It wasn't obvious to Dean that he was losing time for a while. (How long? That—funny thing—that was lost to him too.) It wasn't like people regularly looked back and said, 'Hey, what was I doing an hour ago?'
Or maybe other people were like that. Dean's grasp of normal had never been what you'd call strong.
He took the first step towards piecing it together when he was staring at the car, trying to figure out what was wrong.
"Dean," Sam said warningly. He had a coffee in each hand, and he was shifting on his feet.
Dean looked at him, jerked his chin at the car. "Something's different."
"What are you talking about?"
That tone, dismissive and halfway to bored—Sam was always so impatient now, and Dean's mind snagged on the now, the idea of different stinging like thorns against unprotected skin. Something was different. "The paint job—" he said.
Sam came around him, looked at the car. Circled it, widdershins. "No scratches, Dean. C'mon, get in."
Dean did, because he'd got nothing else to do, but as he was closing the door he remembered.
The Impala had always been black, but she used to shine, even from under mud and road dust. This car, this car they were riding in, was a dull black.
The color of ink on skin.
Things he remembered, sometimes:
Bobby was speaking to him. The crater in his temple didn't seem to be cramping Bobby's style. His voice was staticky, like some preacher on the AM talking brimstone and damnation. Bobby said: Those tattoos are barriers, Dean. They don't care whether they keep out—or keep in.
Dean jolted awake to the morning sun seeping around the thin motel curtains. The light was pallid gray, like the soapy water that sluiced away when he washed the Impala by hand. He turned over and saw Sam, still asleep, his back to Dean. One shoulder was pulled up so that Dean could see the outline of bone underneath the soft blue T-shirt.
Sam sighed and turned over, pressing his face into the pillow. Dean dropped his head back to his own pillow and took a deep breath, loosening his grip on his knife. The bedsheets were slick with age and hot with sleep; they smelled like lavender, or at least what some guy in a lab who'd never smelled lavender might think lavender smelled like.
It wasn't so bad, because Sam was stretched out on the other bed, and it didn't have to be that way. There was a scar on Sam's back that was a lot worse than the tattoo on Sam's chest. Between the two, there was no choice at all.
Sanctuary was a fancy word, the kind Dean never had much use for. According to the books, it was a place, or maybe a thing that could be granted to a person. Or maybe just a part of a church. But as far as Dean was concerned, it was as meaningless as stained glass and candles—the image of something that didn't exist on this earth.
You did what you could to protect your family. You salted the windows and the doors and you learned the incantations and you drew lines—in earth, on paper, on skin—and then, when the time came, you crossed those lines.
Sam finished carving the runes into the machete, the one that ought to kill demons as well as the Colt or Ruby's knife. They hadn't talked about why it needed to be tempered in Sam's blood, or how Sam learned the right symbols to use.
There was no safe place. There were only battles and spaces between battles. They were using their time wisely. And if Dean really had forever to burn ahead of him, then there was no such thing as wasting time, right?
So when Sam told him to do it, Dean put out the salt, the ink, the blood and the iron at the four corners and called on nameless powers to aid them in their long war.
It wasn't his mother's voice in his dreams, not really. But it sounded very much like the woman the djinn had conjured, and it was only natural for Dean to imagine that it was her he heard singing nursery rhymes while he stared at Sam's sleeping form. In the dream, full-grown Sam was curled up behind the wooden slats, barely fitting into the crib, his chest rising and falling while the mobile above him spun and creaked in rhythm with his breaths.
The mobile was made of pictures of eyes, big and small, sooty-lashed and naked, yellow and black and yellow, flashing and winking at Dean as they guarded Sam's rest.
Dean woke, confused, and pushed the covers off, wincing a little when the cold air hit his skin. He scratched his stomach, trying to push the dream away.
Sam was awake already, checking ammo with that creepy precision he'd acquired all of a sudden. "Bad dream?" he asked, not looking up.
Dean didn't want to know what would make Sam think that, so he went for a shower.
When Sam took his own turn in the bathroom, Dean sat down quickly at Sam's computer.
"Pocket full of rye" turned out to be about pirates, and drinking. Nothing supernatural, at least not that the search engines knew about. It didn't need to mean anything, not even if the mobile had frozen and the eyes had all closed when she'd sung "King."
The witch whispered it to Dean when Sam's back was turned, the secret to making Sam strong enough to fight what was coming. Worship, she said. Believe. Obey. The words passed her lips like poisoned berries.
It was a lot more attractive than Ruby's proposals, the taste of them still piss-sour in his mouth like that concoction she'd poured down his throat.
He needs a servant, the witch said while Sam was rifling through her herb collection, looking for something new to add to his arsenal. She stood beside Dean, her hand roving over his arm, tugging at his jacket, stroking across his back. He stood his ground, because he'd be damned if—well, he might be damned, but he still wasn't going to let some weird sister push him around.
And he needed information. By reputation, the witch knew her business.
Servant? he asked, and let her hands slide around him like snakes.
Call it what you like. Subject, if you prefer. You know how symbols matter in these things. Family is good—most won't do it, she said and smirked. Because of the obligations. But blood makes a stronger bond. And you already know where his powers come from. Sin's just going to help them grow.
