and knows his mouth is doing the same.

"Sounds good," says Dean, holding it out for Edgar to shake. "Payment accepted."

Dean and Edgar shake hands; Sam pets the cat, who sniffs at him and looks like she wants to nip. Edgar pets her for her loyalty and Sam and Dean let themselves out.

"We're so going to The Bucket," says Dean, unlocking the car door and getting in. Sam slips in and closes the passenger door. He looks at Dean as Dean starts the engine. "And we are bringing that old guy a Ruben, I swear."

"And fries," says Sam. He thinks about how old people have special, bland diets long after it makes any difference whatsoever. He smiles at Dean. "Can we get some beer to go?"

*

The Bucket serves the most amazing Rubens, as promised; the pastrami and sauerkraut are a dynamic mixture in Sam's mouth. The fries, as well, are good and greasy, and while The Bucket doesn't serve beer, the cokes are icy and sparkle with just the right amount of bite.

"Holy crap," says Dean around an overly large mouthful. "These are sure the hell worth driving through Texas for."

Sam wants to agree but his mouth is full, and unlike his brother, he knows better than to try and talk through chewing. But he nods through chewing anyway, because it seems that the day, and Dean's mood, is going to get better, and a salt and burn is always a nice gig to have when the weather is cool like it is. Sam knows they'll have to wait for nightfall to do it, but that's okay. Maybe they can come back to The Bucket for dinner, because the food is so good he can concentrate on his meal rather than Dean, so that's good, too.

Because it's a damn fine meal, and the restaurant is local and not a chain, Dean flips out a twenty instead of a credit card when the waitress comes by with the bill.

"Could we get a Ruben and some fries to go?" Dean asks.

"Sure," says the waitress.

They soon finish eating, with both of them chomping down on every last French fry within reaching distance. Sam even goes as far as to lick his finger and swipe it along the edge of his plate, where several slightly charred salty bits linger.

When the waitress comes back with their change, she's got a plastic to-go bag with a knot tied in the top. As she puts the bag and their change on the table, she looks at them with more attention than she had before and stands there for a minute with her hands on her hips.

Sam wonders if there was something wrong with the twenty Dean'd given her and gauges the distance between their table and the door. He tries to get Dean's attention, but Dean is admiring the waitress's nametag. Or maybe it's her boobs. Either way, Sam makes himself act like he doesn't care. Because he doesn't. Dean can sleep with whomever he pleases, flirty eyelashes and all.

"So," she says, "you guys didn't get enough to eat?"

"No, Malinda," says Dean, giving her his best I like what I see look. "We had plenty and it was terrific."

Malinda waves her hand at the to-go bag, and Sam figures that small town waitresses are more involved in what they bring from the kitchen; a big city waitress wouldn't have batted an eye.

"It's for our friend, Edgar," Dean explains. "He said he had a hankering for one of Betty's Rubens, so we thought we'd bring him some."

"And fries," adds Sam for good measure, though he wants to kick Dean under the table for attempting such a terrible Texas twang.

"Edgar Norton?" she asks.

"Uh-huh," says Dean, his voice dipping like he's letting her in on a secret.

"Hang on," says Melinda, suddenly. She turns to the back of the restaurant and calls out, "Betty, something here for you."

Betty comes out. She's got flour on her apron, and a bit in her curly hair that's held back with a wide band. Or maybe her hair is grey, Sam doesn't know. Her waist is round and her face is too, and Sam wagers that she enjoys her own cooking, not that he can blame her.

"What's up?" Betty asks. Maybe she thinks they are going to complain, because her eyes are somber, and her mouth stays in a serious line.

"Theses boys are taking a Ruben and fries to Edgar," says Malinda.

"He was friends with our Dad," says Sam, not wanting Betty to ask why two rough-looking fellows who are obviously not from around these parts are hanging with a feeble old man who keeps his fat, slick wallet on his bookshelf. Dean is giving him a what the hell look, so Sam hurries to finish his story so Dean will understand what the punch line is. "Because our grandpa worked on the new bridge with Harold. Isn't that the connection, Dean?" Sam looks at Dean with his eyebrows raised.

"You know how grandpa used to rattle on," says Dean, all smooth smiles. "I never could keep it straight." Dean shakes his head for good measure as if bemused at the verbose nature of the aged.

"Oh," says Betty. She smiles, the laugh lines beside her eyes crinkle when she does this. "Well then," she says, nodding. "Where's the bill for that, Malinda?"

Malinda pulls the slip of paper from her apron pocket and hands it over. Betty rips it into pieces and crumples it in her hand. "Go get a slice of that cherry pie I made today, Malinda, okay?"

Malinda trots off to get the pie, and Sam looks up at Betty.

"Don't tell him it's on the house, or he'll freak," she says. "I let it slip, visiting him. He used to love my Rubens, and why shouldn't he have what he wants? Tell him I said hello and that I'll be by."

Dean nods and Sam smiles, thinking that it's nice to run into nice people for a change.

Malinda returns with a Styrofoam box that she slips between the knots on the to-go bag and Dean gets up, which is his signal to Sam that they need to move the hell on before Betty is going to start asking more questions that even Sam's storytelling ability won't be able to keep up with.

"You boys have a nice visit, you hear?" Betty puts her hands in her apron pockets and smiles at them.

They walk out of The Bucket. Sam is almost purring as he gets into the passenger side of the car. Something good has been set in motion here.

Dean drives straight to Edgar's, and Sam carries the knotted bag in his fist. The wind has kicked up at bit, and Sam hopes the food is still warm.

Edgar opens the door, but doesn't seem surprised to see them.

"Betty called," he says, smiling.

"I'm sorry about the lack of beer, Mr. Norton," says Dean. He shoves Sam in Edgar's direction. The cat is nowhere to be seen.

Edgar's eyes light up as he takes in the to-go box and puts it on the side table to open.

"One of Betty's special sandwiches," says Edgar. He takes a fry and puts the whole thing in his mouth, smiling. His teeth click as he chews and peeks into the other box. "And cherry pie, too, my my."

The food is obviously illicit. Sam raises his eyebrows at Dean, and gets the answering smile. "She'll be by to see you, she says," Dean tells him. "Don't let that cat steal your fries, okay?"

Edgar's mouth is full when they turn to go, but he motions at them to wait. They do, and he finishes his mouthful and wipes his hands on a paper napkin. The cat appears, leaping up to sniff at the food.

"I have a map," says Edgar. "I realized you boys might get confused on account of all the bridges, so I drew it for you. Near as I can remember anyway."

"Drew what?" asks Dean.

"Where the body is buried," says Edgar. He hands them a piece of paper, and Sam, keeper of the maps, takes it.

The lines are wobbly and the handwriting overly large, but the issue is now clear. There are, apparently, three bridges that cross the river, so Edger's saying that the body was buried on "this side of the bridge," would have been more confusing than helpful. Sam had figured they'd just poke around a bit, till the EMF got them where they needed to be. But it would have taken a while, which wouldn't have been fun in the cold air by the river. Edgar is sharp enough to realize that the multiple bridges might be confusing to two boys from out of town, obviously, hence the map.

"This is perfect, Mr. Norton," he says, smiling at Edgar.

The nice little moment that Sam sees so few of is broken when Dean tugs on his jacket and drags Sam to the door.

"Take care, Mr. Norton," says Sam. Dean opens the door as Edgar waves at them, and just before the door closes, Sam can see that the old man is petting his cat and reaching for more French fries.

"What do you think," says Dean. For a second, Sam thinks Dean is going to make a comment about Edgar and his cat, or maybe the way his eyes are on Sam, he's going to take up the mock-flirting again. But then he only asks, "Is The Bucket open for dinner?"

*

Dean drives them back to the motel. It is a short drive, but then, it's a small town. One that Sam is starting to feel overly familiar with.

At the motel, as Dean unlocks the door to their room, he shrugs off his leather jacket and flings it on the bed.

"What time is sunset?" he asks.

Sam wants to make the retort that Dean can look it up as easily as Sam can, but it doesn't feel worth the effort to be so pissy.

"Around six," he says.

He watches Dean lay his body on the bed, sneakers and all, stretching his muscles to loosen them and suddenly Sam doesn't want to be in the same room with him.

"I think I'll check out the River Valley Pioneer Museum," he says. He pats his back pocket to check for his wallet.

"Oh, so you can't go have fun at a bar because you're too tired, but you sure can manage the energy to go to some crap museum in the middle of nowhere." Dean doesn't even open his eyes to give any weight to his remark, but Sam can feel the sting just the same.

"I'll be back in an hour or so," he says.

Dean makes a rough sound in the back of his throat that sounds like a snort.

Fuck you too, Dean.

Sam opens the door to walk out, and without glancing back, shuts the door behind him with a hard snap. He wants to ignore the simmering heat behind his eyes, and why does Dean get to decide what's fun and what isn't?

His strides across the street to the museum are long and purposeful, not just to keep himself warm, but to let anyone who might be watching from a motel room window know that he, Sam, means to be going where he's going. To a museum to get some culture, damnit.

But when he gets to the yellow paneled doors, and tries to open them, the handle jerks in his hand. The door is locked, and too late he realizes that the tiny parking lot is empty and that there is simply no activity anywhere around or near the museum.

Sam tugs on the door again, and then sees the laminated sign taped to the door. He feels his body sag. He was so ready to look at old saddles and wagon wheels, at pioneer clothes, even, or maybe some rusty oil well capping gear. A dusty fossil of mastodon teeth. Maybe even two. Anything. In fact, he is desperate. He tugs on the door hard, like he means to yank it open with pure force of will.

The door remains stubbornly locked.

What's he supposed to do, spend the afternoon watching Dean nap? Or worse, napping with Dean? His mind races him through the idea of napping with Dean in the same bed, his face in Dean's neck, warm breath, maybe a sweet kiss or two--But the wind is sharp and there is no where else for him to go, so he swallows and releases the door handle. He shuffles back to the motel room, his head hanging.

When he opens the door, the room is dark, and the TV is turned on low. Dean might have been asleep, but he sits right up, bracing himself on his elbows. Sam can see his face clearly in the light from the open doorway.

"What happened?" asks Dean. "Museum off limits to losers?"

"Knock it off, Dean," says Sam. He sits on the edge of the other bed, slumping, and stares at the shadows his feet make on the floor. "The museum is closed for renovations for the next four days."

Dean is silent for a moment and Sam images that Dean is thinking of some scathing remark mean to cut Sam into to proper bar-appreciating, loser-sized pieces. Sam braces himself.

"Well," says Dean. He sits up and puts his feet on the floor. He turns on the light. "There is something else in town you might like."

Sam stiffens further. If the something he "might like" is more of what Dean handed out in Mammoth Spring, then Sam is not interested. That is, his brain insists that he is not; his body, on the other hand, starts humming inside his skin. Yes, we want that.

Now Dean gets up and claps his hand on Sam's shoulder. Sam can see him grab his leather jacket and the keys from the nightstand between the beds. Sam follows with his eyes as Dean walks to the door.

When Dean gets to the door, he appears to only then notice that Sam isn't following him. He looks at Sam and his eyes are laughing. But in a nice way, that Sam hasn't seen for days.

"You look like you got kicked in the mouth, hard," says Dean. Then he gestures with his hand. "Come on, sourpuss, I knowing something that might make the brain cells under all that floppy hair very happy."

"What is it?" Sam asks. He has no idea what Dean intends other than the fact that since they are leaving the room, it obviously doesn't involve another helping hand job. Though, knowing Dean, it just might involve hookers. Which Sam is sure Dean could find, even in a town as small as Canadian.

"Trust me," says Dean, and it is the look on his face, pure big brother affection, that tells Sam that getting up and following Dean will be okay.

*

A short drive across town to 5th street brings them to a large red brick building with white columns. It is easily the biggest building around, and the gardens around it take up the entire block.

"What is this?" Sam asks as they get out and go up the walkway that is paved with artistically placed flagstones. The air from the bright yellow flowers smells sweet.

"It's The Citadel," says Dean. Which tells Sam exactly nothing.

Dean leads the way up the steps into a little building that is separate from the main building, which it turns out to be a shop so frou-frou in nature that it is normally the kind Dean avoids at all costs. Even when Dean pulls out his wallet to hand over a twenty to the pretty shop girl, Sam still doesn't get it.

"Dean," he says, his voice rising in irritation.

"Come this way," says the shop girl, while Dean says, at the same time, "Hang on, you'll see."

The shop girl leads the way around the garden, along another flagstone path that cuts through the tidy lawn. There are marble statues and glossy ivy plants that wind their way across white painted trellises, and tiled fountains and sundials, and Sam stares hard at everything, as if that will help him figure it out.

When they enter the door of the main building, they stop in a little alcove, and the shop girl hands them each a pair of thin white cotton gloves and something that looks like a little telephone.

"Just enter the number beside each piece of art, and you can listen to Mrs. Abrahams tell the story about it."

Then she leaves them standing it what looks like the entry way to someone's kitchen.

"Mrs. Who?" asks Sam. "Are we in someone's house?"

Dean shrugs his shoulders and puts his gloves on. "I don't know, Sammy, but let's find out."

Sam steps around the corner, with the phone halfway to his ear out of reflex. He glances at the large, empty and very clean kitchen, still getting the vague, uncomfortable feeling that he's invading someone's privacy. Then he sees the huge, wall to wall carpet, which is an ugly combination of pale cream background with a riotous circle of bright green leaves and yellow and red flowers woven into it.

The carpet is hideous to begin with, but what makes it even more horrible to look at is the fact that above it, hanging from what looks like a balcony from the upper floor, is a set of pointed wooden panels that gleam with gold leaf and lapis lazuli paint. There is a number 17 listed on a placard next to the panels, and as Sam enters the number into his phone, he discovers that he is right. The southern voice tells him it is a set of panels from the altar of an Italian church, dating to the 15th century. The contrast between the carpet and the graceful panels is jarring.

He drops the phone from his ear and looks around the room, which looks big enough to land a plane in. Everywhere he looks, he sees art, in the painting of painting of bishops playing musical instruments, to sixteen foot high gold-gilded mirrors, to the dresser made of wood that shines so brightly that Sam wants to touch it. And then there is Dean, who is smirking at him.

"What the hell is this place?" he asks.

"Don't know, really," says Dean. "But the website said it was an incredible collection of art, so here we are."

Sam can see that other rooms lead off from the main one. There are at least two sets of stairs, and it's obvious that there's more art, and more placards, all stretching out as far as the eye can see.

