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The Cost of Living

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I.

In May, Sam Winchester steps backwards into a hole in the world.

When it's over, Dean keeps his promise. He does what Sam told him to because he said he would. It's not until he's standing on Lisa's doorstep, face buried in her hair and her arms around him, that he realizes maybe it wasn't the stupidest plan Sam ever came up with.

* * *

Weeks later, he still can’t believe it actually happened. Not Sam being gone—that’s real enough. That’s a sick, hollowed-out, gut-shredding pain inside of him, and it’s so real he can barely breathe most of the time. The part that feels impossible is that he could have let it come to this. The man Dean once was would have punched him in the face for even considering the idea that Sam sacrificing himself was a viable option. But Dean stood down when Sam said he was sure this was the right thing, and for all the resistance he mustered, he might as well have pushed Sam himself. The guy who could do something like that? Make that choice and see it through? He doesn't even know who that guy is.

My brother in a hole, he said to Cas, but it's so much worse than that. All his hard-learned defenses and coping mechanisms aren't enough to block out his own time in the Pit. He can't close his eyes without seeing flashes—can't block the visceral memories that ambush him every time he lets his guard down. They haven't been this bad in a year, and he's not sure he can take it, knowing the same and worse is happening to Sam every minute of every day. He thought it was tough walking around topside when his dad went to Hell for him, but this time he thinks it might be more than he can stand.

Then he thinks about those last couple of days, Sam right there next to him, close enough to touch, and all the things he didn't say. All the things he should have. For so long, he's carried around all this anger, using whatever resources he had to get the job done, to go on pretending that everything was fine between them, and now he'd give his right arm to have even a day, an hour to make sure Sam knew none of it mattered.

That's the thing that eats him up inside. It kills him to think maybe Sam went to Hell believing it did.

When Lisa asks him how he's doing, he tries his best to block it all out. If he drinks enough, the noise in his head even becomes bearable for a little while, and he feels marginally less like he's going to die.

He's not sure that's a good thing.

* * *

Maybe the hardest part is that everything's easier now. Sure, he's two inches from losing it most of the time, and dealing with the day to day inanities of regular life is a challenge he never thought he'd have to face, but he has a comfortable bed to sleep in if he wants it. There's work to be done around the house that doesn't involve taking his life in his hands, or getting covered in monster guts, and the world doesn't seem to be in danger of ending any time soon. The food he eats involves vegetables grown in the actual ground and meat that's never been frozen, and if he wants to clear his head, he can (in theory) go for a beer at the local joint or a run on safe, tree-lined streets.

He can't face the idea of sex, but if he wanted, he could probably have that, too.

He's more grateful to Lisa than he can say, but it makes him want to kill something, how fucking unfair it is. Dean's up here, where everything is warm and sunny and normal and safe, like Sam always wanted for both of them, and Sam died for that. He's suffering agony Dean can imagine too well, because he's locked in a cage of eternal torment with the two angelic sons of bitches he put there.

Sam didn't go down alone, of course, and in his better moments, Dean forces himself to remember that. If he'd known that somebody else was gonna pay this kind of price for him giving Michael the finger? Things might have gone down differently. And he's sorry about Adam, he is, but the thing he can’t stop thinking about is this: if he’d said yes to Michael, instead of trying to change fate, maybe he and Sam would be together right now.

He knows that’s a fantasy. It wouldn’t be like that, not in Hell, not in Lucifer’s foul Cage. Hell is the place where no comfort comes. He knows that better than anyone. Even if he’d found some way to convince Michael to take him instead of Adam, the best he could have hoped for would be an eternity of watching Sam get ripped apart by the Devil himself—or worse.

Knowing that doesn't help. He still feels like for all his promises, he screwed things up in the biggest, most obvious way possible. None of this makes sense. Sure, they were out of options when it came to stopping Lucifer, but a part of Dean wonders if maybe the real reason he let Sam go alone is because he was too scared to go back there. Maybe he really is that much of a coward.

* * *

Dean knows from experience that given enough time, your mind does things to make you, if not forget, at least learn to deal. It's protection or something—the brain's way of keeping the body going. It's the same thing that kept his dad going after his mom died, that made it possible for Dean to keep going after his own stint in Hell. You think you can’t, that you’ll die from the pain. But you don’t. Somehow, you keep getting up in the morning, telling yourself whatever you have to to get through the day, and one day you realize it doesn’t hurt as much as it did.

Dean drinks to numb the pain, not to forget. He doesn't want to forget. It makes him sick with guilt every time he does, even for a minute, because Sam doesn't get to take breaks like that. He won't, not ever. If anyone knows that, it's Dean, so he doesn't want to forget for one second where Sam is. What price he's paying so Dean and Ben and Lisa and the rest of them can go on sucking air.

Maybe it’s crazy, but deep down, Dean wants to believe his heart will always hurt like this. That he'll never stop feeling this way, like there's a hole inside him so big it could swallow the world—like it's all he can do to get up in the morning, to act like he gives a fuck whether he or anyone else on this miserable planet lives or dies. The truth is, he doesn't want to stop hurting. It's all he has.

Still, he goes through the motions, for Sam's sake. For Bobby’s. For Lisa and Ben, who don't deserve this, he tries his best to act like a human being who hasn't had his guts ripped out, his heart cut in two.

Lisa isn't fooled. One night a week or so in, she slips a couple of pills into his whiskey to try and get him to sleep. He wakes up yelling himself hoarse from the nightmares, sweating and shaking with the horrors his subconscious drags up to punish him for trying to escape the inescapable.

"It's okay," she tries to tell him, crouching beside the couch where he crashed out. Her hands rest gently on his neck, his arm. "Baby, it's okay. I've got you."

"Don't," he tells her, jerking away before he can stop himself. Ask him why he's so terrified, why his skin crawls at the thought of taking that comfort, and he couldn't tell you, not in words, but his whole body locks up in denial. "Please don't, Lise. I can't."

"Okay," she says. "Okay."

* * *

"You can't keep this up," she says after a while. They're sitting on the couch. Dean's calmer, now; he's got his elbows braced on his knees and his head in his hands, trying to get himself together. Lisa's hand rests between his shoulder blades, and his whole body wants to flinch away from that touch. "I mean it. It's killing you."

He gives a bitter laugh. If only.

"Maybe that doesn't sound so bad," she says, her voice low and steady. "I get that. But you came to me, and I need you to try. Okay?" And she reaches up, the back of her hand against his cheek, the soft touch of her thumb against his temple. When he shivers and closes his eyes, she curls her hand around his so their fingers lace together, a warmth that feels unreal against the iciness of his own.

He resists, but the gentleness in her touch does him in. He can't take it.

"Lise—"

"I know it's hard right now," she whispers. "It's okay. You don't have to be okay right now. Nobody expects that."

Her kindness makes it worse. "You don't deserve this," he tells her. He should never have come here.

"Baby, nobody does."

It's enough to make him look up. Her dark eyes shine with tears, and her expression is so full of compassion his heart gives a broken, sideways lurch. He must give himself away, because her eyes well up and spill, tears sliding down her beautiful face.

Maybe it's seeing her cry, or maybe it's the way she strokes his forehead like his mom used to. Something inside him gives way. Tears of his own choke him hard, fierce and hot and bitter, and when she pulls him into her arms, he goes without much resistance.

The harsh sobs come, then, and he's helpless to stop them. It hurts like hell, of course—he hasn't broken down like this since it happened. But worse, it feels like defeat, like giving up. Most of all, it scares the shit out of him because he knows that if he lets himself grieve for real, he might start to accept it—and if he does that, Sam's screwed.

