Dean had been driving all day. It had been a cold gray morning when he and Sam had left Bedford. They were heading up to Minnesota where Sam’s research had led him to believe that there might be a wendigo on the loose.
A wendigo. It didn’t escape Dean’s attention that the first case they had worked together after Sammy had decided to join him on the road was the wendigo hunt in Black Rock, Colorado. Back then, Sam had been a stranger sitting in the front seat of his car. They hadn’t seen each other in years, not since Sam had taken off for Stanford. Four years later, Dean felt like he’d been driving all day with a stranger sitting in the front seat of his car. It was funny how things came full circle. He didn’t know his brother anymore, wasn’t quite sure when it happened. He had known that things would be different the minute he got back from Hell, but Sammy? Sammy was the constant in his life. How had things gotten so bad that that black-eyed skank had managed to sink her claws so deeply into him? It didn’t occur to Dean how rudderless Sam had been those four months that he’d been gone, how completely lost and vulnerable his brother had been without him. The Sam he knew was stronger than that. At least, Dean thought he was.
“It’s almost sunset,” Sam said suddenly, breaking Dean’s train of thought.
Dean glanced out the window. Sam was right. “We’re nearly there,” he replied. “Let’s just go a few more miles before finding a place to stay.”
“Turn right up ahead,” Sam went on, as if not hearing his brother.
“Any particular reason why?”
“We’re near Lake Vermillion.”
“Job’s not at Lake Vermillion.”
“I know.” At Dean’s pointed look, Sam just sighed. “Could we just go? For a little while.”
Dean was about to make a wise-ass remark about hunting a wendigo would ensure that they’d get plenty of time with Mother Nature, but he held it back instead. Sam looked tired. He’d also had a long day of just riding shotgun, and he sounded . . . Dean couldn’t place it. Not sad, but hollow somehow. Defeated. Dean didn’t want to fight. There’d been too much of that lately, so he silently made the turn Sam asked and followed the trail up to the lake.
Lake Vermillion was huge. Dean didn’t know which part of the lake they were at, but in the end it didn’t really matter. He pulled up not too far from the shore and cut the engine. He remained seated as Sam got out of the car and watched as his brother walked to the shore’s edge. Dean sighed. If Sam was going to do the whole commune-with-nature thing, at least he could get a beer from the cooler. Dean got out of the car and pulled the last two bottles of El Sol from the small cooler on the floor of the backseat. He held the bottles by their neck as he walked to the front of the car. He couldn’t help running his free hand down the hood of the Impala. The metal burned under his skin. Perhaps stopping was a good idea after all. His baby needed a break too. Dean popped the cap off his bottle of beer and took a drink. Sam was now a still figure by the shore, hands stuffed inside the pockets of his jacket. Great. If his brother started meditating . . .
Dean needed to sit down. He made his way to a nearby picnic table and sat on the table itself, stretching his legs once before resting his feet on the table’s bench. The sun was still a dark gold, but it wouldn’t be long before its colors became fiery and orange, enveloped by the violet and azure shades of the sky as day turned into evening. Although unintentional, Dean had a perfect view of the sunset, and he wasn’t completely immune to its beauty. Lake Vermillion was famous for its sunsets, after all.
Dean was halfway through his bottle of beer when Sam suddenly turned up in front of him. He had been resting his arms on his knees, his beer bottle swinging slightly when the familiar shoes of his brother came into his vision. “Hey,” he said, looking up. He reached for the second bottle, and was about to give it to Sam when his brother shook his head.
“No, thanks,” Sam said.
Dean put the bottle back down. “More for me then,” he said. He sat back. “Ready to go?”
“Dean,” Sam said, taking a step forward. “Do you remember what sunsets used to mean to us?” If Dean flinched, Sam pretended not to notice. “In the beginning,” he went on, “when we first started hunting together, we’d work the cases during the day. We were professional,” Sam paused. “Well, as professional as we could be,” he added and Dean grinned in spite of himself. “But when the sun fell, it was different. We were different. We were us.”
Dean implicitly understood what his brother was trying to say. Sam wanted to go back to those days, wanted to be what they once were. And he was using the sunset, their unofficial marker between their professional lives and their private lives as his compass. Their lives had gone off course since Dean’s return from Hell. They still worked the cases. They were still professional during the day. But when the sun went down, nothing was the same. It wasn’t just the sex, and there was little enough of that. No, it was the ever-growing distance between them. The coldness. The problem was Dean didn’t think there was any going back. What do you do with betrayal by the one you loved the most? You suck it up. Betrayal works both ways, his mind told him. He’s still your brother. But that’s not what came out of his mouth.
