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When the Rain Comes

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Prologue:

Sam!

Sam woke up with a start, sweating, breathing hard, Dean's desperate shout ringing in his ears. There was a faint smell of smoke in his nostrils, fading now that he was awake, and he grasped at the edges of the dream, sitting up in the bed and rubbing his eyelids with the heels of his hands.

Dean's in trouble, his sleep-addled mind cried. Dean's in trouble, and he needs my help.

It was the fourth time that week. The dream was always the same: Dean trapped in a burning building, frantically shouting Sam's name. Sam tried to go in to rescue him but the heat and flames drove him back. His lungs filled with smoke and he started to pass out, then he woke up.

He considered calling Dean, making sure he was okay. Sam's dreams had always had a way of merging with reality in strange and unsettling ways, although never dangerous ones. But Missouri and Pamela had warned him; psychics could see things that might happen, sometimes. Visions. But although Sam had had psychic abilities all his life, so far they'd been limited to reading some people's minds and moving small objects telekinetically, although never anything very large or heavy. Neither ability was very reliable. He could read some minds, but not others. Not Dean's, for example, although John and Bobby were open books.

The only other psychic power he'd ever had – and he didn't really even think about it as a psychic power because it was so weird and personal – was the elaborate dream-world of his memories, a comfortable middle-class childhood growing up with Dean and their parents in their house in Lawrence, Kansas. He was as certain of that childhood as he was of his "real" childhood of loneliness and foster-care and sporadic demon-possessed individuals who seemed to be keeping an eye on him as he grew. Sam knew he was stolen away from that first life when he was a baby, he knew his mother was murdered trying to stop the Yellow-Eyed Demon from taking him, and he knew that his dad and Dean went into the hunting life to try to avenge what they thought were two deaths, thinking Sam had perished in the fire that the demon set after killing Mary Winchester.

But Sam hadn't known anything about all that, probably never would have, if some freaky coincidence hadn't brought Sam and Dean together one day seven years before, when Sam was twelve and living with a foster family in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Sam still thought back on that day, of the miracle of meeting his dream-brother in the flesh on a hot, dusty road, of the overwhelming feeling of connection between the boys that Dean obviously felt too. When subsequent events conspired to bring them together more permanently, it had felt so right. It didn't really take another psychic to explain to Sam that the intense closeness between Sam and Dean was a special psychic bond formed when two soul-twins are united. Sam already knew, instinctively, that he and Dean were meant to be together. It was the natural order of things.

Until the day Bobby Singer uncovered their genetic relationship and Sam's dream became reality. Which would have been wonderful – perfect, really – except that the thing between Sam and Dean had become physical by that time, so that Bobby's revelation gave an ugly, twisted name to the thing that had been going on between the sheets over the past couple of years, since Sam turned sixteen. Dean was horrified, repulsed, devastated, out the door before Sam could stop him, and Sam did the only thing he could think of to try to make it right.

He left.

**//**

Palo Alto in the middle of the summer, a month before school started, was hot and muggy and unpleasant. Sam was miserable, poor, and full of self-loathing, wearing his sense of failure and isolation like a shield. His desperation drove him to wander the streets of San Francisco and Palo Alto, ostensibly to look for a job, but in reality being reckless and consumed with self-pity, missing Dean so much he could barely function. He hung out with street-kids and drug-pushers, sleeping in doorways and parks, listening to buskers and eating from food trucks until his money ran out, not caring if he got jumped or rolled, counting on his hunter's instincts and his size to keep him from getting into serious trouble, self-destructively hoping someone would beat him up.

Dean haunted his dreams, so he avoided sleep as much as possible. He followed the street-kids to rave clubs and rock shows, hanging around the stage door until someone came out so they could slip in, rock the night away in a mosh-pit before stumbling out into the cool night air, sharing a bottle of Jack or cheap vodka until they collapsed together in a heap under an overpass or in a parking garage tunnel, keeping each other warm until dawn. Sam felt almost at home in the company of these homeless waifs, most of whom were runaways, younger than he, often from surprisingly "normal" middle-class homes. He rarely met other orphans who had spent most of their lives in foster homes, as he had, and when he did those kids were almost impossibly asocial, feral loners. The other kids avoided them like the plague because they were unpredictable, dangerous, prone to attacking each other with knives, furiously fighting to the death over something as trivial as a perceived insult or a wrong look, seemingly hot-wired for violence.

It struck Sam as odd that he had more in common with the kids from nice homes than the ones who had been raised without family ties or support. Yet he understood that his own subconscious had protected him, had provided the stability and structure that had been lacking in his waking life, so that it was as if he had been raised in the security of a loving home. Until he saw the difference first-hand, it hadn't occurred to him how lucky he was, how fortunate that his freaky psychic dream-world had saved him from growing up to become one of these barely-human creatures, angry and full of hatred for anything and anyone whose lot in life was more privileged.

Sam tried befriending one of them, but the kid turned on him after confessing a life spent in abusive home after abusive home, finally pulling a knife, screaming at Sam for being a "stuck-up, fucked-up rich kid" who thought he was being "so cool, slumming it with the homies." Sam's hunter's reflexes ensured he avoided serious injury, but he was careful not to make the same mistake twice, ignoring his own instinct to try to help and heal these lost souls. And the experience reminded him yet again that he had much to be grateful for, that however messed-up his family was, at least they loved him. Or at least, his dream-family had loved him. And, for a few years anyway, he'd had love in his real life as well.

But of course none of that mattered now, since he'd left.

**//**

When school started, Sam registered and moved into the dorms at Stanford, leaving his street-life behind. Within the first week he found a work-study job on campus, shelving books in the library, earning spending money for books and incidentals. His financial aid package included room and board, and suddenly Sam was eating well, running or working out when he wasn't holed up in his favorite corner of the library, losing himself in his studies. At first his classmates tried to include him when they went out for coffee or back to their rooms to drink after class, but by the end of the first week they stopped asking. Similarly, Sam avoided going back to his room until late, when most of his dorm mates were already sleeping or passed out. He slept as little as he could, got up early to find coffee and get back to his books, the only thing besides intense exercise that helped to keep his mind off Dean.

Sam was such a ghost in his own living quarters that the night a phone call came in on the hall phone no one knew who "Sam Winchester" was, so they hung up. When Sam got back to his room that night his roommate was still awake, listening to music with his headphones on and the lights off.

"Your dad called," Brady announced as Sam started to undress.

Sam jumped. He could count on the fingers of one hand the number of conversations he'd had with Tyson Brady since they'd met the day they both moved into the little dorm room. Brady, as he called himself because he hated his first name, was a serious, focused pre-med student from Eastern Washington State, who had every intention of studying just as hard if not harder than Sam. He had little time for socializing, so Sam figured they were well-matched. The snippets of background Sam read from Brady's mind showed him a stable upbringing in a strict Christian farming family, bordering on fundamentalist. His father was a silent, hard-working man with a high-school education; his mother was an intense, short-tempered former school-teacher with two master's degrees and high ambitions for her only son.

Tyson Brady was attracted to Sam, a fact that he broadcast by watching Sam with longing whenever Sam had his back turned, so loudly and intensely in the forefront of his mind that it was impossible for Sam to shut out. But Brady was used to bottling up his sexual identity, which he believed he inherited from his mother, and Sam knew he didn't really need to worry that Brady might suddenly come on to him. Brady was repressed, in more ways than one, and Sam was enough of a dick to be more than happy to leave things that way between them.

"What?" Sam was fairly certain he'd heard correctly, but the words simply made no sense.

"Your dad called," Brady repeated. "Nobody knew who you were, so they told him he had the wrong number."

Sam hesitated, frowning in confusion. "My dad...?"

"John Winchester? That's your dad, isn't it?" Brady clarified. "He said his name was John Winchester, and he was calling to talk to his son."

Sam folded his jeans, put them down on the chair next to the bed.

"Huh," he huffed bitterly. "Yeah, he's my dad, all right. Biologically, anyway."

"Ouch," Brady winced. "Not too close, I'm guessing."

Sam pulled the covers back on his bed, flopped down with one arm behind his head, the other hand on his chest, over his tee-shirt.

"The man's an asshole," Sam said, closing his eyes.

"Guess you won't be calling him back, then," Brady noted wryly.

Sam gave a soft grunt, hoping Brady wouldn't pursue the topic, and was rewarded by Brady's deep sigh of satisfaction. Brady was feeling good, like he was finally connecting with Sam, and Sam didn't have the heart to discourage him, to warn him that it really wasn't worth it because Sam was a lost cause, would always be too wrapped up in Dean and his grief at losing Dean to notice anyone else. Ever.

*//*

John Winchester called three more times that week before somebody got wise and figured out who Sam was, informed John that his son usually got in late and left early, so when the phone rang at 2:00 a.m. everyone knew who it was. By that time, the entire floor knew that Sam Winchester's father was trying to reach him, and everyone on the floor had finally figured out that Sam was the guy who was never there.

"He sounded pretty pissed this time," Brady told Sam when he picked up the phone the third time John called. "Your dad is one mean son-of-a-bitch."

"He's not my dad," Sam grumbled, trying to deflect the inevitable questions. "He's just the guy who dumped me and my brother in motels and paid some bills."

"Wow," Brady breathed. "Harsh, man. Sounds like you had a rough time, growing up."

Sam said nothing, flung his arm over his eyes as he lay in his bed, hoping Brady would let it go.

Sam was almost asleep when the phone rang. He could hear it, distantly, almost as if it was the start of a really bad dream, but he was so bone-tired he couldn't move, didn't respond at all until someone pounded on the door and yelled, "Winchester! Phone call!"

"Jesus," Brady muttered sleepily from the other bed. "Those things should be illegal."

"Winchester!" Pound, pound, pound.

"Yeah," Sam croaked, then cleared his throat as he struggled to get up. "Coming!"

The hall light was blinding, so Sam could barely see the face of the dorm mate who had awoken him, but he could tell the guy was pissed off.

"You need to give your dad your cell number, dude," the guy said irritably. "I'm sick o' answering that goddamn phone. Thing needs to be disconnected. Who uses landlines anymore anyway?"

"Apparently, my dad does," Sam muttered darkly as he stumbled down the hall to the phone, rubbing his eyes and running his hands through his hair. My dad. Two words Sam never imagined uttering together. Now he's said them three times in one week.

"This is Sam," he said into the receiver. He heard the quick intake of breath on the other end of the line, and for some reason he imagined John tearing up, but he knew his psychic ability didn't work long distance, so that couldn't be right.

"Sam," John breathed out. "Missed you, son."

Sam sucked in a breath. "You knew where to find me, John," he emphasized the distance in their relationship precisely because John was playing the family card, which seemed wrong on too many levels, and it made Sam mad.

"You were off the grid, kid," John promptly got on board, matched Sam's tone. "You disappeared without a trace. We knew where you said you were going, but that was over a month ago. When I contacted the university, they didn't know where you were, said you hadn't registered yet. So where the hell did you go, Sam? Where've you been?"

Sam drew in a deep breath, trying not to lose his temper. "What business is it of yours?" he demanded. "You're not my father. Not really. You didn't raise me." He felt the cold rush of power the words gave him, the ability to hurt John like a new-found gift. Or a weapon.

"You listen to me, Sam Winchester," John growled down the line, menacing and intense. "You are every bit my son, same as Dean. And I've raised you since you were twelve years old, so don't give me that crap. You're a hunter. You know what's out there. There's things gunning for you, and you know it. You take off like that, ditch the only people who can protect you, the only people who know how to watch your back – that's just reckless stupidity. You can't afford to be reckless and stupid, you got me?"

"I've got a right to live my own life, John," Sam reminded him. "I've got a right to try to make it on my own. I'm doing fine by myself, as a matter of fact. I don't need you. I don't need your whole crazy, mixed up world..." I don't need Dean, he couldn't quite say, because it wouldn't be true. He'd always need Dean. Always.

"That thing that took you when you were a baby isn't done with you, Sam," John said grimly. "It's got plans for you. Big plans. Now that I know what really happened to you, I'm finding all kinds of correlations. Other kids who disappeared the same way, all around the same time. Fires in other nurseries, other mothers who died. This is big, Sam, and you are right smack in the middle of it."

Ice-water flooded his veins, darkness clouded his vision, little sparkly circles appearing at the edges of his sight as he grew dizzy, reality starting to slip away with John's words.

Because he knew they were true. Sam knew with every fiber of his being that the demon that kidnapped him the night his mother died had a purpose for him. And removing him from his family was key to fulfilling his purpose. Sam was not meant to have anything resembling a normal upbringing. It was part of his destiny to be an orphan with no siblings, to have no family ties at all.

And Sam knew without a doubt that he had foiled the demon's plans for him, the day he met Dean. Finding Dean out in the middle of that South Dakota cornfield had not been part of the plan. In fact, the demons had found out about his dreams of Dean and done their best to excise his brother from his mind. They tried to cut off even the psychic support Sam got from his dream-brother, whose existence Sam had kept secret as long as he could remember, until the day a demon posing as Sam's psychiatrist discovered Sam's secret and removed even the memory of the dreams from his mind.

Sam had spent four years living with a foster-family, being trained up for some purpose he never clearly understood by people who turned out to be shape-shifters. He'd been lonely, missing a part of himself he didn't even know he'd lost, until that day he met Dean and everything made sense again.

"Sam?" John had been calling his name for several seconds, while Sam had been lost in his own mind, his memories.

"Yeah, I'm still here," Sam breathed out. "I hear you."

"Now listen to me," John went on. "You stay where you are, keep doing what you're doing, but you don't disappear again, you got me? You keep in touch. Until I figure this thing out, I need to know where I can find you."

John took a deep breath, let it out hard. "Dean told me you can recognize them. He says you can tell when someone's possessed, so you watch yourself, y'hear? If one of those black-eyed sons-o'-bitches starts following you around, you let me know, all right? We know they like to keep an eye on you, we just don't know why yet. Until we figure it out, you watch yourself, and call me if you see one. Or call Dean."

A thrill like lust, but painful, stabbed through Sam's guts at the thought of his brother, and he was suddenly choked with emotion, breaking out in a sweat, making the phone slippery and hard to hold.

"Dean – " he choked out. "Is he – "

"He's fine, Sam," John assured him. "Been a little under the weather lately, worried about you, of course, but he'll be fine."

Sam knew it was a lie, even without reading John's mind. He could feel Dean's suffering like a palpable thing, like it was something inside him. Sam had hurt his brother. It was Sam's fault Dean was in pain, and there might never be a way to fix that.

Sam stumbled back to bed that night and every night after, keeping his dreams at bay by not sleeping until he absolutely had to, until he was dead on his feet, then dragging himself out of bed in the mornings before he had a chance to dream. It wasn't healthy, probably wasn't possible to continue indefinitely, but for the time being avoiding his dreams was the only way Sam could deal with the misery of losing Dean, the only way he could bear the grief of being away from him.

About a week after the call from John Winchester, a package arrived in the mail with a cell phone inside. John clearly wanted Sam to be reachable from now on, had obviously found the broken pieces of Sam's old cell in Bobby Singer's driveway and was willing to pay (though probably with a fake credit card) to keep Sam on a leash. Sam briefly considered throwing the phone away, but then considered the possibility that Dean might call, so he settled with putting it away in a drawer and trying to forget about it.

In fact, there came a time, late that fall, after Brady and the other students in his dorm went home for Thanksgiving break and Sam was alone, when he pulled out the phone and used it. More than once.