Dean didn't look in her eyes; he knew better. She had a tattooed teardrop at the outer corner of her left eye, and a beauty mark just as black above her apple-red lips.
So, will you be his sin? she asked him, her scab-colored nails scratching the back of his neck before he could twitch away. Better you than anyone else, and he'll need someone before too long.
Dean thought about Sam's hands after he'd killed Gordon. How Dean had demanded to look at them back at the room, panicked and thinking that it was Sam's blood, or worse Sam's and Gordon's mixed together. Then he'd wiped it away and Sam's hands had been unmarred.
Except—Dean could have sworn, by the way Sam had winced when he'd pulled his seatbelt on, and by the look in Sam's eyes, that Sam had been bleeding.
Point was, he didn't need any hoodoo to tell him that Sam was changing. He already knew too much about that.
Dean wondered if he should have died with the yellow-eyed demon. Ever since then, he'd felt like he had a heavy anchor and a short chain in deep ocean; nothing to do but go down, down, down.
Sam came back towards them, his hands full of small crackling packets. "We'll take these," he said, before he got a close look at Dean's expression. "What?" he asked. Dean stepped away from the witch and shook his head, just a little. Sam's mouth closed, tight as a sutured wound, but he didn't protest. Not in front of strangers.
The moon hung in the sky like a werewolf's claw, sharp and silver-white. Blood on his hands—blood of what was the question. Or, his mind whispered, who, but he couldn't allow that, so it was better not to wonder.
The grass was soft beneath his feet, breathing out spring in the darkness. Whatever they'd killed, in the aftermath the night was alive. He heard the flutter of distant wings, the gurgle of water over rocks. Sam moved off to the side, nearly silent except that Dean would know his step anywhere.
"We did good tonight," Sam said, coming up behind him. He put his hand on Dean's back, sliding under his denim jacket and rucking up his shirt. Sam's palm was hot and a little gritty against Dean's skin.
"Suck me," he said—kneel, the witch's voice echoed in Dean's head—and then growled when Dean tried to pause long enough to wipe his hands clean on the grass.
Dean closed his eyes, the blood drying sticky on his lashes. He didn't know what to do with his hands, hovering in the air—he wasn't afraid to touch Sam, never afraid of Sam, but it was easier not to find out if Sam would knock his clutching fingers away, easier to rock back with the thrusts and take it, letting the damp earth soak into his jeans. Sam was happy, or as close as he got, telling Dean how beautiful he looked with his lips stretched around Sam, and if it wasn't exactly what Dean wanted to hear, at least it was Sam telling him.
Sam's thumbs smoothed over his cheekbones, rubbing the blood into his skin, as thick and warm and salty as the come on his lips.
Sam was at the wheel, sliding them across the roads bullet-fast, not slowing down even when Dean whipped his head around, trying to check whether he'd really seen what he'd thought was on the church sign.
Black block letters:
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?
Dean got bored, waiting for Sam to decide he'd done enough research. He traced a Devil's Trap on his menu with the pen he'd been using to plot their route. Dean tapped the pen on the table until Sam looked up from his computer warningly, then chewed on the end of it. Dean would have ordered more coffee, but that way lay jittering knees and Sam's increasingly nasty glares.
A fly buzzed over the table, right over the wobbly-armed star, and fell straight down. It bounced onto its back, legs trembling, wings crumpled underneath its body, in the center of the drawing.
Sam looked up and his lip curled. "Isn't there anything here that's not possessed?" he asked.
Dean wasn't sure what to tell him.
There were a lot of demons to kill. That was good; Dean was awesome at it, he was fucking Wolverine—okay, no claws, but ever since they'd switched to the knives (and when was that? never mind, not important) they'd been carving their way through the demon ranks like slaughterhouse workers. The Winchester brothers specialized in industrial-strength ass-kicking.
Once in a while, like now, that meant that they got a little cut up themselves. Dean narrowed his eyes and concentrated on making neat stitches. "Almost done," he said, more to himself than to Sam.
Sam was reaching for him even before he'd finished; he had to scuffle a little just to make sure the knot was tied off.
Later, sore and sweating, he flipped the sheet off of Sam's shoulder, just to check. Sam twitched in his sleep but didn't wake. The wound was well away from the edges of the tattoo; no worries there. But the silvery nylon had already darkened, the stitches like runes on parchment, just a hint of red between the black.
Dean closed his eyes and laid back against his pillow, bringing his hand up to clutch at his amulet. It felt pretty much the same, even if it looked like carved obsidian now, just like his ring. He kind of wondered whether they'd transform a whole room into darkness if they stayed anywhere long enough, but he didn't suppose they'd find out any time soon.
Sam's tongue was wet and heavy, and the trails he left on Dean's body felt as deep and raw as the tattoo was when Dean first got it, like his flesh was rising up in Sam's wake. Dean groaned and put his forearm over his eyes, his fist clenched, but he could still imagine how Sam looked, almost like a worshiper at an altar.
Big hands curved around the backs of his thighs, pushed him up and open.
He bit his lip, felt his nails draw little sickle-shapes of blood from his palms.
