Sam gets less than his hoped-for six hours of sleep because he stays up late looking for a new case. Dean's been fixated on this haunted copper refinery one in the port of Tacoma. It's not like Dean cares that much about hunts these days, but it's absurd that Sam can't persuade him out of this one.
"Dean, we can't go in there," Sam says for the tenth time since forever. They rolled into town to gank a vengeful spirit, and now Dean's aching to go after another ghost lurking in an abandoned factory, full of arsenic. "It's fucking toxic with chemicals."
"That shit's decades old, Sam. Just don't eat any dirt and you'll be fine."
Sam splutters. "It's still toxic! I'm not giving us arsenic poisoning."
"Well, there's a ghost there, and someone's gotta bust it."
They drive down to see it that evening, pulling off the shoulder into a muddy area by the fence. There's a glint of eyes on the other side: a deer chewing on some weed sprung out of the tall mound of dirt. There are tarps covering most of it, but they've been shredded by wind and animals, clearly not tended to. There's tons and tons of dirt here piled on more dirt, and Sam wonders where it all came from.
"Hey, Bambi, enjoy your arsenic grass!" Dean yells, and the deer walks down the other side of the mound.
Dean wouldn't let them take this exact same case at the refinery when it popped up on their radar years ago. He tried sneaking off in the middle of the night to do it himself, actually, which pissed Sam off worse than usual because it was during Dean's last year. Sam still thinks of it as Dean's last year - it felt exactly like that, and Dean's living a second life, one he's made his own for all the angels' coercion, but that year will always weigh heavily in Sam's memory, right next to the dim months that followed for him.
Dean wouldn't take him with that time, Dean was the one who said it was too dangerous, and Sam was all too quick to agree. He wasn't going to let Dean shorten his time any, and he himself was distracted by a lead he found, a legend some longshoreman told him about holy springs in the mountains. Not a case, but for Dean.
The night Sam had all his research laid out about killing hellhounds was the night Dean stumbled in earlier than his usual nights out in bars. He wasn't smelling of beer and smoke but oil and low tide, covered in dirt and cobwebs. It was the same as all the other fights they had that year.
"What the hell were you doing out there? You went after the thing without me? We don't even know what it is, yet, Dean! You could've gotten killed!"
"I wasn't about to let you get arsenic poisoning," Dean said as he dropped his bag by the door, shucked his coat off with braced shoulders. Then he spotted the papers. "The hell is that?" He picked one up and threw it down. "Goddamn it, Sam! You talk about me getting myself killed! You're going to get yourself killed just trying to break my deal! I shouldn't even leave you alone!"
Once, Dean talking about Sam like he was a child would have rankled . Only then, Sam nearly begged, Please, don't.
They ended up at a stalemate, Dean adamant about Sam keeping out of the case and his deal, Sam insisting on both staying with Dean and following his own more secret leads. When Bobby called them about a possession in the outskirts of Pullman, they took it gladly and put a couple hundred miles of quietly fuming but calming driving between them and that haunted factory.
Back then, Sam thought it was the hardest year. Now, he doesn't even have it in him to compare, and what are years when your soul's been trapped in Lucifer's cage for immeasurable time?
Sam thought that after their stalemate years ago, it was a safe bet they'd stay away from this case. After all, there are always plenty of things to hunt these days. It only figures that after that poltergeist a couple towns over, Dean would be itching to try this again. They've got a pretty bad outlook for the distant future - which is to say, maybe no future at all - and Sam would almost say Fuck it and join Dean. At least they'd be doing it together. He's trying to think about it better these days, though. The point isn't that they don't have good chances at surviving in a Leviathan-ridden world; the point is that Sam has to convince Dean he's not at death's door. So Sam's up past midnight looking for another case, combing archives for strange deaths and mysterious connections to give themselves something to go on.
He comes up with a lot of stuff about Sasquatch - not real - and something about Kurt Cobain's ghost - probably not real. There's some possibly cursed land that he just doesn't want to deal with because you can't break some curses, you just have to get out of their way. There have been sightings of ghost ships off the coast that don't do anything, just sail by. The one safe bet he figured he had was the Whitman Massacre, way southeast outside Walla Walla, but so many people have investigated the place since it happened in the 1850s that there can't be anything left, and there hasn't been anything bad in the news to draw them there. The best potential case they've got is this severed-feet thing, and that's mostly up in Canada. Sam's pretty sure they should stay away from border crossing these days, considering that the law's got it in for them again.
Dean's been channel surfing all day. He's taking apart and cleaning his gun again, even though Sam's pretty sure he hasn't used this one lately. Sam notices him spending more time sharpening and readying his weapons and less time using them these days. Nervous tic, fatalistic preparation.
At some point Dean finally speaks, after a few hours of silence. "You've been cooped up here all day."
"I went running before you woke up." Sam's still focused on his research.
"Yeah, well I've been cooped up all day, and we gotta hustle some pool soon."
"Yeah, okay." Sam shuts his computer with a snap. Wasn't getting anywhere anyway.
They drive to a bar called the Swiss, where Dean remembers they have a couple pool tables and a decent crowd. It's a Monday night, which means the crowd really isn't that great, but the sign out front says there'll be a band tonight. Apparently Monday night is blues night, and Dean says, "Damn, you missed Karaoke Wednesday, Sam. Better luck next time."
"Counting my blessings," Sam says as they sidle up to the bar.
"On one hand."
Sam flips Dean the bird. "There, one." Dean's eyes crinkle and damn if this isn't the closest he's gotten to making Dean laugh in ages. It feels damn good. Sam signals the bartender without the one-fingered salute, and Dean's eyes are still on his hand. It's weird until Sam remembers that it's that hand, the hand with the scar. The bartend looks busy, so Sam punches Dean on the shoulder and says, "Quit your staring, it's weird." It's not really weird. Dean practically gave Sam that scar, like the gift it is. Why shouldn't he stare? It kinda feels good, in that reality-affirming way. Sam just has to give him a hard time.
Dean swallows and looks away quick like he's been caught being rude, looks down to unbutton his coat.
"Hey, I was just kidding," Sam starts, and Dean's about to snap at him in embarrassment or something, but the bartender saves them from that potentially unfortunate derailing of the good night they were having so far.
Sam asks for two beers, lays out a ten, and scopes out the place for pool tables.