"Why you been such a stranger this past year, boy?" Missouri Moseley's sharp accusation hit Sam like a warm bath, comforting and homey and everything he'd been missing. "You got something you wanna tell me?"

Sam felt tears well up, choke in his throat, so he paused before answering, knew instantly he wouldn't lie or sugar-coat this, not to Missouri, not to someone who knew him almost better than he knew himself.

"We're brothers," he gasped, his voice coming out half-sobbing. "Dean's my brother, Miz Moseley. In real life."

"Well," Missouri took a deep breath. "Ain't that somethin'."

"You didn't know," Sam confirmed.

"No, Sam, I'll admit I did not," Missouri answered. "Your soul-bond is so bright, it just out-shines everything else between you two."

"I knew," Sam said bitterly. "I knew, and I let things happen. Things Dean never wanted. And now – " Sam took a deep breath. "Now, I need to know if there's a way to reverse it."

"Reverse what, boy?" Missouri's sympathy was almost too much for Sam to bear, was more than he deserved.

"The soul-bond thing. I need to set Dean free. It's not fair to him, and I – I have to let him go."

There was silence on the other end of the line for almost a full minute, or so it seemed to Sam, who began to wonder if Missouri had hung up on him, until she finally spoke.

"Now you listen here, Sam Winchester." Missouri spoke low and steady, her normally high-pitched voice unexpectedly heated. "The soul-bond between you and Dean is a gift, you hear me? Not many people have it. It's something I've never seen and only ever heard tell of a long, long time ago, before you two were born. Something special. Powerful. You can't just throw it away."

Tears leaked down Sam's cheeks, into his ears as he leaned his head back against the wall, pulled his knees up to his chest. "I can't keep living like this," he choked out, knowing how pathetic he sounded.

"Yes, you can,'' Missouri soothed quietly. "Just like before. You put one foot in front of the other and you keep walking right down that road. You and Dean will find a way, I promise you that. Just give it time."

"He hates me," Sam sobbed, giving in to the urge to wallow, despising himself as he did it.

"No, honey, he don't," Missouri assured him. "He can't. It ain't in him. There ain't nothing, not heaven or hell or God hisself, can come between you two. Not really. You're stuck with each other. So you just dry your tears and stop your crying."

Sam did his best to wipe his face with his sleeve, making a mess of his shirt in the process.

"Now, you're gonna put the phone away and get some rest, you hear me?" Missouri went on as if she was in the room with him, as if she could see him.

Sam was suddenly so tired all he could think about was sleep.

"You'll get up in the morning, and you'll keep going, and you'll do it again the day after that, until Dean comes back. You hear what I'm sayin' to you?"

Sam took a shuddering breath, wiped his eyes again, exhaustion seeping through his bones, making his limbs feel leaden.

"Sam? You still there?" Missouri's voice was starting to fade, and Sam nodded sleepily, clinging to the comforting sound of her voice like it was some kind of aural life-boat, curling onto his side on the bed. "Sam?"

"Yes, ma'am, I hear you," Sam breathed as consciousness began to slip away.

"Good night, Sam," Missouri murmured softly. "Sweet dreams, now."

Sam was vaguely aware of the heavy sound of his own breathing as he drifted off into the longest, deepest sleep he'd had in months.

He called Missouri three more times over the next month, homesick and miserable, and each time she assured him there was no cure for his and Dean's soul-bond, that somehow they would come together again. Each time, her voice helped to soothe and strengthen Sam's aching heart, and each time he fell deeply asleep afterwards.

* // *

During winter break Sam found a temporary job off campus, brushing off Brady's invitation to come home with him for Christmas. The more Sam got to know Brady, the more he realized he needed to be careful. The young man was really smitten, embarrassing Sam with his vivid daydreams of Sam's body all naked and willing, waking Sam with needy little noises and sighs. Sam could hear Brady arguing with himself, broadcasting his lust and longing with such shameless abandon it made Sam wonder if Brady knew that Sam could read minds. It certainly seemed that Brady was hoping Sam would pick up on his hints, which were becoming less and less subtle. In his mind, Sam could hear bits and pieces of Brady's discussions with a girl he confided in, a girl with sunny blond hair and bright green eyes. Sam could see the girl's face in Brady's mind, heard him call her "Jess," as he told her about his colossal crush on his roommate.

"The guy's a monk," Brady complained. "He never goes out. Never even hangs out at all, as far as I can tell."

"So get him drunk," Jess suggested. "Make him loosen up."

"Yeah, like that's gonna happen," Brady huffed out a breath. "He never comes back to the room until it's so late everybody else is asleep anyway. Then he's up and out the door before anyone else wakes up."

"So catch him when he first gets in one night," Jess insisted. "The guy has to take a break sometime. Nobody works non-stop."

"Sam does," Brady grumbled. "He's a machine."

"Now you've got me curious," Jess took a sip of her coffee, looking speculative all of a sudden. "I think I might have to meet this Sam Winchester."

"No way," Brady shook his head. "The guy's gay. I'm sure of it."

Jess raised her eyebrows. "Do tell," she insisted, and Brady lowered his head, blushing a little.

"He carries a picture in his wallet," Brady confessed. "It's a guy. Gorgeous guy. Looks a little like you, actually. But definitely a guy."

Jess frowned. "Maybe it's his brother," she suggested, and Brady shook his head sharply.

"You carry a picture of your brother in your wallet? No. Didn't think so."

"Huh." Jess took another sip of her coffee.

Sam knew he should call Brady on the looking-through-Sam's-wallet thing. But he also understood, probably would've been just as curious about his roommate if the guy never talked to him, never spent any time around him, and was the most attractive and appealing person Sam had ever known.

But that would be Dean, at least that last part, so Sam let it go.

**//**

By spring Sam was a wreck. By exercising and eating right he had mostly kept himself from collapsing, but the sleeplessness finally caught up with him and one morning he couldn't get up. His body was wracked with fever, chills, and a cough that would just not go away. His head felt like it had been stuffed with miniature bowling balls that kept rolling around and slamming into each other, causing sharp, piercing pain that would not stop. His mind shut down, refused to process the voices and images that raced around inside, sending him the same thought over and over and over, like a beacon.

Dean. Need Dean.

In his fevered state, Sam was vaguely aware of Brady getting up, asking him if he was okay. Sam thought he might've said something, but his throat was incredibly sore and his mouth felt like it was full of marbles. He couldn't be sure he did anything but lie there with his eyes closed, breathing funny because his sinuses were so congested.

It must've been late afternoon when Brady woke him up, worriedly asking if he needed anything, if he should get something for him. Sam tried to shake his head, tried to respond intelligibly, but he was so deep in his fever-dreams he couldn't tell for sure if Brady even heard him. His brain was playing tricks on him; one minute he was sitting across a table in a diner with Dean, his freckled face stuffed with a bite of one of the biggest, juiciest burgers Sam had ever seen, a look of such bliss in his eyes it was as if he was having the best sex of his life. Then he was looking up from between Sam's legs, his mouth full of Sam's dick, the same look in his eyes, his cheeks smeared with Sam's pre-come.

Then Sam was lying on the beach at the lake and it was the middle of the afternoon, Dean lying beside him, fingers laced with Sam's. He turned his head, stared at Dean's perfect profile, watched his lips part enticingly, his eyelashes brushing his cheek as his eyes moved subtly under his closed eyelids, like he knew Sam was watching. Dean turned his head toward Sam and opened his eyes, and Sam's breath caught in his throat, a stab of lust shot straight to his groin as Dean gazed at him, running his pink tongue over his lips, making them wet and juicy so that Sam wanted to suck on them. Needed to.

Then they were in the water, Dean bobbing a short distance away, hair all wet and dripping, grinning lasciviously at him. Sam lunged, meaning to grab hold of a slippery arm or leg, anything he could get, but Dean ducked away, slipping under the surface of the water like a fish, resurfacing several feet away with a laugh, eyes sparkling with mischief.

"Come back here, jerk," Sam challenged, and Dean's lips curled up in a teasing grin.

"Come and get me, bitch," he answered, ducking under as Sam lunged again. This time when Sam came up for air, the surface of the lake was as still as a mirror, no sign of Dean anywhere. He waited for what felt like too long, treading water and turning round and round, trying to find a ripple, some sign of movement, but the water was completely still.

Sam panicked.

"Dean!" Sam thrashed desperately, diving and surfacing, looking for some trace of his brother in the murky water, becoming more and more frantic as the minutes ticked by and Dean was still gone, maybe pulled under by something that wouldn't let him go, maybe drowning.

"Sam! Sam! Hey!" A voice was calling him but it wasn't Dean's voice so Sam ignored it, kept diving, kept shouting for Dean. "Hey, I'm gonna get somebody. You're really sick, man. I'm gonna get you some help, okay?"

Sam vaguely recognized the voice – it was Tyson, the boy next door who had a crush on him.

No, that wasn't quite right. Tyson was that boy at school who was always picking on him, the bully who taunted him because he didn't have a mom or dad.

"What happened, Sam? Did they take one look at you and run away?" The boy took a swing at him, and Sam easily deflected it, kick-boxed the boy in the stomach, made him double over, moaning. Sam ducked back, fists up defensively, bouncing and loose on the balls of his feet, ready if the kid came back for more.

He didn't, and once again Sam was grateful for his training, the martial arts lessons he'd taken every Saturday for four years, the moves Dean had taught him recently.

Dean.

Sam looked up, across the playground, and there he was, wrapped in that huge leather jacket which was too warm on such a brilliant spring day, hands in his pockets, leaning against a tree, watching Sam with a smirk on his lips and a twinkle in his eye.

His Dean.

"Sam? Sam, can you hear me?" Another voice was speaking to him from somewhere off in the distance, or right behind him, Sam couldn't be sure because he didn't really care. He was watching Dean, would always watch Dean, would never, ever take his eyes off his brother ever again.

"Sam? We're gonna get you to the hospital, okay? The ambulance is on its way. You're gonna be all right."

Sam started across the playground, toward Dean, wishing the voice would shut up. But there were always voices in Sam's head, had been from the time he was a baby, and for the most part he'd learned to ignore them, so he could ignore this one, too.

Except now Dean was turning away from him, moving into the shadows behind the tree, and Sam couldn't see him anymore. He tried to pick up his pace so he could follow, but his legs were suddenly so heavy he could barely lift them. They felt like they were encased in rapidly drying cement, and no matter how he struggled, he couldn't seem to move forward at all.

"Dean! Dean! Stop! Wait!" Sam was panicking again, thrashing desperately in his effort to free himself, to get to Dean, but somehow the harder he tried, the more permanently his limbs seemed to stick to the ground.

"Sam! Stop! Here, hold him down. Get his legs!"

Something pinched Sam's arm and he looked down, annoyed, frustrated beyond measure because his legs had become tree-trunks, rooted in the ground, and his whole body was turning into something solid and organic, bending in the breeze but otherwise unmoving. He reached out toward where Dean had disappeared, stretching and watching helplessly as his arms turned into branches, sprouted leaves...

The sky was darkening, or Sam's eyes were closing, he wasn't sure which. He felt a soft breeze brush his ear like lips, heard Dean's voice whisper, "I'm here, Sammy; I'm right here, buddy."

Then everything went dark.

**//**

Sam woke up in a hospital, hooked up to machines, his throat painfully dry, his limbs heavy and sore, like he'd been encased in concrete for a week.

None of that mattered, though, because sitting in the recliner at the side of the bed, looking impossibly young and vulnerable in sleep, was Dean.

Sam's chest constricted and a lump rose in his throat, making it impossible to swallow, even if there had been any moisture there in the first place. Tears stung the edges of his vision and he blinked them away irritably, needing to see Dean, to watch his brother as he slept, head tipped back and throat exposed, lips parted, those long eyelashes fanning across his freckled cheeks.

Please God, let him stay, Sam pleaded silently. Let him see that things can be okay between us, if he just gives it a shot.

Sam lay silently bargaining, praying to a God he'd never believed in, promising anything, everything, willing to give Dean up forever, if only he'd stay. And too soon, probably no more than a minute or two, Dean stirred, closed his mouth and swallowed, opened his eyes, blinking and shifting in the chair, frowning as he sat up, finally caught Sam's gaze.

"Hey," Dean's face softened, his expression open and relaxed, clearly caught off guard at first, maybe because he was still half asleep. Then he seemed to remember and he frowned, looking away from Sam as he seemed to recall the current state of their relationship. When his eyes lifted to Sam's again they were wary, full of the pain of remembered betrayal, of things gone so wrong he wasn't even capable of facing them.

"How're ya feelin'?" Dean asked, his expression closed off and distant, eyes shifting away like he couldn't look at Sam's face for very long at a time for fear of what he might see there.

Sam opened his mouth, tried to say something, wanting to reassure Dean that he was unbearably grateful to see him, terrified that Dean's presence was just a figment of his wacked-out imagination, another hallucination sent to taunt him. But the only sound that came out was a dry hack, a half-sound that made his throat more sore.

"Fuck," Dean muttered, getting up to grab a plastic cup with a straw sticking out of the top, leaning over Sam and placing the straw carefully between his lips. "The doctor said you'd be all dried out. Here, sip on this."

Sam closed his lips around the straw obediently, sucking a little of the ice chips and water into his mouth, letting it coat his throat as it went down. But he was mostly trying to catch Dean's eye, wishing he had the strength to raise a hand, to take the cup for himself, maybe let his fingers brush against Dean's. Just that barest of contact...

"It's been a little touch and go here, Sam," Dean said quietly, still not meeting Sam's eyes as he stepped back, taking the cup with him. Sam wanted to reach up and grab his wrist, could almost make himself do it, wanted it so bad he could swear he felt a little psychic bolt of power shoot out. Dean stopped abruptly, like he'd been grabbed, and his eyes flicked up to Sam's, held them for a moment, frowning and confused.

Then he gave a little shake of his head and his eyes flicked away again. "Not goin' anywhere, Sam," he said. "Not till you get better, anyway."

Sam closed his eyes briefly, willed himself to relax. When he opened his eyes again Dean was headed toward the door, and Sam panicked, sent out another bolt of power that stopped Dean in his tracks, made him turn and stare at Sam, frowning quizzically.

"I'm just gonna get the doctor, Sam," Dean explained. "Just let him know you're awake. You've been unconscious for three days, dude. Pneumonia. Pretty severe case, they said. They've had you hooked up to oxygen, antibiotics, all that shit. Your fever was 104 degrees for like days, man. Good thing your roommate decided to call 911 or you – well, it wasn't good."

Dean shifted his feet, wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, wouldn't look at Sam again.

How did you know to come? Sam sent out the thought using the same bolt of power he'd used before, projecting the words he couldn't say aloud.

Dean lifted his eyes in surprise, clearly a little freaked. "You put my cell number down for an emergency contact," he said. "The hospital called me."

And you came, Sam sent out, gratitude and disbelief almost crowding out the words themselves.

"Of course I came, Sam," Dean shook his head a little, as if to clear it, as if he was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings he knew weren't his own. Sam's feelings. "What did you expect? You're my brother. We're family. Now, stop doing that and rest, okay? I'm gonna go tell the doctor. I'll be right back, promise."

Sam tried to nod, managed to close his eyes so he didn't have to watch Dean leaving the room.

Brother. Family. Not lover. Not boyfriend. Not love of my life. Dean would never allow that again, now that he knew they were brothers. Sam would never again touch Dean with need and desire, would never hold him close, never press his lips against Dean's warm, freckled skin...