Sam fucked him like he thought if he got it right the world would change.
Sam watched as Dean scraped the fork along the plate, smearing filling and crumbs. "Why don't you just pick it up and lick it?" he asked. When Dean looked up, Sam was wearing the old smile, the one that was exasperation and embarrassment and something else.
Dean smiled back, couldn't help it, smiled enough to hurt his face. "You sure you could handle that?"
"Try me," Sam said, low and teasing, his hands braced on the edge of the diner table, fingers splayed and taut.
He ran his tongue over the cool ceramic, keeping his eyes locked to Sam's. The red on his tongue was just cherry filling, sweet and punctuated with chunks of shortening-soft crust.
Sam jerked his head—let's get out of here—and Dean didn't look at the charred patches left behind on the old Formica.
He cut his wrists once, while Sam was away doing one of the things he wouldn't talk to Dean about. Across, like a poser, but deep enough to sever the tendons, like he meant it. He thought maybe—Sam didn't need to be here, he was pretty sure; he was even more confident that Sam wasn't having the same blank patches, skipping around like a worn-out cassette tape; and he was one hundred and ten percent certain that Sam wouldn't stick around without him.
What poured out was black, black, black, but it smelled and tasted just like blood.
The cuts sealed as he watched. When he washed off the blood, instead of scars, he saw black lines, wriggling and twisting under his skin. Barbed wire, cinched tighter than handcuffs; he felt the metal grate against bone for days.
They were like jailhouse tats, aggressive: the kind of marks you get to show you're committed to a life outside the law. He didn't know if anyone else could see them. No one gave his wrists a second glance, but that didn't mean much; people don't pay as much attention to things as they should.
After a while, the lines started to work their way out of his skin. They wriggled free like hairs growing. Like worms tunneling through flesh. He watched for hours but never saw them move, not even out of the corner of his eye.
At night, Dean pulled them free one by one, twists of dark material as soft and soapy as carbon against his tugging fingertips. They made little metallic pings against the tile floor of the motel bathrooms where he dropped them. The blood that came out was red, like it was when he and Sam got their tattoos together.
Eventually the lines were all gone.
"You okay?" Sam asked, slinging one arm around him and helping him stagger away.
Dean couldn't remember what they'd been hunting.
He shook his head, shook off Sam's clutching hands. "'m fine." They were beside a road, in among a stand of trees. The sky was overcast, and Dean had the feeling that he didn't want to see what was behind the clouds.
"Dean—" A pause, then Sam cleared his throat and continued. "I need you, Dean."
As sweet as sugar water and as bitter as ashes. Dean turned his head away from his brother. Something like a squirrel moved along one of the branches; he tracked it automatically, thought about bringing his gun up to shoot at it.
"No," Sam said, salt and iron in his voice. "No, you don't get to say no to me. Not any more."
"Sam—Sammy," he tried. "Where are we?"
Sam sighed, and then his hand was gentle on Dean's bicep. "Where we've been all along," he said. After that, it didn't seem so bad to relax and let Sam take over.
They were inside, the only light a single bulb behind a yellowed shade. Sam had his hands at Dean's shoulders, holding him fixed in place. Sam's face had such joy on it—such wonder. Dean had never seen him like that before. Or anyway he didn't remember it.
"Dean," Sam said, his eyes shining. They were the same eyes as ever, inkless.
"Is this a dream?" Dean asked, as quietly as if they were in the middle of a hunt.
Sam laughed, the way he would when the other option was to cry, and shook his head. "You're here, Dean. I got you back." Then he crushed Dean in his gigantic arms, strong as iron and hot as the Impala when she'd been baking on asphalt all through a summer day.
"I got you," Sam repeated, running his hands up and down Dean's arms, over his back, resting finally on his shoulders.
Dean knew what that meant.
He dropped to his knees and reached for Sam's belt. This part was actually not so bad; he never got it quite right, but it was nice to finally have something Sam wanted that didn't involve talking.
Sam grabbed his wrists. When Dean looked up, the expression of horror on Sam's face was like a shock of ice water.
We do this, right? Dean thought. It was hard to be sure.
Sam was running his mouth. Telling him it was going to be all right, they were going to fix Dean. He pulled Dean to his feet, hugged him close. Dean struggled just enough to prove that he was still a real Winchester, then let Sam hold him.
They sat down on the bed. The bedspread was older than Dean, a pattern like a technicolor yawn sewn down in palm-sized diamonds; plastic threads had popped loose here and there, so the remaining threads made a maze. The pattern would have looked like a fence when it was new, Dean thought, imagining the scratchy fabric resewn, restored. He'd use black thread to fix it, like sewing up a cut.
Sam had his arm around Dean's shoulders, still saying words about hell and bargains and never leaving.
Dean wanted to open his mouth; he was close to saying the words bubbling like blood in his throat. Please, he nearly said, almost letting his lips shape the word. Please, not this one. This one is so hard.
But he turned his head to breathe in the smell of Sam—not quite right, a hint of hot rubber under the sweat and denim, but Dean had never been picky—and he didn't say anything.
Maybe that way it would last longer.