They're in the far back room, so they go sit nearby and listen to the overloud blues recording groaning out of the speakers on the empty stage. Everyone is wearing about as much plaid as they do. A few guys are playing at the pool table, some stout older men wearing denim jackets. They're too early for a crowd but it'll heat up later.
A month or two ago, they were sitting in a bar in Utah feeling out a case, and Sam was fielding the drunken conversation of a guy who talked a lot about all the time he spent hiking and camping in the mountains of the West.
"You wanna go play some pool?" Dean said at Sam's elbow.
"Brokeback," Dean muttered. Sam gave him a Look. "Huh? What? Fine, stay here and see if you can get anything out of him about our mysterious dead bodies," Dean said, and before Sam could say "Why don't you?" Dean was walking over to the pool table with a few twenties.
Sam's irritation didn't last too long. The guy may have been drunk and it took less than a minute to figure out that he knew nothing about the case, but he had some great stories. He was real eager to talk all about how he spent a couple of his younger summers all alone on mountain tops, being a fire lookout. He preached it like gospel.
"I've camped in the Rockies and I've done it in the Cascades," he says, "and one summer in the Olympics. Those mountains are young mountains. You can tell because they're so rough. You know Jack Kerouac spent a summer on Sugarloaf just for the hell of it? Read about it. He hated it."
"No way," Sam says, smiling. "I guess he'd do anything to write about it. Crazy."
"You said it. Typical city guy trying to get spiritual with nature. What a hippie." Sam just shakes his head and smiles. "You can't just take a trip and discover yourself. You have to spend time in nature. You have to get to know it. You spend three weeks out in the woods and get sick of it, sure. But if you go back you'll really start digging into, into yourself. Figure some stuff out. 'S the only way I know to get real peace."
Sam's been itching to get out into the mountains ever since then. Vegas didn't pan out, to put it mildly, not when Becky roofied him. Dean's been unwilling to let Sam out of his sight since. Now that Bobby's gone, they really are all each other has left. Sam remembers saying that to Dean a long time ago, when they still had Dad to look for and Bobby to call and a lot of people they hadn't met yet but they sure weren't dead like they are now. It's never been truer than it is now.
Sam just wants to drag Dean back from the edge he denies he's creeping towards. Sam knows his brother better than his brother knows himself some days.
They don't end up hustling, just playing it more or less straight, winning a couple bets. Dean's ready to go after the live band's set up and played a few songs. The speakers are kind of miserably loud, though it's not as bad in the pool room.
"Let's get outta here."
"You're old," Sam says.
Dean leans close. "No, that's just shitty blues. Besides, isn't it past your bedtime?"
"Ha," Sam says. "Very funny. Hey, so I was thinking. You wanna go driving in the mountains?"
"What?" Dean asks, cupping his ear.
They get outta there and Sam repeats himself in the relative quiet outside. The dark, rain-slicked street gleams and the smell of it isn't exactly clean but the city odors are dampened by the air.
They're still parked in the car arguing about how Sam wants to go hiking in the mountains but Dean should absolutely not go poking into that old refinery by himself, nor does he want to come with, when a cell starts ringing from the glovebox. They look at each other, surprised quiet for a second, and then Sam pops it open and digs around to find the phone.
He answers it. "Hello?"
"Hello? I'm looking for a Bobby Singer."
Sam's chest clenches. "Yeah. Uh." He exhales slowly. "This is his number, but I'm afraid he's passed." Dean's eyebrows furrow as Sam breaks it gently to the stranger, who clearly never met Bobby in his life. "We're his sons, though, so if there's anything we can help you with..."
"My name's Joe White. I've got a friend of mine, Jim Snyder gave me your number, I think he might be in some kind of trouble. I ain't heard from him in some days. He called me from the mountains, he works as a logger, I couldn't get much with the crap reception but he managed to text me this number."
"What did he say? What kind of trouble?"
"Just that something was following him. I already called the police but they won't worry till they hear from the crew. They got long wave radios up there, but you can't get cell or FM signals through the mountains. Look, I'm really worried about him and I'm the only one he's got to worry, I know this sounds crazy -"
"No, sir, not crazy at all. Did he say what it was following him?"
"Couldn't get a good look, uh, said it was real tall, came out at night. Fast. Wasn't no damn bigfoot hoaxer, but he couldn't say what it was. And someone else in the camp was seeing it too."
"We'll check it out. Where are you?"
Back at the motel Sam is researching again - this time, with a lead. "So I was thinking it could be a wendigo. Tall, fast, missing people, deep in the woods - fits, right?"
"I guess. Sam, we don't know, this could be a bear or a mountain lion. Who knows if Snyder's really seen anything? Maybe he's just scared. Maybe it's pink elephants."
"No, Joe said he's a sober guy, serious and on the wagon for years."
Dean snorts. "Whatever. Still got nothing to make me think this is our kind of thing. You should just call the park rangers and they'll take care of it."
"This Snyder guy's been a logger for years. If it was a bear he'd have called the rangers himself. He called Bobby. We're looking into it. I'm already finding disappearances in the area from last year."
Dean lies back and puts an arm over his face. "Cougars." Sam hears a snort. He can see Lucifer sitting on his bed in his peripheral vision, but manages not to really look.
"Not cougars. Look, I'll finish this tonight, and tomorrow we're getting up in the morning, grabbing coffee, and driving up to Crescent Lake."
"You're not my mom."
"Stop being a baby."
Dean muffles something that sounds like "Fuck you" into his arm, and it doesn't faze Sam.
When Sam's done researching he's got a pattern of deaths. As dots on a map, they're an island of events in the last twenty years in the Olympic mountains, scattered throughout and almost seasonal, probably on the upswing in the logging and camping seasons. Disappearances are hard to resolve and ; all of them are put down to animal attacks, but what's to tell the difference between animals and monsters where everything's got claws.
Sam doesn't care. They've got a missing guy who called Bobby, and where maybe in the past they would've agreed there wasn't enough to go on, Sam doesn't need shit to go on, just a flimsy enough excuse to drag Dean out of a motel room and away from a stupid arsenic dump.
He flings the curtains open into the 7:00 am sunlight and says, "Rise and shine, Dean."
Dean swears up a storm and holds a pillow over his head
"So I think it might be another wendigo," he says. "No one has seen it strike, people are just disappearing. Not a ton of people, either, just a few."