Sam felt bereft all over again, as if the moment of their parting was fresh, not almost nine months old. He squeezed his eyes shut and let the tears leak out of the corners, down his cheeks, into his ears, making his hair wet.

"What do we have here?" The jovial voice of the doctor coming into the room, Dean at her heels, made Sam open his eyes. His vision was blurred by his tears, but he could see Dean hesitate, look away awkwardly, unwilling or unable to face Sam's misery. Dean was closed to him as always, and Sam swore he wouldn't burden Dean with his own feelings, only projecting his thoughts because he couldn't communicate any other way, and it was something he just knew would work with Dean, although he'd never tried that before. He'd never had to. Dean had always understood him, had always read him like a book, without any psychic mojo. Dean was tuned in to Sam and Sam's needs like a radio receiver that was tuned specifically to Sam's frequency.

While the doctor checked his vitals, his lungs, his throat and meds, Sam watched Dean. His brother stood back, hovering just out of the doctor's way, watchful but not meeting Sam's gaze, carefully not looking at his tear-stained face.

"Well, I think you're going to be fine, Mr. Winchester," the doctor said finally, looping her stethoscope around her neck after listening to his chest carefully for a few seconds. "Your lungs sound much clearer, and your fever's gone. We'll just keep you here another day, give you time to recover." She lay a hand on Sam's arm, and her gentle concern almost started Sam crying again. "Your brother here has kept watch the whole time you were unconscious, you know," she said, nodding at Dean, a soft smile curling her lips. "We finally brought the recliner in just so he could get some rest. He wouldn't leave your side. You're lucky to have someone like him in your life. A lot of our patients don't."

She left instructions with Dean to help Sam slowly rehydrate, to let him suck on the ice chips if he wanted to soothe his sore throat and dry mouth. After she was gone Dean stood awkwardly at the foot of the bed for another minute and Sam watched him, sure he could keep watching Dean forever.

But Dean was clearly uncomfortable, was wishing he could do something, anything, to avoid looking at Sam or, God forbid, talking to him.

"I'll just – " Dean cleared his throat, gestured to the door. "Your roommate's here, in the waiting room. I'll just go let him know you're awake. He's been asking about you."

No! Wait! Dean, please! Talk to me! Sam's desperation projected his words on another bolt of power, and Dean stopped, looked up at him.

"You never did this before, Sam," he said, giving his head a little shake. "You never communicated like that with me before."

I never had to, Sam projected. You were always right here. I could always talk out loud to you.

"Sammy, I – " Dean hesitated, his face clouding for a minute, and Sam waited, trying to be patient. "There's nothing to say, really. I freaked, you left. Seemed like the reasonable thing to do at the time."

And now? Sam projected.

"I don't know, Sam," Dean shook his head a little. "I'd like to think we can be brothers, y'know? See each other at Christmas, maybe call on each other's birthdays, send a card once in a while..."

The tears started flowing down Sam's cheeks before he could stop them, this time making his chest heave with sobs.

"Hey, hey," Dean stepped closer, reached down to put his hand on Sam's shoulder, squeezing gently. The gesture felt awkward and impersonal, and instead of feeling comforted, Sam felt even more desolate. Abandoned.

"I'm gonna call the nurse," Dean announced, and Sam started, staring wildly up, projecting, Wait! and trying to reach out to grab Dean's arm...

"Sam, listen to me," Dean relented, covering Sam's reaching hand with his own, returning it to the bed, keeping his own hand on top of Sam's for another minute. He was frowning, intense, if a little freaked out. "We are always gonna mean a lot to each other, okay? Nothing can change that. The crazy thing is, you knew. You knew all along, and I didn't believe you. When you told me about your freaky dreams, I just thought you had an overactive imagination, y'know? But you knew."

Sam took a shaky breath, nodded, tried to turn his hand over so he could tangle his fingers with Dean's, but Dean pulled his hand away and stepped back from the bed.

"I'll tell you one thing," Dean went on, not looking at Sam again, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans, like he was afraid he might touch Sam again otherwise. "I'm never doubting that freaky psychic thing of yours again. You've got some serious mojo there, dude. This thing you're doing today? Never seen that before. You holding out on me, Sam? Is there other stuff you want to tell me about?"

Sam lifted his eyebrows, then frowned. Like what? he projected.

"Well, Dad thinks maybe you know more about the Yellow-Eyed Demon than you let on," Dean shrugged. "He thinks maybe your dreams or memories or something could help us find him."

Sam shook his head violently. No! he projected. I don't remember a thing about that, Dean. I was a baby. How could I?

"Yeah, well, that's what I told him," Dean nodded. "But you know Dad. He gets an idea in his head, he's like a dog with an old bone. He thinks maybe we could find somebody who could hypnotize you, help recover your memories that way."

Sam stared. Dean, that's crazy. Babies don't have memories. They don't have words. There wouldn't be anything there except basic sense memories. Hunger, discomfort, sleepiness. Nothing verbal. Nothing John could use.

"That's what I told him," Dean nodded. "But he's pretty persistent. Don't be surprised if he shows up here one day soon with some dude in a hippie costume, dangling a crystal in front of your face."

Sam rolled his eyes. John's an asshole, Sam projected irritably.

"Hey, hey, that's our dad you're talking about," Dean protested. "Well, thinking about, I mean. Whatever. Anyway, have some respect, man."

And because Sam didn't want Dean to know just what a bastard John Winchester was, just how little he cared for his oldest son compared with how much Dean idolized his father, Sam closed his mind, concentrated on an image of puppies and kittens to clear his head.

"Hey," Dean patted Sam's shoulder. "I really do need to get out of here for a while. I'm just gonna let the nurse know she can come in, clean you up a little so you can see your roommate without your face being all messy like that. I think the guy likes you."

Dean gave a wink as he said that last thing, and oh no, no way was Dean actually insinuating that he and Brady...Just the thought gave Sam the willies, made his veins fill with ice water. How could Dean just casually pass him off like that? Like there was another right guy out there, if only Sam would give it half a chance? What the fuck...

But Dean was out the door before Sam could project another coherent thought at him, leaving Sam to fume silently, which, okay, maybe fuming was better than crying, and maybe being furious with Dean for trying to fob him off on another guy was a slight improvement over the morbid, self-pitying thing Sam had going before.

But in the end it had the effect of making Sam more miserable than ever, of confirming the fact that Dean had closed the door on them, that Dean was done with him, and henceforth their relationship would consist only of appropriate brotherly behavior. Dean wanted Sam to move on, was hoping he would find love somewhere else, with someone else, and that was just not okay.

Because Sam was pretty damn sure there would never ever be anyone he could love or want in the way he loved and wanted Dean. Dean's rejection, his obvious attempt to re-direct Sam's romantic interest onto someone new, ultimately just hurt like hell, no two ways around it. It caused waves of fresh misery to flow through Sam's veins and straight out his over-used tear-ducts, so that he was crying again by the time the nurse came in to clean him up, and there didn't seem to be anything she could do or say that would make it stop.

**//**

Dean stayed another day, just long enough to check Sam out of the hospital and get him back to his dorm room, make sure he was really on the mend. When Sam woke up on the morning of May 2, Dean was gone. Sam could feel it like a missing piece of himself, like a hole deep inside that had re-opened after being temporarily filled by Dean's presence. Brady was already up, getting ready for class, and when he saw Sam's eyes opened he grinned.

"Hey, birthday boy," he said. "How're ya feelin'?"

"'S not my birthday," Sam croaked out, his voice still hoarse and sore.

"Yer brother says it is," Brady said with a shrug. Sam could see Brady talking to Dean in Brady's mind, could hear his surprise and relief when he realized the guy in the picture in Sam's wallet really was Sam's brother. "He left you this."

Brady tossed an envelope onto Sam's bed and Sam picked it up gingerly, striving to imagine Dean's fingers on the paper, hoping there was some residual presence, maybe just an after-image. He opened the envelope, pulled out the folded sheet of motel stationery, read the note, printed in Dean's careful block lettering.

"The day you were born is probably my happiest childhood memory," Dean had written. "Now look what a gigantic freak you turned out to be! Ha ha! Happy birthday, little brother."

Sam read and re-read the note several times, imagining Dean writing and rewriting it, trying to get the balance of humor and sentiment, deliberately emphasizing the sibling relationship. Only in our family could that insistence on the brother-bond represent a denial of closeness instead of a celebration of it, Sam thought bitterly. Dean's embrace of their sibling status was more painful to Sam than it should be. He had always wanted Dean to accept Sam as his brother; he'd wanted that since the first day they met, and it was only the harshest of ironies that the reality of their sibling bond fell so short of what Sam had hoped for. Rationally, Sam knew it was good that Dean had come to terms with what had happened between them. Instead of rejecting Sam entirely, Dean clearly wanted a relationship, wanted to go forward as brothers. That this wasn't enough for Sam was something Dean obviously hoped Sam would get past someday.

Yet after struggling with his grief and missing Dean for all these months, seeing him again only made Sam's feelings that much stronger, brought the reality of Sam's desperation into sharper relief. He would always be in love with his brother, and nothing could change that. Maybe in time Sam could learn to control those feelings, could keep from throwing himself at Dean's feet and begging for something Dean couldn't – or wouldn't – give him. But he would never, ever stop loving Dean. He knew that now, now that Dean had come back into his life, now that he had set the boundaries and limitations of their relationship going forward. Sam was relieved, or at least he felt he should be relieved, that Dean had found a way to deal with his own feelings, that Dean had decided that he could manage to keep Sam in his life as his brother, at least. Now it was up to Sam to find a way to handle his feelings so that he and Dean could have a relationship on the terms Dean was offering. A post-romantic, platonic, brotherly relationship might not be Sam's first choice, but he knew he could adjust if he could just make himself accept that it was all he could get. And it sure beat the alternative, because the thought of not having Dean in his life at all was just too horrible for Sam to contemplate.

Once Sam had worked things through in his head, he got back to work. He'd been sick for two weeks, missed a lot of classes, but most of his professors seemed amenable to letting him catch up, as long as he could pass his exams. Sam threw himself back into his studies, pulling late nights at the library, going back to his usual routine. He still avoided sleep and the inevitable disturbing dreams that came with it, but even those were less harrowing than before. Dean's visit had taken some of the anxiety out of Sam's deepest thoughts; he no longer worried that Dean would never want to see him again, and just that knowledge helped to relieve his misery. He found it easier to let his mind wander, to relax around his classmates, to return the hopeful smiles of his dorm mates. Sam even found he didn't mind Brady so much; the guy's infatuation with him stopped being quite so annoying, even started to feel kinda nice. Brady was a good-looking guy, obviously didn't have any trouble getting a date if he wanted one, and his desire for Sam's attention could be flattering sometimes, not merely onerous. Sam found himself smiling at Brady's jokes, minding his company less and less as the school year wound down.

Brady noticed. With summer break looming closer, he seemed to be amping up his attempts to get Sam to notice him. And after almost a year of living together, Sam was so used to Brady's flirtations it almost didn't register anymore. So when Brady finally convinced Sam to hang out with him and a group of classmates one night after exams, getting Sam good and drunk so that they staggered back to the dorm together, Sam wasn't too surprised when the inevitable happened and Brady kissed him, up against the back of the door in their room, before they'd even made it to the bed. What surprised Sam was that he let it happen, let the first tentative press turn into an open-mouthed plundering, let Brady shove his hands up under Sam's shirts and rub his nipples, then slip one hand down between his legs to press against Sam's hardening dick. It felt comfortable, if not familiar, and in his inebriated state Sam told himself it couldn't hurt, that he and Brady were friends so they could trust each other, and it was better than sex with strangers because at least they cared about each other. And when Brady dropped to his knees, unzipped Sam's jeans and took Sam into his mouth, swallowing him down like a pro, Sam tipped his head back against the door and closed his eyes, imagining Dean's mouth, Dean's hands on his hips, cupping his balls, Dean's fingers slipping up his crack to his hole, shoving the tip of one dry finger past the tight muscle. Sam gasped and came hard then, shoving his hands into Brady's hair, longer than Dean's but not as soft, not really familiar at all.

He must've passed out then, because he woke up later on his bed, most of his clothes off, Brady naked and stretched out on top of him, mouthing at his jaw, rubbing himself off on Sam's hip. Sam waited till Brady came, till his orgasm was done, before Sam pushed him off, not ungently, and stumbled to the bathroom to throw up. Afterwards he showered, brushed his teeth, pulled on the sweatpants he had managed to grab on his way to the bathroom, and stumbled back to the room to collapse on the other bed. Brady was snoring, completely passed out on Sam's bed, and Sam lay on Brady's bed for a while, trying to get his head to stop spinning, trying to remember if he had encouraged the sex or just let Brady have it with him.

Either way, it wasn't something Sam could allow to continue. When he woke up again with Brady pressed alongside him, Brady's hand stroking his chest and Brady's lips pressed against Sam's shoulder, Sam pushed him away, struggling to sit up without hurling again.

"No, no, I can't – Brady, stop." Sam managed to slip off the bed, back up against the door, palms up in front of him.

"What's the matter, Sam?" Brady frowned.

"I can't do this with you," Sam said, shaking his head.

Brady smirked, and Sam could hear him going over what had happened between them last night, in his head. "Looks like we already did, Sam," he drawled. "Seems to me you were pretty willing to let me suck you off. I don't remember having to force you to do anything you didn't want to."

"No, no, I know," Sam shook his head again. "I'm not saying that. It's just – I'm sort of already involved with somebody."

The moment the words were out there, Sam felt a rush of power. It was true. He and Dean were bonded, for life, and nothing and no-one would ever come between them. Not really. They both owed it to every future potential partner to tell them, to let them know what they were up against.

Brady's reaction was almost comical. He raised his eyebrows, stared silently at Sam for a moment, then shook his head.

"No way," Brady said. "You've been living with me all year, Winchester. You never go anywhere, never talk to anyone on the phone, spend every night on that stupid tiny bed of yours...No way. There's nobody else; I'd know it."

Sam closed his eyes, let out a sigh, opened them again. "We're separated," Sam said. "It's a long story. But the thing is, you should know I'm still in love with him. I can't really be with anyone else."

"So what, did we just cheat on your boyfriend? Is that what this was?" Brady was hurt, Sam could feel it.

Sam lowered his head to his chest, sighed again. He could feel Brady staring at him, could hear his brain working through the problem.

"He doesn't even know, does he?" Brady demanded finally. "He thinks he's free, thinks he managed to dump you. You're holding a torch for some guy who doesn't even love you anymore."

Sam felt his jaw clench of its own accord, felt his hands curl into fists without even thinking about it, and when he lifted his eyes to look at Brady, he could feel the heat building in his head, just behind his eyeballs.

"It's not like that," Sam said, and he could hear the snarl in his own voice. "You don't understand."

Brady swung his legs over the side of the bed, reached for his boxers, tugged them on with a grimace before facing Sam, pulling himself up to his full height.

"What I understand, Sam, is that you're still hung up on some guy who could care less about you anymore, and you can't stop pining for him." Brady let out a short sigh. "I get that, I really do. I was in love with my high school English teacher for two years. The guy never gave me the time of day, never encouraged a thing, but I couldn't stop wishing. Couldn't stop wanting. I get it."

Sam shook his head. "This isn't like that," he said through gritted teeth. "This is different."