"Incredible is not the word," Sam says, and he realizes he's almost whispering, maybe out of awe or maybe it's shock that such a place exists in the panhandle of Texas, let alone that Dean would bring him here. And not only that, but that Dean would come in with him. Sam can't figure out when Dean would have been able to look anything like this up on the internet.

"Why did you bring me here?" he asks, and then before Dean can answer he adds, "And why are you in here and not out waiting in the car or something, taking a nap?"

Dean scratches the back of his neck, and never mind the gloves, apparently. "Well," he says, "I figure if I did this for you, maybe you would come to a bar with me sometime. And enjoy yourself, the way you should."

Sam doesn't know what to say. There is a resigned determination in Dean's eyes, along with a sweet flush at getting caught being so nice. Yes, fair is fair, he should be more willing to go to bars with Dean. And normally he is, and Dean should know this. Dean probably does know this, but after last night, and the night before that, and the night before that--

The fact that Dean is trying to make things more normal between them, in his own way, makes Sam's stomach dip. Maybe Dean's not making the connection between the fact that bars serve alcohol and a little too much alcohol is what made it so easy for Dean to crawl into bed behind his brother one night not too many nights ago.

But the look on Dean's face is hopeful, and he's sucking his lower lip between his teeth as if he's worried that maybe suddenly, and inexplicably, Sam doesn't like art any more. And that Dean's plan to cheer Sam the hell up has failed.

It's up to Sam to make it okay, because if Dean's trying, then he has to try, too.

"It's a deal." Sam smiles and rubs his begloved thumb across the numbers on the handset, which still looks like a portable phone. "Now let's look at some art, and try and keep up, okay?"

The Salt and Burn

When they go on the salt and burn, it is windy and chilly, but Sam's warm on the inside with the memory of the afternoon. Which even though it had left an inordinate amount of art jumbled in his head, had been pretty much all systems normal between him and Dean. And pretty much perfect.

Every five minutes, Dean had complained that he was bored. This had been accompanied by many eye rolls and distracted fingernail chewing, just to irritate Sam, but Dean had tagged after Sam and stopped to look at every painting that Sam had, just the same. More, Dean hadn't used his portable phone at all, saying that he'd left it on some old bureau somewhere. Instead, he'd turned the full wattage of his attention on Sam, and made Sam explain every single thing about what they were looking at. All of which had left a good, solid feeling in Sam's chest.

Which makes him eager to go to work.

The trek along the riverbank is littered with rocks and slopped over with cold mud. They pick their way along, heads down, the water inky dark over the mud. It's going to be a messy night, still, Sam feels pretty good, having soaked up as much painting and culture as he can handle in one day. Who knew Texas had such things in it?

"The east side of the new bridge, right?"

Dean asks this without turning his head back to look at Sam.

Sam has lost the map somewhere along the way, but he remembers the drawing pretty clearly, so he nods at Dean's outline against the setting sun. "Yes," he says. "And I imagine the south bank of the river, since that's closer to the town than the north side."

Now Dean is nodding, and if he's as cold as Sam is, he's cold. The wind is moving between stillness and bluster, and the setting sun shafts black shadows among the gold-brown grasses. A swirl of starlings funnels overhead, and then bends over the bank towards the water. Then they swoop back, a black blanket against the pale eggshell blue sky.

Sam's shoes are soaked though and his fingers are aching. He's carrying one shovel and the salt. Dean is carrying the other shovel and the gasoline, so really, Dean's got more to carry. To the victor goes the spoils, so this means that Dean will get the privilege of lighting the corpse on fire. It's his favorite thing.

Sam slips and his shovel clatters to the stones. Dean stops and turns.

"You okay there, graceful?"

Sam picks up the shovel. The handle is muddy now and the wind skips off the river like ice. It's only September here, not even winter yet. He wonders how people stand it. They've long since left the dirt road that paralleled the new bridge, and had been moving east along the river bank for at least 20 minutes.

"How far can five drunk guys carry a dead body?" Dean wants to know this, and asks it as if he's sure Sam's got the answer.

"Long as they could without staggering and falling into the river," Sam says. Guessing. "Long as they didn't feel the cold. Long as the booze held out, if they brought some bottles with them."

"During prohibition?"

"By the picture of Virginia, I'd say so." Sam's lips are going numb. He should have brought a heavier jacket. "So if there was a marker, it's long gone."

"Those assholes wouldn't have marked it," says Dean. Sam can hear the disgust in his voice. "Assholes."

"Your EMF on?" asks Sam.

"Has been the whole time."

"Well, it's going to have to tell us because I can't--" Sam looks up. He sees her. She is standing on a rock on the edge of the river, in a thin dress that's meant to be fashionable, but isn't. Her mouth is dark, and she is smiling. Waving him on.

"You see her?" he asks Dean, just as the EMF goes off.

Dean keeps walking and Sam follows him. Not tiptoeing, impossible in the mud, but just about. He doesn't want to scare her, doesn't want to have to try this again, frankly, it's too miserable a walk. He would, of course, he would if he had to.

"Yeah," says Dean. He walks right up to Virginia's ghost and reaches out with the EMF just as she vanishes. He looks down. "This must be the place."

They dig on the Dean's sayso and the EMF's, but mostly on Dean's. They dig for a good ten minutes before the tip of a shovel finds white bone. They dig it all up, shovels sure, putting their shoulders into it. They pile the dirt carefully and find the rest of the bones, still tied in rope, held together by the remains of a dress. It's not the dress in the picture, but it had been enough to keep her together while she waited.

Sam pours the salt in the hole until he covers the body with it. Dean pours in the gasoline and lights the whole mess on fire. The fire is hot and rises with black smoke just as the sun goes fully down. They wait for a while to watch it burn out and then cover the ash with dirt, patting it down with their shovels.

Sam looks up at the landscape shivering into darkness. He can see the line of the river swinging west under the bridge, and then south, still reflecting what's left of the light, glinting as though already covered in ice.

"We can cut right this field," Sam says, using the end of his shovel to point. "It'd save us walking along the river in this wind. Save us a good ten minutes to where the car is parked."

Dean looks and agrees. "Dibs on the first hot shower."

"Only if you get through the door first."

They gather up the shovels and empty gas can and start marching. Sam's wet socks pick up bits of stray, prickly grass, and his pants, soaked from the knees down, slap at him.

Even with the shortcut, it'll be ten minutes to the car, less than that to the motel. But even if Dean does manage to hustle his way through the door first, it will be warm and dry and Sam can put on clean socks. He'll remind Dean about the laundry, now more needed than ever. And if The Bucket is open for dinner, they are in luck.

"Fence," says Dean. There's enough light to see what he's pointing to, but only just.

The fence is part wood, part barbed wire. The wire is slack as if someone never tightened it after the first frost, and the wood is old and splintery under Sam's hands. He ducks between the rails, carries his leg slowly over the wire. Dean's shovel clatters over the stones as he moves between the wires. Then he straightens and Sam can hear the whoosh as he settles the shovel over his shoulder.

"Christ," Dean says. "Maybe two hot showers."

They walk through the mesquite and short grass towards the lights of the road, the ground underneath choppy and uneven, but at least it's dry ground now. The wind is barely there, cut through by the grasses that are stubby and that rake at Sam's calves. He can see the dark lines of the other side of the fence against the dark background of night. A passing car shows them that they are nearly there, the headlights glinting off the parked Impala and the rusted strands of barbed wire.

Sam hears another whoosh and wonders what it is. Both Dean and he are already carrying their shovels on their shoulders. He turns around, feels the hard body brush against his side, pushing at him, just as he sees the glint of horns. It's tall, this thing, with hard muscles, and it snorts at him. And he thinks that maybe, just maybe, he can see it paw the ground, because the air suddenly smells like dust and cow dung and sweat.

"Dean," he says. He moves forward and pushes at Dean. "It's a cow, Dean."

"Cow?" Dean stops to look.

"Or a bull."

"Shit."

They run. Sam keeps a grip on his shovel and the container, not really thinking why he's doing it, but maybe he's thinking it's easier to keep them than replace them, and if he needs to, he can throw it at the thing and distract it while he leaps over the fence.

His long legs bring him to the fence line just as he hears Dean's shout of protest, and he throws his shovel over the wire just before he hurdles the fence. Dean bangs into it, shovel and gas can flying, the flash of horns arcing over his head as he rolls under it on the ground. He's safe on the far side, and he looks up at Sam, grinning as he gets up.

"Missed me, you fucker," Dean tells the cow. Which by the light of a passing car they see is a bull, a young bull, but pissed off just the same, tossing its horns and snapping at the ground with pointed hooves.

As Dean bends to pick up his tools, he lurches to the side, hands going to his ribs. "Must've hit it pretty hard," he says, almost to himself.

They throw their gear in the trunk and then Dean gives Sam the keys. "I got the wind knocked out of me," he says. "But it stings too."

"Dean." Sam tucks the keys in his pocket, and gets a flashlight from the glove compartment. He shines the flashlight on his brother and watches as Dean's hands come away, covered in glistening blood.

"Scraped yourself up some," Sam says, remarking upon this even as he lifts the edges of Dean's t-shirt. It's easier, when necessity comes, to look at Dean's skin, muscles over ribs, objectively.

At first it looks like red stripes going sideways, like someone had painted on Dean's skin. He reaches out to touch, Dean flinches back, and Sam realizes that there are splinters, long, black splinters from the wood. They are imbedded under Dean's skin like black ribbons. There are deep cuts from the barbed wire, too, that ooze blood down Dean's ribs, soaking into the tops of his jeans.

"Aw, Jesus shit." Dean looks up at Sam, his voice sounding white. Then he sighs, teeth drawn back as Sam snaps off the flashlight and hustles Dean into the passenger seat. It's not life and death surely, but it warrants breaking the speed limit all the way to the motel. By the time they get there, Dean's shirt is soaked through and sticking to him, his face is white, and the inside of his forearms are blotched with blood all the way up to his elbows.

Once in the room, Sam snaps his fingers and points at the bed, digs out the first aid box and slams it down. It's not Dean's fault, but it's stupid too. With all the things they ever hunted, it's stupid that an inanimate object can rip Dean up bad enough to make him turn white. Like the proverbial sheet.

Dean sits on the bed, holding his side, pulling his shirt up, trying to look. "Man, splinters, aw, crap, Sam. Just crap."

"It's crap alright," says Sam. He goes over to Dean and pulls his shirt off, making it quick, tossing the bloody garment on the floor of the bathroom. Then he bends down, eyes flicking up to Dean's face as he touches the skin. It is raw and threaded through with large splinters, and laced with scrapes from the wire. Blood is oozing everywhere, trickling down Dean's skin like red tears. "That wood is probably covered with cow shit."

"How come I didn't feel it when it happened, Sam?" asks Dean as he tries to get up so he can look at his ribs better. "I can sure as fuck feel it now."

Sam pushes him back down, and blows his bangs out of the way. "Adrenaline," he says. "You just don't know it. You were running from the bull, and everything else went into the background."

"Fuck." Dean lays back and watches, trying not to wince as Sam pulls up a chair and tips the light on the nightstand so the shade directs the light where he wants it.

"I'm gonna have to pull these out, Dean," he says. "And you're not going to like it, but if I leave them in there to work their way out--"

"Then they'll fester and that'll mean drugs and maybe a trip to the hospital, which is--"

"To be avoided at all costs." It's what Dad always said.

"I'll make it quick," Sam says now. He tucks a towel beneath Dean's side and pulls out the tweezers. "And if you want to scream like a little girl, go ahead. There's no one to hear you but me."

"You'll tell," says Dean, pretending to be obnoxious about it, his mouth screwing up as Sam takes out the first and most obvious splinter. It's soaking red. He wipes the tweezers on the towel. He looks up at Dean.

Dean gives him a little nod and then Sam concentrates on his task. Some of the splinters are short, and come out fast and slick. Others have little jags on them, so he has to worry them out. He checks on Dean, who is holding himself as still as he can, muscles clenched like rocks, face like grey paper. There's sweat dappled under his eyes like tears and his hairline is damp.

"Just hurry," Dean says, his voice sounding like he's being pulled across gravel. "Oh, the mother fucker."

"I'm not the mother fucker," says Sam, tugging. "You're the mother fucker."

He keeps his hands from shaking as best he can. Hurries as fast as he can. He uses a damp washcloth to keep the blood from dripping, but it slips down Dean's side to curve beneath Dean's back. Hopefully the towel will soak it up. That or the polyester bedspread, with its wild flower pattern, won't show the stain.

Sam pulls out thin ones, fat ones, little ones. He's getting near the end, and Dean is quivering beneath his hands, chest heaving.

"How's your head?" he asks, knowing that sometimes a build up of pain, even little pain, can make your head swim.

"Dizzy," says Dean. "Guess there'll be no dance for me tonight, huh?"

"Is that all you can think about?" Sam makes his voice bright as he tugs on a particularly large splinter. "Because you know all dancing leads to is sex, right?" He's almost not sorry he's said it.

Dean pretends to be shocked as Sam yanks the splinter out. He hears Dean's grunt of effort, and wipes the tweezers on the towel as he pretends not to hear it.

The last splinter comes out. "Done," he says, rising to his feet, feeling a little shaky himself, and gets a clean washcloth from the bathroom. He runs the water cold and comes back to Dean.

"Don't rub," says Dean, and Sam shakes his head no as he sits back down, patting the slices in the skin, thinking about butterfly bandages, wondering if they've got enough. He puts the washcloth down and checks Dean's side, bending close, his breath coming back to him hot. He wipes the cloth along Dean's ribs, as gently as he can.

"Neosporin," he says, and Dean nods.

"Hurry, it stings like a bitch."

He hurries. The tube of Neosporin is the economy sized one, bought on sale and it's going to help, Sam knows, though it's going to sting going on. Sitting by Dean's side, he rubs the cream in, watches as Dean's skin turns red and glossy beneath Sam's fingertips, as if the heat of Dean's body is keeping the blood from coagulating.

"Just stay still, alright?" He slathers the whole area with the cream, and then watches, his fingers cupped under Dean's back, waiting for the blood to stop flowing, waiting for the Neosporin to kick in. It does slowly, and he resists the urge to wipe Dean's skin again. He thinks that he'll let the wound set in the open air before putting a bandage over the whole mess. Dean is still shivering.

"Okay," Sam says. He gets up, and looks down. Dean's arms are coated with drying blood, there is blood turning black along the waistband of Dean's jeans, and there is sweat along Dean's hairline.

Sam gets the Advil first, and makes Dean take two, and screw what the instructions say. Then he takes Dean's shoes off and undoes Dean's jeans, smacking away Dean's hands that move as if to stop him.