“Those days worked because we didn’t talk about it, Sammy. It just was.”
“We don’t talk about anything anymore,” Sam said, the frustration evident in his tone. “I mean, we need to be under the spell of a siren to get something off our chests.”
“I thought you said you didn’t mean any of that stuff.”
“I didn’t!” Sam shot back, a little too sharply.
There was a long silence.
Sam looked like Dean had just punched him in the gut. “You don’t trust me?” he asked through gritted teeth.
“I never said that.”
“That’s what you meant.”
Sam took a deep breath. This was not at all going the way he’d imagined it all day sitting in the car. Why did Dean have to make everything so difficult? Didn’t his brother understand that Sam wanted . . .
Sam took another step forward. He was on the verge of invading his brother’s personal space. Dean didn’t move, but he was watching him carefully. “What can I do,” he said quietly, “to get back your trust?” Sam was almost afraid to look into his brother’s eyes, afraid of what he might see there. What if Dean thought they were broken for good? What if Sam couldn’t earn back his trust? The what if’s were agonizing.
“Sammy . . .”
Sam wasn’t prepared to hear it, even if he had asked the question. He breached Dean’s personal space, wrapped his arms around Dean’s waist and kissed him. Dean was surprised by the response, but he welcomed it, his free hand resting on Sam’s waist as his brother pushed himself against him. Sam wanted the kiss to convey all the things he couldn’t say: how sorry he was, how much he missed his brother, how the lying had to stop – from both of them – how badly he still needed Dean even as he tried to pull away, tried to be his own man. Dean was his anchor. He trusted his brother to pull him back when he went too far from the shore, but what if Dean stopped doing that? What if Dean just let him go because he didn’t trust Sam anymore? Because Sam couldn’t be saved? Why was Sam always the one who needed saving? Sam wanted the kiss to quell those fears, wanted the taste of his brother to soothe him.
When the kiss ended, the sun had almost set. Sam blocked Dean’s view of the sun and the darkening shadows fell on his brother’s face. The sky had become a vermillion and azure canvas, and what was left of the sun’s fiery glow burned behind Sam’s back. Still Dean didn’t say anything.
“Let’s stay here tonight,” Sam suggested, this time meeting Dean’s gaze.
Dean only nodded. The case could wait until tomorrow.
They drove to the nearest lodge in silence, but it was a far different silence from the one that had permeated the car all day. This was the silence of contemplation, of quiet expectation. They had reversed roles somewhere between the lake and the lodge. Dean’s stillness remained while Sam felt uncharacteristically restless. Fidgety, almost. He longed to touch his brother. He discreetly remained close to Dean as they walked to the lodge, as he stood behind his brother while Dean filled out the paperwork, trailed him with his backpack casually slung over one shoulder as they walked down the hallway to their room. Once inside they fell into bed immediately. For all of Sam’s eagerness, the lovemaking was slow and gentle. It had to be. They were both still sore from the fight the night before. Sam had a large bruise blossoming across his back, a souvenir from when Dean had smashed him through the motel door. Sam felt his skin stretching and the dull pain from the bruise spiking when he arched his back, muscles taut as Dean drove into him. Sam liked the pain, knowing that it meant something. Later, as Sam lay boneless on the bed, Dean would trail a line of kisses up his spine, ending at the base of his neck where Dean would mark him just to the side, where neck met shoulder before collapsing on the bed beside him. They were sticky and spent, but there would be time to clean up later.
Sam was lying on his stomach; his arms wrapped around one of the large lodge pillows as though it were a teddy bear, watching his brother doze. His eyes settled on the dark patch at Dean’s side where he had punched Dean several times. Dean’s ribs were bruised, possibly even broken and that was his doing. Sam knew that speaking would destroy the moment, that Dean hated pillow talk even more than he hated cuddling. But some things had to be said. He reached out, fingers grazing the bruised ribs. Dean opened his eyes, shifting under the touch.
“I want to stop lying to you.”
Dean’s gaze remained fixed on the ceiling. “I know you do,” he replied. Sam’s fingers were running up and down his side gently, but Dean still felt a terrible ache and he knew it was more than just the pressure on the bruise.