"Sam, you're nineteen years old," Brady reminded him. "How can you know? You and me – we've got our whole lives ahead of us, man." He stepped closer, right into Sam's personal space, and Sam tried not to flinch, tried not to back away. "Come on. Give it a shot. Give us a shot. It'll be fun, I promise. I'm not that demanding. We're both serious students, we like being roommates, we're already best friends, this is just the next logical step. What'd'ya say? We'll go slow if you want, I'll take it at your pace."

Brady reached for Sam's hands, still clenched into fists, and took the last step so that their chests would've been touching if Sam hadn't stepped back, putting his hands up.

"I can't," he breathed out, not looking at Brady, not quite able to meet his eyes. "I'm sorry, Brady, I really am. But I just can't."

Sam could feel Brady's disappointment, the pain of Sam's rejection like a slap, and he almost felt sorry for the guy. He'd been holding out for Sam all year, hoping this last ditch effort before summer break would finally get him what he wanted, but Sam had just dashed his last hopes, and it hurt. Brady was used to getting what he wanted, had always been top of his class, apple of his mother's eye, and he wasn't used to rejection. Didn't like to take no for an answer.

"Huh," he said now, backing away just a little, but still standing too close. "Okay, well, you think about it, then. You just give it some thought. I can deal with that."

"Brady – " Sam started to say that no amount of time or consideration would make any difference, that it would be useless for Brady to think that Sam could ever love anyone else, and that Brady shouldn't take it personally.

But he could see the determination in Brady's face, could hear his thoughts rearranging themselves, finding a way to ease his own sense of failure. Sam sighed, shook his head a little, and decided to let it go. If Brady needed to believe Sam might change his mind, just to salve his own ego, well okay. Sam could live with that. He didn't want Brady badgering him, but he didn't want to destroy the guy, either. Because despite the fact that Brady's crush on him had been a bit annoying, Sam had to admit he'd appreciated Brady's friendship. Thinking about Brady and his problems had managed to take Sam's mind off his own often enough over the past year for Sam to be grateful for the distraction, at the very least.

The rest of the week before summer break was a little awkward, and the day everyone had to move out of the dorms was pretty chaotic. When Brady's father arrived to pick him up, Sam was able to shake his hand, then give Brady a quick hug as he helped load Brady's stuff in the back of the pick-up truck. Brady had invited him to come spend the summer on the farm, assuring Sam that there was always honest work to be done there, but Sam had declined, pretending he already had a job lined up "back home" in South Dakota. As he watched the pick-up drive away toward the highway and their long drive back to Eastern Washington, Sam breathed a sigh of relief.

Then the reality of Sam's situation hit him and he had to sit down, right there on the curb, and put his head in his hands. Now what? The idea of hitting the streets again, picking up a job or two as a dishwasher or deliveryman, never making enough in this ridiculously high-priced part of the country to afford an apartment or even a motel room, sleeping under overpasses with the druggies and street-kids again...All of it was beyond depressing at this point, and Sam had definitely had enough of it. Yet the prospect of heading east, using the last of his meager earnings from his work-study job to buy a bus ticket, maybe head back to...Where? He couldn't go to Bobby Singer's place. Dean might be there, and Dean didn't want him. Dean was still trying to get over him, still seemed to think he could get Sam out of his system, if he stayed away long enough.

Or at least, that's what Sam imagined, because he really didn't know what Dean had been through this past year. Except for that short visit in the hospital and the brief phone call from John, Dean's life had been a complete blank. And because it was so painful for Sam to think about Dean much at all, he hadn't really considered what Dean's life had been like since that fateful day at Bobby's. It made Sam feel guilty to imagine that Dean had suffered over their separation, maybe as much as Sam had, so he chose to believe that Dean had just stopped caring, had been able to convince himself that their sexual relationship was a mistake he could leave in the past. Dean dealt with life in a more black-and-white way than Sam did; once Dean made a decision about something, that was it. He didn't spend months brooding and suffering, as Sam did. At least, that's what Sam told himself. Dean had probably moved on by now, maybe even found himself a girl...

"Hey, Sammy." The familiar deep voice made Sam jump. He looked up, shocked, wondering if his mind was playing tricks on him again.

Dean was wearing his leather jacket, despite the summer heat, and the sun was directly behind him, so that his shadow fell over Sam and his face was completely unreadable. The sun's light created a halo around Dean's head, made the tips of his hair seem fiery yellow and reddish-gold.

"Dean?" Sam stared, unable to believe his own eyes, sure he was conjuring Dean with some new psychic power he didn't know he had. "How did you get here? Where's the car?"

"Parked her over by the library," Dean said. "I couldn't remember how to get here, which dorm was yours. They all look the same."

"What – " Sam still couldn't believe what he was seeing, was starting to shake uncontrollably. "What are you doing here?"

"It's summer, i'n't it?" Dean replied, like that was a logical answer and Sam should have figured it out before this. "Huntin' time, remember?"

Sam huffed out a breath, more confused than ever. "What? What are you talking about?"

Dean shifted his feet, glanced toward the empty dorm. It was already late afternoon, and most of the students had cleared out.

It suddenly occurred to Sam that Dean had been here awhile, had waited till the rest of the students – including Brady – were gone. He must've been watching Sam the whole time as Sam was helping other students load up their cars, watching as Sam watched Brady drive away. It made Sam wonder if Dean had done this before, if Dean had come to the campus and just watched as Sam walked to class, went to the cafeteria with his classmates, walked home late from the library.

Sam shook his head, struck again by the realization that he hadn't thought much about where Dean was or what he was doing these past months; Sam had been too caught up in his own grief and misery to wonder how Dean was doing. A fresh wave of shame rushed over him, making his cheeks burn, causing sweat to break out on his chest, his back, under his arms.

"That was always the plan, wasn't it?" Dean said, looking back down at Sam with the sun still behind him so Sam couldn't even see his face. "Hunting on school breaks?"

"Yeah, but –" that was before, Sam finished his sentence silently.

"Well, come on, then." Dean stuck his hand out and Sam looked at it for a second before grabbing hold of it, letting Dean haul him to his feet, trying not to think about how good it felt just for Dean to touch him. "We got work to do."

**//**

Sam's duffel was still in the car. Dean hadn't moved it, or thrown it out, or left it at Bobby's. Maybe Dean had been driving around in the car for the past nine months with Sam's duffel in the trunk the whole time.

It made Sam think about their place in Champaign, Illinois, the happy apartment they shared there while Dean worked and Sam finished high school and they made plans for their future together. They had decided that they would find an apartment here in Palo Alto so that Sam could go to college. Dean would work, and on breaks they would hunt, do the work they had both been trained to do, helping rid the world of monsters, one evil son-of-a-bitch at a time.

"So – " Sam finally stopped shaking, after dumping his meager belongings into the trunk next to his old duffel, after sliding into the front seat of the familiar car. He let her rumbling motor soothe his jangling nerves for a mile or two, caressing her dashboard like an old friend. It felt incredibly good to be here again, like coming home. "So you've been hunting all this time? Alone?"

That last word came out sharp and accusing.

Dean glanced at him, then back at the road. He seemed entirely too comfortable navigating these quiet little suburban streets, and it struck Sam again that Dean had probably checked on him, more than once.

"Nah," Dean shook his head. "Well, sometimes. But mostly I was with Dad, or Jefferson Tanner. One time I teamed up with Josh Peters for a raw-head hunt outta Boise. That was a close one. Josh broke his shoulder on that hunt, put him out of commission for a while."

Sam shook his head. "You shouldn't hunt alone, Dean. It's reckless and stupid. You know better than that."

"Poltergeists and restless spirits, Sammy," Dean said with a shrug. "Easy pickings. All ya gotta do is salt and burn, brother. Just salt and burn."

"Yeah, well, just don't do it," Sam insisted. "Don't be a dumbass."

Dean grinned, shot another glance at Sam, sucked in a breath. "Damn it, Sam, I missed you," he said. "All your mother-henning and whining. I don't know how I ever lived without it."

"Shut up," Sam protested half-heartedly, feeling his face break out into a grin of his own, unable to resist Dean's teasing smile. He tried not to stare, tried to keep his eyes on the scenery moving past them as they hit the highway, headed south-east; he tried to ignore the warm, comforting feeling spreading through his body, just from being with Dean. It was happiness, he realized with a start. He was happy for the first time in nine months. "Where are we headed?"

"Something's been killing cattle on the Nevada-Arizona border," Dean said. "Draining all the blood out of their bodies."

"Chupacabra?" Sam suggested, and Dean nodded.

"Probably," he agreed. "Lame, I know, but I figured you're a little rusty, so we start with something easy."

Sam huffed out a breath, tried to muster the indignation and irritation he couldn't quite feel. He was still high on Dean, on being in the car with the one person on the planet who could make him feel like his life had meaning. It reminded him of how he felt when he first met Dean, how it felt like the world suddenly had color, like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first opens the door after the tornado. Another wave of euphoria crashed over him, and Sam had to literally close his eyes to ride it out, to hold himself still so he didn't start shaking violently again.

"Sam?" Dean's voice held an edge of worry. "You okay?"

Sam managed to nod, keeping his eyes squeezed shut another minute until the dizziness eased a little. "I'm fine," he lied. "It's just – sense memories. Being in the car again."

"You having one of your freaky waking dreams again?" Dean pressed, and Sam gave another stiff nod, clenched his jaw. Dean kept glancing between Sam and the road, and Sam took a deep, shuddering breath, let it out slowly, breathing through the ebbing tide of emotion and memory and Dean. "You had a lot of those lately?"

"Some," Sam acknowledged. "Nothing I can't handle."

Dean put his hand up, and Sam could've sworn he was about to rub the back of Sam's neck, like he used to do when Sam had a moment like this, back when they were physical with each other and it was an easy, natural thing for Dean to do, to slide his fingers through Sam's hair, gently massage the tension out of Sam's muscles.

But instead of touching him, Dean stretched his arm along the back of the seat and left it there. Sam could feel Dean's heat, and a year ago he might've scooted over next to Dean or slid down so he could lay his head back on Dean's arm. But now Sam knew that wasn't allowed, knew that Dean had reached out like that out of habit, out of his body's instinct to offer comfort and affection, then remembered at the last moment and tried to cover the gesture with a casual stretch.

And Sam was just sick enough to enjoy it, to take pleasure from the feeling of Dean's arm on the seat behind his back, almost but deliberately not touching him, aware of the intimacy that Sam craved but which Dean would no longer offer. Sam was sure that Dean felt it too, however; Sam was sure that Dean left his arm right where it was on purpose, letting them both have at least that much reminder of their former lives.

They drove in silence for nearly an hour that way, avoiding conversation or even a glance at each other, anything that might break the spell of this almost-intimacy between them. The sun set behind them, Dean flicked on the Impala's headlights, and still they sat, Sam letting his imagination wander, remembering how Dean would sometimes play with the collar of Sam's jacket when they drove like this, as if he wasn't even aware of doing it. Sam held his breath, hoping Dean would forget himself and just do it, just flick his thumb over the stiff material, accidentally brushing the nape of Sam's neck, under his hair. And for a brief moment Sam imagined the pressure of Dean's fingers there, rubbing the material, tugging Sam's hair ever so slightly.

Dean drew his hand away so abruptly then that Sam felt his heart soar with triumph. Dean had touched Sam's jacket, or had been thinking about it, and just that much was enough. If Dean could forget himself, even for a moment like that...

"Time for supper," Dean announced, as if he'd been planning the whole thing, as if he hadn't just almost touched Sam's neck and was covering his freak-out with food. "I'm starving."

Sam marveled, although not for the first time, at Dean's ability to find the greasiest diners at the most opportune moments. Sitting across from Dean, watching him dig into his bacon cheeseburger with extra onions, Sam could almost believe the past nine months had never happened. Then Dean lifted his eyes to Sam's, and for the briefest moment, before he shuttered it behind a smirk, Sam could see so much pain there it took his breath away.

Sam lowered his eyes, taking tiny breaths through his mouth until he could control his own emotions, concentrating on his salad of iceberg lettuce, stale cucumbers, and limp tomatoes. When he looked up again he caught Dean watching him before looking down at the burger in his hands, chewing thoughtfully. Now it was Sam's turn to watch, noting how thin Dean's face seemed, how his cheekbones jutted out more than he remembered, how his jaw seemed sharper and more angular, making his mouth seem more generous than ever. With his eyes cast down, Dean's long, thick eyelashes stood out in stark relief against his pale skin, the light peppering of freckles across his nose and cheeks offering the only hint of color. He looked younger, somehow, more frail, and it made Sam's heart clench, made the backs of his eyes burn. It made Sam want to gather Dean up and hold him, not in a sexual way, but just in a way that could make Dean understand how much he was loved, how he would always be the most important person in Sam's life. But now, after what had happened, Sam wasn't sure he had the right. He wasn't sure Dean would ever trust Sam enough to allow that, maybe ever.

And that was just not okay on so many levels Sam didn't know where to start.

But he had to start somewhere. Taking a deep breath, he put his fork down and wiped his mouth on a little paper napkin, took a sip of tap water to fortify himself, and scooted forward on the bench, his knees brushing Dean's under the table.

Dean looked up at him expectantly, blinking to hide the slight flinch when he felt their knees touch. "What?" he asked, swallowing around a mouthful of burger.

"I'm sorry," Sam said. "I'm sorry I left without saying goodbye. I'm – I'm sorry if I hurt you." He said the words in a rush, just needing to get them out there, needing Dean to hear him say it.

Dean stared for a moment, his eyes hard with accusation, then Sam saw that fleeting look of pain in them again as Dean looked down at his burger, his mouth curling up in a smirk.

"Nothin' to be sorry about," he said shortly, taking another bite of burger and chewing for a minute before going on. "You did what you had to do. I get that. It's in the past now."

"I want – " Sam could feel himself start to shake again, so he closed his eyes to center himself for a moment before going on. "I want us to be brothers, Dean," he said. "Like you said in the hospital. I want us to be able to hang out together, and do stuff, and just be – just be brothers, man. I want us to trust each other again."

Dean looked up at him then, considering. "Trust you not to run off again," he clarified. "Trust you to let someone know if you do, to answer your goddamn phone when it rings. That the kind of trust you're talking about, Sam?"

It was Sam's turn to flinch, to look away from Dean's intense gaze. Dean's anger was nine months old, but it was still fresh too.

"I thought – I wanted you to have some space," Sam explained, knowing it sounded lame even as he said it. "I wanted you to have some room to figure things out without me putting pressure on you or making you feel like you had to do something for my sake..."

"Bullshit, Sam," Dean hissed, leaning forward across the table so Sam felt pinned to his seat, branded by Dean's intense gaze. "Don't make this about me. You left. You left because you couldn't handle reality, same as always. You left because your freaky dream came true, and you couldn't deal with the consequences. Things got a little tough, a little weird, and you bailed. End of story. So you tell me, how exactly am I supposed to trust you now?"

Sam felt Dean's righteous anger flow over him like hot glue, sticking in all his most vulnerable creases and crevices, making Sam's guilt bubble to the surface. This was his fault. Sam had known all along that he and Dean were brothers, but he had let their relationship become sexual – had in fact begged for it, hoping Dean wouldn't find out, knowing he was doing something Dean would never agree to if he knew the truth. It was as good as if he'd lied to Dean, and now Sam felt he deserved Dean's anger, he welcomed it as a brand of righteous judgment on his own deliberate deception, as a mark of shame on his soul. If there was such a thing as a Scarlet Letter, Sam would wear it, would display a huge angry "I" for incest, right in the middle of his forehead, for the rest of his life.