Even that isn't enough to help him hold it together. He cries like a little kid, unable to stop, and Lisa holds him tight.

He sleeps four hours that night, and she stays with him the whole time, his head in her lap and her hands stroking his hair. It doesn't change anything. The nightmares are just as bad, and his head hurts like a supernova went off in his skull, but he sleeps nonetheless, his body and his heart finally run to the end of their endurance.

* * *

The next morning while Lisa's taking Ben to school, he goes out to the garage, lays his hands against the roof of his car, and prays for all he’s worth.

"Dean," Castiel says, his voice close in the intimate space. Between one breath and the next, he's standing there on the opposite side of the car.

For a second, Dean can't help the crushing wave of relief. "Cas." He has to fight to keep his voice steady. He hadn't been sure if he'd ever see Castiel again. "Thanks for coming."

"I didn't expect to hear from you so soon."

“Yeah, about that.” Before Dean can stop himself, he’s leaning against the car, his hands closing into fists and his forehead resting on them. He squeezes his eyes shut for a second, then looks up, pleading with everything he's got. "Cas, man, you gotta help me." It comes out ragged, like the words take all his breath. "You have to. I can't do this. We have to get him out."

The sadness that comes over Castiel's face is profound. "Dean."

Rage and desperation bloom in Dean's chest, and he pounds his fists against the cold metal, not feeling it. "No, goddammit." He shoves himself away. "Don't look at me like that. I don't care. I don't give a fuck. We have to. It's Sam." His throat closes on it. He hasn't said his brother's name since the day he died.

"I understand," Cas says, implacable, like he in any way knows the first damn thing about it. "But you know it's not possible. Even if I could—"

It's all Dean can stand to hear. He paces back and forth. "Why?" he demands, like it’s ripped out of him. "You got me out!” Castiel says nothing, and Dean rushes ahead because he can’t stand to hear no again. “Why him? Huh? Why does he have to be the one to pay for the whole goddamned world? Our whole fucked up lives—" Furious tears spring up, his throat clogging without warning, and that only pisses him off more. "It's not right, dammit. It's not fucking fair."

"Dean, listen to me." Castiel is standing beside him. He puts a hand on Dean's arm, and when Dean lashes out at him, the blow takes Cas in the ribs. Dean turns on him. He clenches one fist in Castiel's coat and the other draws back involuntarily. But he sees Cas's face, then, and what is he supposed to do? Hit an angel? An angel who won't feel it, who'll probably just stand there and take it until the pain in Dean's hands gets bad enough that they hurt as much as this terrible emptiness inside him? What good will it do? He'll never get the answer he wants.

Cas's vessel is solid and real against his body, deceptively human. Dean can feel the rumble of Castiel's voice as he says again, each word deliberate, "Even if I could, Sam wouldn't want me to. The Cage is all that protects mankind from extinction at the hands of Lucifer and Michael. You're aware of this."

"Fuck you, you sonofabitch," Dean snarls. He shoves Cas back against the car, hard enough to bruise. He's out of control, now, and he knows it, but he can't help himself. "Either you help me, or so help me God—"

But it's useless. He runs out of breath and rage at the same time, and the threat dies in his throat. He can hate God and Cas and every angel who ever was, and he’s still not getting Sam back. Not this time. From the moment they were born, it was always going to end this way.

“Dean.”

He has Cas pinned, his fists knotted up in that stupid overcoat, but it’s all useless. It's not Castiel's fault, and this isn’t something Dean can kill. He's never going to see his brother again.

It's then that Dean hits the wall of inevitable truth. He hears himself breathing in rough, ragged gasps that make him sound like he’s dying, his vision going black at the edges. If Cas touches him or says his name like that again, with that sadness as deep as the world, he’s gonna shatter into a million pieces.

“Get away from me,” he orders. He shoves himself off Cas and turns his back, squeezing his eyes shut so he won’t have to see Cas's face. “Don’t say another fucking thing to me. Just go.”

For a second, he thinks Cas will refuse, maybe even relent and give him what he wants. But instead there’s a silence, heavy with Castiel’s pity. Then the familiar rustle of wings.

Dean’s alone in Lisa’s garage. Morning sunlight streams across the neatly painted concrete floor. Somewhere, a garbage truck beeps a bored warning as it backs up.

Violent tremors run through Dean's body. He turns in a half-circle, and his car is there, still dull with road dust the way he left her. There’s a Sam-shaped indentation in the passenger seat where the vinyl’s worn soft. In the back, Sam's laptop case sits behind the driver's seat, within easy range of his long reach.

“Fuck,” Dean chokes, and it comes out more like a sob than a curse. It feels like someone let the air out of the room. He presses his fists against the glass. And then, because he’s alone and not strong enough to stop himself, he says, “Sammy."

Saying it hurts so bad he might as well be bleeding out. It shouldn’t feel like this, losing somebody. His insides feel like they’re being physically ripped out of him. He’d sell his soul again right now if it would make this feeling stop, and that scares him, but not nearly as much as it should.

He knows Cas is right. Of course he is. Dean gave the rings to Bobby for this very reason—so he wouldn't be tempted. He told Bobby to hide them, to make sure Dean could never find them, and he prays that Bobby did what he asked, because right now, it feels like it would be worth setting Lucifer loose on the world if it meant he could get Sam back. What does that say about him?

Dean fumbles for the handle and yanks open the car door. He crawls blind into the back seat and curls himself up small.

* * *

The vinyl is cool against the side of Dean’s face, the heat of his temple. His stomach hurts, but that's far away and unremarkable, a familiar comfort in itself.

After a while, he starts to think crazy things. At first, it’s the same fantasies he’s been having off and on since the minute it happened: mostly the ever-present awareness of his gun, a pressing weight at the small of his back. He knows what it would feel like in his hand, the ivory grip warm with his body heat. What it would taste like. A few seconds of cool metal and gun oil, and then nothing—a deafening crack and then sweet oblivion.

If he’s honest, that fantasy is an old friend. But it’s never felt so real, so welcome as it does now. He can't go back there, can't jump in that hole like he should have, but he can end this misery, this joke of a life.

He swallows with effort. He owes Lisa better than that. He knows he does. He owes Sam better. But what stops him is that he knows oblivion’s a lie. There’s no end, not really. There’s life, and then there’s the afterlife, and for all Dean knows, his soul is still damned.

The thought isn’t so bad. If they send him back to Hell, then at least he’ll be where Sam is.

If he could buy that, he’d eat a bullet right now. But he knows better, and even fucked up as he is, he can’t make himself believe it. Hell is Hell. There’s no mercy there. He’d be on the rack, and Sam would be in the Cage. Dean could sell every scrap of self he has left, sell out the whole human race for the chance to see him and it wouldn’t make any difference. They’d torture him with hope until the end of time.

The alternative is no better. Dean doesn’t know if he’s earned a trip upstairs, if his debt is paid or not. Maybe it is. But if that’s true, and Dean somehow ends up in the penthouse suite, then he’ll never be with Sam again, not while Sam’s soul is still in that box. Dean’s never forgotten what Ash said. He's not wild about the whole idea of Heaven, not after what he’s seen, but the thought of sharing it with Sam is enough to make it bearable. If he dies now, that’ll never happen. There’ll be no one left to get Sam out.

Dean opens his eyes. Reason comes like a jolt of ice water in his veins. He promised Sam, but he also told Sam he wasn't leaving him, and he knows which promise he means to keep.