Sam takes the covers and yanks them off Dean's bed, leaving just the sheets, and their room is chilly. He fills Dean in on a few more of the details of his research - dates, where they were last seen, reports of a dead body or two found but nowhere near the total number missing.
Dean, pissy-faced and digging through the duffel by his bed, doesn't call Sam out on his total lack of evidence. He doesn't even ask how often the thing's striking. He just winces at the light coming through the window, and gets dressed fast. "Why're you so stuck on that wendigo theory?"
"It makes sense."
"Not really, man. Wendigos don't come out every year. It could be anything, it could be more than one thing. Maybe it's a bear, or a mountain lion, or just lost hikers. All we've got is two disappearances this year, a few in past years, and a paranoid logger telling his friend to call Bobby." Dean slept in his jeans and t-shirt and doesn't bother changing them, just pulls on a new button-down and does it up. When he finishes he points a finger at Sam to emphasize his argument. "We're gonna get there, and it's going to be either no tracks or all kinds of untraceable tracks, and a bunch of drunk loggers who won't remember anything."
"You're cranky this morning," Sam says, with the righteous air of someone who certainly isn't cranky because he's been up for an hour already.
"Not all of us have had our little morning jog. And damn right I'm - I'm cranky! I got crap for sleep and now I need breakfast. Get the keys."
"Actually, I was thinking we could walk."
Dean raises his eyebrows. "Excuse you?"
"We're walking, Dean. It's healthy."
Dean tries grabbing for the keys, but Sam has placed them safely inside his pants, and of course Dean won't risk the reach. "Who died and made you Doctor Oz? Ugh, fine, I will, but only because you're an asshole and it's only three blocks down."
They eat at The Harvester, a decent enough local joint with decent enough coffee. Dean gets a bunch of meat and home fries, and Sam gets two eggs and the Swedish pancakes. He takes a few bites, eats his side bowl of fruit, and says, "Gonna help me finish these?"
"Eh," mumbles Dean, mouth full of potatoes.
"Come on, they're good."
Dean helps Sam finish them after dumping the rest of the berries onto his half. Sam counts this, somehow, as a victory.
They drive West for a couple hours to stop by Joe White's house in Aberdeen. "Here he is," he says, handing them a photo of the two men posing with a downed deer. Sam tries not to make a face. They hunt monsters for a living, and as proud as Dean is of that as a morally righteous career choice, they'd never pose with their kills for a photo like it was game.
Joe helps them mark up their state map with a route to the logging grounds. On their way out heading up north they pass miles and miles of huge floating logs penned up in the bay. They must've come up from the mountains, Sam guesses, floated or trucked, uniform and thin like rough red-brown telephone poles.
"Hey, Kurt Cobain's from Aberdeen. Think we could find his house?" Dean's looking out the window at the houses they pass going through town. Some of them are boarded up, all of them are small, dull and peeling.
Sam shrugs. "Maybe. Sure explains a lot, huh?"
"Yeah," says Lucifer. "Fucking depressing town."
Sam nods, and Dean glances at him, and then Sam realizes he slipped up. He glares at Lucifer in the rearview mirror. The devil just smirks and Sam wrenches his eyes away, quietly digs a nail into the scar on his palm. Dean revs the engine at the red light.
It doesn't get any clearer the further they head north, along the coast and then inland, into the woods. The weak-ass car they lifted in Oregon slows and strains as they drive up into the foothills of the mountains. The whole atmosphere, the fog and the woods that hold the fog, chills them. They can feel it through their coats because of the dampness of the cold. The car heater helps plenty but it's the coldest damn September they've been in, Sam guesses, and Dean agrees. If this were August they'd be happy to get away from the heat in the rest of the country, but it's just their luck that this Snyder character gets into their kind of trouble in the rainforest, in September.
Nearly the whole mountain range is state or national park land, so they have to loop around for hours, finding the right passes, but Joe's map guides them well. The roads aren't too steep but the hills beside them are, either sheer rock faces or the steepest hills you could never climb, covered in scree with barely any shrubbery. When the road twists and turns on the edge of the slope you can see a trickle of water, from a spring or near-constant high-up snow melt.
They drive up, flash their forest ranger badges, and ask for a Jim Snyder. The foreman says he was just about to call them about him, him besides the other logger who went missing, and Dean tears him a new one for not being quicker to call. The cowed foreman points them eastwards, so east they go.
At night they stop their sweep and camp right where they are, by a river. Sam's still thinking about the mountain man from Utah, and daydreaming about what it would be like to stay up here all summer. On top of a mountain, watching the forests for smoke in the dry season. Mornings after rain, seeing the steam rise off the trees when the sun heats them. Having a small cabin that he wouldn't leave for months.
It would be strange, and this may be the first time in his life since he was fifteen that he wanted that sort of solitude, but then he looks over at Dean and as much as it makes his stomach sink and burn to watch his brother slide uncaring into alcoholism and meander towards death, as angry as he is for everything Dean does to save him and save the world when it means killing people like Amy and not trusting Sam, he couldn't imagine leaving his brother. Dean can fend for himself but these days there's no way he'd look after himself. They've been surviving for a long time now, and Sam thinks, wasn't there a time when we really lived?
Maybe not. But Sam wants to start.
Together they manage to figure out how to pitch their tent - they have a tent, of all things, that they've been carrying in the back of their feeble, cramped car. They've always avoided tents like hell, figured they could sleep in the car if they had to go out away from hotels, but ever since the Leviathans put them back on the law's radar they've decided to invest in some on-the-lam gear for when they really need to really hide out.
"This sucks," Dean says. It's a two-man tent, which means that the two of them are nearly shoved up against each other, and both of them pushing the length limit of the thing. "I'm gonna suffocate in here."
"How can grown people sleep like this?" Sam asks. "Remember when Dad took us camping and it was fun? When did we get this old?"
"When did you get so giant, you mean. When you're a grown 200-pound man you've got a lot of psi."
"Like tires. Duh."
"I knew that. You're weird."
"And you're noisy. Shut up so we can get to sleep."
Sam hears the click of the flask cap, the suck of Dean's lips, and he flexes his hands in helpless frustration. At least the tent is too small for Lucifer to come in, but that doesn't stop Sam from hearing his footsteps outside every now and then, till he falls asleep.
It's too cold. Sam covers his head with his coat in the night. Camping in even remotely cold weather is Dean's least favorite thing, but Sam is actually enjoying it this time. There's something about the clear air, the hard sleep after a day of walking, the taste of food outdoors.