"I'm sorry," he said again, blinking back the hot tears threatening to spill out of his eyes and down his cheeks now. "I was hoping – if I left – I was hoping it would be easier for you."

"Easier for me?" Dean shook his head. "How easy do you think it was for me when you disappeared off the face of the earth for a month? Huh? How easy would it have been for you to pick up a goddamn phone and call? Just call. You had my number. You put it down as your goddamn emergency contact for the school."

"I'm sorry, Dean," Sam tried again. "I didn't think – "

"No, you didn't," Dean snapped. "You've got a brain the size of Neptune, but you didn't think. You don't. Because you're so locked inside your own vision of the world you can't see how you affect people. How you affect me." Dean shook his head again. "You're just like Dad, you know that? You two are just about the most stubborn, single-focused sons-o'-bitches on the face of this earth, I swear to God."

Sam blinked, more shocked than if Dean had just dumped a bucket of ice water over his head. I'm like John? he thought wildly. How can I be like John?

"John's a selfish, obsessed bastard," Sam protested. "He doesn't think about anyone but himself."

Dean raised his eyebrows, lowered his chin, and gave Sam a look that said, "Bingo."

"Dean, I'm nothing like John," Sam shook his head. "I think about you all the time. You're more important to me than my own life. I would never treat you the way he does. I can't imagine hurting you like that."

"When are you gonna learn, Sammy?" Dean shook his head, lowered his eyes to his wallet as the waitress came up to clear their plates. He smiled at her, deliberately over-tipped, endured her stammering thanks and blushes.

"Y'all have a good night, now," she said as she sauntered away. Dean watched her for a minute, then turned back to Sam with a wink and a little jab of his thumb.

Sam felt a hot rush of jealousy, familiar from the days before Dean had given up girls to be monogamous with Sam. It hurt so much to think of Dean with a girl, but of course that was what was happening now. Sam had left and Dean had gone back to picking up girls, just like before. And it was right, in a way, Sam decided as he got up to follow Dean out of the diner and back to the car. This was part of Sam's punishment, to watch anonymous nobodies get to have what was forbidden to Sam now, the part of Dean he could never have again.

They drove in silence for a while, until Dean pulled off at a motel in a little town near the Nevada border, checked them into the room at the end, furthest from the office. Sam unloaded the car while Dean took the first shower, stripping down so easily and comfortably in front of Sam it almost made him cry again.

And when he caught a glimpse of Dean's body when he came out of the shower, towel wrapped around his waist as he dug into his duffel for clean underwear, Sam almost gasped. Dean was thin, that much Sam had already figured out; from the moment Dean had picked him up this afternoon he had understood that Dean was hiding in his oversized leather jacket, and now Sam could see why. Dean was positively skinny. His body was missing so much of the bulking muscle Sam was used to he seemed almost emaciated. But that wasn't why Sam couldn't stop staring. Across Dean's back, reaching under his left arm, along his left side and all the way around to his chest, were four long, angry-looking scars, too thick to be knife wounds. The scars were identical, symmetrical, looking for all the world like some huge animal had grabbed at him, leaving the mark of its huge claw as a reminder of a death match that had almost taken the ultimate toll.

"Jesus, Dean," Sam breathed, unable to stop staring, putting his hand out to touch before he remembered he couldn't, didn't have Dean's permission to touch anymore. Dean looked up, one hand clutching his boxers, the other holding his towel in place. He followed Sam's gaze and sucked in a deep breath.

"Yeah," he breathed out, dropping the towel unceremoniously and turning his back so he could step into his boxers. He bent over as he did so that his ass was presented straight at Sam's dick, and Sam was reminded that Dean wasn't offering, not now, not ever again. "Had a little run-in with a werewolf back in January. Mean fucker. Spent my birthday in the hospital."

"You were alone?" Sam could hear the growl in his voice. So did Dean, who straightened and turned to face Sam, exposing his slender chest, slashed with other, smaller scars that Sam had never seen before. Sam's protection charm swung on its leather string, and Sam realized idly that it had probably been there all along, just hidden under Dean's shirt.

"Yeah." Dean pulled a tee-shirt over his head, covering the evidence of his recklessness. "But Caleb helped with the clean-up."

"Doesn't count, and you know it." Sam was furious. It was one thing to imagine Dean alone and suffering as much as Sam had been over those long months. It was another thing to imagine him throwing himself suicidally into hunt after hunt, alone and unprotected. But of course, that's exactly what Dean had done. John was gone, as usual, and Dean's relationship with other hunters was still fairly new and unreliable. Of course, he needed to work, just like Sam did, to keep his mind off the hole in his heart. So he hunted alone. Asshole-jerk-stupid-goddamn-stubborn-son-of-a-bitch-fuck. Sam clenched his fists, needing to hit something, his jaw working angrily, and Dean noticed. Of course he did.

"Take a shower, Sam." Dean lowered his eyes, brushed past Sam to throw himself down on the bed closest to the door. "Lights out in ten."

"Damn it, Dean," Sam shook his head. "You can't do that. You can't hunt alone. You know that!"

"Dad does it," Dean shrugged.

"Dad's insane!" Sam protested. "And you know that too. Hunting alone is just asking for trouble. It's doubly dangerous, foolhardy, and just plain stupid. Your dad raised you better than that, at least that much I remember, even when he couldn't be bothered to follow his own advice."

"What can I tell you, Sam?" Dean shrugged again. "You weren't there. There were jobs to do. I did them."

"And nearly got yourself killed!" Sam stalked around the bed, loomed over Dean, shaking with anger. "You can't do that!"

"It's my job," Dean reminded him, crossing his arms over his chest and setting his jaw stubbornly. "It's what I do."

"So do something else!" Sam insisted, gesturing broadly with one arm, keeping the other fist clenched at his side. To keep from hitting something. Or somebody. "You could get a job as a mechanic any time you needed to. You did tons of other jobs while we – when we lived in Champaign. In Iowa."

"Oh, you figured when you left that I would just go back to that little apartment in Champaign? Is that what you thought? Just go on being all domestic and respectable? Maybe find a nice girl, settle down..."

"Crazier things happen, Dean, yeah," Sam nodded. "Now that you mention it, you seemed all right living that way when we were in Iowa, before."

"That was just temporary," Dean said as he shook his head. "Just until you grew up."

"No, you said when we moved to Palo Alto, you were going to find a regular job," Sam reminded him. "You promised. Hunting on the weekends, school breaks, okay, but not full time. Not all the time, and for sure not alone."

"Yeah, but things changed, didn't they, Sam?" Dean raised an eyebrow, smiled grimly, without mirth, and Sam sank down onto the other bed, suddenly so tired he just couldn't stand up anymore. Because of course it was all Sam's fault; it was finding out that Sam was the brother who was kidnapped that night his mother was killed that set Dean on this path. Dean wouldn't stop now.

"I can't let you kill yourself," Sam breathed, fighting to keep the despair out of his voice.

"Not gonna kill myself," Dean insisted. "I'm good at what I do. And I'm getting better. It's what I was born to do."

"You're a mess," Sam protested. "All skin and bones and covered in scars. What the hell, Dean? Why are you so skinny?"

Dean shrugged. "I was in recovery for a few weeks," he explained. "Then rehab. Broke my arm so I couldn't work. No money means no food, you know that. Plus, I haven't really been hungry since you left. Or sleepy, for that matter."

Sam stared, trying to imagine Dean sitting alone in a diner, sleeping alone in a motel room, staring all night at the empty bed not two feet away. At least Sam had been eating in a dining hall full of students, even if he didn't always share his meal with anybody, preferring to spend his meal-time reading. The sleeping thing he could relate to, but even those times when he did finally stumble into bed, at least there was someone else in the room.

"Jesus, Dean," Sam sighed, putting his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes. "This has to stop."

"It already has," Dean noted softly, his voice low and rumbling, thick with the familiar twang Sam loved so much. "You're here now."

Sam lifted his eyes, feeling the sting of tears as he gazed at the prone form of his former lover – his brother – on the other bed, not two feet away. He felt his heart unclench a little in his chest, felt the tension drain from his shoulders.

"Yeah," he breathed softly. "Yeah, I am."

"Go take a shower," Dean commanded gently. "We'll talk some more in the morning."

"Okay," Sam agreed, wiping his eyes irritably. Why did he feel like crying all of a sudden? "Yeah, okay."

In the shower the tears flowed freely, washing away months of sorrow and grief, stress Sam didn't even know he was feeling. Somehow finding out that Dean had suffered as much or more during their separation was a tremendous relief to Sam, although it probably shouldn't be. It confirmed for Sam what he hadn't dared hope all those months; Dean still loved him, still needed him, hadn't been able to get over him any more easily than Sam had been able to get over Dean. They were still deeply and profoundly bonded, and although it would take time to heal the rift caused by the revelation of their sibling relation and Sam's desertion, they would do it. They would find a way to be together again, if not as lovers, at least as brothers. And a bond of blood was stronger than any lover's vows anyway, Sam reminded himself. In a way, Sam and Dean would now be more closely entwined than they were before.

Dean was already asleep when Sam came out of the shower, curled up on his side facing away from Sam. Sam pulled on his sweatpants and a clean tee-shirt, slipped into the other bed. When he reached up to switch off the light he let himself gaze longingly at the back of Dean's neck for barely two seconds, indulging however briefly in the memory of Dean's soft skin against his lips, the warm muscles of Dean's chest and back as Sam pressed up against him, slipped his arms around him and spooned Dean's body perfectly against his own.

In the dark Sam lay on his side for a while, watching Dean's sleeping form in the other bed, afraid to fall asleep for fear he'd wake up in his dorm, miserable and alone again. The unreality of the dark room and Dean's presence after such a long absence, coupled with Sam's state of sleepless over-emotionality, almost triggered a waking dream; Sam could feel the edges of reality starting to unravel, memories flooding forward from other nights, other times when they had lain like this, in separate beds because Sam was still too young for sex but old enough to want it. He could remember rubbing against the bed, shoving his hand down into his boxers so he could get a grip on himself, breathing slow and even through his mouth so Dean wouldn't wake up, wouldn't hear him jerking off as he watched Dean sleep.

Sam shook himself, forced himself to close his eyes, then open them slowly, concentrating all of his psychic energy on the present moment, on the reality in front of him. He made himself concentrate on settling his body, starting with his toes and moving up, an exercise he had learned years ago, as part of his training to learn to center and control his psychic ability. He lay perfectly still as he concentrated, clenching and relaxing each muscle in his legs, pausing to open his eyes and take a deep breath as he reached his dick, hard and pulsing with need as it was in his dream. Sam squeezed his eyes shut, breathed in and out through his nose, willing himself to relax, reminding himself that the body in the other bed was his brother, not his lover. Dean was everything, the most important person in his life, but no longer his sexual partner. Sam willed his dick to relax and soften, to override his natural impulse to respond to Dean's closeness, to his smell.

It took almost twenty minutes by the digital clock on the bedside table, but Sam was finally able to get himself to relax completely, traitorous private parts finally giving in to Sam's silent mantra: He's my brother, not my lover. When sleep finally overwhelmed Sam's tired brain, he slept better than he had in months, the soothing sound of Dean's breathing in the other bed rocking him to sleep, keeping him there, surrounding him with a sense of home, of safety, of all being right with the world again.

Mostly.

**//**

In the morning Sam opened his eyes to something he thought he might never see again. Dean was sitting on the other bed, fully dressed and scrubbed, pulling his boots on. The dream still playing at the edges of Sam's consciousness vanished in the face of reality, and he knew he had been dreaming of Dean, his unconscious mind still not quite caught up with the fact that Dean was really here.

"Rise and shine, princess," Dean grinned, his smile so warm and familiar it made Sam blush with pleasure, made his morning wood stiffen uncomfortably.

"Oh God," Sam moaned, turned away from Dean, putting the pillow over his head and curling up on his side to give his dick another stern talking-to.

"Goin' for coffee," Dean announced. "Be back in ten. That give you enough me-time, college boy?"

Oh my God, Sam thought in a panic. He noticed.

Of course he noticed. Sam was lying on his back, thin sheet barely covering him, probably making sounds in his sleep since he was dreaming about his brother...

This was never going to work.

And how could Dean tease him about it? What kind of asshole does that?

The kind of asshole who hopes he can trust his brother not to cross that line, ever again, Sam answered himself. The kind of asshole who wanted his brother to see how he gets it, that he knows it's not gonna be easy, that they'll probably both be jerking off to thoughts of the other one for a while, until they both learned to get it under control, or maybe just until they both learned to live with it somehow. All that unresolved sexual tension boiling right under the surface, keeping them both on edge. Maybe they could learn to use that energy, to let it make them better hunters, Sam thought doubtfully.

If it didn't kill them first.

*//*

Sam was up and dressed, shaved and scrubbed and sitting at the room's little desk with his laptop open by the time Dean got back with the coffee nearly thirty minutes later. Thinks he's being considerate, the jerk, Sam thought as he caught Dean's eye, saw the smirk there as Dean handed him the coffee, letting his fingers brush Sam's deliberately.

"Thanks," Sam glared as he grabbed the cup, staring fiercely into the computer screen and ignoring Dean's broad smile.

"You're welcome," Dean answered cheerfully, pulling up the other chair next to Sam and leaning forward so that their arms brushed distractedly. "What'cha got?"

Sam took a sip of his coffee, willing his body to relax despite Dean's proximity. He could do this. "Animal deaths, cattle mostly," he answered, keeping his eyes on the screen. "Fifteen head in one herd alone."

Dean whistled, the air brushing past Sam's cheek as Dean leaned closer. "That's a pretty big number. Usually chupacabra pick off one or two at a time, don't they?"

Sam shrugged. "Yeah. Looks like this one's extra hungry," he noted. Dean's heat was all around him now, his chest almost pressed against Sam's back, his face so close beside Sam's that Sam didn't dare move; he caught a glimpse of Dean's profile in his peripheral vision – the full lips, straight nose, long eyelashes – and almost dropped his coffee. Then Dean put his hand over Sam's on the keyboard and Sam snatched his hand away, closed his eyes as he fought to control the sudden pounding of his heart, his body reacting of its own volition to Dean's closeness.

"What?" Dean seemed to realize how close he was for the first time as he tapped the "back" key on the keyboard, pretending he just wanted to take a closer look at the previous page, the bastard.

"Dude, do you mind?" Sam protested, hating that his voice came out slightly breathless. "Personal space here?"

Dean grinned, pressed his body deliberately against Sam for a brief moment before sitting back, putting his hands up in surrender. Feigning innocence, the jerk. Sam shook his head and frowned irritably. Really, if Dean was going to be difficult about this, it was only going to make things harder for them. Not harder. Wrong word-choice...

"I need to take a walk," Sam announced, scooting his chair back and lurching to his feet. "I'll meet you at the diner." He grabbed his jacket off the bed and stalked out the door before Dean could protest, deliberately not looking at him, not seeing the infuriating smirk on his handsome face.