Dean pushes himself up. He wipes his face and meets his own eyes in the rearview. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

It's in that moment that Dean Winchester comes back to himself—that he makes the decision to live. Because screw his promise, and screw anyone who says it’s not possible. Sam beat the Devil. Together, they defied all the forces of Heaven and Hell combined. Dean doesn’t care what it takes; he’s getting Sam out.

* * *

The euphoria lasts the better part of two weeks. He tells Lisa he has something he has to do and takes off, leaving her with reassurances and promises to call he doesn’t mean. It's selfish. Dean knows that. This fever burning in his blood is because he doesn’t know how to let Sam go, any more than he ever did—but if that’s a crime, he’ll cop to it gladly in front of any court in the land.

Dean holes up in a motel outside Indianapolis. He doesn’t sleep. What he does do is spend every hour he can at the university library, and the rest of his time online hunting down rare books, which he pays for with fake cards and orders drop-shipped to a P.O. box. He shoves food down his gullet when he remembers and drinks less than he has in a month, and if these are the same books Sam combed through for a year trying to figure out a way to save him, that doesn't matter. He can't let it matter. They have the rings, and even if it's not an answer, it's a start, and more than Sam had.

The irony doesn't escape him. A year ago, he’d been so pissed at Sam that he'd honestly believed he was better off alone, and had made no secret of it. Now, every angry word and every bitter accusation burns like acid inside him, and he wants to take every one of them back. Those feelings were real enough at the time—Dean knows that. Sam hurt him and fucked up in some pretty epic ways, but now Dean understands in a way he wishes he didn't.

Sam watched him die bloody, and lived four months on his own knowing Dean was in Hell. If Ruby were here right now, Dean would fuck her in a second, would give her a back rub and a pony and take her on an all-expenses-paid vacation for two in Maui if there was half a chance it would make a difference.

* * *

The crash comes eventually. Dean's never been great at believing in miracles, and even if they exist, he and Sam have used up their share.

"There's got to be something," he says to no one, spreading his hands over the pages that surround him. He shoves a rare grimoire aside and drags out another one. "Has to be." But his hands are unsteady, the feverish hope he's been running on for days slipping away. He can't remember any more what he's doing here. Why did he think he could find something in these books when Sam couldn't? When Bobby couldn't?

Bobby. For a second, Dean grabs onto that idea like a lifeline. Bobby's gotten them out of more tight spots than he can count these last few years. If anybody'll be able to make sense out of this mess, it's him.

As soon as he thinks it, though, he knows what Bobby will say. The same thing Cas said. The same thing Sam would say if he were here. If there had been a way, Sam would have found it when Dean was down under playing demon chow.

You got to promise not to try and bring me back.

That night, Dean tries to drink himself to death in his motel room. Two days later, he wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how he got there. He can only assume Castiel has something to do with it, and adds it to the list of sins Cas has committed trying to save him.

When Lisa comes to get him, he can hardly look at her, but she takes him home anyway.

II.

He's not giving up. He tells himself that every day, every time he gets his first whiff of whiskey and takes that first sip. He's not giving up, and he won't, not as long as there's breath in his body, but sometimes you gotta be patient. Wait for the right opportunity. And until then, there's the business of surviving day to day.

Dean’s lived a lifetime keeping on against the unsurvivable. Sam made him promise, and he can't face that, but he can keep putting one foot in front of the other until he can think about it. Until something changes. He can put on his game face same as he's been doing all his life, live this reality like he believes in it. Ben's not his kid, but maybe he could've been. Lisa's not his soul mate, but she's better than anything he deserves, and it's not like it's hard to love her. He doesn't know if he can ever make it up to them, but it's something to try for.

In some ways, he feels more awake and alive than he has in years. He thinks a part of him never really came back from Hell, at least not until now. Everything that happened the last couple of years, everything that went wrong—with him and Sam and everything else—it was like it was happening to somebody else a lot of the time, like he was going through the motions. Even Famine couldn’t touch him, he was so empty inside. But something woke up at the heart of him, those last moments before Sam fell, and now he can’t shut it down again. He wishes to God he could remember how.

Maybe that's why, when Lisa kisses him outright for the first time since he showed up on her doorstep, he thinks, he can do this. She's amazing, and beautiful, and it's not like he ever stopped noticing that. She doesn't make a big deal out of the kiss, either, and that's part of it. Ben's asleep, and when Dean comes in from taking out the trash (and circling the perimeter of the house, then checking the locks one more time), she leans up and thanks him with the warm, easy pressure of her mouth against his.

His reaction catches him by surprise. She feels as good as she always has, so it probably shouldn't, but after a long, quiet moment in which she waits to see what he'll do, he relaxes into it and lets his hands come up, lets them slide into her hair.

Their kisses are hesitant at first, their mouths barely touching. Dean's aware of the uncertain rhythm of his heart pounding too hard in his chest, of the clean taste of her mouth and the faint scent of her shampoo. When at last they stop, holding on to each other in the kitchen doorway, Lisa leans back and studies his face.

"You okay?" she asks, a hint of teasing in it.

"Yeah," he breathes, and to his surprise, it's true. "Think so."

"Good," she says. "Because I was thinking, maybe you could sleep with me tonight. If you want to."

It's not the first time she's offered. She's tried to persuade him a few times, not pushing for anything he wasn't ready for, but making it clear he'd be welcome to simply sleep in her bed if he wanted. He'd refused, unwilling to keep her awake half the night with the shit that went on in his head. Bad enough that he woke her sometimes from halfway across the house.

"Just sleep," she adds, seeing his hesitation, "if that's what you want. I'm good with that."

He brushes her hair out of her face, tracing the line of her cheek. "And if I want something more than that?"

The hint of teasing becomes a real smile. "I'm good with that, too."

She makes it easy on him. She takes charge, her touch both gentle and sure. It's exactly what he needs: to forget for a little while—just a little while—and at first, he thinks it's going to be okay. He can do this. Anybody else, he might balk at the gate, but Lisa knows him, and he trusts her. He wants this. It's the first good thing that's happened to him in so long, he can barely believe it's real.

No sooner does he think that than a wave of sick self-loathing curls in his gut. You selfish, traitorous son of a bitch, that inner voice says—the one that he can never escape. The one that sees him for the fuck up that he is. Still, he tries, he does, but the damage is done.

He should have known, he thinks, when it becomes obvious this is one more thing he can fail at.

"Hey," she says when he tries to apologize. "Listen to me." She sits up behind him and puts her arms around him, holding him still when all he wants is to go somewhere far away and put himself out of his misery. "You have nothing to be sorry about. I mean it. You weren't ready, and that's okay. I'm not going anywhere."

Dean gives a soft, bitter laugh. "Maybe you should think about goin' to have your head examined."

"Shows what you know." She slips her arms under his, folds her legs under her, and rests her chin on his shoulder. "I happen to be the sanest person in this room."

It might be the truest thing she's ever said, but his overpowering self-loathing eases a little, and despite himself, he tucks his hands over hers. "Pretty low standards you got."

"Can't argue with that."

For a while she doesn't say anything else, only holds on and breathes with him, the soft weight of her breasts through her cotton camisole warm against his back. He closes his eyes, and the vast, dark wave of panic that welled up out of nowhere starts to recede. Without meaning to, he lets his breathing fall into rhythm with hers. Slowly, the tension leaches out of his body.

"Better?" she asks, some unmeasured time later, when his heartbeat has eased back to something approaching normal.

"Yeah," he says hoarsely. To his surprise, it's true.

She kisses him on the shoulder, then hugs him tighter. "Glad to hear it."

He lets her hold on to him until it starts to get weird. Then he clears his throat. "So, this hugging thing."