He makes the misery of camping up to Dean by boiling Dean a pot of water to make instant coffee before Dean is up. It's hard to sleep late even though the nights are getting longer, and the trees are dense and dark. The sound of the river is what wakes him up, and Dean can't sleep long either though he tries. Sam can tell he's just burying his head in his sleeping bag.
In his dream, Castiel rose out of Crescent Lake. The lake is deep enough. For some reason this knowledge was certain and important in Sam's mind. It has to be deep enough and long enough, and narrow enough to nearly reach the other side. It's a long way from the water reservoir they last saw him in and a lot cleaner. The water is very cold and the shores are lined with stones, not mud or sand and barely any earth. They are grey and dark and gleaming with water, and in his dream Castiel was dry as if he were really just walking in in reverse.
He brings it up over breakfast. He figures someone's got to and it sure won't be Dean. Dean doesn't respond. Later when they hike up the trail with their bags in hand, his hair of the dog will have kicked in and he'll be less surly and more loose-lipped, and he'll say, I don't have those kind of dreams, it's just him going into the lake over and over. He's not coming back out.
Sam doesn't have any good response to that, so he doesn't say anything, which he figures Dean appreciates.
They break open the alcohol on the second night, after a day of finding nothing but a couple animal dens, no human remains or monster lairs. Sam's surprised Dean's stood for this much of the outdoors, but suspects he's been using his flask to cope. Sam himself wouldn't mind a beer, though they didn't bring any of that. Too heavy. Sam doesn't drink much these days. He makes an effort to avoid drinking too much, tries to keep a clear head and all that, but out here in the woods he's surrounded by and full of clarity. There is something to the cold damp air, the sharp treeline that cuts through the fog. Even though it's overcast, dim and dark under the thick cedar and pine forests. The fog almost glows in the day, and every color is richer and deeper. The air is tangibly damp and the tree trunks are rough and the landscape impresses itself on Sam. In the quiet, he can drink it all in, so thoroughly that he can forget about questioning this reality for decent lengths of time.
Now, though, it's sunset, which comes about 7:00. Darkness always comes too early for Sam, but he copes. They've brought bratwursts because Dean insisted they were better than hot dogs, and are lighting a fire on the dry ground under a cedar tree. Dean is usually the designated and eager firestarter, but Sam pitches in too this time. Idle hands are the devil's playground.
"Sam, move your Sasquatch ass, I've got this."
"I know, I'm just helping."
"This ain't help. You're gonna set your knees on fire. Leave it to the pros, Sammy."
It's the first time Dean's called him that in a while, in that way, belligerent, sure, but with a good humor and ease that comes from absorption.
So Sam sits back and crumples newspaper, splits a log or two for kindling, and then just leans against a log and watches his brother work.
They eat their brats with water and liquor. Sam couldn't say no to all the alcohol; he knows Dean's addicted, so while Dean complains that he's fine and Sam should just let him have his drink, Sam's also aware that he doesn't want to deal with Dean going cold turkey in the middle of the woods. Alcoholism is bad but relaxing with a drink when you're stressed as hell and sleeping on hard fucking ground, that is not something Sam can condemn and will be indulging himself.
"Hey Sam," Dean says. "When we go down fighting these Leviathans - or whatever's in the woods out there -" he swings his arm out towards the darkness of trees, and Sam realizes the other is on the log behind him, "who's going to salt and burn us?"
"Hm," Sam says. It's obviously not a question with an answer. "That's only a problem if we're ghosts, right?"
"What would we have to stay for?"
Dean opens his mouth but his voice catches. Sam sees him blink faster and that alone makes Sam's eyes water in sympathy.
"I'm just saying, we'd both be dead, so."
Dean swallows and nods, and swallows some more of his drink. "Yeah. Nothing left to keep us here then. You think heaven's still around?"
"Maybe it's all heaven, no angels."
Dean chuckles dryly at that.
"Maybe we get to pick the memories we want to stay in." That's getting too close for comfort. "I dunno. Maybe that wasn't even heaven. Maybe that was just Zach fucking with our heads, like when we were office workers."
"Can we not talk about it," Dean says, and Sam bites the inside of his cheek. "Let's go look at the stars, I think it's dark enough."
They wander over to the river, where they can see stars, a ton of them already even though the sky hasn't been dark for so long. They as good as count them, and then when Dean notices Sam rubbing his arms to keep them warm, he comments and says "Need a drink to warm you up, Sam, let's go."
They sit back down and talk more, Dean's arm still behind Sam's shoulders and the two of them leaning in, and after a few minutes it turns into memories of Bobby. It's not as hard this way. They're in the middle of nowhere, somewhere natural to think of the dead and remember them well. They pour one out for Bobby and drink to him, and then they drink to him again. They drink to Rufus. They drink to Mom, their favorite Campbell by far. They drink to Dad, and then to Ellen and Jo, and then to Bobby. These deaths almost can't hurt them in his hour. Death has lost its sting, and instead it's the mantle of solemnity that settles on them, a memorial instead of mourning.
"They're all done now, though," Dean says. "Left us to Leviathans. Always gotta be us."
Sam can't tell Dean that the weight of the world doesn't rest on their shoulders, because it mostly does. He can't tell Dean not to let it weigh on him so much, not in those words. But he'll try.
"Come on, Dean," he says. "We're sitting around a campfire in the mountains. You ever hear of 'live each day like it's gonna be your last'? Means we don't have to have regrets anymore. And you call me a buzzkill."
Dean's eyebrows raise, surprised at Sam's sudden outburst of enthusiasm for the life they're living, and Sam just raises one back.
"Buzzkill," Dean mutters, affronted, and asks Sam to pass the bottle. Sam leans over to grab it, leans back, overbalances and Dean was already so close that Sam's got his hand out to steady himself but it lands somewhere in Dean's lap. Sam's too slow to jerk it away, Dean's too slow to smack it away, and Sam sort of ends up groping Dean's thigh, which is not a totally brand new event, drunken overbalancing.
"Sorry," he mumbles, but he doesn't really feel sorry at all, in fact he's very glad he's got this new excuse to get his hands on Dean in a casual, nobody-is-dying-right-now way, and maybe that's why when he's done twisting off the cap he lets his hand rest in the crease between their pressed-together legs, fingers splayed onto Dean's thigh, shoulder sinking low against the log and trying to nestle in under Dean's arm.