"Hold on," he says, using one hand to keep Dean's boxers in place, though those are stained too, and pulls the jeans off in one motion. He's all business, as he should be, as he pulls the counterpane across most of Dean's legs, his mind almost on autopilot. Then he gets a clean washcloth and soaks it with warm water, wringing it out on the carpet as he comes back to Dean's side. "I'm so getting the extra cookie for this," he tells Dean, sitting down in the chair again.

"Well, I guess you are," Dean says. He's watching Sam; his eyes are soft.

Sam uses the washcloth to wipe Dean's face, ignoring his brother's frown of protest, and wipes his neck, and then the blood from his arms. He has to scrub a bit as the blood is spread thin and has dried.

"Quit fussing, Sammy."

Sam finishes up. Now he's got two bloody, cold washcloths and he gets up to put them in the sink. He'll have to rinse the heck out of them if they want to avoid the attention of the maid.

"I told you, I'm fine."

"Yeah?" Sam asks from the bathroom. He comes out, making himself look stern. "You look about as fucked up as a pig's behind, and you're fine."

"A pig's behind?" Dean's voice rises, affronted.

"A pig's behind."

Sam stands there, feeling the weight of the day hard on his shoulders. "Look, I'm going to take a shower, and get this mud off me, then I'll put the bandage on, alright? Do you need anything? Just ask, 'cause you shouldn't move for a bit."

Dean waves him off. "Just some naked dancing girls, if you can manage, 'cause I sure could use the distraction."

Sam smiles. He picks up the clicker, and turns up the volume a bit. "Look, Dean," he says, chipper as a new morning. "It's a program about the Egyptian mummies."

"No," says Dean. "Fucking NO, Sam, not that shit. Give me the clicker, at least."

Sam places the clicker on top of the TV and out of Dean's reach. "I won't be ten minutes. It'll be good for you to get some culture."

"Not mummies!"

This makes Sam laugh as he gets in the shower. Dean had had a thing for mummies once, in a way that told Sam he'd used it as a way to meet girls. Which hadn't worked. Then he'd overdosed on the subject, which now left him feeling sour about the whole thing. Art class, dude, Sam remembers telling his brother. Chicks dig guys who know about art and it's a whole lot more fun than mummies.

The water in the shower is as hot as Sam can stand it, and he uses the soap and a washcloth and gets the mud off. He doesn't have a scratch on him, and his toes are no longer numb. He steps out of the shower and towels off, then puts his t-shirt and boxers on, and wonders if he's got some clean sweats. Even if he doesn't, there are some near clean ones in the laundry bag. He steps out. Dean is in the same position, frowning at the TV, and now at Sam.

"Change the fucking channel, dude, or I swear, I'm getting up and beating the crap out of you."

Sam reaches over and grabs the clicker. He hands it to Dean. "I'm going to bandage this up," he says.

"Good. Cause it looks gross."

Part of Dean's brain, Sam knows, tells him that if he can't see it, it might not hurt as much. Though with the acreage of skin torn up, it's going to hurt for a couple of days, and the scabs are going to itch like crazy. Can't be helped. Could have been worse.

"I know," says Dean, as Sam comes over to sit down, with several large squares of bandage in his hand. He can't find the scissors, so he uses his teeth to tear off strips of tape. "Could have been worse, right?'

"Yeah," says Sam. "You coulda gotten speared right through."

"Bleh," says Dean. "Guts all over the place."

"Bile, too," says Sam. "Don't forget the bile."

He measures the bandage with his eyes. It's big enough for most of it, but it's not big enough. Still, if he tapes it right, the skin will scab over and heal without becoming infected. He lays it out and tapes the edges down.

"More Advil?" asks Dean.

Sam shakes his head. Dean knows the rules. Well, guidelines really. Twice the dosage in half the time is the limit. If the bottle says one every four hours, they can have two every two hours. But no more than that. "Ask again later. If you're not asleep."

"How am I supposed to sleep with it hurting like this?"

Sam gets up, starts picking up the detritus from his first aid. He puts things back in the box, and then shoves the box against the wall. He turns off most of the lights, and then turns up the heat. Dean is watching him "You got to get behind the pain, Dean," he says. "Or is it ahead?"

"I can't." It's not a complaint; it's a statement of fact. Dean, Sam knows, can turn away from pain faster than anyone he knows. But it's rather like the difference between someone pulling out a single hair, and someone pulling out a whole hank. The single hair always hurts more.

Sam sits back down on the chair next to the bed in the mostly dark room. His body is still winding down from their close call; he's still a little giddy with it. There's only the two of them in the middle of the country, and his brother is looking to him, and only to him, for help.

Sam thinks of the ways Dean always takes care of him, when he's sick or hurting. Or even like today, when he was pouting over the pioneer museum, and acting like a five year old denied ice cream. As to when Dean had found the art museum in the middle of a Podunk town in the middle of no where, Sam has no idea. The fact remains that Dean had been prepared to give Sam what he needed, like he always did.

"It hurts, Sam," says Dean, almost as if he doesn't want to admit it.

And then there is the way Dean helped him the other night, in Mammoth Spring. Sam's is still coming down of the adrenaline from running from the bull. The shower has made his skin warm, and he can feel the blood pulsing in his neck.

Dean looks a little white, and his eyes are wide and green, and it's going to take twenty minutes for the pain pills to kick in. Even if Dean is an asshole and a jerk sometimes, he still deserves better.

"I can fix that," says Sam. He looks at the light on the nightstand and leaves it burning. Then he places one hand on Dean's stomach, and looks him right in the eye.

"I can fix that," he says, "and in the morning, we'll go on, just like we always do."

Dean's eyebrows shoot up, a question mark, his mouth open to say something, maybe to ask or protest, but Sam moves his hands over the blood-stiff waistband of Dean's dark boxers and pulls them down. Dean's thighs are warm, and Sam's fingers stir through the hair on his legs. He looks at the darker hair and the flushed cock between his brother's legs, feels the heat there with the tips of his fingers.

"I don't have any naked, dancing girls," he says, his voice feeling thick in his throat, "but perhaps this will help."

Dean says one word. "Sam." Just that, as though any other thoughts he might want to add to this are thrown into a stall.

Sam imagines that it's his hand, now covering the hardening flesh of Dean's groin, that stops him. Under his palm he can fell Dean's cock, coming up, hardening. Filling his hand.

Sam's eyes flick up. Dean is looking back at him, mouth still open, blinking as if he's sure he should stop Sam. Stop him right now. Sam continues, though the angle of his body making the movement of his hand somewhat difficult. He thinks of that night in Mammoth Spring, and wishes he'd waited for full darkness. He reaches up a hand to turn off the light, but Dean has beaten him to it. With one click they are both in darkness.

Which somehow gives Dean permission to protest out loud.

"Sam," he says. "You shouldn't--don't--"

"Going to," says Sam. He shifts his chair and moves closer. He shoves Dean's boxers further down Dean's legs, feels the edges of the bandage. He can smell the blood and the Neosporin. And musk. Salt. The heat of Dean's skin, a drowsy perfume he'd know with his eyes closed.

He leans close. Moves his hand along Dean's cock, and circles it with his fingers. Dean's cock leaps to life, almost jumping up. It's already wet at the top, and Sam imagines the pain of removing the splinters might have something with this, with Dean's willingness to go along. Pain can cause erections just as pleasure can, he knows this. Dean's whole body shifts beneath his hands, as if moving to a place only it knew about, and Sam hears Dean sigh.

"Shouldn't--" Dean says. "We shouldn't. You know it, Sammy, you know it." Dean's hips push into Sam's hands.

"I know it." Sam agrees with this, because to do anything else would be a lie. They shouldn't. But they already have. And it hadn't changed anything. Had it?

But Sam has learned that bodies take over even when minds protest, and his brother, already hard beneath his hand, is breathing deep breaths, and will soon be unable to give voice to any coherent thoughts at all. He pulses his hand around the base of Dean's cock, feeling the rigid flesh beneath the heel of his palm. Feels the shudders of Dean's stomach, hears the rasp of skin across sheet. Then he strokes. Long strokes, bending forward with it, feeling Dean's breath on his neck, hearing the whisper of something in the back of Dean's throat. If it's a protest, Sam will end it. But there is nothing more, so Sam continues.

With his wrist flicking up as he pulls long and slow, arm shifting back as lets his grip slip; he feels Dean's blood pounding beneath the thin skin. He strokes until Dean's whole body is shuddering, feels a tenseness in Dean's frame, hears the choke of Dean's breath, and waits till the last minute. He bends forward and takes Dean's cock in his mouth. His mind is amazed, and his tongue wants to taste.

The second his lips circle a seal around Dean's cock, Sam feels the pulse like a distant roar coming at him, feels the jerk of Dean's cock against his lower lip, and then the heat, a thin, hard stream, as it hits the back of his throat. Almost gagging, he swallows, tenders Dean's cock to stillness with his hand, and then swallows again. It's almost too much. He brings the back of his hand to his mouth as he sits up, Dean's cock falling from his mouth, the almost-sweet taste of come sliding over his tongue.

He can see Dean, in the light that his eyes allow him to now see. Just a glaze, enough to pinprick the brightness of Dean's eyes. Accent the hardness of his breath.

"Jesus Christ, Sam," says Dean. Sam can hear him pulling at his boxers. "What did you do that for? Using your--"

Dean stops, apparently hacked off enough to sit up even when he shouldn't. "You shouldn't have done it like that." The words are almost barked out, and Sam stands, the back of his legs pushing the chair back. His mouth is still humming with the feel of Dean's hot skin in his mouth; there are traces of salt on his lips, and he licks them.

"You started it," Sam says in the near darkness. He feels like he's been stung.

"I didn't start that."

"What's the difference?" Sam asks, pressing the heel of his palm hard against the side of his mouth. "That's where it goes anyway."

"In your mouth?" Dean's voice rises to a horrified pitch.

"No, that's not what I mean, I--" He means, of course, that there is rather a sequence to things. Hands first, then mouths, then-- He stops there.

"For fuck's sake, Sam." There is the sound of blankets being pulled, Dean punching his pillow with the back of his head. "Just--just fucking forget it, okay? And don't ever do that again."

"But--" Sam starts. His body has been wanting it and Dean's body certainly hadn't minded. "I liked it, and I can't stop thinking about it." There's so much that needs saying and he's tired of not saying it. "You gave me that, Dean and it made me feel--

He stops, wanting to find a way to explain the torrent of feeling, the layers beneath his words, what he's always felt for Dean and could never collect together in his brain at one time. Besides, his body had wanted what Dean had given him and now, he'd given back (finally) and Dean's body certainly hadn't minded.

"You are the only constant in my life, and I need you." He feels a little dizzy, like he's suddenly drunk.

"You need to find someone else to obsess about, because I can't want this." Dean's voice is stern and cold.

That stops Sam right there. He knows he has to try and do what Dean says, because what Sam wants is impossible. But his hands are shaking, and he has nothing he can do with them except pull the chair back to its spot next to the wall. To go to his own bed and turn down the covers, feeling the scratch of stray plastic threads catch on his fingers. He stands there.

"Go to bed, Sam."

"Dean."

"What."

"In the morning, will we go on as like we always do?"

There is a silence, pushing up in the darkness, and Sam can almost hear Dean trying not to think. Then, finally, Dean says, "Yes. Now go to bed."

Sam climbs in under the covers and lets his head settle on the three pillows he gathered there. The taste of Dean is like a fresh snap in his mouth every time he takes in a breath. His hands are hot and sticky and he tries rubbing them across the sheets.

"Knock it off, Sam," says Dean. Hard at work at being irritated. "This is the end of it, do you get that? Just stop it and go to sleep."

Sam holds still. His stomach is churning around, and his head is still sending signals to all the rest of him. He holds still. Sleep will come. And in the morning, they will go on like they always do. Dean said so.

Across the Plains and Into the Mountains

In the morning they head out to Nederland for their next gig, but they get a late start.

And Dean lies about them going on as they always have because Dean is not talking to Sam. Except Dean's idea of not talking is to, really, talk a lot, and say a whole lot of nothing. Shit like gotta fill up for gas soon, and nobody the hell else on the road, why's that guy driving like a grandma? tumbles from his lips, with almost no breath for Sam to interject. Dean is not and cannot and will not talk about what happened in Canadian, nor what happened in Mammoth Spring, and this, as they drive along a two-lane blacktop means that there is no real communication between them.

Not that Sam can't interpret the babble as well as he can the silences. Well, almost as well, Dean's code is written in blood and years and Sam knows what it all means is that Dean is pissed. More than that, he's confused. Well, Sam's with him on that one; and whether a blow job equates with a hand job doesn't matter as much as the fact that Dean seems to have forgotten that Sam is there too. Was there. In the dark, skin to skin, warm, sticky semen drying on his thighs, with the evidence of busted boxers in the morning to prove that what had happened in the night wasn't his imagination.

That along with the memory of Dean's blood-hot semen on his tongue, of Dean jerking beneath his hands, and Dean's plaintive I can't want that--maybe it means that there's something more here than what he can readily see.

But Dean is driving like he means to leave that memory behind him, and in no uncertain terms is Sam allowed to direct his attention to what is supposed to become smaller in the Impala's rearview mirror, metaphorically speaking. Because as far as Sam is concerned, the faster Dean drives, and the further he goes, the bigger it looms.

They leave Canadian and head north on 83 to hook up with 287, going through Boise City. They are cutting across southern Colorado on back roads to make up time, crossing the grasslands of the high plains as the snow starts to come down and the clouds lower in a boiling grey blanket. The land stretches, gritty and yellow, newly torn and yet to settle.

Sam remembers something about an Indian massacre that had occurred in the area, and he opens his mouth, not to ask Dean if he knows anything about it, because Dean isn't interested in stuff like that, but if perhaps they could stop. Sometimes, the way Dean drives, it's like everything is flyover country, and not worthy of even a small minute's notice, even if there might be a memorial where Sam can visit and read the placards and maybe feel a little less like he was zipping from one end of the country to the other without knowing anything about the areas he's passing through.

But Sam knows what Dean will say if he asks. There's nothing there but arrowheads, Dean will say, and if you want one, I can get one for you, but we're not stopping.

In spite of the unexpected kindness of the art museum in Canadian, Dean was never big on museums or monuments or anything that way. Sam feels himself scowling, and realizes he's shut his mouth and it pisses him off that he is already avoiding what he wants, just to head off a stupid argument. Besides, they have other fish to fry. Sam had given Dean a blowjob and Dean isn't ever going to forgive Sam. Ever. Dean has a tendency to be very particular that way.