"You like it?"

"I don't hate it."

"Oh, I see."

"Think we could do it lying down?"

She unfolds her legs and pulls him down with her, stretching out and making room for him beside her, then wrapping her arms around him. It's pretty incredible. Her breast makes the softest, most amazing pillow, and when she pulls the sheet over them and starts to stroke his hair, he thinks he might never move again. The tears that leak out of his eyes are as much relief as anything.

"You sure you're not a shapeshifter of some kind?" he asks, feeling the last of his tension start to melt away into the warmth of her body. "'Cause I think you're too good to be real."

"Not that funny," she tells him.

"Not really joking," he confesses.

She kisses him on the forehead, then smooths the spot with her hand. "This is real," she says, and she sounds so sure that as he slips toward sleep, he almost believes her.

* * *

It shouldn't work, him and Lisa and Ben. But as the weeks pass, it keeps surprising him how quickly they've fit him into their lives. Even when things get awkward, or he forgets and says or does something that betrays just how far from normal he is, they roll with it. Dean has no words to express how grateful he is, even when he catches himself thinking of all the ways he could hurt them and push them away. It's a measure of that gratitude that he keeps his mouth shut.

The hours after dark are the worst. A lifetime of hunting at night means his body and brain are trained to switch into overdrive when the sun goes down. Drinking sometimes helps; if he's lucky, it'll drown out the rustle of the wind, the little creaks the house makes, and shut the noise in his head up long enough to put him under, at least for a couple of hours.

Those are the good nights. On the bad ones, when it's a few hours before dawn and he’s had one too many, or he's given up on both drinking and sleeping altogether and he's driving Lisa's old truck around with the sunrise in his eyes, he can't help himself: he still prays for Cas to help him. But after that first time, Cas never answers him. Dean imagines him up there somewhere, annoyed, listening to Dean make a fool of himself. As prayers go, they won't win any prizes. All Dean knows how to say is please, and Cas, man. Come on, and sometimes, I’m begging you. Dean won’t say Sam's name to him again, not even in his own head. He realizes this whole thought process is probably proof that he's short a couple of marbles.

He calls Sam's phone exactly once. It's three in the morning, the alcohol a fierce, white-hot burn in his stomach when he gives in to the need to hear Sam's voice. He holds the phone cradled in his hand for maybe an hour before he dials the number. It goes straight to voice mail, of course. Sam's phone, wherever it is, is long since out of juice.

This is Sam. Leave a message, and I'll call you back.

Dean hangs up before the beep. His eyes are closed, the echo of Sam's voice resonating in his chest like a struck bell. It's pathetic and he knows it, but his fingers cramp from holding on to the phone. He chokes down four swallows of whiskey and vows never to do anything that stupid again.

He doesn't call Bobby because Bobby said he'd call him as soon as he had anything. The fact that he hasn't means he doesn't, and Dean can't bring himself to make small talk about what he does all day, not with the one person who's known him all his life. He can barely bring himself to think about it.

He doesn't say Sam's name at all after a while.

On the good side, after that first painfully awkward night, he and Lisa find their groove. Both in and out of the bedroom, Lisa's good at giving him space. She doesn't push. She does watch him with Ben, though, and he does his best to do right by the kid. It's not easy, relearning how to live in the moment, how to listen and make pancakes and go to soccer games and make his way through each day like a normal person. It makes him feel like a kid himself.

Dean's always been easy for anybody under the age of twelve, but it's obvious even to him that Lisa's gotten under his skin, too—more than he's comfortable with. She's crazy gorgeous, and probably the sexiest woman he's ever met, but it's not about that, not really. He catches himself smiling at her wry one-liners and looking forward to seeing her at the end of the day. He lets her teach him couples yoga, for chrissake, and he'd eat snails before admitting it, but it's kind of awesome. She's good for him in ways he can't define. Maybe it's the way she looks at him, like she sees how much it's costing him. Like she knows that this is the hardest thing he's ever done, and that he might fuck it up, but she's willing to take the risk. It makes him want to do the right thing by her, and not only because of the promise he made to Sam. And so, one day at a time, he learns how to be a human being again.

"Hey," she tells him, late one Saturday morning in midsummer. Ben's at a friend's house, and Dean's washing up the breakfast dishes when she comes up behind him and slides her arms around him, hands slipping up to rest against his chest. "You don't have to do that, you know."

"What?" he asks, embarrassed at the way his heart still misses an uncertain beat whenever she surprises him like this. "The dishes? I think I can handle it."

She rests her chin on his shoulder, and her breath is warm against his neck. "I mean, you don't have to be so perfect all the time. You're not a guest here. It's been two months."

He tries not to freeze up at that, without complete success.

As usual, he can't hide his reaction from her. Her arms tighten, and she rests her forehead against his shoulder. "Shit. I'm sorry."

"No, it's okay."

It's not; not really. He can see the image of Sam falling like a flash picture, forever imprinted in his mind.

She sighs. "Yeah, no, it's not. I'm an idiot. But seriously, I mean it. You staying here, it's not some kind of test."

He puts down the scrubber and turns in her arms. She loosens her hold and lets him, but keeps him close. She smells and feels amazingly good against him.

"You realize I don't actually know what you're talking about," he lies, trying to cover for his lapse.

"Uh huh. Well, I'm saying, you don't have to." She leans back and looks up at him, and he wishes he knew what to call the look on her face. "It's enough that you're here," she says then. "I mean that. I'm glad you came to us."

"Really?" he asks before he can stop himself.

She smiles, her eyes traveling over his face. "Yeah, really. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way." Her gaze slides downward, coming to rest at his shoulder. "And if you ever want to talk—"

He takes a small step backward, letting her go. "Lise, I can't. Not yet. Please don't ask me to."

He's never told them anything about what happened to Sam. Ben asked him a couple weeks after he first showed up on their doorstep, but Lisa was there and stepped in, saving him from having to answer. He heard her afterwards in the next room, explaining that Dean needed time before he could talk about what happened. If he wanted to tell them, she said, he would. And until then, it was up to them to be there for him. He'd tried to thank her afterward, but she'd refused to hear it, insisting that she meant what she said.

She's been as good as her word, and now she lays a hand on his arm. "I'm not. Really. It's okay. I'm just saying, if you want to, I'm here." Then she smiles, head tilting. "But until then, it's Saturday, and Ben's sleeping over at Connor's. What do you say we go to the movies? You, me, Angelina Jolie?"

"You sure know how to sweet-talk a guy," he admits.

Her smile widens, like she's ridiculously proud of him. "I have my moments."

III.

"You sure you'll be okay?"

"How many times do I gotta say it? I'll be fine. Go, have fun. I promise, I'll stay outta trouble."

Lisa puts her arms around him, the curves and strength of her body familiar now, but still just as sweet. "That's not what I'm talking about, and you know it."

It's the end of July, Ben's still off school for another week, and Lisa's taking him to see her sister's family. They'll be gone for five days, and Lisa's having second thoughts.

Dean kisses her by way of reassurance. "I'm okay. Really. I'm a big boy, remember?"

"I remember," she says with a smile, leaning close. Dean kisses her again, this time with conviction.

"Ew, guys, gross," Ben says, walking into the kitchen with his backpack on. "You're scarring me."

"I think you'll live," Lisa tells him. Dean lets her go, and she picks up her purse. "You ready?"

Ben raises an eyebrow. "I've been ready. You're the one who's taking forever. You said we could go to IHOP, remember?"

"Should I be worried about your pancake addiction?" Lisa kisses Dean on the cheek one last time. "Be good," she says. "Call me if you need anything."