Normally Dean would accuse him of trying to cuddle, but Sam doesn't hear a word from him. He pushes his luck. He rollicks a bit, reminds Dean of some story Dean tells over and over again because he thinks it's hilarious, gets Dean to laugh and leans in on his leg more. Kicks Dean's feet with his feet, clunking boots together. The longer it goes on though, the quieter Dean gets, till Dean asks for another swig and Sam, liquid with daring, says "Get it yourself."
"Ah, come on, it's right there. Don't be a bitch."
"Don't be a jerk."
"You're the jerk." But finally he grunts and leans over across Sam, irritating him by sticking his hair in Sam's face, trying to squish him against the log he's leaning on, elbowing him in the ribs and propping himself up on Sam's legs. Sam suddenly feels the heat of the fire as a very real thing in his body, and wonders if this isn't actually a really dumb idea.
Dean leans back with the bottle in one hand, the other on Sam's knee, lower thigh, fumbling like Sam was fake fumbling, still as it comes to rest next to Sam's hand, lying between their legs.
Sam gasps a little bit at all this and Dean looks at him, concerned. "You okay?"
"Okay," echoes Sam. "Yeah."
"No Lucifer here?" And Dean grabs his hand, with the same gruff attentiveness he did the first time he bandaged it: turn it over, find the scar on the palm, scrutinize as if to make sure it's in working order.
Dean squeezes gently, thumb on the scar, just like he did the first time but gentler, and Sam's breathing is heavy. It's just that Dean's so close, and the dampness brings out the scent of his hair and his clothes and his skin, the bright campfire glow on his face and hair. It's just that Sam can see Dean from very up close, and Dean is hardly squeezing his hand, more like holding it and rubbing his thumb over the big scar, and then over the littler ones too.
"No. Just us."
Dean leans in then, murmurs "Sammy" right before he muffles his voice with Sam's mouth. He keeps making noises, little ones where is breath catches, and he keeps moving against Sam. Sam gives right back, pawing at Dean, something between pushing him off to ask what's going on and reaching out to grab hold. That's what he does these days - grasping at Dean.
I've gotta just grab hold, Sam thinks to himself. It's an inconveniently-timed epiphany, considering that Dean's hands are slipping under his coat and Sam's grabbing Dean's collar, his shoulders, hauling him up on his lap. But it's so, so worth it. Sam does exactly that.
Dean's breathing heavy and his eyes are closed, and he's cupping Sam's face like he does when Sam's been hurt. Sam himself is a little dizzy and he can barely see Dean's face turned away from the fire. But he knows his brother's smell, the way his hands feel, the sound of his breathing. It's the thing he knows best, and the best thing he knows.
Dean's straddling Sam and he rocks his hips against him, groaning. Sam's eyelids flutter shut and he rolls up against Dean, against that heat and pressure. Sam's gasping, and he tries to reach under Dean's shirt, then over it, but there's a coat and shirt full of buttons in his way.
Sam's drunker than he thought, because he can't even fumble apart the buttons of Dean's shirt. All he can do is sit there and run his hands up Dean's thighs while Dean keeps shoving Sam against the log and kissing the hell out of him.
Dean bites Sam's lip and it feels good, and then he bites it harder and a second later Sam registers the pain, says "Ow" though it sounds more like "Ah". It just surprised him, doesn't phase him, nothing could right now with warm Dean on top of him and filling all his senses, but Dean stops and pulls back, looks at Sam and blinks, blinks with wide eyes.
"What - why'd you -" Sam fumbles, but Dean's already scrambling off of him. Sam grabs for him but Dean yanks his arm away, gets up and away from the light of the fire. Sam can see it on his face though and can see now that Dean looks scared shitless, and miserable to boot.
"Dean don't -"
"Fuck, Sam, I - I didn't - fuck. Please."
"Dean, come on," Sam says, voice sounding thin and whining, but Dean's already turned and gone out in to the dark woods. "Dean! Don't just fucking run off in the middle of the woods!"
"Goddamn it!" Sam slams a hand against the log and yells. He pulls out his phone but there's no service, of course, not out here. He tries calling anyway but it doesn't work. Fucking Dean, goddamn idiot, going off alone when they're looking for something that probably kills and eats people. Sam can't pretend he doesn't understand why Dean ran off, though.
So Sam waits there at the campsite, because that's where Dean will find him.
A figure appears near the edge of the firelight, and Sam says "Dean? Is that you?" before remembering he's got to look out for monsters. "Hey!" he says to the shadow, and it comes forward, and lo and behold, it's Lucifer.
"Fuck you," Sam says, and Lucifer crosses his arms.
"Long time no talk, Sam."
Sam wants to run, he wants to do anything, he wants to find Dean. But as good as he is at hunting and tracking in their line of work, he also knows he can't afford to get lost in the dark, unfamiliar woods. Not with Lucifer around, now.
"Aw, you miss Dean already?"
Sam won't dignify that with a response.
"How long's he been gone? Are you getting confused yet, Sam?"
Sam pinches his hand, digs his nail into the scar that's already become such a part of him, so charged with meaning it's like another organ, an artery, a pulsepoint.
"Oh, poor Sammy, already going crazy. You wanted him to stay and fuck you better, didn't you."
Sam is drunk enough to swing at the devil, but Lucifer just sidesteps the blow that carries Sam stumbling nearly into the glowing embers of the firepit.
"You son of a bitch," Sam grits through his teeth.
Lucifer laughs. "You need some healing sex, I'm here for you. I'll do that for you, Sam, if you really need it."
Sam closes his eyes and takes some deep breaths. Then he finishes both their beers and crawls into the tent, ignoring Lucifer, who seems content to have gotten to him. He heads for the hard dark sleep of the weary and drunk.
Sam sleeps soundly that night, like a log, like something at the bottom of a lake. When he wakes up to morning light he hears a hissing and a crackling from the fire. He pokes his head out the tent zip and is flooded with relief to see Dean, crouched there near the fire, which he's started up again from the ashes Sam left last night. Dean doesn't react to Sam opening the tent, just continues to pour their booze onto the flames: the quarter bottle of whiskey that remained from last night, the contents of his own two flasks.