"Which way?"

Dean's voice sounds loud as the Impala slows down for an intersection. Sam looks up from his hands in his lap; the map has fallen at his feet. Sam picks it up, pretending he meant to do that because Dean hates it when the map gets wrinkled or mussed. Which is strange, for all that he can wear bleach stained jeans and blood rumpled shirts, his map and his car are always pristine. Such is the way Dean treats things he values; they give him what he needs, and that is all he asks. In return, tender loving care. Sam thinks that he is not on the precious list at the moment.

He spreads the map across his thighs and looks at it. "Just follow the signs, 287, all the way to Nederland, oh wait--"

Dean interrupts him. "We got a late start. Will we make it?"

Sam peers out of the front window, at the snow blowing like lace through the broken prairie grass on either side of the road. "Five hours?" he says. "Maybe six. The trick'll be not the darkness but the snow."

He doesn't say it, but the Impala's tires are fine for highway driving, but are not really suited for drifts and ice. Winter is the time for them to lie up and heal whatever wounds they've incurred, and fix the car, and do all that stuff. It's in the rhythm of their lives; even in medieval times, winter was a time off from war. But to tell Dean this, to mention any of it, let alone imply that his tires might not be capable, no thanks, he'd rather not.

"Snow?" asks Dean. He slows down a bit to lean forward on the steering wheel, looking out at the white flecks whipping across the road as if they mean to be in Kansas before they melted.

"We catch I-70," says Sam, tracing the map with his finger, "and then the 36, and then Canyon Street in Boulder. That takes us into the mountains. Right into them. It's almost three thousand feet gain in elevation, which means--"

"Okay, can it, geek," says Dean. He leans back. "I'll get us there."

To prove this, Dean steps on the gas, and soon they are overtaking the grandma driver, and hurtling along the two lane blacktop, under the boiling clouds and away from memory and regret and all those things that Dean acts like he doesn't want to carry with him. Even though Sam could tell him that while they aren't physical, there's no escaping them. His years at Stanford taught them that.

There's nothing for it but to stare out the window, and watch the clouds come down and swallow the horizon. Sam feels his throat grow dry, and his lips and eyes start to crackle. He wonders if it's his imagination that the parched air of the high plains is sucking all the moisture out of him, if his knowing that they're climbing in elevation is making him think of dried mummies and bleached cow hides. But that would take sun; there is no sun, there is only cold and wind and the bluster of dried tumbleweeds taking suicide paths in front of the Impala.

"Goddamn tumbleweeds," mutters Dean at one point. "Get stuck in my freaking undercarriage, and I'll fucking end you--"

Dean's voice fades off as he mutters to himself and Sam lets his eyes close and thinks of pillows.

*

They gas up in Limon and have a quick and tasteless lunch at café the Flying J. It's like any day at that point: Sam does the windows while Dean pumps up, and after they pay, Sam follows Dean to a table.

He hasn't brought the notes for the gig with him, though he thought about it. He likes being the one to take care of the notes and update Dad's journal. It's not beneath Dean to do research or recordkeeping, no matter what Dad might have felt about it, or why he always gave that job to Sam. Dean can figure things out all on his own without ever writing it down, but both of them know Sam likes that shit, so Dean lets him.

Only let isn't the right word, Sam knows, because it implies that Dean is in charge, which he most certainly is not. Sometimes, Sam thinks it's a strange kind of love from Dean, in giving baby brother everything he wants. But it's because Dean knows him, and knows how much pleasure this kind of thing gives him. Looking up shit, plotting a chart, using a table to graph the variables, everything. And while Dean might make fun of Sam, before, during, and after, he always listens. He gives Sam that and always has. The price of that kind of love, of course, is that Sam is, in turn, to give Dean the gift of sometimes not talking about things. Some times, the price of love is steep.

"I am so tired of chili melts," Dean says. The bench seats on either side of the booth squeak and groan as they sit down.

Sam nods and does not say that of course, Dean could get tuna salad once in a while, or a stir fry or something with vegetables, but the lure of deep fried anything is far too strong from Dean to resist. And, really, anything more sophisticated than the basics is going to probably be pretty much beyond the capacity of a Flying J truck stop.

Sam looks at Dean around the edges of his menu, a shiny, sharp edged brochure about all the exciting and oversized things that are available. He watches Dean's eyes track the choices, and sees the very second when the descriptions about the different types cheeseburgers are reached. Dean's pupils dilate, even, though Sam does not point this out. As mad as they are at each other, food is one of Dean's pleasures, and since Sam has now fucked up sex for him, maybe for the time being or maybe forever, then perhaps he ought to leave Dean this.

"They've got a ribeye," he says, shaking his menu at Dean to get his attention. He is getting very tired of Dean ignoring him on purpose.

"Cheese steak," says Dean, "or check out this BLT."

Sam feels a little dejected about Dean's refusal.

"They've got a steak with wine sauce," Sam says. "Red wine sauce with mushrooms." The steaks come with salad and vegetables, which Dean needs. Sometimes, Sam feels like the governess that no one listens to. Like on that old show, Dark Shadows, the governess went around amazed at the vampires and werewolves, but no one else seemed to think it was odd. Likewise, Dean. Who needs vegetables when you have deep fried onion rings?

Sam sighs.

Dean orders the BLT, which, all things considering, at least has lettuce and tomato. Maybe Dean has a special gene and can turn fried lard into pure energy, and can turn noodles into broccoli. The world will never know.

Sam orders the steak with wine sauce, which, when it arrives, is really an unkind thing to call the glop that has been ladled over the fatty piece of meat. But he's hungry, so he carves around the fat and the bone and pretends the wine sauce is very good. Then he pointedly eats the salad while Dean pointedly moans and groans over the side of onion rings he's ordered. Trust a place like the Flying J to do those right.

Sam doesn't dare ask, but Dean pushes the plate at him, and waves his hand over them without looking at Sam. There are three large onion rings left and a nice puddle of ketchup. Sam digs in, and yes, the onion rings are moanworthy.

"Thanks," he says, crunching around a mouthful.

Dean's eyes catch his. It's like catching green fire, and Sam draws in a breath. Then Dean's eyelashes flutter and Dean looks away, as if he's contemplating an ice cream Sunday, even if in a place like this the ice cream would be ersatz at best. Though Sam imagines that he might remind Dean of this, he doesn't.

Dean orders the Sunday anyway and, and as the mound of fake ice cream and syrup melts in the dented aluminum bowl, he leaves most of it uneaten. Sam knows why. Dean can eat most anything, but his ice cream needs to be real, the more homemade the better. Sam wonders if Nederland will have someplace like that and he thinks so; a touristy town would have ice cream parlors decked out in old fashioned faux-Victorian décor. He will find one, and he will lead Dean there. Though whether or not that will make Dean forgive him is another question.

"Ready for the road?" Dean asks as he eyes the bill. He flops out a twenty (drawn from Marvin Hinkle's account), and shifts himself from the booth seat. "Need to pee?" He asks Sam this without looking at him, and Sam feels the cold wind of how things might be if Dean continues being distant and polite.

"Yeah," he says.

He leaves Dean by the gumball machines and goes to the men's room to pee and wash up. He doesn't look at himself in the mirror, and sees only a glimpse of dark hair and the flair of the whites of his eyes, flickering past so fast they might as well as been someone else's eyes. By the time he gets outside, the Impala is rumbling right by the exit door, sleek and black against the pale grey cement and glittering beneath the rough, yellow overhead lights that flicker on and off in the growing storm.

Sam slides in to the passenger seat and shuts the door, wincing at the groan and creak that seems to have increased in the cold and altitude.

"We gonna make it?" asks Dean. He backs out of the parking lot, avoiding the semi trucks and other hazards with great care.

Sam doesn't look at the map; he's long since memorized it.

"Yeah," he says. "If the snow doesn't increase, we'll make it just fine. Two hours, maybe three, tops."

Dean backs up and slips over the bridge to meet up with I-70 and heads west. As the pale concrete stretches out in front of them, narrowing at a point far beyond Sam's ability to focus, Dean actually looks at him.

"Okay, gig. Snow ghost? What's the deal there?"

Sam slips Dad's journal from underneath the passenger seat, though really, he's memorized the information about the snow ghost as well as he's memorized the map. The long silences and endless miles are good for that, though they have left Sam feeling empty, and he knows he needs to do something with his hands. And maybe, in his own way, Dean knows that Sam needs to do something with his mouth (other than deliver a blow job) and this is his best excuse. And, as excuses go, it's one they can both agree on. At least dithering about the gig will be better than the vast silences that have filled the interior of the Impala all day.

Sam flattens the journal across his thighs, much as he had the map. His fingers trace the ink that Dad laid down years ago, and imagines he feels the oil from Dad's fingerprints from where they'd written the pattern of his thoughts. It occurs to Sam, all at once, that at the time, Dad hadn't expected to die, suddenly, like he did. And that, instead, he'd figured on chasing the demon that killed Mom, and in the meanwhile, would have figured out how a snow ghost worked and what to do to kill it, and then, in the end, made marks in his Yellowboy Carbine to mark how many people he had saved.

"The snow ghost," Sam says. He pauses to clear his throat, much as if he is telling a story. Because even if Dean doesn't like museums and placards and local history, he likes stories. "The snow ghost is an ancient Japanese legend, often referred to as Yuki Onna." Sam pauses again, and wonders if his Japanese pronunciation is correct, and then realizes that Dean doesn't care; he'll take Sam at his word and pronounce the name of the ghost the same way that Sam does, till the day he dies. Even if he is pissed at Sam.

"Some say it wanders looking for its lost child. Others say it wanders, searching for a lover who had gone off to war."

Sam pauses just as he is about to turn the page. He looks at the Japanese letters, and the sketch that Dad had made; his heart pangs a little. The drawing is good, done with quick, lively strokes. And it's proportional, too, he can even see the little geta sandals beneath the outlines of a ghostly ink kimono.

"So how'd we find this one?"

The question comes as a snap, but Sam knows that Dean is in his own zone, where he's putting together both what Sam is reciting, and what isn't even written down. Dad's journal doesn't say how he stumbled upon a Japanese snow ghost in the Rocky Mountains, but Sam's done extra research. And perhaps he's done this in anticipation of Dean's asking that very question, because in the knowing of what Dean will ask for, his desire is to give Dean what he wants and needs. But not sex, right? No, never that.

Sam swallows, and pulls out his print outs from the internet. He pretends to read them, keeping his eyes down. "I pulled some FBI files, they were getting reports of people in Nederland going missing in various blizzards."

"People do," says Dean, observationally. The tone of his voice is the one he uses when he's being devil's advocate for Sam. It's how they work, and Sam is glad to see it, even if Dean is totally disgusted with him now.

"Yes, but in a town like Nederland--" Sam trails off, wondering how to put this without obliterating the point. "At that elevation, people who live in the mountains know what a blizzard can do."

"Could be drunks," says Dean, in the same tone of voice that he used before.

"Yes," says Sam. He is trying to be patient, even as much as Dean is. It's how they work; the job has a way of pulling them together as they arrange all the pieces till they make sense. "The FBI got reports about people going missing every blizzard, and they thought the same thing. Drunks, transients, and so forth."

"What changed their mind? What made up yours?"

"A boy came back," Sam says. "One boy. He had a story about a woman wearing a white kimono and funny sandals, and how she told him he was so beautiful, she would let him go until he was grown up. And then told him to come back in ten years. The FBI thought he was bonkers, of course."

"Huh," says Dean.

Sam looks over. Dean's mouth is drawn thin. Sam wonders if he's thinking about beautiful boys, and whether his younger brother could be considered one of those, and Sam shuts his thoughts off so fast, he feels he might have snapped something in his brain.

"Well," says Dean now. He is comfortable in his seat, with both hands on the wheel. In less than three seconds he's going to reach for the volume to turn up the music, which, since morning, has been part of the silence. While he listens, he will mull over in his mind what Sam has and hasn't said. It isn't a question of not going to check it out, obviously they are already headed there. More, it's a question of what to do about it when they get there. Which, as Sam knew it would, becomes the next part of what Dean's thinking. So, not surprisingly, Dean asks, "We'll have to do research about how to beat the thing, how to kill it. How shall we go in?"

Sam knows what Dean means. FBI agents? Probably the townspeople have already been interviewed and summarily dismissed by the FBI and have had enough.

"Writers?" Sam asks. It's not Dean's favorite disguise; he doesn't read enough about writers to know how they behave. But Dean nods and Sam nods back. A town like Nederland, tucked away from the hustle and bustle, might open up more to a creative type than a suit from the city. "Writing a ghost story."

It might not come down to that level of detail, but it's always best to be prepared.

Dean nods and turns up the music, and Sam closes the journal and tucks it back under the passenger seat. The map, he carefully shuts and tucks in the side pocket. Until they reach their destination (the Sundance Lodge), his job is straightforward: get them there without too many wrong turns. Sam prides himself on no wrong turns, and the way the map looks, he will be successful this time around too. Other than that, his job is obvious: don't bring it up.

*

They hit Denver early enough to mostly beat the rush hour on the freeway, but by the time they're going through the thick traffic in Boulder, the snow has increased, coming down in thick, bullet-sized flakes that smack on the windshield and layer along the edges of the glass, packing into an ever-thickening layer of ice that simply doesn't melt. The snow is so dense that even at the start of the canyon heading up to Nederland, Dean is white knuckling it, and Sam is glaring out the window as if by the power of his vision he could get them a bit of blue sky to drive by. But the sky stubbornly remains a massive press of white and grey, and the road is slick with ice the whole way.

As they go higher in altitude, the sky comes lower and lower, boxing them in the high walls of the canyon, till finally they are a contained black dot, the Impala the only non-white or grey thing to be seen. There are no other cars.

After an hour of crazy, hairpin turns, and the ice covered rocks rising on either side of the road that is consistently on an increasing grade, everything flattens out. The walls of the canyon move back and there is a low flash of white and grey on the left side of the car, and as Sam looks he sees, under the boil of snow, the flat, almost pristine surface of Baker Reservoir, which, if the map is correct, means that they are almost there.

"Keep going," he says to Dean. He scrubs the back of his hand across his forehead to push away the ache there and remembers why they don't do mountain gigs very often. He and Dean are flatlanders, but while the road is just as wide here as anywhere else, the rocks looming up on one side and the sudden drop-off on the other gives his whole body some very clear signals. One spinout and they're dead.