Ben rolls his eyes, but when they're at the kitchen door, he stops and turns around. Before Dean knows what he intends, Ben has his arms around Dean's waist and his face tucked against Dean's chest. "You really have to go to work?" he asks.

"Ben," Lisa warns.

Dean's heart kicks, the bottom of his stomach dropping out. He can hear the snap and hiss of fireworks, feel the burn of their smoke in his lungs. Dad would never let us do anything like this. Thanks, Dean.

Dean hugs Ben back, locking away the memory as if his life depends on it. His voice sounds mostly okay when he says, "Afraid so, man. My second week on the job, I can't exactly duck out."

Ben heaves a dramatic sigh, then shrugs. "I wish you were coming, that's all." He finally lets Dean go and steps back.

Dean tries to play it cool. "Next time," he says, and Ben brightens.

"Yeah, next time."

It's harder than he expects, having the house to himself. He feels weird sleeping in Lisa's bed without her there, and he keeps hearing noises in the house. The second night, he gives in and puts salt at the windows and doors. It's not rational. He knows that. He's got no reason to think there's anything out there, and if Lisa knew what he was doing, she'd probably haul ass back home and spend the next week talking him down from the ledge. But doing it makes him feel better in ways he doesn't want to think about.

On the third day, he catches himself reading the obituaries.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he asks himself when he realizes what he's doing. He makes himself fold the paper up and throw it in the recycling. He told Lisa he'd be fine, and he is fine. Just because the house is quiet, that doesn't mean he has to go looking for trouble. He hasn't so much as fired a gun in three and a half months, and he has no intention of doing so.

It's a long five days.

The last day before they're supposed to come home is a Saturday. Dean doesn't work on Saturdays, so the morning stretches out endlessly, warm rain falling in a grey drizzle that only makes it stickier outside. Dean does laundry and cleans the kitchen within an inch of its life, then finally escapes to the garage out of desperation.

Turns out three months of neglect in a humid Indiana summer has done his car no favors, so after half an hour of checking fluids and belts and finding spots of rust starting on the chrome, Dean buries himself in doing everything he should have done months ago.

He's so focused on what he's doing that he misses the soft shush of wings. Castiel almost gets a car jack rod through the midsection as a result. Not that it would have caused permanent damage, but Cas manages to be elsewhere by about two feet and saves Dean the awkward apology.

"Hello, Dean."

"Don't you ever get tired of sneaking up on me?" Dean asks, while his heart rate subsides to only double its normal speed.

"Not really," Cas replies.

"Cute." He gives Cas a keen look, but nothing about him screams world-ending emergency. "Everything okay?"

"Yes."

He doesn't elaborate. Dean stares for a long moment. Before he can stop it, a traitorous spark tries to light in his chest. If Cas is here to help him—

"I am not here to help you with Sam," Cas says then, cutting that fragile hope off at the knees.

"Right. Of course you aren't." Dean tosses the rag he was using aside. "Which makes the staring a little creepy, hate to tell you."

Castiel hesitates, wearing a slight frown and an odd, awkward expression, his hands at his sides. At last, he says, "I came to see how you were doing."

For a second, Dean is nonplused. Is he serious? "Well, that's new." When Castiel says nothing, Dean scowls. "What do you want me to say? I'm doing the best that I possibly can. Some days, that's better than other days."

"You seem better," Cas remarks.

It catches Dean off guard. All things considered, it's almost certainly true, and as soon as he thinks about that, the guilt wells up. He is better. He's by no means okay, or normal, but Sam's in Hell, and here he is working on his car.

"I've upset you," Castiel says.

Dean turns away, and starts cleaning up his tools. "Yeah, well. That's life." Then his sense of fairness reasserts itself, and he adds, "It ain't your fault." Cas only watches him. Suddenly, Dean doesn't want him to go. He half-turns, not quite looking at his friend. "Listen, you want to stay for dinner? I was gonna watch the game."

This is how he ends up hanging out with an angel on a Saturday night, watching baseball, drinking beer, and cooking hamburgers on the grill. Castiel even eats one to humor him. It's surreal, is what it is. But Cas is long overdue a lesson in baseball, and Dean is only too happy to give it to him.

It's the most time he's spent with Cas in almost a year. He should probably ask what's going on in Heaven these days, but the truth is, he doesn't want to know. He tells himself that if Cas can afford to take the night off, things must be okay, and by the ninth inning and the third tumbler of Jack, he's convinced himself this is perfectly normal. So, he's friends with an angel, and his brother died saving the world. So what? Doesn't make him a freak.

He's not sure whether he said some version of that out loud, or whether the new, improved Cas can actually read his thoughts, but he realizes Cas is staring at him, that sad look on his face that makes Dean feel like he wants to crawl under a rock. His eyes burn suddenly, and he takes a deep swig of bourbon to cover it.

Cas blinks, and the TV suddenly mutes. Dean huffs a laugh despite himself. "Nice trick," he says. "I was watching that."

"Perhaps you've had enough alcohol for tonight."

Dean smiles, and drinks the rest of what's in the glass. "Can't say you're wrong." He pours himself another, and offers the bottle to Cas. "Care to join me?"

Cas shakes his head, so Dean shrugs and tops himself off. He's at the good part of the drunk, where every sip makes him feel a little lighter, makes him hurt a little less. Maybe it's because Cas knew Sam, too, Dean thinks. Maybe that's why it's so bad all of a sudden tonight. Or maybe it's knowing that Castiel does care about him, and still won't help him save Sam.

He wishes he wasn't like this. They'd been having a good time, two friends hanging out watching the game, and he had to go and ruin it. Thank God Lisa isn't here to see him.

He drinks, eyes closed. He can tell the moment when he crosses the line between pretty drunk and well on his way to smashed, and it's been a long time coming. He has trouble getting really drunk any more, and he'd forgotten what a relief it is. It won't last. He knows that. But for right now, he is blessedly, thankfully numb.

He looks over at Cas, able to do it now. "Let me ask you something," he says. "You being God's favorite angel and all."

"I doubt that."

"Humor me." Dean puts the glass down too hard. "You think Sam deserved what happened to him?"

It's the first time he's willingly talked about Sam to anyone. He doesn't know what answer he's hoping for, or whether Cas will even give him one, but he can't stop himself.

Cas says, "I believe Sam made the right choice."

"Ain't what I asked."

"No, it's not," Cas admits. He's quiet for a long time, then—so long that Dean thinks maybe he won't answer after all. Finally, Cas says, "I believe some people are asked to bear a burden heavier than any one soul should be expected to bear."

Dean's fingers tighten viciously on the glass. "Why?" he chokes out.

Castiel's voice comes soft when he says, "I wish I knew."

Dean has never had Sam's faith. Not in God, not in a higher purpose. In his dad, yeah, once upon a time. In his family. He lost his belief in Sam for a while, but Sam showed him that Dean's faith mattered to him, that he'd learned from his mistakes. And when it counted, he'd proven that Dean was right to trust him again.

What was it about him and Sam, anyway? You'd think, after everything that happened, that he'd be able to understand, to make some kind of sense out of it. He couldn't make Sam's choice for him, or take his place, no matter how bad he wanted to. Knowing that doesn't make it any easier to swallow, or to forgive a God who would ask such a sacrifice. He doesn't think he ever will. Sam was so sure this was what he had to do, but Dean isn't even close to accepting it. He still reads every book on angels and souls, on Hell and the war in Heaven that he can get his hands on. He dreams almost every time he sleeps that he fights his way into the Cage and gets Sam out.