By the time Sam got to the diner he had himself under control again. He could take the teasing, he decided. It was familiar. Dean did it to him when he was young, when he first realized how desperately in love he was but was sure Dean didn't feel the same so he hid it as well as he could. But of course Dean could tell, of course Dean caught the little sideways glances and blushes and lip-biting desperation on Sam's face. Things had gone on like that for at least two years before Dean finally admitted to feeling the same way. And that never would've happened if they hadn't had the run-in with that demon in Bobby Singer's basement. The evil thing that could read Dean's heart like a book, dared Dean to deny wanting Sam as badly as Sam wanted Dean.

So Dean now reverting to their former relationship, before the event that sent them down the path that turned out to be incestuous, made a kind of sick sense to Sam. It really did. In fact, Sam guessed that things would be exactly this way for them, if that demon hadn't shown up and "clarified" things between them. They would've gone on just as they were before that, with Sam pining for Dean and Dean teasing him about it. Which was obviously the way Dean wanted it to be, a way that made him feel comfortable with Sam again. And Sam decided he was okay with that, as irritating as it was to feel like a love-sick fourteen-year-old again. Sam was okay with it for Dean's sake, and that was all there was to it.

At the diner, Dean bumped knees with Sam under the table more than was necessary, in Sam's opinion. He grinned wolfishly when Sam complained about it, teasing Sam that his legs were freakishly long, that he'd turned into a goddamn giraffe since Dean had last tried to share a table with him. He flirted shamelessly with the waitress, which felt unnecessarily cruel to Sam, except that he understood Dean wasn't doing it to be cruel. He was doing it because he needed the new-normal it represented. Dean needed the pretense of macho posturing to prove to himself as well as to Sam that he had his sexuality under control again. Dean Winchester wasn't letting some mystical soul-bonding crap manipulate him into committing incest, ever again. He might feel that bond as powerfully as Sam, but he wasn't ever acting on it again. Who he was and how he acted had become separated in Dean's mind once again, and in future Dean's sexual actions would all be focused on the opposite sex. Period.

As long as none of the women he flirted with turned out to be his sister, he was good.

Sam was working through this line of thought in his head, making excuses for Dean so that it didn't hurt so much, so that Sam could keep the green devil of jealousy at bay. He was so preoccupied that he almost didn't hear it when Dean announced that he'd talked to Missouri Moseley.

"You what?" Sam almost choked on his yogurt.

"Yeah," Dean nodded, spearing his pancake with his fork. "About a month ago. We were in the neighborhood, checking out a possible vengeful spirit case on a farm near Lawrence, so we swung by."

"Wait, you were with Dad?" Sam asked.

Dean shook his head. "Bobby," he corrected. "I wanted Bobby to meet her. And I kinda needed her to confirm a hunch I had."

"What hunch?" Sam frowned. He was suddenly terrified of what Missouri might have told Dean, terrified that Dean would find out about all of Sam's late-night phone calls to her during those first few months after he left, when he was desperate to find out if there was some way to set Dean free, psychically as well as physically, desperate to know if the soul-bonding could be reversed.

Dean stirred his black coffee thoughtfully for a moment before answering, lifting his eyes to stare out the window, not looking at Sam when he answered. "I needed to know if the dreams I was having were visions," he said.

Sam could feel his insides give way, drop all the way through the floor. "What?" he stared, beyond flabbergasted. "You're having visions? Since when?"

"Since right after you left," Dean said, finally turning to look at Sam, green eyes bright and intent. Sam stared back, drowning for a moment in Dean's gaze, unable to form a coherent thought in the face of Dean's direct confession.

"Seems your leaving triggered some kind of dormant psychic reaction," Dean went on, the skin around his eyes tightening infinitesimally, so that Sam felt accused, like he was responsible for this most horrible of possible happenstances. "That's what Missouri called it, anyway. As far as I'm concerned, they're just weird-ass waking dreams."

"What – " Sam stammered, swallowed, tried again. "What are they about?"

"You," Dean shrugged. "Freak." He gave Sam such a triumphant little smirk it took the sting right out of the old hated moniker, turned it into a term of endearment that only Dean could utter with impunity.

"What about me?" Sam prompted, tamping down on his inner panic attack. He'd always known Dean had psychic ability – Missouri had told him so years ago, when they first met. But to hear him talk about it with a kind of angry acceptance, finding out that it had been happening for some time and Dean had been dealing with it – alone – was almost more than Sam could handle.

Visions. About me. What the fuck?

Dean looked down at his coffee cup, then glanced up and aimed a smile over Sam's right shoulder. Suddenly the waitress was there to refill their cups, and Sam couldn't help the little shiver that went up his spine, wondering for the first time in his life what it might actually mean if Dean had psychic abilities. What those abilities might involve. How they might manifest.

And as if Dean knew exactly how freaked out Sam was feeling, he looked up again, catching Sam's eye, making his breath stick in his throat.

"The one I kept having was you looking older," he said finally, turning the coffee cup between his hands, thumbing the lip of the cup almost idly, like this was no big deal, like he hadn't just admitted to Sam that he was as big a freak as Sam. "All pumped up, muscles everywhere like you were training to try out for the next Terminator movie."

Sam leaned forward a little, trying to imagine where this was going. He'd been working out, there was no way to deny that; having free access to the gym on campus, plus needing the physical outlet like it was a kind of drug, helping him to keep his mind off missing Dean by pumping himself full of natural endorphins – yeah, he could see that. He'd been doing that.

Dean looked down at his cup again. "In the vision, or whatever, I wasn't there. We were separated, and you were...You seemed pretty broken up, Sam. Like you'd been living without me for a while and you weren't happy."

Sam nodded. "I missed you, man," he admitted, embarrassed at how easily the tears smarted in the back of his eyes, ready to spill forth.

"Well, this was the future, I'm pretty sure," Dean said, licking his lips. "I got the feeling something had happened, something – something bad, Sammy. It wasn't just you leaving this time. It was me."

Sam stared, blinking back the tears that still threatened to spill from his eyes, struggling to understand. "You had a vision of our future?" he asked, shaking his head in confusion. "You're sure?"

"Pretty sure, yeah," Dean nodded, leaving it at that, daring Sam to contradict him.

"So you left, and I was alone," Sam suggested.

Dean shook his head, smirking. "Not alone," he said. "You had some girl with you. A girl with long dark hair. Pretty."

"What?" Sam frowned. "That doesn't make sense. I'm gay, Dean, in case you hadn't noticed..."

Dean raised his eyebrows, let his smirk turn into a broader smile, nodding. "I guess I always figured," he let his gaze fall back to his coffee cup, and Sam watched, trying and failing not to let himself get lost in Dean's expressive face, the lips and the eyelashes and the whole effect just taking his breath away again. "You and that roommate of yours finally sealed the deal, didn't you?"

"Oh my God, Dean!" Sam sat up straight, huffing out an incredulous breath. "Please tell me you didn't have a vision about that!"

Dean grinned, and it was almost bashful; he couldn't quite bring himself to look Sam in the eye. "Nah," he shook his head. "Just a hunch."

"Fuck!" Sam squirmed, desperately uncomfortable, finding it suddenly almost impossible to think straight. "You can't – wait, please tell me you can't – you're not suddenly reading minds, are you?"

Dean looked up again, and Sam could see the haunted look there, the freaked-out Dean he remembered from before, when Sam first revealed his own psychic abilities. That Dean had never imagined having abilities of his own, had freaked almost to the point of running away when Sam revealed Missouri's insight, that Sam wasn't the only Winchester with a supernatural power.

"Hell no," Dean exhorted, huffing out a mirthless laugh. "What, you think these freaky visions aren't bad enough?"

"No, that's not what I mean," Sam backtracked, struggling to find a way to express what he needed to say. "It's just, Missouri told me you were blocking me, when I tried to read you, and I was afraid – I thought maybe you could – maybe you could read my mind, even though I can't read yours. She thought maybe your power was even stronger than mine, maybe because it was so latent."

"You do realize you're being an unbelievable asshole right now," Dean said, leaning forward over his coffee. "You're telling me stuff you never bothered to say before. You do get that, right?"

Sam sat back in his seat, breathing hard, fighting down the panic attack threatening to consume him. "I never lied to you, Dean," Sam said, keeping his voice low and intense. "Missouri told me she wasn't sure you'd ever manifest. She told me – " Sam paused, not wanting to repeat what Missouri had told him about Dean, afraid Dean would take it the wrong way.

"What, Sam?" Dean glared, obviously not taking Sam's words the right way at all. "What the hell did she say?"

Sam took a deep breath, let it out, shifting his gaze around the diner desperately, looking for some way to avoid the inevitable.

"Sam?" Dean leaned across the table, growled almost directly into his face. "What the hell did she say?"

Sam lifted his eyes to the ceiling, huffed out another breath, and squared his shoulders. Okay, then. Time to get it all out there, no matter the consequences. "She said – she said you break easier than I do," Sam said in a rush, heart pounding and palms sweating. "She said I had to be careful not to hurt you."

"Oh yeah?" Dean glared. "Or what, Sam? Or I might start having visions of you possessed by a demon and killing people? Is that what she told you?"

"What?" Sam felt his eyes widen in shock. "Is that what you saw in your vision?"

Dean deflated then, lowering his eyes and leaning back against the seat, a shuttered, unhappy look crossing his face as he looked away, then down at his coffee again.

"Dean?" Sam demanded, ice water flooding his veins. "You saw me possessed by a demon? Killing?"

Dean shifted uncomfortably on his seat, clenching and unclenching his jaw, gaze fixed stubbornly on his coffee cup.

"Dean?" Sam barked, shaking now. "It is, isn't it? That's what you saw."

Dean lifted his eyebrows, glanced up at Sam, lowered his eyes again and nodded. His shoulders slumped in defeat and he seemed smaller suddenly, diminished. "Yeah," he admitted, voice low and soft. "That's what I saw."

Sam took a deep breath, let it out slow, nodding to himself, hating how familiar Dean's words sounded, how right. There was something wrong with him, he'd always known it. Finding out he was going to turn into something evil was much less surprising than it probably should be. Pieces to the puzzle of his life were suddenly falling into place; why Yellow-Eyes had kidnapped him that night, why the demons seemed to favor him, kept trying to find him. All the testing, then the special training when he was young, before the Winchesters rescued him.

"I think I always knew," Sam said quietly, fighting back the tears stinging his eyes as he stared blindly out the window. "The demons have always had plans for me."

"Yeah, well it ain't happening on my watch," Dean growled, and Sam glanced at him. Dean's jaw was clenched stubbornly, his hands around his coffee cup gripping so tight the knuckles were white.

Sam huffed out a bitter breath. "Dean, those are visions, not fantasies. You're catching glimpses of things that will happen in the future."

Dean shook his head firmly. "Not while I'm around," he insisted. "Those things happen because I'm gone. So I came back. I'm here. Not goin' anywhere."

"Dean," Sam breathed out a long sigh. "You can't change the future."

"Missouri says I can," Dean insisted. "She says the future hasn't been written yet."

"Well, she's wrong," Sam shook his head slowly. "Everything I've read about fate and destiny, visions and prophecies – all of those things that foretell the future – that's real. It's possible to see the future because it's already happened. Everything is already laid out for us. We're just living our lives the way we were meant to. What you're seeing with your visions is what's already happened, just like the past. It's all running concurrently. It all exists simultaneously. You can't change the future any more than you can change the past."

"Missouri thinks maybe we can," Dean said again. "She says some people are special. Unpredictable. They don't follow the normal path. Things happen around them that can't be known ahead of time. They're uncontrollable."

"That's crazy," Sam frowned, trying to ignore the little spark of hope that lit up in his chest at Dean's words, at the determination in Dean's face.

Then Dean broke the moment with a cocky grin and the sun came out from behind a cloud outside, so perfectly timed it made Sam jump, spooked. "Well I don't know about you, but I'm taking crazy and unpredictable any day over evil killing machine and dark, unhappy Sammy." Dean pulled some bills from his wallet, tucking them under his plate as he slid off the seat. "I say we get out there and show the world what the Winchesters are made of, what d'ya say? Time to raise a little hell, eh, Sammy?"

In the car, Sam brooded. He knew he was brooding because Dean slapped his knee after a few minutes on the road.

"Come on, little brother, snap out of it," Dean chastised. "It's not that bad. Like I told you, nothing bad can happen to you as long as I'm around, and I'm here now. We're stronger together."

Sam winced, shook his head. The sense of foreboding, of something evil coming for him, had never been stronger. Yet he wanted to believe Dean, wanted to trust what Missouri had told him.

"How come she told you all that stuff?" he asked. "She never said anything to me about being special people who could buck the future."

Dean shrugged. "Maybe she likes me more," he teased, then shook his head, serious again. "I don't know. She seemed to be able to read my mind, sense things from me when I was right there in front of her. Not sure she can do that over the phone."

"Yeah, that makes sense," Sam agreed reluctantly.

"She said it has to do with us being soul-bonded," Dean revealed. "And siblings. She seemed surprised about that, like she didn't know."

"She didn't," Sam said. "Until I called and told her last fall, she didn't know we were brothers."

"Maybe because we didn't know ourselves," Dean suggested.

I knew, Sam thought grimly. I always knew.

"Maybe," Sam muttered, unconvinced. He was starting to doubt Missouri's ability to assess their situation after all. If she'd missed their being brothers...But of course the soul-bond was so much more profound than a mere sibling connection. Maybe it canceled out or precluded the genetics somehow.

"Listen, Sam," Dean glanced over at his brother. "I only told you because I thought you should know, y'know? Because I don't want us to have any secrets, going forward. Everything needs to be upfront with us from now on, ya got me? We need to be able to trust each other if we're gonna work together."

Sam thought about that for a moment, wondered if being in love with Dean counted as a secret. Probably not. “Okay," he agreed. "That makes sense."

"So I don't want you getting all down on yourself over those visions of mine, ya got me?" Dean continued. "I need your head in the game."

"Are you still having them?" Sam asked. "The visions, I mean. Have you had any recently?"

"Not since I decided to come get you," Dean smirked. "See? I'm already changing the future."

"Maybe," Sam grumbled, still unconvinced. But even he had to agree that was an improvement over Dean envisioning Sam possessed and killing people. That was so wrong Sam didn't even know where to start.

*//*

The hunt didn't go exactly as planned. Turned out there was more than one chupacabra, and Sam was totally unprepared for that because who knew the damn things sometimes lived and hunted in packs? Sam and Dean found themselves surrounded at a certain point, ended up taking down five of the spiny-backed monsters, then trapping and killing the last one before it could get away.

After digging a shallow pit and burning the bodies, Sam and Dean staggered back to their motel, dirty, exhausted, and covered with nasty teeth and claw-marks. They took turns stitching each other up, adrenaline still flooding their veins, ignoring each other's nakedness as they focused on checking each other over for wounds and breaks. Sam was able to manage the cut on his thigh and the one on his shoulder without help, but the gash across his back needed stitches, he could feel it, and as soon as Dean took care of his own lacerations Sam felt Dean's strong, calloused hands on Sam's bare shoulders, holding him steady as Dean examined the wound.

"Gonna need some whiskey for this one," Dean murmured, voice low and so close to Sam's ear he could feel Dean's breath.

Sam handed the bottle to Dean over his shoulder and Dean chuckled softly.

"No, I mean, you'll need to drink it," Dean clarified. "And try to hold still. This is gonna hurt like a son-of-a-bitch."

Dean was careful and steady, as he always was, and Sam dealt with each new pinch of the needle, each new drag of the dental floss through his skin, with a minimum of grunting and gasping, but he was sweating and breathing hard by the end of it, when Dean finally covered the sutured wound with a clean bandage and patted his shoulder.