The town is a haze of flickering lights as they approach, and it is later than they wanted it to be. As Sam sees the blinking warning light for the first intersection, another car passes them, going the other way. It is a small Honda, and its headlights are dim; there is no where for it to be heading than back down the canyon to Boulder. Sam thinks the driver is insane. That, or extremely used to the driving conditions of an early September blizzard.

Dean shakes his head. "Idiot."

Sam looks at the map in his lap. "Take your first left," he says. He was going to direct them to a motel a little out of town, the Sundance Lodge. But the snow is too thick and Dean has been driving too far in it; his fingers are white and there are lines on the side of his mouth. Sam is not willing to make Dean go further than he has to, even if the Lodge was one of those little mom and pop places Dean adores. "Take a--"

Dean slows down as he suddenly approaches a confusing little round-about. He looks at Sam.

"Go left," says Sam. "Circle left--there, 119, so left and left, and, now, go straight."

Dean goes carefully around the circle till Sam's finger is pointing straight, like a divining rod. They pass a Gasmat, with gas prices at four dollars, but it seems to be the only place in town. The snow is coming down so hard now, the wipers can't keep up.

Sam thinks about telling Dean to stop so he can clear the windshield with his bare hands, but he knows they are almost there.

"Just over the bridge," he says, "and then take your first left."

The Impala fishtails right in the middle of the bridge, and though Dean corrects the spin by turning into it, Sam can hear Dad in his head, bridges are always icier than the road on either side, so slow the fuck down. Sam knows Dean is worried about the paint job, the chrome fenders, but more, he is worried about taking them into the icy river below. Sam refrains from clutching anything; he stays calm so Dean has one less thing to worry about.

The spin straightens out and Sam can see the yellow and blue Best Western sign glowing through the snow. As Dean turns left into the snow-covered parking lot, he can see it too.

"Best Western?" Dean asks. He's not stopping, not correcting their course, but his voice says that Sam had better explain himself.

"We can't keep driving, Dean," Sam says. "Not in this weather." He wants to continue in this vein, to tell Dean he can see how tired he is, and maybe he could add how tired Sam is, how hungry they are, how dangerous it would be to insist on that mom and pop place further up the road. But he stops. He doesn't want to grind it in so hard that Dean resists on principle.

Dean pulls into the first available slot. The parking lot is only half full with cars humped up with snow, so it is likely that they will be able to get a room. As Dean turns off the engine, Sam digs through the box for their credit cards to find one that they don't use very often. He comes across Dean's lighter, the one he's had for years and couldn't find.

"Here," he says. "I found it."

Dean takes it, almost absently, his thumb smoothing the grime from the chrome edges. "Might as well get a nice room," he says. "We don't do this very often."

Which means that it's Sam's turn again to go in and pretend to be whoever the card says he is and get them a room close to an exit.

He knows Dean will check out the car, the undercarriage, the wheels, and hover over his baby while he calms down. He won't want Sam to see, but Sam sees anyway. As Sam walks up to the front door, he turns his head. Dean has one hand on the car, which is already thick with snow, and he is leaning slightly forward. Sam knows he is breathing hard, and trying to relax all the parts of his body that tightened up during the drive. It was supposed to have been three hours from Limon, it had been six, and they'd not even stopped for lunch.

He turns away from Dean and opens the door, putting his best, friendliest smile on.

The girl at the counter is helpful, and arranges a room, two queens, no smoking. She gives him two plastic keys in the little folder, with the room number written discreetly on the inside, so no passing rapist or mugger will be able to know which room they are in. Which, while Sam considers is a nice and dainty concession, completely ignores the fact that said rapist or mugger could easily follow someone to their room, making the discreteness a moot point. But he doesn't mention any of this to her; hotels get it in their mind that some little touch is a selling point, and he does not have the energy to overthrow marketing ploys.

"Are there places close to eat?" he asks. "Someplace we can walk to?"

"You're in luck," she says, brightly. She pushes a little map at him, sealed in plastic. The local eateries in the map are hand-numbered in bright red letters; their names and corresponding numbers are written on the side. Sam takes a moment to look at the map, and thinks about living a life so sedentary that you could take the time to make something like this, and update it as necessary. It is a life more suited to what he left behind at Stanford, but before he can go spinning off in that direction, he stops himself. It won't help anything, and Dean is starving.

Sam hears the double doors open behind him, and recognizes Dean's familiar pace, now muffled by the thick carpet.

"Something fast and hot and filling," he says now, as Dean comes to stand beside him, their shoulders almost touching.

"You are so in luck," she says. She points at the map. "Right across the street, and I mean right across. Backcountry Pizza."

"Perfect," says Dean.

Sam looks. Dean gives her his special just-the-two-of-us smile, which is reserved for women in their early twenties whose mothers have surely warned them about bad boys like Dean. The girl's eyelashes flutter in response; she probably doesn't even know she is doing it. Then duty calls, and the girl turns away to answer the phone. Dean doesn't look disappointed, it is just something he does, as if the reaction from the flirtee is of no consequence. Sam thinks that Dean had been doing this to Sam, that is, until he stopped.

It is a real hotel, and while the car is going to be miles away from where they are sleeping, there is no help for it. They walk without talking to the elevator. In the elevator, Dean hefts the duffle bags in one hand and hands Sam his backpack. Everything is coated with little black dots, from snow melting. Sam shoulders the backpack and as the elevator doors open, he leads the way to the room.

When he opens the door, the room is warm and clean and dry. Everything is new. Dean sighs as he dumps his stuff on the first bed, nearest the door. Sam doesn't argue with this, but he never does. It won't change anything, and he doesn't want to start a fight, even a little one.

Dean stands there for a minute, pressing his palms to his eyes, and Sam looks down to avoid Dean feeling Sam watching him. He notices that Dean's sneakers are soaked through. They never did get him new boots. Sam's feet are soaked through too, and he knows that Dad always said that an army needed good footwear.

"Maybe we can get us some new boots," Sam says. He opens his mouth to explain that Nederland is a jumping off point for all things mountany, so boots would surely be high on the list of things available to buy. But as Dean drops his hands to look at Sam, there are circles under his eyes, and he is beyond exhausted.

"I could bring pizza back," Sam says, thinking about how cold the pizza would get, even in the short passage of a street width.

"No," says Dean. "Just let me get some dry socks at least. And take a piss."

Sam nods and changes his own socks when Dean does, and looks out the window, pushing back the curtains to look at the snow still coming down. He waits for Dean to pee, for the flush of the toilet and the water running as Dean washes his hands. How many times have they done this, in rooms like this? Many, many times. Well, maybe not this far in the mountains, but yes. Many times.

Dean comes out of the bathroom, and Sam leads the way to the elevator, and then leads the way out the front door. The second they step outside, Sam takes a sharp breath of the thin air and tries to pull his jacket closer around him. It's obvious that their thin jackets are totally inadequate for the weather; even Dean's sturdy leather jacket is no match for the altitude and plummeting temperatures. The snow is now coming down in large flakes almost as big as the palm of his hand. He tries to look up, but the sky is too dark to see much and the flakes hit him in the eyes.

Dean grabs his arm and Sam blinks, looking at him through the curtain of snow. He looks at the snow dotting Dean's hair and at the white splotches on the leather on Dean's shoulders, and wonders if he'll ever be able to tell his brother how much he loves him.

"Come on, Mr. Wizard," says Dean.

They hustle across the street, even though there is no traffic. Sam is completely out of breath inside of two minutes at that pace, and thinks about the extra three thousand feet of elevation and wonders how it could affect him so hard. He doesn't say anything to Dean; he doesn't want to be teased, but then he sees that Dean is puffing a bit too, so it's probably affecting him as well. They keep walking across the parking lot where the snow is up to their ankles, though Sam doesn't think anyone will be plowing soon. How do people get around? Snowshoes?

Dean is first at the door, and he opens it for Sam with a wave. It's such a Dean thing to do, making fun of everything, maybe Dean's forgotten he's mad.

As Sam crosses the threshold, the warmth and the smell of garlic whaps him in the face, along with other spices, and oil, and beer. The people are all dressed in thick jeans and flannel and there are piles of down coats everywhere. There are booths along the left wall and a bar along the right. There is only one booth open and Sam snags it, grabbing the menu to look at as he sits down. Across from him, Dean does the same. They take off their jackets and tuck them on the seats. It is a good feeling to finally sit at last, to not be moving. To be safe and still and warm, with the promise of food on the way. Hot showers later. A bed. Clean sheets. Darkness.

Sam looks at Dean over the edges of his menu, as he has all of his life, to check how Dean is doing. Dean hates it when Sam fusses, but Sam figures he's got reason to fuss a little bit. And he wants Dean to tell him it will be okay, that they'll go on as they always have. But maybe Sam doesn't want to. Would it matter if they didn't? How would that change them? Would it?

"Supreme," says Dean.

Sam looks at the menu, distracted. "No peppers," he reminds Dean.

"Tell them, then. And add extra cheese."

This means that the ordering is Sam's job, this time around. He looks at the huge list of beer. He doesn't know beer from Adam and usually just gets what Dean gets.

"A pitcher?" Sam asks.

Dean puts his menu down "Yeah. You pick. Ask 'em what's good local." Dean never lets Sam pick the beer, and Sam knows now, if he'd not known before, just how tired Dean is. But maybe a local beer might replace staying at a locally run motel. It's not that Dean is particularly civic minded, more, it has to do with the fact that Dean feels more comfortable staying at the little places that are under the radar,

A waiter comes up. His hair is clean and shiny and longer than a girl's. Sam watches as Dean gives the guy his special just-the-two-of-us smile, and Sam wonders if it's the hair, more than the gender.

The guy doesn't seem to notice. He's looking at Sam, as if he knows Sam's on deck to do the ordering. Sam orders the Supreme pizza without peppers, with extra cheese, and a pitcher of beer.

"What's good for local beer?" he asks.

"Oh, any of them," the waiter says. "But we only do pitchers of draft. If you want local, it comes by the bottle. Try the Blue Moon."

"That sounds good. Two Blue Moons."

As the waiter goes away with their order, Dean is looking at Sam. The warm air has brought a flush to Dean's cheeks, and his eyes are that dark shade of green they get when he's tired. Sam thinks he's going to have a hard time if his mind insists on going there every time they sit down to eat.

Dean, apparently unaware, says, "That's going to cost a pretty penny, fancy beer like that by the bottle. We could have just gotten the Bud."

Sam knows Dean doesn't really mind. He's tired and is only bitching to keep in practice. After all, the credit card will pick up the tab.

*

The pizza is cheesy and garlicky, and while it is nothing to write home about, at least it is filling. The beer is too fancy for Dean's taste, after he finishes the bottle of Blue Moon only halfway, he switches to Bud. Sam finishes all the Blue Moon on the table and orders more. Between them, they polish of six beers and all the pizza.

There is grease on Sam's fingers and he licks it off. Then he realizes that Dean is watching him, eyes flickering in the overhead lights. Sam shrugs and pulls his hand away. How does a person apologize for something like that, and how could he never not lick his fingers again? He can't. And when is it, exactly, that they are going to go on like they always do?

"I'm full," says Dean. He wipes his hands on a crumpled napkin as if to show Sam how it's done. As if to say, you don't lick your fingers in front of your brother, because the last time you licked something, it was his dick.

Since the waiter is no where to be found, Dean goes up to the bar to pay. Sam pulls on his jacket and waits for Dean at the booth, and then follows Dean out the door.

The thinness of his jacket feels even thinner on the return trip across the street to the motel. The snow is still coming down, as it has for the whole day, just the same thickness and intensity. Except for the lights streaming from the Best Western's parking lot, everything is very dark. Sam is no pioneer; he can admire anyone who would come up here to start a town back in the days when they only had candles to light their way. Or maybe they had gas lamps, he's not sure.

Once back in the room, the door locked and secured behind them, Dean starts taking off everything that is wet. Which means everything, shoes, socks, jeans, flannel shirt, t-shirt, everything. Sam does the same. Standing there in boxers and t-shirt is chilly, even though the heat is on. He figures he'll warm up soon, now that his damp clothes are off. He pulls open the curtain to watch the falling snow flicker in the streetlights, and the vanishing dark beyond. There is a swath of darkness that cuts between the lights of the houses and buildings on the other side, so he thinks they are in a room overlooking a river, much like they did in the room in Mammoth Spring. Sam clenches his stomach; he wishes he'd not thought of that.

"Next time," says Dean behind him. "We're going to the coast. None of this snow shit."

Sam agrees but doesn't say anything. Instead he turns on the TV, and listens while Dean rustles up something dry to sleep in and then heads into the shower.

Sam looks through his backpack, but can't find the paperback book on witch hunts in early Salem. He finds the one on Revolutionary war ghosts, and his notes besides, but as he picks up the book, it feels dull in his hand, and he's already read it twice. So he puts it away, and pulls back the covers to slip under them. Figuring to brush his teeth and wash his face later, he uses the clicker to flip through channels and finds something on Discovery about lighthouses. This is good, lighthouses are always on the coast, so maybe Dean will agree that they can watch it.

When Dean comes out, Sam looks up. Dean has sweats and a long sleeved t-shirt on, as if he wants to be bundled up as possible, in case any snow drifts start coming into their room. He gives the TV a glance and then rolls his eyes. But he doesn't say anything as he climbs into bed.

Sam feels as if he's won this round, but maybe he doesn't want to win it. Maybe he wants Dean to bitch at him about the Discovery channel, and then he could bitch back about the value of learning. And through the argument that would follow, now that they were dry and fed and not on the road anymore, they can get back to the place where they used to be.

"Here," he says. He tosses the clicker onto Dean's bed. It lands between Dean's thighs, and Sam makes himself look away and focus on the TV.

Without a word, Dean starts clicking. He goes up, hits some sports channels and news channels, and then, he comes back down. He ends up on the Discovery channel again, just as lighthouses changes to sharks.

"Sharks are good," Dean says. He puts the clicker down.

Sam looks at the clock. It is nine o'clock and he feels like he's been up for days.

"I'm going to--" He turns away and slips down in the bed, completely forgetting about teeth and face. His head feels like it is filled with stones, and he pulls up the covers and lets his neck relax.

The TV rumbles on without him. He can hear Dean slowly breathing. Within ten minutes, the TV is shut off and the lights go off too. Dean rustles under the bedcovers, and when the silence settles, Sam can hear snow hitting the window.

"You want me to shut them?" he asks.

"No," says Dean. "I'm good."

Sam thinks that Dean is listening to the snow hit the window, too.