Dean won't look at Sam even though it's clear he knows he's there. And Sam doesn't say anything. He should be happy about this - that Dean didn't just vanish into the woods, that he came back whole, that he's emptying his bottles, but goddamn he could have thought of a better way to get this. It was supposed to go so much better. Not that Sam has bright visions for the future, but they've been solid, he and Dean. They've been strong together, and now for all Dean's been dying to look after him like Sam can't look after himself, suddenly Dean won't even look at him. He just pours his whiskey on the ground and sloshes it into the flames, where the coals spit and the flames tint towards blue.
Sam's afraid. He doesn't know what to do. If he goes back into the tent and leaves Dean out here it'll just highlight the whole fucking situation, where last night Dean thought he wanted something and then regretted it, and Sam's left sitting here like he has no say. Sam's not going to turn his back and leave Dean alone, not now, not anymore. So he keeps watching, and Dean keeps not looking at him, and eventually Sam gets up and walks down to get a pot of water from the river to make them coffee.
Sam's plan to worry about Dean is suddenly more difficult than he thought it would be, due not only to some circumstances he hadn't really foreseen - he just didn't think Dean would ever, could ever, it wasn't something they had ever really done - but also to Dean's sudden consequent resistance to paying him any attention at all. It's a bullshit ruse and won't last long (Sam hopes), but these days, "not long" might be too long. He's got a prickling feeling in his scalp, a tension in his neck. There's something out there.
They're walking through the woods looking for tracks, when Sam thinks he sees it, some shadowy thing slip right behind Dean.
"Dean! Behind you!"
Dean swings his shotgun around as he turns, ready to batter anything there or then shoot anything far off. "What? What was it?"
"I don't know, I just saw something move." They're standing closer now, side by side looking out into the woods, but Sam doesn't see anything else. "Just... like a shadow. Really fast. Tall."
Dean grunts. They stand there for a minute more, watching, listening, but there's nothing.
"You sure you saw something?"
"Uh huh. Well. If you see anything else." Dean turns back to his compass and resumes in the direction he was walking.
"Dean, I've got a bad feeling about this -"
"Just don't let it get to you." And that's that. Sam knows Dean's "conversation over" tone. He frowns at the back of Dean's head.
Finally sometime in the early afternoon their efforts pay off.
"I found it," says Sam, who's taken the lead while Dean's slowed down.
"More like the trail."
There's a swath cut through the detritus of the forest floor, coming down a hill and through the relatively clear path they've been following. Something big and dragging came down this way, leaving a messy but definite trail through the thick pile-up of dead pine needles and cedar twigs. It's too messy to get any prints or idea of what they're tracking, but it's a clear sign.
"That look person-sized to you?" Dean asks.
"I'd say so. And it keeps going down the hill."
Sam sees the flash of something at the corner of his right eye, and whips his head around.
"Looking for me, Sammy?" Lucifer says from his left, where Dean was standing before he started down the slope.
"Thought I saw something," Sam murmurs, looking down at Dean, then at his own hands.
"Oh, you're seeing things all right." Lucifer winks at him. Sam turns away.
"Sam!" Dean calls from down below. "Keep up!"
They follow the trail a ways off their original path, and Sam hopes Dean is keeping track of where they are, because he only has a vague sense of which direction the logging camp is. There's blood at the base of one of the trees, and huge claw marks on another one, around chest-height.
"It ain't hard to track, that's for sure," Dean says. Sam is quiet.
They reach a small ledge, and Dean looks before he jumps. Sam's stomach still drops as he sees him fall, even though he hears Dean's voice soon after, saying, "Oh, that's disgusting."
Sam jumps down too, and there it is, in the damp earth eroded under this tree's giant roots. A man, slumped up against the slope in a sitting position, his stomach opened and intestines ripped out leaving gore all over his clothes. His throat is clawed open, and somehow they missed the blood when they were following this trail, or it got covered up by the inches-deep carpet of pine needles. Otherwise, he's untouched.
"Definitely not just a bear," Sam says. "They would've eaten the rest of him otherwise."
Dean pulls out the deer-hunting picture Joe White gave them. Sure enough, it's him.
Sam looks away and covers his nose from the smell of torn-out intestines in a day-or-so old body.
"Nothing's gotten to it since, though?"
Dean wrinkles his nose. "Maybe animals are scared off by whatever did this."
Dean crouches down by the thing, and Sam turns away. He's got a sick feeling he hasn't had in a while, and thinks it might have something to do with the gore in front of him. Lucifer is poking inside the corpse's hollowed-out torso with a stick.
Sam starts. Dean is looking at him. "I'm okay," Sam says. "Just the smell."
Dean's brow furrows. "Go see if you can find any tracks away from here."
"I said I'm okay."
Dean whacks Sam gently on the shin. Sam's pretty messed up about this thing they're pretending never happened, because even that small touch has him stumbling back, chest squeezing with a mix of strong, unnameable emotion.
Get it together, Sam.
"I've got a bad feeling, Dean."
Dean looks back and frowns at him again. "You mean, uh..."
"No, I mean that shadow thing I saw. I saw it again just before we found this. And I've got - I know it sounds stupid but come on, I've got hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Something's not right here."
"Sam, we're hunting a monster who killed a guy and we just found the gutted corpse."
"You know what I'm talking about!"
Sam's raised voice is still muffled by trees and the pine needles, and there's no wind, but he swears he hears a swish and brush behind him as he turns his head.
"Dean, something's out there." When Sam looks back, Dean's standing up slowly with that hard look on his face, the one that's replaced a face most would recognize as worried. Sam hates it when he does this, thinks he has to be strong enough for the both of them. Shore up Sam's sanity with his own reassurances, when Sam knows - "I know it's not just in my head. I can tell it's real."
"Can you?" Dean demands.
"Yeah, I can!"
"Yeah Dean, Sam's a big boy!" Lucifer taunts, and Sam winces. It's enough of a tell for Dean's stubborn expression to crack, but instead of anything useful Sam just gets anger.
"You need to listen to me, Sam. There's something out there but you're not going to find it twitching around like that. I can tell you're hallucinating him, what you just did there. Who knows what else you're hallucinating? I sure don't. So if you're going to be helpful, you better not go working yourself into a panic, you hear?"
Sam flushes red. Of course he remembers the last time he panicked with a gun – the warehouse, how he could've shot Dean, the scar Dean gave him. He touches it now, and he knows Dean can see. Dean's right, but he's not right. "You can't tell there's something chasing us?" he asks.
Dean shakes his head. "We don't even know what we're looking for, Sam. Better just keep tracking. We'll be fine. I don't know how you survived on those other hikes if you kept jumping at shadows.