“But it has to go both ways,” Sam said tentatively. “We can’t keep secrets from each other.”
Dean grasped Sam’s wrist suddenly and Sam froze, thinking that he had gone too far. But instead of pushing Sam away, Dean gave his wrist a gentle tug, a tacit invitation to come closer. Sam accepted, moving into Dean’s space but was careful not to put any additional pressure on the bruised ribs. The hand that had held his wrist was now wrapping itself around Sam’s back, also aware of the bruise that was mapped there. Sam rested his head on Dean’s shoulder, near the base of his brother’s neck. This was as close to cuddling as Dean got, and Sam was aware of how very few and far between these moments were. Dean still hadn’t said anything in response to his statement, and Sam wasn’t sure how far he could push his brother. He thought he’d try a different track.
“You know Cara?”
“You mean Dr. Roberts?”
“She told me about her first husband. How much she loved him but how she also kinda wanted to bash his head in.”
“What are you saying, Sam? You wanna bash my head in?”
“Like you haven’t wanted to bash my head in,” Sam retorted, but there was humor in both their voices. In fact, they would’ve laughed except it physically hurt too much to do so.
“You have a point?”
“Yeah, the point is Cara and her husband didn’t stay together. She loved her husband but then fate intervened, and then one day she woke up and she was living with a stranger.” Sam knew that the analogy wasn’t lost on his brother. He could tell by Dean’s sudden stillness, the way that the hand that had been rubbing gentle circles on his back just stopped.
“She said that it wasn’t anybody’s fault,” Sam went on, “that people just change. That it isn’t something to feel guilty about.” Sam was thankful that he couldn’t see his brother’s expression, but he watched Dean’s chest move up and down. His brother’s breathing was so steady, so calm even as his mind was processing Sam’s story. Sam paused, shifting slightly so that he could place his right hand on top of Dean’s heart. “She was wrong,” Sam said slowly. “Maybe fate does come along and screw with people, but we still have free will. We can still choose.”
Sam shifted some more so that he was draping himself over Dean’s body. Dean winced as Sam accidentally hit his bruised ribs and Sam shot his brother an apologetic look before settling down again, this time between Dean’s spread legs. “I’m still me,” he said quietly, his head now resting on Dean’s chest. “I’m still me.”
“I don’t know that you are,” Dean said, so softly that Sam almost didn’t hear him. “You’re talking about free will and choice, but look at your actions these past few months. I don’t know . . .” Dean sounded almost helpless. “I don’t know what to make of your choices. The Sam I know? He would’ve made different choices.”
“Yeah, what would that Sam have done?” Sam asked, trying to will away the small kernel of anger that he felt growing in his chest.
“He wouldn’t have let that black-eyed bitch manipulate him so easily for one.”
Dean never tempered his words and Sam felt the full force of their harshness. The kernel was growing and Sam tried to keep his voice even as he replied, “I told you. Ruby was there for me. At my lowest, she was there for me. She pulled me through. I wouldn’t have made it without her.”
“I get that,” Dean said. “I really do, no matter how fucked up it sounds to me.” He sighed. “But that’s over, Sam. I’m here now. Whatever you feel you owe her? You don’t. Whatever she did for you? There’s something behind it. Some agenda that you can’t see.”
Sam sat up, his expression hard. “Why can’t you trust her?”
Dean sat up as well, his expression incredulous. “How can you even ask that question?” he said forcefully. “You know better. She’s a demon for Christ sakes.”
Sam was struggling with Dean’s words, it was written plainly all over his face. There was a part of him that knew his brother was right, but he wanted to push it down, bury it deep inside. Ruby had done so much for him, given him so much. He felt stronger with her, more in control of his life than he had ever been. He was out of Dean’s shadow. How could he explain this to Dean? Ruby empowered him. And they were still fighting the good fight, sending demons to Hell, saving people, tracking Lilith down. How could that be wrong?
“Hey,” Dean said, reaching out and grasping the back of Sam’s neck. “You wanted to hear the truth, right? No more lies? Well, that’s what I really think.”
Sam’s heart clenched. He loved his brother more than anything in the world; he wanted to make Dean happy. But maybe Dean had been right all along. Maybe there was no going back. So Sam did the only thing he could do at that moment.
He kissed him.