"You've earned the first shower, dude," Dean said. "Just don't get your back wet for a couple of days. You'll probably want to sleep on your stomach tonight."

Sam nodded, trying not to look up at Dean's naked chest as he brushed past him to go into the bathroom, failing miserably. The combination of the adrenaline and the booze was making Sam hornier than ever, despite his wounds and his aching muscles, and it was sheer agony being in the claustrophobic motel room with the man he loved yet couldn't touch, at least not the way he wanted. It was a constant itch under his skin, an ache that no amount of scrubbing in the shower could wash away or ease.

When he came out, mostly clean except for his back, Dean made him lie down on the bed on his stomach, clad only in his boxers, while Dean gently washed his back for him with a warm wash-cloth. No manner of self-talk could stop Sam's dick from responding to the sensuality of Dean's hands on him, even through the washcloth, especially when Dean kneaded his muscles with his bare hands after, giving Sam a massage to work out the tension, deliberately helping him relax so he could sleep, despite the pain.

"Jesus, Sam," Dean breathed when he started the massage. "You really bulked up since I saw you last. You trying to give me a complex? First you grow up over my head, now this?"

Sam chuckled fondly, eyes closed, the better to feel Dean's hands, to revel in the effect they were having. The combination of painkillers and whiskey and his recent shower, not to mention Dean's warm hands on his skin, were lulling Sam into a comforting, aroused sleepiness that felt better than it should, given how turned on it made him. He was torn between needing to rut against the bed to give his dick some friction, and needing to fall asleep.

He was probably already under by the time Dean finished; Sam was aware that he had started to snore, that Dean wasn't touching him anymore. Sam was so sleepy he barely felt Dean's lips press against his cheek, placing a gentle, barely-there kiss on the edge of his jaw. It felt so normal, so familiar, Sam didn't even register it happening, decided he had imagined it when he remembered it the next morning. And the fact that it happened when Dean thought Sam was asleep meant it really didn't count.

But it happened. Dean kissed him. No take-backs, Sam's mostly-unconscious mind provided smugly.

*//*

They spent a few days recovering in the motel, watching t.v., playing cards, searching the web for supernatural activity and another case possibility. Sam slept better than he had in almost a year, and he could tell Dean was sleeping better too; the dark circles under his eyes faded and his face stopped looking so gaunt and pale. He still wore the heavy leather coat everywhere, like a suit of armor in the summer heat, but he was eating again. Watching Dean eat had always been a guilty pleasure for Sam, but now it was an intense relief to watch Dean take an interest in food again, watch him begin to gain back some of the weight he'd lost in Sam's absence.

After a week of sleeping in the same room Sam began to see how this could work. Sure, he was still consumed with lust, still needed a cold shower and some me-time every morning, still had to fight his body's urges every night as he and Dean lay breathing in their separate beds. But it was bearable. Barely.

It helped knowing Dean was struggling too, that Sam wasn't the only one who craved something he could no longer have. Sometimes when Sam woke up in the night it was because he knew Dean had been staring at him in the dark, maybe even jerking off. When he heard the little tell-tale hitch in Dean's breath, Sam lay perfectly still, waiting to turn over until Dean was done, until he heard the rustle of the sheets that told him Dean was getting up to go to the bathroom to clean up. Sometimes Sam pretended to be asleep when Dean came back, but sometimes he lay watching Dean as he settled back into bed. Usually Dean ignored him, if he noticed at all, but one night he looked up, stared back at Sam, green eyes glittering and dark. Sam could feel the longing between them like it was something corporeal, something Sam could cut with a knife, and it made Sam's eyes sting with tears, made his throat close up so he had to swallow. Dean's eyes dropped to Sam's throat, catching the movement, then raised to meet his gaze again. They lay like that for at least a solid minute before Dean finally lowered his eyes, turned over so that his back was to Sam again. Sam stared at the back of Dean's neck, fighting tears, fighting the ache in his groin, wishing and hoping and praying that things would work out between them, that Dean wouldn't one day decide it was just too much and give up.

At the end of the week they found three more hunts, all vengeful spirits. The work was physical, dirty, and they relished it; Dean was building some muscle again, digging graves, swinging iron, getting the job done. It felt good. Made sense. They were helping people.

In August they took on another monster, a Black Dog this time, terrorizing residents of a small town built on an old Native American burial ground in Montana. Taking it down meant getting up close and personal, resulting in more injuries and another adrenaline-soaked aftermath, this time necessitating Sam's practically carrying Dean back to the car. The creature had ripped a pretty good chunk out of Dean's thigh, causing a ridiculous amount of bleeding. Dean refused to go to the hospital, so Sam did his best to wrap a makeshift tourniquet around it using his own shirt, getting Dean to lay down in the back seat with his leg elevated to try to slow the blood-flow on the drive back to the motel. Dean cursed and bitched the whole way, complaining about not being allowed to drive his own car, about being carried into the motel room, about Sam "fussing" over him as he tried to staunch the bleeding and get him stitched up.

"I can do it myself, Sam," Dean insisted after Sam had removed his boots, then managed to wrestle his tattered and bloodied jeans off him. The Black Dog had grabbed Dean by the ankle with one massive paw, sending him sprawling face-down into the dirt, then it sunk its teeth into the back of Dean's leg before Sam blew it away with silver buckshot and rock salt. Half-spirit, half-corporeal, the creature dissipated in a spray of guts and blood that mixed with Dean's, making Dean scream as the rancid liquid invaded his wound.

"No, you can't," Sam argued, struggling to roll Dean onto his stomach. "You have to let me do it, damn it. Why are you being such a baby about this?"

"Maybe if some giant ghost dog had just taken a bite outta you, you wouldn't be so eager to dance, Sam!"

"Just let me see it!"

"Get your hands off me! Ow! Damn it, Sammy!"

Dean was resisting so violently he was getting blood everywhere, so Sam gave up, took a step back, hands up in surrender.

"Okay, okay," he huffed. "Do it yourself then."

Dean was lying on one hip, hand over the still-bleeding wound, glaring helplessly up at Sam with tears running unnoticed down both cheeks. His right ankle was swelling badly, and there were scratches up and down both legs where the creature had pawed at him once it had him pinned. He looked so miserable and pathetic it made Sam feel twice as sorry for him; it seemed a little unfair that Sam had gotten away with barely a scratch this time. But Dean had offered to be the bait, even if he was regretting it now, and Sam didn't dare rub it in.

"I need to stop the bleeding, Dean," he tried again, gently, trying to look sympathetic. "It may need stitches, I just can't tell unless you let me see it."

Dean glared fiercely at him for another moment, then looked down at the wound, at his hand covered in blood which was now soaking through the towels Sam had tossed onto the bed in an attempt to protect the bedding, probably also soaked through. He was crying openly now, and Sam could tell it hurt like hell, but the mortification was apparently even worse. Nevertheless, Sam could see the moment Dean let reason trump embarrassment so that he could allow Sam to do what needed to be done.

"Fuck!" Dean groaned, flopping dramatically onto his stomach, taking his hand away so he could fold both arms over his head and sink his face into the pillow. "Go ahead."

The Black Dog had bitten Dean in the ass, which explained all the blood. Once Sam cut away Dean's briefs and carefully cleaned the wound, it was obvious that the damage wasn't that serious.

"It's just a flesh wound," Sam murmured as he examined the teeth marks on the formerly-perfect mound of smooth, pale skin. "Doesn't need stitches after all."

"Great," Dean muttered into his own arm, keeping his eyes closed and most of his face pressed into the pillow. "Just do what you have to, Sam."

Sam nodded, knowing Dean couldn't see him, and grabbed the pillow from the other bed. He gently lifted Dean's hips so he could slip the pillow underneath, elevating his ass just a little so that Sam could pull the skin around the wounds tight. He applied pressure, mopped up the blood until it started to slow, then sprayed antiseptic and dried the area as well as he could. By the time he bandaged the wounds Dean had mostly relaxed, in fact was breathing so deeply Sam was afraid he'd fallen asleep.

"Come on," Sam put his hand on Dean's shoulder, tugged. "Let's get you cleaned up and onto the other bed so you can sleep. I still need to wrap your ankle."

Dean obeyed without protest this time, letting Sam pull him up and strip off the rest of his bloodied clothes without comment. Dean kept his eyes almost closed as Sam wiped him off as best he could with a washcloth, then made him lie down his stomach on the other bed while Sam wrapped his ankle. The painkillers and whiskey were definitely having an effect, and by the time Sam had finished and pulled a sheet up over his lower half, Dean was snoring lightly. He would need a shower in the morning to get the blood out of his hair, but for now Sam decided it was best to let him sleep while Sam gathered the blood-covered towels and bedding into a pile and crammed them into huge plastic garbage bags to burn later. Then he stripped and showered, adding his own blood-soaked clothes to the trash bag, and finally collapsed onto the other bed, using the pillow he had shoved under Dean's hips earlier to cushion his head. He was out almost before he turned out the light.

Sometime in the night Sam woke up, strange voices skittering at the edge of his consciousness, whispering his name. He lay panting and sweating in the dark for a minute, concentrating but failing to recall any other words except his name, repeated over and over like a mantra. The voices were hissing, whispering, like they were afraid he could hear them, like they knew he probably would hear them if they spoke any louder. Sam strained to recall anything else, any sounds of rustling or movement, any indication that whatever was whispering was nearby. But the room was silent except for the low hum of the air-conditioner and Dean's soft snoring, and Sam's keen senses insisted there was nothing else in the room with them, nothing had been able to cross their salt lines.

Nevertheless, Sam knew what he heard. Something was coming for him, just as he had known it would.

**//**

They hit the road early the next morning, taking the bag of bloodied blankets and towels with them. After putting a little over a hundred miles behind them, Sam pulled over and dumped the bag in a shallow ditch, poured lighter fluid on it and set it ablaze. He stood over the fire for an hour as the evidence of their hunt went up in smoke, then returned to the car, where Dean was watching from the back seat, silent and cranky because his ankle kept him from driving and needed to be elevated.

Sam drove another hundred and fifty miles before stopping at a Motel 6. He half dragged, half carried his brother into the room after checking in, using a different alias than the previous stop, then walked the half-mile down the road to the town's only diner to collect take-out bags for their early supper. He needed the exercise after being cooped up in the car all day; truth was, Sam was feeling snappish and on edge and pissed off at Dean for no real reason other than he was sick of Dean's grumpy behavior. Dean had never been a good patient, yet this time he was aiming his frustration at Sam, as if it were Sam's fault he had to spend so much time on his stomach with his ankle elevated, needed a hand every time he had to get up to go the bathroom. Then there was the fact that Sam had just driven his car almost three hundred miles with Dean in the back seat.

"You wanna explain that, Sam?" Dean demanded once Sam returned to the room with the take-out bags and beer.

"Explain what?" Sam shrugged, setting out the food so he didn't have to look at Dean, who was propped up on one of the beds, ankle elevated on a stack of pillows. Probably soaking through his bandages, Sam thought irritably.

"That – that get-away drive," Dean spouted. "Not exactly standard procedure."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Sam hedged. "And you should be lying on your stomach. You're gonna bleed right through another perfectly good pair of jeans."

"You should've thought about that before you shoved us into the car this morning," Dean shot back. "Making me sit on my injuries all day isn't really the best healing strategy, bitch."

"Jerk," Sam grumbled, handing Dean an opened beer, which he took with a frown, fingers brushing Sam's deliberately, the asshole. "And you were mostly lying on your side. That's why I brought the pillow."

"Yeah, well, being in the back seat gives me the heeby-jeebies," Dean complained. "Dad used to make me ride back there when I was a kid. He used to drive through the night, and I was supposed to sleep. I hated it."

Sam had a sudden image of a little tow-headed boy, huddled in the back seat of the Impala with a blanket and pillow, lonely and miserable.

Sam took a sip of his beer, sat down on the other bed, ignoring the food for the moment. "I have good memories of the back seat," he revealed. "You and me, sharing that ratty old blue sleeping bag, fighting over who gets the pillow, but not really cause you always shared. The back of Dad's head, his profile when he turned to smile at Mom. Mom smiling back, glancing over her shoulder to check on us."

"You remember Mom?" Dean stared, frowning.

Sam nodded. "She was there sometimes, in my dreams. Not a lot, but once in a while. They were both there. I mean, I guess they were always there, but the only times I remember actually seeing them were when we were in the car together. Driving home at night after going to see the fireworks, driving out to the lake for the day."

"You never told me that." Dean was still staring at him, his eyes big and round, making him look much younger than his twenty-three years.

Sam shrugged, took another swig of his beer. "Didn't seem like it mattered." He clenched his teeth, shaking his head a little. "It didn't really happen. None of it did. The fact is, your childhood was shitty. So was mine."

"But you remember Mom," Dean breathed, then shook his head a little. "That – that's what kept me going sometimes, when I was little. She was my rock. I would dream about her, after all the fire nightmares stopped happening so much, and she would tell me everything was gonna be all right. She'd tell me to just hang in there and be strong, and everything would work out." Dean took a sip of his beer, smacked his lips. "Didn't believe her, of course," he added.

"You were that for me," Sam shrugged, looked down at his beer. "You were my rock. You weren't even real, but believing in you got me through the shit-storm. Mostly."

"Jury's still out on that one," Dean smirked, and Sam grinned, although it felt more like a grimace.

"Your bandages need changing," he reminded Dean, and now it was Dean's turn to make a face.

"No way I'm letting you touch my ass," he muttered, struggling to pull himself off the bed.

"A little late for that, don'tcha think?" Sam reached out, let Dean practically climb onto his shoulder so Sam could half-carry Dean to the table, slipping a pillow under him to sit on.

"Next hunt, no claws. No teeth," Dean pronounced as he reached for the first take out container, rejected it and passed it to Sam after he opened it, saw that it was full of vegetables. "Maybe just a nice, ordinary vengeful spirit or two."

"Yeah, about that." Sam took a deep breath, pushed his food aside in favor of another swig of his beer. "I think maybe we oughta just lay low for a few days. Maybe a week or two."

"What?" Dean stared at him around a mouthful of burger. "What are you talking about? We're on a roll here, Sam. Takin' down evil and kickin' it in the ass. Mostly." He glanced down at his swollen ankle, propped up on another chair. "We can't stop."

"Well, we have to stop for a while anyway," Sam hedged, flicking his eyes up to Dean's for a moment before looking down at his beer again. "You're injured. You need at least a week to recover."

"Three days, tops," Dean argued. "Ankle's just sprained, not broken. I'll be running around again by the end of the week."

Sam shifted uncomfortably on the hard chair, glanced up at Dean, then back at his beer, unable to hold Dean's gaze for more than a moment.

"What?" Dean's voice took on that deep, commanding tone Sam knew too well. "What is it, Sam? You having more of your freaky dreams? Is that what this is about?"

"Oh my God, no!" Sam protested, but it sounded lame even to his ears.

"Sam," Dean warned, and Sam was reminded, not for the first time, that Dean could read him like a book sometimes, even without reading his mind.

Sam took a deep breath, let it out slow. "Not dreams, exactly," he admitted. "More like – like a feeling."

"A feeling," Dean repeated, skeptical.

"When I woke up this morning, I could hear voices," Sam said in a rush, just getting it out there. "I think something's looking for me. Something – not good."

"Voices," Dean clung to the first part of Sam's confession, ignoring the last thing. "Now you're hearing voices."