"Dean, there's another reason I came."

Dean lifts his head and looks at him. Cas is holding something out to him, curled in his palm. Dean's lost so deep in his own head, it takes him a second to understand what he's looking at.

When he does, he makes an involuntary sound. His head is spinning. But he'd recognize the gold bull's-head pendant anywhere.

"It took some searching. I know you discarded it after I told you it was worthless, but I thought—"

Dean fumbles for the amulet, closing his hand around it. He's grateful, he is, but he can't look at it, not right now. He squeezes it tight and feels his heart beating dull and heavy in his chest. The tiny horns cut into his palm.

"If I could—" Cas begins.

Dean cuts him off. "Don't. Please, don't."

Castiel touches his forehead, then, and there's merciful peace after that.

Dean dimly knows that Cas carries him to bed and undresses him, and if he had it left in him to protest, he would, but there's safety in the angel's embrace that Dean's in no shape to resist. That profound comfort wraps him up and drags him down, and the relief is so intense that he tells himself nobody has to know.

* * *

Dean sleeps the sleep of the dead. Whatever angel mojo Cas spent on him, it's better than the best drugs.

Right before he wakes, he has a dream about Sam. Dean's digging a grave, and he looks up and sees Sam standing above him in silhouette. "Sammy?" he asks. This doesn't feel like any of the other dreams. His heart starts to race.

"Hey," Sam says. He jumps down into the hole with Dean.

Sam never talks to him in his dreams. Dean has seen him suffering every torment imaginable, has dreamed himself fighting his way to get to him. In his worst nightmares, he has Sam under his knife, and Sam's screams echo in his head for days. This is different.

"Where were you?" Dean asks. "I missed you." Saying it hurts down to his bones, a feeling so intense that he shivers. He knows it's a dream, but he's so glad to see his brother, it might as well be real.

"I'm here now," Sam says. He takes the shovel out of Dean's hand, then wraps his hands in Dean's shirt and pulls him down to lie on the hard-packed dirt at the bottom of the hole. There's no coffin in here, Dean realizes. There never was. He was digging this hole for him and Sam all along.

He lets Sam wrap him up in his arms, the smell of earth and wet leaves all around them. Dean's arms are folded in against Sam's chest, and it's weird, but he feels so safe and loved, he closes his eyes. A mix of sadness and relief washes over him and he wants to cry, but the tears won't come. "Shh," Sam whispers, his breath warm on Dean's neck, so real Dean half believes if he woke, it would all have been a dream. Sam dying, Lucifer, the angels, all of it. Maybe they're asleep in some motel room, and if he opens his eyes Sam will be there in his bed, all long limbs and muscle and persistent heat, like he never was in life.

But Dean doesn't want to wake up—he's terrified of it. "Don't go, Sammy," he says, muffled into Sam's chest. He's too desperate to care what he sounds like. "Please. Stay here with me."

Sam doesn't answer him. He brushes Dean's hair back, then tilts Dean's chin and kisses him, his mouth warm and firm on Dean's, the tender, slow, wet touch of his tongue to Dean's lips. It lasts for what feels like forever. The second kiss lingers even more slowly, Sam's tongue touching his. Then he kisses Dean on the forehead, holds Dean close and tucks his head down, holding on.

Dean wakes up in Lisa's bed with the sun in his face, painfully aroused. The house is quiet. Cas is gone; he's alone. He presses a hand against the hard arch of his dick through his shorts, and Christ, he's aching for it. That single pressure makes need coil deep in his gut, his balls drawn up tight and ready. He can still smell grave dirt and taste the gentle heat of Sam's tongue. The amulet's cord is wrapped tight around his left hand, the pendant digging into his skin.

You sick fuck, he thinks, his face hot, but he slips his hand into his shorts, curls it around himself and pulls, and God, he's close. Sam's name is locked up in his throat, the feel of his brother's arms still so real that he can almost believe it actually happened. It's all tangled up with his body's need, emotional and physical longing so intense he can't deny it.

A few strokes and he knows he's not going to stop.

From that point, there's no turning back. He jerks himself off like he'll die if he doesn't. It doesn't last more than fifteen seconds; he covers his eyes, groans helplessly and comes for what seems like forever, Sam's name choked back half-said. He can still feel Sam's arms around him, and that feels like a gift, a miracle that hurts him down to the quick. Sam's gone. The dream was just that—a dream. But he holds onto it as hard as he can, like he can will it to be real if he tries hard enough.

In the aftermath, he lies there shaking. His spent cock twitches in his fist and sticky fluid cools in the wet, clinging fabric of his shorts. His body is so confused, it doesn't know what to do with this intense pleasure and relief. He feels like he's jumped off a cliff or something, like he's in free fall.

* * *

He gets up and changes his shorts, changes the sheets, makes coffee.

Dean's not stupid. In the bright light of day, hangover pounding at his temples and sunlight sparkling at the corners of his vision, he sees with cold clarity what he should have years ago: how much in love with his brother he's been all his life. Maybe since they were kids. The biggest truth of his life and he never saw it—never wanted to. He should have, he thinks. Normal people don't live the lives they did. Normal people don't grieve like this.

Hard to believe he's lived this deep in denial for this long, but if anyone could, it's him.

The thing is, he doesn't know what he's supposed to do about it. He loves Lisa, too, and he's afraid this will be the thing that ruins everything. What does it say about him, that more often than not he has trouble getting it up for a gorgeous woman who cares about him, but a dream about his dead brother is enough to do it for him?

That feels like the most selfish thought he could possibly have right now, and he shoves it away, feeling sick. He's only ever been good for two things in this world: hunting, and taking care of his family. Maybe that was always just one thing. Maybe he's been fooling himself that he can change. He loves Ben and Lisa, but they don't need him, not really. As grateful as he is, as much as he cares about them, he knows he can never be like them, and maybe this proves it. He's broken in some vital way, maybe has been all his life, and now he's got one more giant secret he can never let see the light of day.

The thought comes without bringing much comfort: at least Sam never knew how screwed up he was.

His head's a mess. He glances at the clock; he has maybe three hours before Lisa and Ben get back. His first instinct is to make himself scarce, at least until he can work things through. If she finds him in the state he's in, he doesn't know what will happen, but the cold fact is that Sam's gone. Lisa's not. Ben's not. He has to get it together.

What he should do then is go for a walk, clear his head, take a cold shower. But there's something he needs to do first.

* * *

Dean hasn't touched Sam's stuff since he put it in the car that last day. Everything's there: Sam's duffel, his clothes, his gun. There isn't much.

The letter's still where Dean knew it would be. He saw Sam writing it, though Sam tried to be clandestine about it. Dean did the same thing when he was planning to hand himself over to Michael, so he can't blame him.

Dean wasn't sure he would ever read that letter. In fact, he was sure he wouldn't. But this morning, the need to be close to his brother, to talk to him one last time, is all-consuming. He takes a deep breath and slips the folded paper out of Sam's bag. "Last chance to change your mind," he says to the empty garage, but he already knows that's not happening. Anticipation makes him feel like Sam's close by, like Dean could reach out and touch him, and his defenses are already blown to shit.

He sinks down to sit with his back against the car. Hands shaking, he unfolds the paper. As soon as his eyes fall on his name at the top, the shaking gets bad, and his vision blurs. His breath comes short and he crumples the letter fast, squeezing his eyes shut.

This was a mistake. It's too much; he can't handle feeling like this, not after that dream. Not knowing what he should have known all along.