Brothers in the Snow

The first thing they do after breakfast, which was passable at best, is hoof it on over to the main drag where the shops are. Dean refuses to drive the car through the snowy streets, and Sam doesn't blame him for that. The snow comes up to their ankles, and while at least it's stopped snowing, no one has plowed the roads. The sun actually comes out while they walk as briskly as they can along the sidewalk, but it doesn't seem to warm them. Sam thinks they probably look like idiots to the cars driving by, wearing sneakers and windbreakers; everyone he sees is dressed with thick down coats and wool hats like they're ready for the North Pole.

"I am fucking freezing," says Dean.

Sam nods in agreement, but his lips are too numb to speak. He's got his hands jammed so far into his jacket pockets that his clenched fists meet. He is soaked from the knee down. The air is thin and sharp, and Sam still can't breathe fully. He doesn't want to tell Dean, or maybe he should tell Dean so Dean can tease him about being such a wimp and--

"And I can't feel my feet, now. Swear to god, Sam--"

Dean's teeth are clicking together too fast for him to get any more words out, but Sam can pretty much finish what Dean wants to say, because he himself is agreeing: no more mountain gigs in winter. End of story.

Gratefully, they stumble on to 2nd street, where storekeepers have done them the blissful favor of shoveling the walks. But now that they are aligned with the canyon leading up into the mountains so the wind picks up and flings errant snow in their faces. Sam's jeans flap in icy sheets against his legs.

Sam scans the signs as fast as he can, and briskly opens the door to the first store that looks the least bit mountany. He hits the jackpot. The entire store is filled with an array of boots and down jackets and woolen socks and hats, and blessed, blessed gloves.

A clerk comes over to them right away. He's got a flannel shirt on and khaki pants with a billion pockets. He looks warm, to boot, and Sam hates him on principle.

"You boys from out of town?" the clerk asks, and there is a smirk in his voice as well as on his face.

"Damn right," says Dean. "I wouldn't be caught dead living in this freezing hellhole."

Sam chuffs him across the back of the head without thinking, and if Dean's head hurts as much as Sam's hand stings, it's nothing more than either of them deserve for being stupid enough to not be more prepared.

He flexes his hands to warm them and gives the clerk his best smile. "We're from Florida," he explains. "And were just in the area visiting our aunt, and we need jackets--"

"And boots," Dean adds.

"Yes, and boots, and gloves and--" Sam pauses as he tries to think of warm things that they'll need. Even if they're only going to be in town for another day or two, if they're hunting down a snow ghost, and there's no point in getting frostbite.

"And you'll need some warm socks," the clerk adds helpfully. "If you're going to do any hiking at all, you're going to need woolen socks."

"Fine," says Sam. "Can you set us up?" He doesn't care what the clerk thinks their goal is; hiking is as good a lie as anything else and he marvels at the easy way that most people fill in the blanks on their own.

The clerk might be too snotty for Sam's tastes, but he does seem to know what they need. Or at least he acts like what he's bringing out to them is what they need, and that they'll be at great risk if they don't purchase exactly everything that he's suggesting.

"Here's a coat for all occasions. Definitely everything needs to be able to handle 30 below zero," says the clerk. His name is Steve, according to his nametag. "You don't want to risk a sudden blizzard, now, do you."

"Like yesterday?" asks Dean. Sam can tell he's trying to be snide, but the clerk is oblivious.

"That?" asks Steve. "Just an early warning system mother nature gives us to alert us to what's to come. It's going to be a long, hard winter, gentlemen, and if you want to set foot outside at all, I recommend 100% down. Pure goose down filled jackets and nothing less."

If they were fish, they'd be caught hook, line and sinker. Sam knows he is. The down jacket Steve pushes at him looks warm even before he puts it on. It is rated to about a zillion below zero, has inside and outside pockets, zippered up everything, and, best of all, a hood that snaps in the front, right under his chin. The last coat Sam had with a hood with a chin snap was from a Christmas barrel when he was ten. That coat had been mud brown. This one is dark, forest green. When he's all zippered and snapped up, he sticks his hand in the pocket and feels the clean, grit free bottom. Everything smells like packing plastic and he's warm for the first time since Mammoth Spring.

He smiles at Dean. Who, surprisingly, smiles back.

"You want it?" asks Dean. "Then buy it."

Dean's tone is indulgent, but then why should he care? The money isn't coming out of his pocket or Sam's. Sam hopes he remembers to pull out the right credit card when it comes time to pay.

Steve brings out another down jacket; this one is blue and has no hood. Without being asked, he helps Dean out of his leather jacket and puts the blue down one on him. Dean raises his eyebrows at Sam, but lets Steve do his thing. Sam thinks the blue looks good on Dean and wishes he wasn't thinking it.

Sam waits till Dean puts his hands in the pockets. "See?" he says, nodding. "Clean pockets, when was the last time you--"

"Knock it off, Sam," says Dean, cutting in to Sam's good mood. "It's just a coat."

Undeterred, Steve leaves them and brings back more outdoor gear, which he flops in a pile in front of them.

"You need everything," he says. "From socks and boots, to mittens and ear warmers. Let's start with you trying on these gaters." He shoves Dean into a chair and fits the gaters over Dean's sneakers, making loud snaps with the elastic.

"What are they for?" asks Sam.

"To keep snow from getting into your boots," says Steve. "It's important to keep your feet dry when hiking in snow."

Sam doesn't recall telling Steve that they'd be doing any hiking at all, but it doesn't matter. If Steve is talking, he won't be asking them about their mythical aunt, nor asking them where the last place they hiked was. Sam's sure a salt and burn along the banks of the Canadian river at sunset will not count. Nor will it impress Steve overly much to be informed that Sam gave his brother Dean a blow job after they came back from the river. Would it matter if he let Steve know that Dean let him? Sam's suddenly sure that Dean did, even if it was only for a second, when Dean turned off the light. He's not sure if it makes Dean pissed-off state less justifiable or not.

Sam is sweating so he takes off the down coat. "I'll take that," he says, as he lays it on a chair. "How about you, Dean, you want the blue one you have on?"

Dean nods and squirms in his seat as he takes it off. Sam takes pity on him and helps him out of it, and the blue coat joins the green one.

Steve selects socks for them, and thick gloves, and adds them to the pile, pretty much without asking if they really want them. Then he brings over several large boxes, which he lays at Dean's feet, like a sacrificial offering. He slips off the gaiters without being asked, and opens the first box, which he presents to Dean on a flat palm like he was serving up something rare on a silver platter.

But the boots are pretty cool, even Sam can see that. They're the color of buckskin, and have striped laces and a little bit of green cloth beneath the leather, just where the boot curves up from the laces. The soles are thick, but the boots look light, like you could run like a nimble deer across the rocks in them. From Dean's indrawn breath, Sam knows Dean thinks the same. He even traces his finger along the side, lingering across the softness.

"Would you like to be alone with those?" Sam asks, joking, and instantly wishes he hadn't. Dean curls his fingers back into a fist, and puts his hand in his lap.

"Do you have any, uh, basic black boots?" Dean's voice is flat and he doesn't look up at Sam. "I can't want these."

"Sure," says Steve. "But these are flexible and waterproof, made of the finest nubuck leather, you really can't go wrong if you break them in slowly and--"

"Just bring the black ones, okay?"

The tightness of Dean's voice almost breaks Sam's heart. The boots beneath Dean's fingers are still touching the leather, but in the Winchester world there is only enough room in the Impala for the basics, and extra pairs of boots, no matter how flexible or watertight or just damn cool looking, just don't matter.

Sam turns away. He can't really bear to watch this part.

*

They discuss the case over lunch, and determine that since there's so much snow, they're likely to be able to find the Yukki Onna.

"But nothing in the lore says how to destroy it," says Sam. His pork loin sandwich is good, but what he really wants to do is put on his coat and go outside and maybe get Dean to throw snowballs or make a snow fort like they used to do when they were kids. Anything to cheer him up.

"How does anyone get away from it then?" Dean asks. He's shoveling chili into his mouth like he's not eaten in days. Sam can't stand to watch Dean slurp up the bits of stewed tomatoes, so he concentrates on poking the lettuce back into place beneath the toasted slice of thick bread. Thinks about how the mayonnaise tastes homemade.

"I'm not sure," says Sam. "Sometimes the victim makes a deal to return in ten years, and if they're faithful, the Yukki Onna just lets them go. In other stories, she just lets the victim go because she's grown a soft heart."

"Like the Grinch."

Sam can feel his face scrunching up in a frown. "What on earth does the Grinch have to do with a snow ghost?" he asks. Sometimes Dean comes up with the weirdest ideas.

"You know," says Dean, waving his spoon around. "His heart grew ten sizes that day? Never mind."

Sam looks out the window. The room café is pleasantly warm and the blue sky and sunlight on the snow-covered mountains is pretty to look at. "I think I need to do some more research," says Sam. Which he figures will keep him on track and not thinking thoughts he shouldn't be thinking.

*

When they get back to the room after lunch, they are wearing everything they bought and are not even the least bit cold, even though it's started snowing again. Sam puts down the shopping bag with their thin, not-suited-to-blizzard clothes, and starts to take off his thick, new jacket. Dean does the same and tosses the blue down jacket on the bed. Sam wonders if after they go back down to the plains, if he'll ever need his down jacket again, or if he'll have to give it to goodwill or something to make room in the Impala for something they really need.

As Sam sits down to unlace his new boots, Dean reaches for the bag, and starts pulling out his leather jacket, which is so seasoned that there aren't even any crease in it as he unrolls it. Which Sam is glad to see, otherwise, he'd never hear the end of it.

Sam's concentrating on his new laces, feeling the satisfying thickness beneath his fingers, when he hears Dean rattle in the bag some more.

"God damnit, Sam!"

Sam looks up. "What?"

Dean yanks a large shoe box out of the bag; damp socks and ratty sneakers roll across the bed unheeded. He pulls out the nubuck boots and holds them up as if they were a bloody and dismembered head. "What the fuck are these?"

"Boots?" Sam asks, trying for humor.

"I have boots," says Dean. "They're on my feet. Do you see them?"

Sam looks down. Dean is wearing his new boots; they are basic black, army-style boots with a thick sole.

"But you liked them." Sam says his and bites his lip. He wants to make it up to Dean in so many ways, and he thought this was a good way. "I saw you."

Well," says Dean. He slams the boots back in the huge box. "You shouldn't have been watching."

Obviously, Dean wanted the boots, but he won't let himself have them. And it's not because of how much they cost, Sam knows. Instead, it is the idea of luxury, which is not allowed, especially not for Dean. At least not in Dean's mind. Maybe if Sam'd gotten himself an extra pair of boots, in the same, soft deer-hide color, then Dean might have said yes to a pair for himself.

But now Dean puts the boots back in the box and after dumping everything else on the floor, puts the box back in the bag. Then he holds out his hand. "Receipt. Now."

Sam fumbles through his pocket and hands over the receipt and credit card. Dean's in no mood, and Sam can't hold him up.

Dean shoves the credit card and receipt in his pocket and bundles up in the new coat he agreed to buy. Even if he doesn't seem as taken with his coat as Sam is with his, at least it's thick and warm and he won't freeze while he stomps through the snow back to the store to yell at Steve for letting his brother buy untoward things. Dean zips and snaps so fast, it's a wonder the closings don't break.

"I'm taking this back," he says. "And then we need to be ready to go hunting, because it's supposed to snow again." And all this around the words he doesn't say. Things to Sam and about Sam and drives in the mountains and closeness they can't share. At least, that's what Sam imagines Dean is thinking. With his face all closed off like it is, there's no way of telling.

The door slams behind Dean as he stomps out of the room. A sudden wind whips snow from the trees to splat against the window, and then Sam listens to the silence fill the room, even as he can hear the elevator doors pinging to announce the arrival of a car to take Dean well out of range of his stupid little brother. Sam is sure that Dean is never going to forgive him. He's also sure that Dean is never going to touch him like that again.

To distract himself, he spends the time poking around on the internet, trying to find more information on their quarry. For a time he confuses Yukki Onna with the Yama Uba, who can be destroyed by killing a special flower. But for the Yuki Onna, there is no fallibility, at least nothing that the internet can tell him.

There are legends of her letting young and beautiful boys go, or being kind for the sake of a child, but that's it. If he reads between the lines, which he does because he is good at it, the Yuki Onna can be turned back with the power of love. It has to be that, otherwise, why would she be reported as being so gentle to children. But what shape would that love come in?

Outside the window, the wind picks up and starts slapping snow on the glass. It's snowing again. Sam flicks on the news to make sure, and yes, another blizzard is on the way. Sam goes to look out the window.

The clouds are coming down the side of the mountain without so much as a by your leave, and Dean is not back. If Dean has wandered off to a bar after returning the boots, then fine. He could have called, but he hasn't. Sam doesn't think Dean has just decided to take up snow hiking as a sport, either, so he figures he will track Dean down. Just because the snow has now covered up all of Dean's tracks, metaphorical and otherwise, shouldn't matter. He's a Winchester, right? He has been raised to track a snow cube in a snowstorm. Finding one brother in a town with about 10 bars should be a cakewalk for him.

He pulls on a pair of thick woolen socks, and lovingly, slowly, he puts on and laces his boots. His feet feel solid and capable enough to climb any mountain at this point. Then he pulls on his jacket. They'd not gotten gloves, but that's okay, he can keep his hands in his pockets. He snaps the hood snuggly beneath his chin; he is in love with this coat.

As he walks through the hotel and the lobby, the coat is overly warm, but once he sets foot outside, it is perfect. His nose is nipped by the cold, but the rest of him feels as warm as if he were in front of a fire. Snow comes down in big lacy flakes that are pretty at first, but then they start to get into his eyes, and he mutters under his breath about stupid older brothers.

He checks out the mountaineer store, first, and yes, Steve assures him that Dean did come buy, and sadly returned the boots that were so suitable for him. Alas, Steve can't remember how long that was.

He's overly warm in the store, and Steve is of no use, so Sam steps outside, and thinks he sees Dean, going around the corner of a building, like he's headed back to the motel. But when Sam gets to the corner, the figure, dressed in what looks exactly like Dean's new dark navy down coat, is way ahead of him, and in fact is almost at the bridge right before the motel. How can Dean walk so fast?

Sam calls out as loud as he can. "Dean!" The wind and snow whap him in the face, and for a second, he thinks that Dean didn't hear him. Then, the figure stops and turns, and yes, it is Dean. It has to be, otherwise why would he have stopped? Sam hurries to catch up, which in his new coat and boots, is warm work. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and keeps his head low to keep the snow out of his eyes.