Sam curls his lip. "Come on, Dean, I'm almost back to normal."
"Really?" Lucifer's voice comes from behind him. "How do you know?"
The whole afternoon, every hour or so, Sam thinks there's someone behind him, or thinks he sees something behind Dean. He keeps his mouth shut and his gun up, whatever Dean said about his hairtrigger panic.
It starts getting dark again, and they set up camp, barely speaking. They eat some hot dogs and Sam sets up pots to catch night rain that he'll boil to drink in the morning, before Dean wakes up, if he goes to sleep. Sam's determined to see he does.
Dean is sitting across the fire from him now in a stupid petty immovable way. They've been not talking for hours, setting up the tent, digging rain trench around it, polishing guns, sharpening knives. Listening.
"Owls are fucking creepy," Sam says. Dean grunts, not looking up from his machete. When he doesn't get a response, Sam just sighs and says "We should turn in."
Dean shifts uncomfortably. "Sure, go ahead."
Sam seethes. "I'm so tired of your shit." Dean winces. It hurts Sam to see it. "You're going to sleep tonight. Go ahead, go first and I'll watch for a while."
"Come on, Dean. You think I'm going to do something stupid?"
Dean raises his brows as if to say "Yes, obviously", but then looks into the fire and says, "All right. But don't be long. I know you need your beauty sleep, princess."
Dean's gotten up and turned towards the tent as he says this, but Sam catches the corner of a smile. Like it's a falling star or a stray eyelash, he wishes on it: please let us get through this. This encompasses everything. It's too much for one wish, maybe, but It's what Sam wants so desperately. To get through everything, and he's already ruined their chances for getting through intact, but what's more important is together.
By the time he's done wishing, Dean's in the tent. Sam says, "Night, Dean." There's a pause, a silence. But he does hear Dean respond at last, quiet and muffled by even the thin nylon tent walls: "Night, Sam."
It'll get better, Sam tells himself, settling back against the tree trunk with the tent in view. They've gotten this far. It'll get better.
A breeze hits the back of his neck. Sam hikes up his collar, and shivers.
"You should go join him, Sammy." Lucifer's sitting where Dean was now. He warms his hands at the fire. "He's so lonely."
Sam won't respond.
He snaps awake to the sound of rustling and a sharp yell from the tent. The fire is small but still going, and by its glow he can see that it's collapsed. Suddenly the side rips wide open, and something nearly black as the night protrudes.
Sam raises his gun and shoots twice. He's got the perfect angle, shooting across instead of into the tent, and he hits the dark thing out of sheer luck. The beast roars. He can see it now - a huge black hairy arm and paw. He shoots again and walks closer.
"Dean!" he yells. There's no response. "Dean! Fuck," and the thing lurches out of the tent swiping at him with its long, long claws. It's long and black and hairy like a bear, and Sam guesses it might be seven feet tall standing, but right now it's crouched down, dragging Dean from the tent with its hind paw, about to sprint off.
Sam aims for its head and only manages to stun it with the next bullet. He scrabbles around on the log and grasps the machete, and he's pure adrenaline, terrified. He can see Dean's bloody and he can only hope the thing hasn't already killed his brother, with some sick desire to eat its prey's entrails while it's still alive.
The thing lunges for Sam, and Sam only barely sidesteps and swings with his whole body. He hacks half through the neck, and it drops right there, spraying blood. Sam swings again to chop the head off.
Sam falls to the ground, his side burning. He watches the thing's body spasm till it doesn't move any more, and then takes the thing's head and dumps it on the fire, just to keep it from somehow reattaching. Usually creatures like these are more like animals, though. He isn't sure what it is, but he knows a lot of ways to kill a lot of things.
He hears a groan, and runs to Dean's side.
"Dean! Dean, are you okay?"
"The hell was that?" Dean's voice is hoarse.
"I don't know, it's dead now. What happened? Can you -"
Dean is already struggling to sit up, and Sam takes his shoulder and checks him for wounds.
"I'm fine, it's just my head. And my neck. Tried to strangle me but I stabbed it."
There are some shallow red scratches around Dean's neck. Sam wants to reach out and touch them, but Dean's holding his arms out so he can't get close, saying "Help me up."
Sam does, and stands back as they contemplate the black, hairy headless bearlike body lying gruesome in front of them. They're going to drag it over into a cleared out spot and salt and burn it in a minute, once Sam finishes patching Dean's head up. The ground's wet, everything's wet: there's a high dew point and cool temperatures tonight. Good for burning bodies, not forests.
"I saw it, Dean."
"I guess you did." Dean's tone is inscrutable.
"I shoulda -"
"Don't you start with this. I'm okay, we're all okay here."
"Dean! You almost died! And you wouldn't listen to me."
"Well, lucky for me someone taught you how to aim real good." Dean sighs and closes his eyes.
"Don't you go to sleep. You're probably concussed if it knocked you out like this."
"Yeah, Sam. Sure."
Sam touches the gash above his temple and Dean growls. Sam says "I told you, you gotta stay with me. Don't drift off. Don't fall asleep."
Dean stares at him, and Sam worries that that's a concussion problem too, but at least his brother's still conscious. He keeps babbling.
"Just focus on the pain and you won't slip off, you know that. It's a good thing. Being injured isn't good, but pain is good, real pain. Reminds you you're alive."
"God knows it takes a lot to remind you of that these days."
"What the hell?"
"And then you up and fucking run away from it."
Dean glares at him as much as he can, Sam being in his peripheral vision. "You really are the type to kick a man when he's down."
"So you've moved on to the 'make light of things' stage of coping."
"Don't talk to me about all the fucking up I've done. Don't you think I - goddamn it." Dean shoves Sam away, just as Sam finishes the bandage. Sam falls back on his hands. He helplessly watches Dean crawl to his feet and walk over to the thing's outstretched paw and five-inch claws.
"This is it," Lucifer says, cold and soft in Sam's ear as he watches Dean, every living inch of him. "This is my favorite part. The one where he tells you he messed up on you, and you should go on without him. Isn't that what you want, Sam? Leave the hard life. All the nature retreats you ever dreamed of. Just us."
Slowly his shadow looms over Sam's shoulder. Sam wrenches away viciously from Lucifer's nonexistent grasp, and the shadow flickers quickly away. He stands in a hurry, breath coming fast, shaking his arms and his head as if to dislodge some lingering touch.
