The worst thing isn't the monsters. It's the waiting. It takes Sam nearly a week to pull him out of Purgatory, and by then Dean's nearly out of Twizzlers.
It happens fast: A hole opens up in front of the giant hollow tree Dean had set up camp in. As doors between dimensions go, this one is definitely sub-par -- ragged, smelly, and dripping with a greyish goo. A corded arm shoots through it, grabs the collar of Dean's jacket and yanks so hard the jacket nearly leaves without him. Dean grabs at the arm, there's another tremendous pull, and he pops back into the world like a cork coming out of a bottle.
A whole lot of other stuff comes pouring out right after him.
"Crap," Dean says, staring at the rip in reality as a forest of jagged clawed hands begins to reach through it. He turns to Sam to say something like thanks or what took you so long or maybe just Run! but the words die on his tongue.
"Dean," Sam says urgently, his hand still fisted, white-knuckled, in Dean's jacket.
Running first, Dean decides, putting the thought into immediate action. Questions later.
Even barefooted (bare everythinged), Sam can outrun the wind. Dean's only a little bit slower, hampered somewhat by the trauma of seeing his brother's naked ass bouncing up and down just up ahead. They make it to the car at almost the same time. Sam lurches at the driver's side door, but Dean says, "Oh, hey, no way, dude," and shoves Sam and his junk around to the passenger seat.
They drive like all the demons of hell are on their trail, a sensation with which they're deeply familiar. Sam plays navigator to get them out to the highway, gyrating in distracting ways while he pulls on his jeans and three or four layers of shirt. Dean stares at the road, pretending with all his might that none of this is actually happening.
His week in Purgatory lasted a little longer up here. The lush green summer that was Dick Roman's last on this earthly plane, hallelujah amen, has given way to black ice on the roads and white cakes of snow in the well of the windshield wipers. Sam's lost his tan and he's thinner, whipcord lean, muscles bulging in sharp relief through skin barely thick enough to smooth them over. And then there are the crazy-eyes with which Sam is carefully not looking at Dean, at least not when Dean's looking at him -- red-rimmed, bloodshot and wide, white showing all the way around.
He doesn't ask what Sam's been doing. He already knows that whatever it is, it's horrible. Selling your immortal soul to a demon only takes a kiss; Dean can't even imagine what kind of deal would require Sam to get bare-ass naked. Or how they're going to get him out of it, or what getting him out of it will inevitably get them into. There's no torture the big bads can come up with that the Winchesters can't make worse; it's getting to the point where Dean almost dreads getting rescued.
They roll up to Rufus's ramshackle cabin just after midnight -- Sam zonked out and snoring, Dean half-dead from the stress of driving snow-blind. He gives Sam's shoulder a shove to get him up and moving, then pours himself out of the car onto wobbly legs.
That's when the door cracks open, warm yellow light spilling out onto the silver snow.
Sam’s head jerks up, and he snaps out, "I thought I told you not to open the door!" It's the first thing he's said in six hundred miles, and it's about as pissy as Dean expected.
"I thought that was if you came back possessed!" the woman says indignantly.
"How do you know he didn't?" Dean says.
"Oh my god, Dean! Yay!"
The owner of the voice flies down the steps and crash-lands on Dean's chest, long arms twining around his neck and cutting off his air. He gets a face full of long red hair, a whiff of apple shampoo and a bruised cheekbone before the pressure lets up. In the aftermath of the attack, light shines on the woman's face and holy crap, is that Charlie?
"Hey, I thought you never wanted to see us again," he says.
A tiny fist slams into his shoulder. "That was before you went to Hell and Sam went crazy!"
"Actually, it was way after that," Sam says, yawning from his near-collapse against the car.
"Yeah,” Dean says casually, “Hell was like, two whole summers ago. I went to Purgatory this time."
"Purgatory?" Charlie's voice kicks up an octave. "Right, yeah, how is Purgatory this time of year?"
"Gloomy, with a hundred percent chance of hungry monsters. Plus it rained a lot."