Then he looks up to see Dean leave the road just after the bridge and head north along the frozen river. The path has to be snowy, if there is a path, and Sam runs to catch up. His breath whistles in his lungs; they might both be outfitted for the Arctic, but neither one of them has much training at high altitudes.

Dean is ahead of Sam on the path that heads along the river that goes up a ravine and further into the mountains. But as fast as Sam walks, whenever he gets close, Dean skirts ahead and vanishes amongst the snow covered trees that grow along the banks of ice. It's a good thing Dean's coat is dark because with the snow swirling around and coating everything else, the coat sticks out.

Now he is hiking; Steve would be so pleased. Sam tries to keep his eyes on Dean, but the snow is thick and the trees all look alike, and he looses him. But he keeps going. Every once in a while, Sam looks down, but if he thinks he sees tracks they are quickly obliterated by the snow. Snow sticks to his eyelashes. He pulls down his sleeves to cover his hands. His hands are red and freezing, but he can't keep his hands in his pockets because he needs to use them for balance. He can't imagine Dean is that mad at him, not to wander off in the snow and not slow down, because he can see Sam is right behind him. Right? Can't he just wait up a damn minute?

Sam keeps hustling and the air gets thinner and colder, burning his throat as he slips across icy rocks, trying to stick to the clearest path, trying to follow Dean's tracks. The river is frozen over, but there are breaks where the water flows underneath with sharp, crackly gurgles. The snow fills the air with a low hum, bringing down the breath of the mountain. Everything is white. The trees are so thick with snow they are leaning towards him.

Along the trail there is a dash of dark brown where a tree root has been pushed up, and there is a blank space as wide as a footprint. As if someone had stepped on it for leverage, trying to make a way through the trees and off the path. Which is a stupid thing to do, blizzard or no. Neither he nor Dean has much mountain experience, let alone in a blizzard. Dean should know better.

The narrow track of footprints is laced with stones, and Sam slips to his knees. His hands smack hard against the stones under the snow. He scrambles to his feet, sucking his stinging hands that are raw with cold. Panic rises in his chest. He has to find Dean and Dean has to forgive him so they can go on as they always have. But what if he can't? He feels like crying; hot and helpless tears sting in his eyes. They are the only part of him that is warm.

He makes himself keep going, not sure when he should give up and turn back and call for the park ranger or whoever does rescues in the middle of blizzards. Then he sees the mouth of a cave. The tracks lead there. Of course it's a cave that Dean has led him to. A cave would be a nice and private place for the fight that has been brewing since Mammoth Spring. And Canadian.

Sam hasn't touched Dean since then, not even in a brotherly way, nor gotten so much as a real smile. But it's not Sam's fault. Not all of it. Besides, Dean had said I can't want it about the boots, which he had wanted, in the same way he'd said it to Sam. So maybe he did want.

There is movement in the cave. Sam peers in, wishing he had a flashlight. There is a flurry of white and red, and Sam is slammed to the floor, on his back, looking up at something so soft, he almost imagines he imagines it. Dark hair spills over his face as hands undo the zipper on his jacket, the snap at his chin, and slip ice cold fingers against his ribs.

"You wanted me," says a voice, as thin as a whisper. "I led you here. You came."

Sam makes himself concentrate though his head is pounding. This is definitely not Dean. He squints into the shadows. The thing has long dark hair and a face as white as iced paper. It has red lips and there is a band of red around its neck.

With a bolt of shock, he realizes he has found the Yukki Onna. But then, she has found him, too. She was waiting for him, and laid this trap. She draws him close, and he can feel the frost forming on his cheeks where her breath is misting, feel the claw of ice against his ribs. He feels the heat easing away to be replaced by glacial cold. She leans down to kiss him on the forehead, the way a mother would, and gently presses her cheek to his. Then she pulls back and smiles.

"You are beautiful."

Her breath comes out as crystals that hang white in the air before falling on his face like tiny snowflakes, freezing his skin where they fall. She has him. He is in her arms and she is draining him of warmth and light, and he lets her. Not that he doesn't want to fight, he is a fighter, a warrior trained since birth. But he can't move, and part of him feels eager to move into the cold embrace and he wishes. He wishes he could feel his feet, tucked inside his cool new boots and that his new green coat wasn't getting ripped up and ground against the rocks. And, oh, he wishes, he could say goodbye to Dean.

Then he wonders if she is wearing those little sandals like she was in Dad's drawing. He squirms a bit in her arms, he just wants to see how accurate Dad was, but she holds him fast and it is then he realizes that he's in big trouble. He never was following Dean, who is probably back at the hotel right now. Bitching about fancy Best Westerns and little brothers who don't have the sense to stay home in bad weather.

Sam's tracks will have been wiped out by the snowfall. There is no way that Dean will know where he is. But worse, he has misinterpreted the lore about the Yukki Onna; yes, she's probably the ghost of a woman lost in the snow, but maybe she's something more. Maybe she collects the souls of people like him, who have lost at love and can't try again. Or something. His head feels muddled and his vision is going fuzzy.

He hears Dean's voice calling for him. Calling to say goodbye, probably, in a ghostly way, like it always is in his dreams. But the calling is loud, and breaking on the edge of panic. It is a voice that Dean uses when no power on earth will stop him from getting to his little brother. Even if he's pissed at Sam, his first and last order of business of every single day is keeping Sam safe.

Of course this is all in Sam's head, that Dean still loves him enough in spite of the blowjob. In spite of the obvious way Sam had liked it and how he licked his fingers at the pizza place. And that maybe, in spite of it all, Dean will forgive him this and save him from dying by frostbite.

There is a flicker of light. Sam turns his head, and there, standing at the black mouth of a cave, in a blizzard, holding up the lighter that Sam found for him is Dean. His legs are braced wide against the blowing blizzard he has walked through to find his brother.

The Yukki Onna starts, shifting Sam in her arms. He feels stiff and frozen enough to break and sure enough something snaps. It might be a rib, brittle from frost. It's going to hurt when he thaws out. If he ever does. He squints at the lighter and the flickering flame and the fall of snow behind it.

"Get away from him, bitch," says Dean in that voice that indicates that he expects to be instantly obeyed.

"You didn't want him," says Yukki Onna. "You cast him aside. He is mine."

"No, he's not," says Dean, without pausing.

"I saw you," she says. Her voices hisses like snow falling on rocks. "You pushed him away, his love, his gifts. You don't deserve him."

It is the wrong thing to say, because if there is anything Dean thinks he doesn't deserve in the world, it is the thing he wants.

Dean says nothing. The flame from the lighter dances in the wind as it swirls into the cave, bringing a layer of snow. Dean is a black outline. Sam can only see the side of his face, the glint of one eye. And he can see that Dean is hesitating.

Sam knows that there is never any hesitation in Dean about anything that Sam wants. If he wants it, it is his. If Sam had bought new boots, extra boots, made of mouthwateringly soft deer hide, for himself, there would have been no question. Dean would have teased him and called him princess, but there would have been no question that he could keep them.

But not so for Dean. He doesn't deserve extra anything, at least in his own mind. And Sam thinks maybe he's figured part of it out. It is the wanting that made the denial. The hesitation is because Dean wants this.

If Sam had pressed the issue after the blow job, well, maybe it would have been different. But that might have made it worse, somehow, because if Dean had responded a second time because Sam wanted it, then that would have been wrong. Dean had to want it because he wanted it. Sam wished he'd figured this out before he was at death's door. Dying by degrees from hypothermia and frostbite in the arms of the very ghost they'd been hunting.

Sam is so cold he's stopped shivering. If he could feel any part of him, he knows that his blood is slowing, slowing, and that any colder and very quickly now there will be no bringing him back. He is no six year old to miraculously survive even five minutes in sub-zero temperatures. He is Sam, and he is lying in the arms of a Yukki Onna, and his brother is saying nothing.

He wants to turn away, but he can't even move. His eyes flicker up to the Yukki Onna. She is beautiful and white as death and her eyes glitter like sharp pinpricks. Her mouth curves into a smile, red as blood against the snow, and with an ice-cold finger she pushes an errant lock of hair from Sam's forehead. He can't even feel that.

"He is beautiful," says the Yukki Onna. She is looking at Sam with that secret, stiff smile. Sam looks back at her and thinks that this is not such a bad way to die. There is no running, no terror, just a calm, icy sleepiness that is stealing over him.

"He is beautiful and young and I want to keep him."

Her voice is as thin as crystal and Sam can almost see the ice shards falling from it. And he thinks that he would nod if he could. He would want to be kept by someone who thinks he is beautiful. He is not beautiful to Dean. He is dorky and scraggly, his hair is not long, and though Dean calls him princess, he is not girly in any way. There is nothing for Dean to love. Not like that. Better to go off with a ghost with the red smile and be loved.

"You can't," says Dean. His voice cracks with cold.

"Then," the Yukki Onna says as she looks away from Sam and up at Dean. "If you want him, then you must take him from me."

Sam can see the flame in Dean's hand jerk as the challenge hits him. There is want and there is take, and when it is for himself, that is what Dean never does. Getting something for himself, simply because he wants it. The hesitation almost breaks Sam's heart, but then, he will soon be dead and Dean will have to mourn in his own way. The cave seems to darken around him, the light is going out, maybe this is what death feels like.

But the light is coming closer, golden and yellow and red, smelling faintly of butane and burnt air. There is flame, shining in Dean's hand and in his green eyes, reflecting off his skin that is pink and red from cold. There are strands in Dean's hair that are as golden as remembered sunlight.

"You must take him," she says.

For a second, Sam thinks that Dean already has him in his arms, that this is the love that Sam read between the lines. Love could take you back from the arms of death, like this, like Dean is doing.

Dean kneels down, close to Sam. He shifts the lighter to his right hand, and reaches into the cold that is Yukki Onna and takes Sam from her with one strong pull. He shifts Sam's shoulders to rest on Dean's knees. They are warmer than the Yukki Onna, so warm they feel like fire beneath Sam's skin. Soaking into him.

Beneath his legs, the Yukki Onna's icy kimono is still drawing his heat away. Beneath his shoulders, there is Dean's fire, like in a hearth. Like home would be. Dean holds the lighter up high. The light curves like a halo around his head. He bends close, his breath touching Sam's face, warming it like sunlight. He whispers something against Sam's lips, and Sam feels that part of him start to thaw. All the parts that are touching Dean are thawing, but there is one spot, under his left hip that the ghost still has. Sam wants to turn into Dean's body, to fling himself across Dean's thighs and soak up all that heat. But he still can't move.

"Tell him," says Yukki Onna. "Otherwise, I will keep him for my own."

Sam wants to open his mouth, to tell Dean it is alright. Dean came for him, he tried, that's what matters.

Dean takes a deep breath, and Sam can see the green in his eyes, emeralds with fire in them, and knows he is delirious with cold for seeing it like that.

Dean's mouth is on Sam's, dry from the cold, and chapped. But warm. And he is talking. Sam does his best to focus. "--go on like we always do, like I said, like I promised."

Sam's eyes are wide now, and staring at Dean. He is thawing, even the part that is still touching the ghost.

"And it was okay, what we--I just couldn't. You know. I just couldn't. But I--"

But I want to. Sam fills in the blanks of what Dean is not saying, like he has his whole life. He tries to shift his head so that he can touch Dean's mouth with his own, but all he can manage is a stiff, jerky movement. And Dean, like he has his whole life, reads Sam's body, knows what he wants. Reads the tiny movement for what it is. And wants it right back.

Sam feels Dean's lips on his. Soft, oh, so soft. And warm, heat rising from a fire, gently. Dean's breath streaming over Sam's face, his chin. Delicious and sweet, and Sam can move his head enough to press back, to touch with his tongue and taste Dean's salt.

Beneath him, the floor grows harder and colder as the icy cushion of the Yukki Onna's lap begins to melt away. Now there is no ghost. Now there are only stones and the hard cold floor. And there is Dean. Dean. Dean's arms and the bony edges of his knees. As Sam thaws, he begins to shake. His hands reach for Dean's coat, and pulls him close.

Dean snaps the lighter shut and shoves it into his coat pocket. He cradles Sam's head in his and looks him right in the eye. "Promise me," he says. "Promise me."

"Like we always do," Sam manages between chattering teeth. His stomach is swirling, bringing the nausea up his throat. He knows he is still dangerously cold and they still have to get back down the mountain. "Always do."

That's enough for Dean. The softness is buried beneath his skin as he stands up and hauls Sam to his feet. As he stands there, Dean runs his hands all over Sam's body, wherever he can reach.

"You're cold," he says, announcing this as if Sam were completely unaware of it. "But you're shivering, so that's good. Keep shivering."

Sam nods, feeling sick and off balance. But when Dean circles his arm around Sam's back and tugs him in the direction of the mouth of the cave, Sam follows where Dean leads him, right into the swirling snow.

*

The hike down the mountain takes twice as long as the hike up the mountain. Sam stumbles often and almost pulls Dean down with him once or twice. But Dean is like a rock, and keeps them walking, almost at a marching pace. Their new boots hold up well, though the snow gets down Dean's collar, and Sam's coat feels as thin as paper. But the hotel is quickly in sight, and Sam feels even more appreciation for those pioneers, for living through this kind of weather in thin miner's shacks without central heating.

Dean swings open the glass doors and they march across the lobby to the elevator without even pausing. But this is Nederland and snow-covered hikers returning safe from their jaunt on the mountain are old news. Sam feels like he's stepped into a furnace and can't wait to get his coat off. Dean hustles them into the elevator, and then out again when they reach their floor.

The second the door is shut and locked behind them, Dean starts taking off everything that is wet. But he starts with Sam. He peels him from head to toe, till Sam is standing there shivering, naked and sleek in snow-damp skin. Then Dean shoves him into the bed nearest the door. Dean's bed. Sam knows this, but doesn't say anything. His teeth are clattering too hard to speak anyway. Dean cranks up the heat, and then peels off his clothes. He does this so fast, Sam can hardly breathe before Dean is bare to the warmth of the room.

Then he slips into the bed beside Sam. They are skin to skin, and Dean feels like warm silk. His hands are all over Sam, slipping and moving and caressing. Dean's breath fills the space beneath the blankets and the sheets, and he pulls Sam to him. Their knees touch, their thighs press and the cold starts to fade away. It still jags through Sam's chest, until Dean takes his hands and presses Sam's chest to his. He tucks Sam's head in the curve of his neck. Warmth seeps into Sam. His shudders begin to fade, and fast-twitching muscles respond to the heat.