"No," Sam whispers, and looks up to see Dean glance away, caught looking.
"Hell," Dean says, nudging the beast's claws with the toe of his boot. "You keep seeing him, don't you?"
"Yes." Sam's too tired to deny it.
"There isn't another one of these things out there?" He's still looking at the corpse at their feet.
Sam shakes his head and runs his hand through his hair. "I don't know. I... I don't know. I can't -" He halts, looks down, pinches his hand again hard.
Dean twitches as if to move towards Sam, but he stays where he is, a pace and an armlength away. His expression is heartbreaking. "Sam, I'm not gonna..."
"I'm not asking you to... to..." But he is. Sam suddenly realizes he is asking exactly what Dean's so afraid of. He wants Dean's hands on him and he wants his hands on Dean in a way that is visceral and needy, in a way that has him looking at Dean's hands and his wide knuckles, his broad, blunt, dirty nails. Sam can't help thinking of how those hands have cupped and held his face, how strange and intimate they'd look on his clean skin after all the times he's seen them sew up his wounds, working with guns and wrenches. It's not that Sam can't help it, even; it's that he wants to think about this. He wants to see that part of Dean. It would be one thing if he were unsteady and needing the assurance of Dean's presence. It wouldn't be like this, if he just wanted Dean to touch him once in a while, pinch him so Sam knows he's awake.
It's hardly even a punch to the gut, this realization. It's not a sinking feeling but a longing for something right in front of him. He's been drinking up Dean his whole life, the million times he's gotten him back from death's door and hell itself.
They are at a horrible impasse. Sam's face is pleading, and Dean's finally looking at him again. This is the closest he's been to touching Sam since... well, since last night.
"Sam, I swear I can't, I won't do that to you."
"What if I need it, Dean." Sam's hands are shaking.
"You have your, your yoga and your - you said you were doing better. You're going to do better."
Sam laughs a little dryly. "No, man. It's like you said. If I can be sure of anything, it's you. Just you. What else am I supposed to do?"
He puts it all on Dean and watches his brother shift under the weight, temporarily lifted or only now settling comfortably, asked for and so willingly given.
"Dean, I know you want it, because I want it and you really can't fool me. I want it, I want to," Sam repeats, because that's what makes Dean's eyes light up. He takes a slow step, two, as if approaching an animal.
"You can't be fucking with me, Sammy," Dean croaks. "This is some sick way of making sure your brother doesn't buy the fucking farm."
"Can't think of a better way," Sam says, and leans in to cup Dean's cheek and kiss his mouth. It falls open in surprise, and Sam just dives in, hungry for it, so sure.
"Flesh and blood brother," Sam murmurs against Dean's lips, and Dean shudders, moans, grabs at Sam's bare hands and holds onto them clutching and hard. He is all tense muscle for a moment, eyes screwed shut, squeezing and pulling at Sam's hands but not pulling away, and Sam wrestles for a bit before Dean pushes his hands away only to grasp confusedly at the neck of Sam's shirt, at his chest, keep him pulled close. Dean twists his mouth away but leans his head in close to Sam's neck. He makes this punched, confused noise right by Sam's ear, and that's it, Sam's completely gone on the heady rush of this, how incredibly hot it is to have Dean flushed warm and gone speechless under his hands.
"Dean," Sam says. "Dean," cupping the back of Dean's head, his neck, stroking a thumb down to Dean's hard collarbone, dipping under his shirt and up his throat. Dean's still silent, making small choked-off sounds digging his face into Sam's neck, but his hands are twisted in Sam's shirt, hauling him into his body. Then he turns his head and sucks hot and wet at the underside of Sam's jaw, mouth opening and closing and moving. He grips Sam's hips and pulls them close and tight, and Sam can feel him hard
Dean pulls away from kissing Sam for a second to look up at him intently, face barely lit, eyes hooded. Lustful. Sam would be lying if he said this was a new expression on Dean's face, one that he didn't recognize. He knows that face. He just never had this to understand it by before now.
Dean's reaching for the button on his jeans, but Sam wants to beat him to it. As soon as his hands touch Dean's skin, though, Dean hisses. "Shit, Sam, your hands are cold."
Sam freezes, a deer in headlights.
"Dude, seriously, cold hands." Dean shrinks back a little, but not much.
"What, you want to warm up by the light of a burning monster corpse?"
And just like that, Dean cracks a grin. "You know how fire gets me going, Sammy."
They douse the thing and its charred head in salt and a whole bottle of lighter fluid, then Dean lights it up. Sam lets him do his thing. They watch it burn until it's disfigured, charred and smoldering, and then Dean takes Sam by the elbow to their busted up tent where they try to prop up the un-busted side as shelter for the both of them somehow.
They roll all the blankets around them, pressing close against each other, stripped of their jackets as they try to use them as pillows. Sam's body feels like a live wire, a heady current running all through him, his leg slotting between Dean's and their chests pressed warm together. Sam rolls on top of Dean and shoves his hands down to work at the button on Dean's jeans again.
"Better?" he whispers in the quiet, as he slides a huge hand under Dean's shorts, over his belly and hip, then lower to touch the curls at the base of his cock. Dean lets out a huff of a laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, Sam, yeah," and he's rutting up against the pressure, not even moving to let Sam's hand get more room.
Sam finds his jeans suddenly being undone and yanked down, along with his briefs, and Dean's hand wrapping around both their cocks. It's all Sam can do to brace himself as Dean fists them both, arms bracketing Dean's shoulders, and he comes too soon, hips jerking. Dean gets himself off, Sam can feel his fist moving fast in the slick warm mess of come between their bellies. It's new and strange and he never wants to go back to before he knew what this was like. Smelling Dean's sweat, tasting his saliva, taking his own overshirt off to wipe up the mess and throw over into the corner before burying his face in Dean's neck again.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not concussed," Dean mumbles as Sam's about to drop off.
"Stay up and watch the fire go down. I'm going to sleep." And he does.
Sam wakes up when the birds start getting loud. He blinks his eyes open. They feel gritty. The blankets are cold and damp on the outside and the edges, but Sam and Dean have cocooned themselves well against the night, tangled up and heating the blanket roll like an oven. Sam lays his head back down on Dean's warm shoulder, curling his fingers over the edge of his collar. He listens to the birds, and the ceaseless whoosh of Dean's lungs, and closes his eyes again.