"Right," Charlie says. "Right. Of course. Rain. Because that's what it takes to ruin a trip to the underworld." She laughs unevenly, turns to Sam, and says, "Hey, remember that time I told you to lose my number?" She pulls an iPhone out of her pocket and drops it into the snow. "This time, I'm losing my phone."
Sam says, "Well, that was childish."
"Endearments won't change my mind," she tells him. "Goodbye forever." She gives him a quick, hard hug and a slug to the shoulder to match the one she gave Dean, and stalks back into the cabin.
Dean looks at Sam and raises his eyebrows.
"Laptop," Sam says. "She was helping me with some astrological calculations for the--"
"The naked rescue ritual. Got it."
Charlie comes out with the laptop hugged to her chest, a backpack slung over one shoulder. Tucking her head down and avoiding their eyes, she goes around the side of the cabin. A second later she backs up a tiny, electric blue Smart Car next to the Impala.
The Impala laughs. Not out loud, but Dean can hear it with his soul.
Charlie rolls down her window, looks at Sam, and waits. After a brief, silent, hotly contested battle of wills, Sam sighs and digs her phone out of the snow. When he hands it over, she points it at him like a big, glossy black finger and says, "I mean it, Winchester. Don't call me."
"I won't," Sam says, and she says, "Great. Dean, good job with the not being dead.” Then she punches it and drives off into the night, never to be seen or heard from again.
"Dude," Dean says, shaking his head. "What did you call her for, again?"
"I didn't." Sam rolls his eyes. "She called me."
The inside of the cabin is colder than the outside. There's a pathetic little space heater in one corner barely keeping itself from freezing, let alone the rest of the room. The kitchen table is covered with maps, star charts, and books filled with Enochian writing.
"Seems like you kept busy," Dean says.
Sam fidgets, caught between taking off his jacket and shrugging, only managing half of both. "Pretty much everybody I knew was dead. My calendar was wide open."
Dean nods, and wanders over to the couch to sit down in his usual spot. Immediately, he stands up. The springs feel weird. He gives the couch an offended look, then turns it on Sam. "Has somebody been sitting in my spot?"
Sam stops poking around in the fridge and tilts his head. "Seriously?"
Dean tries it again, settling down experimentally. Still weird. He leans back, and the cushions behind him feel weird, too. The whole place feels weird. He sighs. "We got anything to eat?"
Sam doesn't meet his eyes. "I've been a little involved. Charlie had some ice cream in the freezer, but I think she took it with her."
"Well, okay then." Dean pops up from the alien couch and grabs his keys. "Pizza or wings?"
It's been almost a year. Dean tries to take that in while he's scarfing down his weight in mozzarella, while Sam stares at him across the table with an intensity out of place in the theme-park-romance lighting of the Pizza Hut. Sam’s got a plate of wings and a salad in front of him. He's not eating.
"What?" Dean says, his mouth full of pizza. "Don't tell me you're still afraid of fast food. SucroCorp went under the same time Dick did, right?" He looks down at his dinner and wonders if he'll stop eating if Sam says no. He figures it's about fifty-fifty.
"No, it's fine," Sam says, and Dean breathes a sigh of relief. "I'm just not hungry."
Dean chews thoughtfully. "How long have you been not hungry?"
"How long has it been since you've eaten?" Sam counters.
"Ah. Yeah, about that."
Sam's eyes narrow.
"Not that long," Dean admits. He fishes the half-empty bag of Twizzlers out of his jacket pocket and lays them next to Sam's plate. "I was only gone about a week. Stole those off you before we headed in for the takedown."
Sam's fingers curl up into his palms, and his knuckles go white. "A week?" he says, hollow-voiced. "You were only in there a week?"
Dean shrugs uncomfortably.
"Did anything… I mean, were you…"
"Sorry, Sam." And Dean truly is; it looks like Sam's had a horrible year. "It wasn't that bad. I didn't even run out of bullets."
"Not that bad."
"Maybe it was worse when the chompers were in charge?"
Sam stares at Dean and says again, "Not that bad?"
"What do you want me to say? After I mowed down the first batch, the rest of the monsters lost interest. I slept most of the time."
Sam looks down at his fists, and slowly relaxes them. "Okay. I guess -- that's good. That's really good, Dean."