The bull's head pendant warms to his hand when he slips it out of his pocket. He's barely let go of it since Cas gave it to him, and now he lets it fall to the end of its cord, watching through choked tears as it swings gently and catches the light. Even this should have been a clue. It's a dumb necklace from when they were kids, not some wedding ring, but Dean remembers how angry he'd been when he threw it away. How stupid he'd felt. How sure he was that it had never meant anything, not like he thought it did. Sam spent his whole life trying to get away from this claustrophobic, co-dependent thing between them, and maybe he'd known something Dean hadn't. Had Sam figured it out, Dean wonders? Did he know? Was that why he was always trying to run away?

Sam could've done this, he thinks bitterly. He could've picked up and moved on, had a life. If it was Dean in that hole, Sam would've found a way to go on.

He closes his fist around the cord, stopping its gentle swing. The bull's face stares back at him. Like he did when you went to Hell? a little voice inside him asks. And he thinks about Sam's face when the hellhounds came for Dean. The way Sam had looked at him in Wyoming, when he asked if Dean sold his soul. The way he'd held on to Dean with his whole body after the lifetime of Tuesdays that wouldn't end, his heart pounding against Dean's chest, a fast, desperate rhythm Dean didn't know what to make of at the time. Maybe Sam knew all along. Maybe it was always both of them.

Dean flushes hot. The idea hits him in a whole-body rush of realization. Maybe that's why Sam was always trying to get some distance—maybe Sam wanted it, too.

Dean can't help himself, then. He smooths the letter open against his knee.

Dean,

I know you're pissed at me right now for writing this. No chick flick moments, you'd tell me. But there's some things I need to say to you, and if I tried to say them to your face, you'd lay me out.

So, here's the thing. I know this sucks. Believe me, I know. As much as we keep fucking things up between us, we've always been better together than apart, and I wish we had more time. I know you feel the same way. People might say it's because of how we were raised, or because we've lost everybody else, but it's more than that. You're the best thing that ever happened to me.

Dean stops at the end of that sentence. He reads it again, and the tears come fierce and hot. He covers his mouth with his hand for a minute, chest knotted up and his face flushed, the breath locked up in his throat.

Finally, he gets a hold of himself, wipes his face, and keeps reading.

...best thing that ever happened to me. I mean that. But I think a part of me always knew where this was going to end.

If there's anything I wish I could make you understand, it's that you were always the one thing in this world I counted on. When I look back on my life, knowing what I know now, it's like a trainwreck—but I never would have made it if it wasn't for you. You picked me up and kept me going so many times, and I could never go through with this if you hadn't taught me that there are things worth fighting for.

The truth is, I'm so scared right now I can't even think about it or I'll go crazy. But I know I can do this. I know it because, when it comes down to it, there's nothing in the world that scares me more than letting you down. I know how hard it was for you to put your faith in me one last time, and it means more to me than anything. I can't even begin to tell you how much.

I'm sorry it had to be this way. I really am. But it's the right thing, Dean. It's how we end this. You and me. And I know how hard it's gonna be for you, but you gotta try for me, okay? I want you to be happy. You deserve it. It's the one thing I want more than anything, so if you can, if you make it out of this, please try.

"Goddamn it, Sammy." Dean sucks in a harsh breath. He's tired of crying. He's so goddamned tired. But fuck if his heart doesn't want to do whatever Sam asks of him even now.

Thank you. For everything. Most of all, for trusting me to do this.

Be safe.

Sam

The amulet's leather cord stretches tight around Dean's fist. He stares at his brother's name for a long span of heartbeats, and the memory of the dream is so real he thinks if he closes his eyes, he'd feel Sam's arms around him again. That he'd smell the dirt and the grass, the familiar scent of Sam's sweat and his own. He wants to go back there more than anything.

"Dean?"

Every muscle in Dean's body tenses. It's Ben's voice; there's a narrow rectangle of sunlight on the concrete, Ben's silhouette obscuring part of it; Dean realizes Ben's still standing in the doorway, on the other side of the car, and can't see him.

"Hey. Gimme a minute, okay?" he manages to get out. It comes out rough, but it's the best he can do.

"Are you okay?" The shadow moves. "We just got home. Mom's looking for you."

"Fine!" Dean gets out. The last thing he wants is for Ben to see him like this. "I'm fine. Just need a minute." Ben hesitates. Dean forces his voice to sound something close to normal. "Go on, I'll be out in a minute."

At last, the door closes. Dean rocks his head back against the car and closes his eyes, tears leaking down his temples. Christ. He doesn't know if he can do this. It's like some kind of bad joke: turns out he's been in love with his brother all his life, and it's one more way he's a freak of nature—one more reason he should stay the fuck away from people like Lisa and Ben. Even if nothing ever happened between him and Sam, it's messed up. If Lisa knew, she'd never understand. She might not want him near Ben ever again, and who could blame her?

I want you to be happy, Sam said, like Dean has the first clue about how to do that. "Stupid sonofabitch," he curses under his breath. Whether he means himself or Sam is anyone's guess.

Ben's outside, probably worried about him. Probably more than a little freaked out. If Dean doesn't come out, Ben will go and get his mom, and then he'll have to deal with both of them.

Ben's easier. Dean knows how to deal with a freaked-out ten-year-old faced with grownup problems.

He gets to his feet, moving so slowly it's like he's a geriatric case. Everything hurts. He unwinds the amulet from his fingers and folds the paper carefully around it. He fights the urge to slip them both in his pocket, forcing himself to tuck them safely away in Sam's duffle. He closes the trunk, then goes to splash water on his face from the utility sink.

When he pushes the garage door up, the summer heat washes in on a wave of sunlight and humidity. Ben's outside, sitting on the sidewalk, pretending to play with a stick and a handful of ants.

"Hey," Dean says, and Ben looks up. The wary expression on his face is so familiar, Dean feels it like a physical ache. "Want to give me a hand with my car?" Dean asks.

The troubled look fades, and Ben's face brightens. "Seriously?"

Dean forces a smile. "Yeah, dude, I could use some backup, if you're up for it."

"Yeah!" Ben jumps to his feet. "What do you want me to do?"

It takes everything Dean has to pull it together and act like everything's fine. Maybe Ben's not fooled, but he wants Dean to be okay, too, so he plays along, giving the car and Dean's tutelage his full attention. If he notices the catch in Dean's voice now and then, or the way Dean looks at him when he demonstrates things Dean's taught him, he lets it roll off. He's had a lot of practice.

* * *

They're washing her in the late afternoon sun when Lisa comes out of the house wearing cutoffs and a tank top. The wet sponge she slips down Dean's shirt is Ben's cue to turn the hose on her, and the epic water-and-suds battle that ensues has all three of them laughing and yelling their fool heads off for all the world to hear. When it's finally over, they're all three of them drenched, and Dean has suds in his hair. Lisa wraps her arms around his wet middle from behind and kisses his neck.

"Miss me?" she asks, a smile in her voice.

"You wish," he tells her, but he closes his hands around her arms, holding her there. "You missed a spot," he calls to Ben, who's drying the Impala with a soft towel.

"You have soap in your ear," Lisa says.

"Tell me about it."

She keeps her arms around him, and admires the car with him as she gleams in the sun. "Nice," Lisa says. "She's gorgeous."

"Yeah," he says softly. "She is." He squeezes Lisa's arms, then turns his head to look back over his shoulder. "How was Memphis?"

"Fun," she says. "Hot." Dean can feel her breasts against his back, soft warmth through wet cloth. "Glad to be home."

"Me, too," he says, and means it.