"Sleep now, Sammy," says Dean. His voice is the one that Sam only hears when it is dark and they are in a place where no one else can hear them, not even Dad. It is soft and gentle and Sam knows if he were to ever tell Dean about this particular tone, let alone tease him, it will be the very last time he hears it.

So instead, he presses down, and lets the length of his body sag against Dean. He wants to hear the tone again, though, before he falls to sleep.

"Not tired," he says.

"C'mon, Sammy." Dean pets him with long, slow strokes. Sam feels warm all the way through now. "Just try."

"Try."

"For me?"

For Dean he would do anything. Anything. But he doesn't know if Dean knows it.

"Okay," he says. "And in the morning?" he asks.

For a second, Dean's hands are still, and his heart thumps through his chest to echo the beat of Sam's heart. Then he takes a breath.

"In the morning," Dean says, "we'll go on like we always do. And maybe--" His voice breaks off, as if the thoughts in his head cannot be spoken aloud. He takes his hand and sweeps it along the curve of Sam's hip. He doesn't touch any other part of him, but Sam can hear, through the sparks his fingertips leave behind, all the things that Dean isn't saying.

And maybe something else.

Maybe. Sam won't push it. He can't. Dean has to want what he wants, as does Sam. Sam knows he wants this. And maybe Dean does too. And if not, they'll go on like they always do. Dean saved him. Dean kissed him to take him from the arms of a cold and icy death. Dean loves him, and probably has forgiven him. And for now that is enough.

A strange wind lifts snow up from the banks of the river and flings it at the window. But it can't get in.

The Morning After

It is morning. Sam knows it is morning because there is a grey light seeping in from between the partly open curtains. The heat is still cranked up, and his mouth feels like cotton, and his lips crack as he opens them to yawn. He feels worn out, like he'd run a marathon the day before. Dean followed him up the mountain and rescued him from the Yukki Onna. Had they destroyed her? Or would she still yet stalk the ravines and frozen river beds for unsuspecting hikers? He will have to do research, and that's okay, it's what he does.

As his eyes grit into focus, he realizes that Dean is awake. And watching him. He lies sideways, facing Sam, head on the pillow, skin pale against the white cotton. Eyes glittering. Watching. Maybe they are hopeful eyes, Sam is not sure.

Dean doesn't say anything. And maybe he can't. Sam knows that he can ask for what he wants, and that Dean will, at this point, give it to him. It feels like he is standing at a crossroads. Or, being that they are in the mountains, atop a high and craggy ridge, and one step in either direction would take them both quickly to a place from where there would be no return.

He wants Dean to decide. Dean needs to decide, otherwise, he's doing this for Sam, as he usually does. And that, Sam does not want. Dean should want for Dean once in a while. But that doesn't mean that Sam can't let him know that he will be okay with whatever Dean wants.

Sam licks his lips. Or tries to. He is all out of spit, and his head is pounding, and he feels like crap all over. Except for the bit where Dean is looking at him. Waiting.

"It's morning," Sam says. "So we'll go on like we always do." He pauses to make sure Dean is listening. "No matter what." He gives a little nod. Encouragement. Permission. Acceptance. Whatever Dean wants.

Dean is listening. In less than a breath he is moving, moving in, moving close. Breath and heat and moisture. Sam soaks up the kiss, drawing in the air from Dean's lungs, letting his hands scoop around Dean's shoulders, pulling him close. Warming the chill that Dean has gathered to him while waiting for Sam to awaken. He inches even closer till their hips are touching; Dean's pubic hair is scratchy against his thigh, and he can smell Dean close now. Dean smells salty, and there is a warm perfume of laundry soap in the sheets and sleep-sweat from Dean's skin, the oil from unwashed hair, slightly sweet, slightly dank. Sam wants to eat him alive.

"Gotta breathe, here," says Dean, where his face is pressed hard to Sam. Sam realizes he is squeezing too tightly, and that is also bad. If Dean needs him there, wants him there, then he also needs to be able to breathe and move and be. Just be Dean. Sam doesn't want to change him, not for all the new boots in the world.

Sam slips back, loosens his arms. He tips his head to look at Dean, his hair in his eyes, limp with sweat. Dean reaches up to push the hair back, like the Yukki Onna had done. Only this time, Sam feels warm at the trace of Dean's finger. He is warm where Dean his touching him. He is warm all over.

"So," Sam says. "It's morning." He stops, his face feels flushed, and he can't really say it. Instead he moves his hand down, between their bodies, till he is touching Dean's hip. Dean's eyes are wide. Expectant. Trusting. Sam wants to be sure.

Sam makes himself be bold. "Can I--? Like before?"

Now the flush is on Dean's face, matching Sam's. Dean's eyes flicker with a wanting want that he cannot give words to and maybe never could. Not for soft, butter-cream colored boots, let alone for his brother's mouth on his cock. But in the pause, there is a nod. Only a slight one, but Sam takes that for a resounding yes.

He scoots down, running his hands along Dean's ribs and his hips, down to Dean's thighs. At the same time, he flings the covers back with an impatient elbow. He hears a little gasp as the cooler air hits Dean's skin.

The second his tongue touches the tip of Dean's cock, his mouth springs with moisture. Dean's hips shift, and Sam rests his hands on them to still them.

Then he lets his eyes flit up, to look at Dean through his eyelashes. "Going to lick you now," he says. "Like before."

In response, Dean tries to look away, but he can't and Sam can see the little smirk around Dean's mouth. On that rosy mouth that he'd kissed the day before for the first time. Sam looks down. Dean's cock is standing up, leaking against his stomach. Sam works up some spit and takes his tongue and licks from the base of Dean's cock, all the way up the shaft to the head. He twirls the tip of his tongue, and tastes the moisture there, which is mostly salty and very silky. Then he lowers his mouth, quickly, before the moisture can dry. And hears Dean sigh.

He sinks down, taking all of Dean in his mouth, leaving moisture behind, sucking up salt, and pressing his forehead against Dean's belly, absorbing Dean's smell. He swirls his tongue around as he pulls back up, and feels Dean tapping him on the shoulder.

In a second, he releases Dean with his mouth, still tasting the sparks on this tongue, the sweet bite of salt. Dean. What does Dean really want? Sam will give it to him. Anything.

"What?" Sam asks.

Dean's eyes are lowered, lashing fanning across his skin. He's being a little flirty, but there is a flush to his skin that Sam can't quite interpret.

"Say it again," Dean says.

Sam wrinkles his forehead and runs back the conversation in his mind. There were only a few words, and all of them with layers of meaning, spreading out code between them. He doesn't want to ask which part. He wants to know.

He looks at Dean, at Dean's cock, dark with blood, and stiff and straining. Dean is so very close, and Sam hasn't barely touched him. Let alone licked him. Ah--

Sam hunkers down. He places one hand each on Dean's thighs, and pushes them apart a little bit. Gently. But apart. He lowers his mouth till it is right above the base of Dean's cock. He swipes it with his tongue leaving a sliver of moisture behind. Then he blows air across the spot.

Dean's cock starts pulsing, even as Sam says it. "I'm going to lick you. Lick you. And then we'll go on like we always do."

Dean's whole body jerks. A stream of milky come shoots up across Dean's belly, and Sam's hand is there, soothing and stroking Dean's cock, his tongue licking and pressing as small quakes run up and down Dean's thighs. Sam can feel them on either side of him. Then, as the orgasm slows, Sam lifts up on his knees, and swipes his tongue across Dean's stomach, right across his belly button, and through the ribbon of come. He does it warm and slow, and feels the hard grunt from Dean's chest. Feels the rumble of it with his mouth.

 

Sam feels the last pulse of Dean's orgasm against his lips, and bends his neck to circle the head of Dean's cock with his mouth, sucking up the last drops. Dean tastes sweet and sour and salty. Sam swallows what's in his mouth, and wipes the rest away from his chin with the back of his hand. He sits back on his heels, still between Dean's thighs. Dean's eyes are closed, but gently, relaxed. His mouth is open and rosy; there is a flush of color on his cheeks.

Blindly, Dean's hand reaches out and Sam takes it and puts it on his thigh. Sam's hard himself, and he can feel the pulse of blood rushing south, but he wants Dean to know that what Dean wants is okay. And sometimes, Dean just likes to touch Sam, in no particular place. At least that's the way it has always been, and Sam promised Dean this.

Dean's fingers are warm on his thigh. The knuckles tighten as the fingertips curve in, as if Dean is trying to grab hold of Sam. A tighter hold. It tells Sam that Dean is okay with this, and wants Sam close.

His hand reaches up as if to pull Sam to him, but then it stills and Sam feels Dean's fingers in his hair. The fingers try to push his hair back but Sam knows how that goes. But he doesn't care. He has Dean now and hair is just hair.

"Come here now," says Dean. His voice is clear, and his eyes open to look at Sam. "I cut it shorter on one side again, didn't I."

"Yes," says Sam. "Like you always do."

Now Dean reaches up and pulls on Sam's arm and Sam lets himself be guided. To lie next to Dean, the length of their bodies full out and touching. Sam pulls up the sheet to belay any chill, and knows that his hardon is pressing against Dean's thigh.

Dean frowns for a minute. Sam strokes his chest. He can wait. Wants to wait.

"Sleep now," Sam says.

"Then I'll take care of you," says Dean, letting his eyes close. "Like I always do."

Sam lets his weight sink down. His headache is gone, and his muscles and bones feel limp and lazy. This is what warmth and love is delivered in skin and touches and the glitter of green eyes. And a promise. Dean always keeps his promises.

*

They are going down the canyon, headed east. Dean drives as fast as he dares as the tires slip on the roads; the roads are plowed but there are mountains of snow on either side, and the road is ribboned with ice. Sam has the image of the Impala as a black dot amidst the endless terrain of piled snow and rock and when Dean swings around a curve, Sam clenches the edge of his seat and doesn't urge caution as he normally does. He wants to get out of the mountains as much as Dean does; there is going on as they always do, and then there is getting the hell out of Dodge.

He waits until they hit the flat terrain of the high plains outside of Denver, and are heading straight east along the dry, relatively ice-free highway. The sky is a bright grey and white and while it is still cold, there is only a smattering of snow on the ground that races past Sam's window. The wind is behind them and he is warm in his down coat, unzipped and cushiony against his back.

He flashes a glance at Dean, then lets himself look; Dean is a little bleary eyed from lack of coffee, since they skipped breakfast to get out of town, and his hair is rumpled on account of he didn't take a shower either. But he is beautiful, as always.

Dean must feel him looking. "Yeah?" he asks.

Sam swallows. Going on as they always do doesn't usually mean sharing and caring, but Sam needs to say this. "Back in the mountains, in the cave?"

He waits as he makes sure he's got Dean's full attention because he only wants to say this one time. "I thought you weren't coming." He takes a breath and then opens his mouth wider to clarify exactly what he means, but Dean beats him to it.

They are barreling down the highway at a cool 75 MPH, so Dean doesn't take his eyes from the road. Sam sees Dean clench and unclench his hands around the wheel. Then, very clearly, as if he too only wants to say this one time, he says, "You are the only constant thing in my life, how could I possibly leave you behind?"

Dean makes a thick sound in his throat, and Sam, instead of replying, turns his attention back to the road. Dean loves him, but he doesn't like to be stared at when he makes chick-flick declarations like this. Instead, Sam thinks of lost scissors and found brothers and how Dean let him in, let Sam touch him, and how that makes Sam feel more loved than anything Dean has ever done for him from the Sam list.

Sam swallows everything else he wants to say. "Where are we going?"

"I dunno," says Dean. He is relaxing into the drive now, expecting Sam to take up the research.

Sam obliges Dean. He digs his lap top from the back seat and boots it up on battery power. He hooks up the wi-fi and steals a signal from some hotel that will never even feel it. Luckily the high plains make it easy to get good reception. As the tires race along the pavement and Dean hums under his breath, Sam scrolls websites full of weird and looks at online newspapers while his stomach growls.

The down coat is getting warm, so Sam shifts the laptop while he takes the coat off. He plops it in the back seat and thinks that maybe it would be okay to donate the coat to Goodwill, and then thinks that he should wait for a private moment and call Steve and have him ship those boots to wherever he and Dean are headed. Maybe he'll even order a pair for himself, just to make sure Dean accepts the present.

As he settles the laptop once more, the Impala lurches over a bump and Sam's fingers become still on the keys. He scans the article twice to make sure.

"Yeah?" asks Dean, flicking him a glance.

"Black dog," says Sam, with some pleasure. Dean loves hunting black dogs. "Says here this town imported a church from Wales and rebuilt it stone by stone. The older residents say that's when the black dog sightings started, and people are getting freaked out."

"Sounds like our kind of gig," says Dean. The sun is coming through the clouds so he takes his hands from the wheel long enough to pull his jacket over his head, and tosses it to Sam. Sam pitches it into the back seat, where it flumps on top of the down coat and slithers off the seat.

"Where is it?" Dean asks. His hands are at the 10 and 2; he looks ready to turn left or right or put his foot on the gas till they're a thousand miles away, whatever Sam says.

"It's about a two day drive," says Sam. "We keep heading east." He shuts the laptop down and puts it away to pull out the paper map, which he unfolds across his knees. He traces the highways with his finger, even though it would have been easier to google it; he likes the feel of the paper in his hands.

"Kokomo, Indiana." He nods at Dean, smiling. Then he waits for it, and watches as Dean shifts in his heat, lets himself absorb the curve of Dean's jaw with impunity.

"Why does that sound familiar?" Dean asks, and Sam knows that Dean is going over all of their recent cases, one by one.

When Dean shakes his head, Sam smiles. "Jack's Grill," he says. "It's in the same town as Jack's Grill."

Dean swallows and makes a gasping noise, and flicks a grin at Sam. "We'll stop for a food here pretty quick," says Dean, "'cause I can hear your stomach from here, but oh, fuck me, those hash browns--you found us a gig there on purpose, didn't you."

"Sort of," says Sam. "Mostly it's because of the black dog." He doesn't say any more now either; Sam knows that all that mushy I-did-it-for-you stuff when said out loud makes Dean's skin crawl. So he just smiles and pats his tummy. There is food, and then there is Jack's Grill.

And then there is Dean in the seat next to him, smiling and warm as the sun pours blue and gold through the windshield as they head east. Then, as Dean reaches for the button on the cassette player to turn on some Metallica tune, Sam realizes that now, now is when they are going to go on like they always do. Only differently.

The End