"No need to look so disappointed," Dean says, miffed. "You want I should go back, see if I can get chewed on a little?"
Sam sighs. "Doesn't count if it's on purpose."
Sam's quiet on the drive back, clearly put out by Dean's lack of Purgatory trauma. Dean gets it -- living together is easier when they're proportionately scarred by the trauma of their world-saving responsibilities. But it would be nice if Sam could look a little bit happy that Dean still has all the limbs and digits and heads he left with. He could be a bit happy about it. But he’s barely smiled, barely looked at Dean, or even touched him, hasn’t--
Oh, Dean thinks. And then: Oh.
“Sam, are you forgetting something?”
Sam looks up from where he’s fumbling with the keys to the front door. "I'm starting to forget why I spent so long trying to get you back. It's freezing out here."
Dean moves a little closer. "Did you get me back? Maybe Purgatory is really bad, and I'm just hallucinating that you got me out."
Sam huffs out a breath. He looks microscopically interested, maybe even a little cheered up. Like the idea that Dean might be legit crazy has restored order to an unruly universe. "You think?"
"I get that we were kind of busy there at first, with the running and all, and you being naked and," Dean swallows, resolutely not thinking about the naked, "things, and then Charlie -- who totally got a hug, by the way -- and now you're what, depressed that I'm not monster chow? A guy expects a hug when things like that go down, you know?"
Sam says, "A what?"
"Did you do something really awful to get me out? That's all I'm asking." Dean grabs Sam's shoulder and squeezes. "It's okay if you did. Not the first time. We'll find a way out of it, whatever it is. But I figure that's why it wasn't so long there, or so bad. You must have--"
"Dean." Sam steps in close. "I didn't, I promise. Apparently, when you open a gate to Purgatory off the celestial schedule, you have to do it skyclad, that’s all."
Sam shakes his head. "Don't." He gets even closer, and Dean's starting to think, okay, maybe there is a hug in his future, like an anchor tying him back to the places and things that don't feel right without it. Sam’s eyes flash with silver sparks in the moonlight, glittery and shadowed, and he says, “Dean,” like it's a question and an answer.
Dean's heart kicks up in his chest and starts racing. The night air is frigid, but between them a bubble of heat is trapped and building. Sam runs his hands over Dean's face, his fingers calloused and gentle.
"I'm real," Sam says, and proves it with his mouth, crowding Dean against the railing and kissing the cold out of him, the weird and unreal and the not quite right, kissing him until the world is exactly the world he knows and expects and wants, no matter how bad or crazy it is, as long as Sam's in it with him. Sam's mouth is hot and his hands are like ice and he puts both of them on every bare inch of skin he can find, until Dean's gasping for every breath. It's the smartest and best thing Sam's ever done, and Dean wants to do it right back to him, but he can't quite break Sam's concentration enough to change course. And also, good as it is, hot as it is, right as it is, it's still not--
"Not really a hug," Dean gasps, when he can get his mouth free for half a second.
It takes a few seconds for the words to filter through; then Sam freezes. "Are you complaining?"
"No! Not--" Dean gulps. "Not really. Carry on--"
"Thanks," Sam says, and carries right on till Dean's a shuddering frozen wreck on the front steps of Rufus's secret hunter pad. And it's still… not… quite…
"Oh, for God's sake," Sam says, pulling back. "Seriously?"
Dean shrugs. "The heart wants what the heart -- hey!"
Sam wraps his arms around Dean, buries his face in Dean's neck, presses them together head to toe. "Like this?"
Dean says, "Finally," and just holds on. He holds on until Sam starts to shake. "See?" he says into Sam's hair, and the world slots into place. Just like that.
"I hope you're happy now." Sam’s voice is thick and wet. "This sucks."
"This is awesome," Dean tells him firmly. "Okay, I'm good. We can get skyclad and go back to the other thing now."
Sam laughs and knocks his head against Dean's; it's a game he always wins, because his head is way harder. "You suck," Sam says, sounding better than he has the whole time Dean's been back.
"I might,” Dean says, grinning. “Let’s go inside and find out.”
Feedback always welcome. :)