Later that evening, he shows her how glad. He goes down on her for as long as she can stand it, and when he finally enters her, it's with an urgency and power he hasn't felt in a long time. She's so fucking hot, her long legs wrapped around him and her hips slim and strong moving under his hands. He makes her come like that for maybe the fifth and sixth time that night before finally letting go and burying himself, shuddering, in her arms.

Afterwards, they lie together for a long time, wrapped up together and coming down. Dean doesn't know what name to put to all the things he's feeling. Grief and contentment, longing and loss and affection, all twist and flow through him like the eddies of a turbulent river. He knows he was right about wanting this to work, but there's an ache in his chest and stomach that feels like it might never go away.

Lisa rests her hand against his heart as if she knows.

"Anything interesting happen while I was gone?"

Dean thinks of all the different ways he could answer that. "A friend came by," he says at last. "His name's Cas."

"Cas," she says. When Dean doesn't elaborate, she says, "Can you tell me about him?"

"Somebody from my old life." His voice betrays him a little, but he gets out, "He brought me something I thought I lost."

He can hear Lisa chewing on that and knows it wasn't what she expected. Dean's never mentioned anyone he knew before, never given her any hint that his past might follow him here, though they've both always known it could. But of all the things she might ask, she says only, "You okay?"

He thinks about it. "Yeah," he says at last. "Yeah, I think so. I mean, I will be." Then he takes a deep breath, and strokes her hair back from her face. "But listen, Lise, I think I need to take off for a little while. Just a couple of weeks."

"Yeah?" Whatever she's feeling, she doesn't give anything away, only holds herself still, waiting.

"I'll be back," he says, hoping that's what she wants to hear. "Not plannin' on taking off for good or anything." He still feels guilty about the last time he cut out on her, and hopes she's forgiven him.

He feels her relax against him. "Glad to hear it," she says. And then, "We'll miss you."

His fingers slide into her hair, and he holds her close. It's what he needed to hear. "Yeah. Me, too."

She takes his other hand, and kisses his fingertips. Then she leans up and kisses his mouth, a sweet, lingering kiss. Her eyes look a little sad, but her lips curve up when she says, "Give me one more thing to miss?"

He does his best to oblige.

* * *

On August twenty-fifth, three months, three weeks, and two days after Sam died saving the world, Dean pulls into a gravel parking lot on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

It's going on sunset. He hikes about half a mile to the edge. When he sees it spread out beneath him, colors and soaring stone as far as the eye can see, he lets out a breath like he's been holding it for days. Nothing like seeing the effects of water on stone written thousands of years deep to make you feel like your own problems are small by comparison. Angels and demons and mankind in between can argue for eternity over the fate of the world, but the river keeps flowing, carving its own way and not giving a damn about any of it.

"Wish you coulda seen it, man," he murmurs. "Wish we'd made it here together."

Somewhere, a hawk cries. If there's an answer, it's carried away by the evening wind.

Dean looks his fill, and then he starts to walk along the rim trail. It feels good to imagine Sam's where he always was, half a step behind him, so after a while, he says, "You want to hear something crazy? You were right. About Lisa and Ben." It feels like a confession, and Dean guesses it is one. "I mean, I'm not exactly what you'd call happy, but I'm working on it." He stops and lets out a breath. "So, yeah, you called that one. I don't know how you knew, but I guess I'm man enough to admit you were right. So, thanks."

He reaches into his pocket for the amulet. When he touches it, he chokes up hard, but for the first time, he thinks maybe there will come a day when he'll be able to think about Sam without it ripping him up inside. Maybe Sam was right about that, too.

"I wish I could help you, Sammy. I wish there was a way. But you chose this, and I gotta accept it."

He's quiet, then, struggling with it. Finally he says, "You know, when we were kids, I always thought it'd be you, me, and Dad. I didn't know anything else, you know? It seemed like we were the only three people in the world sometimes. You and me, we were like two wolf cubs raised in the wild, separate from everybody else, and I was okay with that, because at least we were in it together. I didn't give a rat's ass about being normal, long as there was something to hunt.

"But I don't think I can keep doing it on my own. You were right about that, too. I mean, the end of the world? We never signed on for that. And I'm tired, Sammy. I feel like it's somebody else's turn, you know?"

The first tears slip past his control, then, and he's glad there's no one around to see.

When he realizes that, he lets them fall. Who's it gonna hurt? For the first time, they feel like good tears. There's no harm, in this place, admitting to the wind that Sam was the love of his life and always would be. Maybe it's messed up, and maybe he'll never really make sense of it, but that doesn't make it any less true.

"I'm always gonna miss you, man. And I'm not gonna promise I won't keep looking. If there's a way, I'll find it eventually. But for right now, I gotta put it down. You asked me to try, so I'm gonna do that. Give this whole regular life thing a shot." He laughs, a watery laugh. "I'll probably be terrible at it, but the best I can do is try.

"I'm not gonna say goodbye. But I wanted you to know, I think I'm gonna be okay."

Dean looks at the amulet. He doesn't think he'll ever wear it again. He threw it away, and he doesn't feel like he has the right.

He stands on the edge of the crevasse and thinks about throwing it in. Maybe that would be fitting. But in the end, he puts it back in his pocket. Some small, stubborn streak within him won't let him give up that last tiny thread of hope.

* * *

That night, he dreams that he wakes up in the back seat to find Sam sitting on the hood of the car, looking up at the stars. Dean rubs his eyes, then climbs out into the cool, dry night, his boots crunching on gravel. The Milky Way is brilliant, a breathtaking veil of light against the sky.

Dean swings himself up, and Sam hands him a beer.

"So, you and me, huh?" Sam says, eyebrows raised.

"Don't act so surprised," Dean says. "Not exactly the most shocking news in the world."

Sam takes that in stride and doesn't deny it. A smile plays around his lips, and he gives Dean sly, sidelong look. "Told you you were overcompensating."

"You think you're funny."

"I'm hilarious, and you know it." Sam takes a drink, and watches a shooting star streak across the heavens. At last he asks, "Think we coulda made it work?"

Dean thinks about that one. "Yeah," he says. "Maybe. Down the road apiece, if we'd had the chance."

Sam nods, like he can see it. Something in Dean's chest loosens.

"Lisa's pretty awesome," Sam says after a while.

"No argument there."

They fall quiet. Sam's shoulder leans against his, solid and warm.

"It was worth it," Sam says then. "I'd do it again."

"Yeah, screw that," Dean says. "Next time, it's both of us or nothing, you hear me? Enough of this noble sacrifice crap."

"Bossy," Sam says.

"Damn right. You're not getting rid of me that easy."

Sam looks over at him then. His eyes are bright in the moonlight, and hurt Dean to look at. He touches Dean's jaw, drinking him in like it will have to last him, then pulls him into his arms. Dean holds on so tight, his fingers hurt. He's shaking, and he wants so much—more than he knows how to say. He doesn't want to let go.

Sam kisses him, the warm pressure of his mouth like a brand. Dean's heart races, and he wants it to last, but too soon, it's over.

"Thank you," Sam says, his forehead pressed against Dean's.

"For what?"

"You know what."

Dean closes his eyes. Above them, the sky spins in a slow, majestic arc, streaked with stars.

* * *

On the way back east, Dean passes through South Dakota. He'd thought he'd stop and see Bobby—that was his plan, anyway. But when the turnoff comes up, he hesitates, then steps on the gas and keeps on going. There'll be time to catch up with Bobby later. Time for a lot of things. Right now, there's only one place he wants to be.

"Dean?" she says when he walks through the door.

"Hey, Lise," he says. "I'm home."

~ end ~