Sam winced, ducked his head, took a last swallow of his beer, emptying the bottle. He set the empty bottle on the table and grabbed another. He twisted the cap off and offered it to Dean, who shook his head, so Sam took a quick swig for himself.

"I just think we should lay low for a while," Sam shrugged. "Maybe our hunting has triggered its attention. Maybe that's what it was waiting for. Waiting for me to come out of the closet and start hunting again. Maybe it's attracted to supernatural activity."

"That's a lot of maybes, Sam," Dean reminded him, taking another bite of his burger.

Sam took another deep breath. "You said Dad was going to try to hypnotize me," he voiced what he'd been turning over in his head ever since Dean had said it. "He thought maybe he could get more information about the Yellow-Eyed Demon that way."

Dean frowned. "Yeah, but you said – I mean, you thought out loud at me with that freaky thought projection power of yours – you didn't think that would work."

"Now I'm thinking maybe it's worth a shot." Sam clenched his jaw, teeth grinding as he concentrated. "Maybe there's a way to channel my memories, project them to you. Maybe we can learn more about what the demon was doing that way."

"You think it's still after you," Dean suggested.

"Oh, I know it is," Sam nodded. "It thinks it owns me. It stole me from my crib that night and raised me the way it wanted me raised, until you and Dad rescued me. But I'm not the only one, Dean. There were others at that clinic in Lawrence. I remember that much. Other kids with psychic abilities. We owe it to them to find out what happened to them. I've got a feeling they were kidnapped too. There'll be records. Babies that supposedly died in fires around the same time as the fire at our house, or just disappeared from their cribs mysteriously."

Dean nodded. "Dad's already done the research," he said. "He found six other kids that fit the profile. Four house fires in which the babies apparently died. Two cases in which the babies disappeared without a trace. The parents were charged with murder in at least one of those cases, of course..."

Sam stared. "And you were going to tell me this when, exactly?"

Dean shifted uncomfortably, not looking Sam in the eye, and Sam let him squirm for the moment, knowing his ass was probably killing him, but suddenly not sorry at all.

"You know Dad, Sam," Dean shrugged. "Of course he looked into it, as soon as he found out who you really were. You're his son, but you're also the biggest clue to finding the thing that destroyed his family. Killed Mom. He's not letting that go anytime soon."

"I can't believe you didn't tell me," Sam shook his head. "He must be dying to find out if he can get any more information from me." A thought struck Sam suddenly, and he cast a horrified look at his brother. "Wait, he didn't send you, did he? Did he send you to get me? Is that what all of this is about?"

"Sam..." Dean shifted uncomfortably again but couldn't meet his eyes, so Sam knew he was right. Knew he'd hit the nail on the head.

Rage flowed hot and hard through Sam's veins. He surged to his feet, pushing his chair back so fast it fell over.

"It is, isn't it?" he demanded. "He sent you. He gave you an order, and you followed it, just like you always do. You were supposed to keep an eye on me this summer, make sure I didn't go dark side or something. Am I right? Dean, am I right?"

Dean licked his lips, shifted on the chair again. "That's not – I didn't mean – "

But Sam was on a roll now, pacing back and forth in front of Dean like a caged animal, breathing hard.

"All this hunting and bonding and learning to be brothers was just a cover for your real mission, wasn't it?" he accused. "You're just Dad's spy! You're just obeying orders!"

"No, Sam, that's not all this is," Dean insisted, gruff and defensive. "Dad may have said something to me about looking out for you this summer, but then when I had those – visions – and right after that the hospital called, said you were sick...I had to fix things between us, Sam, or die trying. I swear to you, that's what this is. It's not just Dad telling me what to do."

"I don't believe you," Sam huffed. "You always do what he tells you. As if he cares. As if by following John's orders, you could finally get him to pay attention to you."

"Sam," Dean warned.

"Nothing will ever matter to that man more than getting his revenge," Sam barreled ahead, ignoring Dean's tight jaw and deep growl. "He's a monomaniacal sociopath, Dean! He can't care about anything or anyone but himself."

"That's not true, Sam," Dean shook his head.

"Yeah, it is," Sam insisted, clenching his fists, frustration making him cruel. "I can read his mind, I know how he thinks. He's incapable of caring about anything except his quest. His mission."

"He loves us, Sam," Dean insisted. "We're all he's got. We're his family."

"Family. Right," Sam scoffed, needing to hit something. Or someone. "That's his excuse. He tells himself that's why he's doing it, why he raised you to be a hunter. But he's just using you. He uses the family bond to get you to do his little jobs for him, the dirty work he won't do himself." Sam stopped pacing, glared down at Dean, consumed with the need to make Dean see the truth, no matter how much it might hurt.

Then a sudden thought sent ice water through his pulsing veins, and he spoke in a rush, just to get it out.

"Did he tell you to kill me if I go dark-side? Huh? Did he say that too?"

"Sam!" Dean's eyes grew wide with shock. "Of course he didn't say that!"

Sam glared, resisting the urge to grab Dean by his lapels and shake him. Maybe even punch him. Just knock some sense into him. Then Sam was hit with an image of Dean on the floor, beaten and bloodied, and Sam almost gasped, horrified. The thought of physically hurting Dean filled him with dread, made him nauseous.

"Yeah, well, he will," Sam deflated a little, suddenly bone-tired, repulsed and exhausted by his own violent thoughts. He backed off a little, ran a hand through his hair and stared at the window before turning his gaze on his brother again. "It's only a matter of time. Especially now that he's got those visions of yours, confirming for him exactly how this is gonna go. I'm surprised he didn't just off me himself, when you told him."

Dean shook his head, looked down at his beer, tipped it back and took a long swallow, not looking at Sam, his cheeks flushed all the way to the tips of his ears.

Sam stared. He knew the signs, knew Dean's tells. Dean was lying again, or at least keeping a secret.

"You – " Sam sucked in a breath. "You didn't tell him about the visions?" he suggested tentatively.

The idea of Dean withholding that kind of vital information from his father just took all the wind right out of Sam's sails. It didn't make sense, made Sam's head spin with a heady rush of adrenaline, like he was ten years old and just got away with smoking, or stealing. What could make Dean do something so out of character?

Sam took his time retrieving the chair from where it lay on the floor on its side, then set it down next to the table, right in front of Dean, so that when he sat in it, their knees touched. Or at least the one of Dean's knees that wasn't propped on the other chair.

Three chairs, Sam thought idly. What table has only three chairs? One must have broken.

"So you didn't tell Dad you were having visions," Sam confirmed. "He doesn't know you saw me – well, future me – all pumped up and demon-possessed and killing people. He doesn't know. Wow."

Dean took a breath, let it out slow, like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Then he gave a shaky laugh. "I couldn't tell him," he admitted, still not looking at Sam. "With all the stuff he just found out about you, he didn't need to know his oldest son was a freak, too."

"You never bothered to mention to him that you're psychic?" Sam stared, and Dean winced, shifted on his seat again. It was answer enough; Dean didn't have to say a thing.

Sam took a deep breath, let it out, let his knee brush Dean's casually.

"Okay, then," Sam breathed, more relieved than anything. Euphoric, even. Sharing this with Dean, keeping it from John, was exhilarating. It changed things, shifted the power in the family dynamic. Suddenly the bond the brothers shared was even deeper, more intense. Suddenly there wasn't a John-shaped space between them anymore. Dean had made his choice.

"Well, John still thinks I'm the biggest piece of evidence he has in this case, Dean," Sam said. "He's not gonna let me go."

"Then we'll just have to figure this out before he does," Dean said, finally raising his eyes. The fierce, protective determination in his face practically took Sam's breath away. "Cuz like I told you before, Sam, I ain't letting anything bad happen to you, and that's a promise."

There was a time when Sam would've gathered Dean into his arms and kissed him at a moment like this, would've touched him with gratitude and reverence, would've laid him down and undressed him and made love to him until he cried out, lost and drowning in the pleasure only Sam knew how to give him.

But now all Sam could do was convey his gratitude in a look, in a light touch to Dean's knee. Dean gazed back at him for almost a full minute, and Sam could sense the longing there, felt Dean's love for him like a warm blanket, the strength of their bond like something physical.

Then Dean's eyes lowered and his cheeks flushed pink, breaking the magic of the soul-bond, of whatever emotional connection Sam couldn't help projecting. Dean shifted a little on his seat, and Sam squeezed Dean's knee, then leaned forward.

"Let's get you back on the bed," Sam suggested, his voice slightly hoarse. "Need to change those bandages."

And Dean let himself be helped over to the bed, where he stripped to his shorts and lay down on his stomach, allowing Sam to touch him, to peel off blood-soaked bandages and re-dress the wounds with gentle, confident hands. They didn't speak, and when Sam helped Dean up again so he could limp to the bathroom, Sam didn't push, didn't try to prolong the physical contact.

Nevertheless, there was something new between them now, something almost as physical as sex, and they both felt it, of that Sam was convinced.

*//*

Sam called Missouri Moseley in the morning, briefly explained about the voices, asked if she thought there was a way for Sam to retrieve the memories of his kidnapping.

"You gonna need to come see me in person, you need answers to questions like that, boy," Missouri scolded. "You know I don't do readings over the phone."

Sam sighed. Yes, he knew, but he was hoping for something a little more definite before he dragged Missouri into the middle of their shit.

"There's things following me around again," Sam explained. "Dean and I have been hunting, and I think we've caught the attention of something. I don't want to bring it to your house."

"You let me worry 'bout that," Missouri said. "You just get your skinny rear-ends down here so I can take a look at you."

"Yes, ma'am," Sam agreed before he could stop himself, more relieved than he wanted to be to share the burden of their current situation with the older psychic. Missouri's understanding and advice over the years had been invaluable to Sam as he dealt with the freaky stresses of his psychic abilities, and he had learned to depend on her more than he was willing to admit. Usually a phone call was all it took to settle Sam's jangling nerves whenever a psychic experience rattled him, as it had at least two or three times in the past few years. Plus, Missouri knew about Sam and Dean, knew their secrets, and it was comforting just to talk to her.

This was the first time she had insisted Sam come visit, though. It made him uncomfortable because he knew Missouri could read his mind, although there wasn't anything in Sam's head that she didn't already know. Nothing important, anyway. And if she could access that part of his mind where his earliest memories were hidden, maybe it would help them find the thing that took Sam and the other kids.

And Sam knew he should want that, that solving the mystery of what had happened to him and why should be the most important goal right now. And it was, in a way. But Sam knew that Missouri would also read Sam's hesitation, his reluctance to find out the truth, his conviction that whatever had happened must be his fault, that he was marked for evil from birth, that Mary Winchester had died trying to defend someone who didn't deserve to be saved. And Missouri would read Sam's mind and know that Sam feared losing Dean more than anything, feared that if Dean ever found out that Sam's destiny was the cause of his mother's death, it would destroy their bond forever.

Dean was not excited to spend another six hours in the back seat of the car. He whined and bitched and complained until Sam threatened to call Missouri back and tell her they weren't coming, that Dean needed a few days to recover first. That shut Dean up, and he let himself be lowered into the back seat on his side, pillows propped along his back and against the doors to keep him upright on his side and to keep his ankle elevated. He insisted that "injured party picks the music," and demanded back-to-back Zeppelin albums on the drive down to Lawrence until Sam decided that shooting himself might be preferable to listening to one more hour of Robert Plant. Luckily, they pulled up in front of Missouri's house just in time to save Sam from flipping the Zeppelin IV tape for the third time, and all thoughts of throwing the cassettes out the window disappeared in the face of Sam's sudden anxiety.

"Well, don't just stand there," Missouri yelled at them from the porch once Sam had manhandled Dean out of the back of the car and stood staring up at the house, stooped a little so Dean could sling his arm across Sam's shoulders, Sam's arm wrapped around Dean's waist, supporting his weight. "Come on in here where I can get a look at you."

Dean shook him off as Sam tried to help Dean up the steps, preferring to use the hand-rail to lean on until they got to the porch, batting at Sam irritably until Sam was tempted to just pick him up and carry him.

"Let your brother help you, boy," Missouri scolded Dean. "You got nothin' to be ashamed of. Taking down a Black Dog isn't child's play."

"You get that from my mind or his?" Dean asked, letting Sam settle him into one of the cushioned chairs on the front porch, propping his injured ankle on the stool Sam pulled up for him.

"Yours, of course," Missouri shook her head. "All you want to do is find another one so you can bite it right back, show it who's boss."

"Damn straight," Dean nodded, grim smile not quite reaching his eyes. "Not literally, of course."

"And I'll thank you to watch your language in my house, Dean Winchester," Missouri reminded him sharply.

"Yes, ma'am," Dean mumbled, deflating just a little.

Missouri shook her head. "I'll get us some lemonade. Sam, you come give me a hand, now."

"Yes, ma'am," Sam shot a helpless look at Dean as he followed Missouri into the house. He was rewarded by a genuine grin as Dean leaned back in his comfortable chair and lifted his eyebrows, obviously amused.

"The answer to your question is yes, boy," Missouri said when they reached the kitchen at the back of the house and Missouri started pulling out glasses. "And don't you think for a minute that you can't believe anything I tell you now cuz you think I missed the brother thing. You two have the most intense soul-bond of any two people I ever met, and that cancels out every other tie, you hear me? You are first and foremost each other's other half. Nothing else is as important as that. Not even being brothers."

She opened the refrigerator, pulled out the pitcher of freshly-made lemonade, then began arranging homemade snickerdoodles on a plate.

"Made these fresh this morning, just before you called," Missouri said. "Had a feeling you were on your way here."

"But we hadn't decided that yet," Sam protested. "I, for one, was feeling really conflicted about it. How could you guess which choice we'd make?"

"Some choices are made for us," Missouri said pointedly as she handed Sam the plate of cookies. "Others, we get to make for ourselves. Guess which kind your choice to come here was?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know if I can change it. What Dean saw in his visions, I mean. I don't know how to stop that from happening."

"Oh yes, you sure do," Missouri nodded, wiping her hands on her apron. "You're doing it right now. Changing things. Dean stopped having those visions, didn't he?"

Sam shook his head again. "I don't know," he repeated.

"You know what you need, Sam?" Missouri put her hands on her hips, leaned forward. "You need to have a little faith. Your brother loves you. He's not gonna leave you, ever, no matter what happened to you when you were a baby. No matter what that demon has planned for you. No matter if you stop being such prudes and get over yourselves and your old-fashioned notions of morality and social decency."

Sam blushed to the tips of his ears, ducked his head and looked down at the floor. "I knew better, and I let it happen," he almost whispers, he says it so quietly. "Dean never would've, if he'd known. But I knew. There's something wrong with me."

"Aw, honey, there ain't nothin' wrong with you," Missouri insisted. "You remember I told you the answer to your question? It's yes, boy. You've still got that pure heart I sensed first time I met you. That sure hasn't changed. Hasn't gone all dark and evil like you're afraid it has. All that's in your head, Sam. That's how the Devil messes with you, trying to sow the seeds of self-doubt and uncertainty, so you'll go down the wrong path cuz you think it's what you're meant to do. But that's not your destiny, Sam. That's not who you are."

Missouri opened her freezer, started pulling out ice-cube trays and breaking them open in a bowl, dropping ice into the glasses as she went on. "Remember when you were here that first time and I told you you were a survivor? You had the means to overcome what happened to you then, and you still have it now. You're a good person, Sam. Your soul is a huge ball of light that practically bursts right out of you every time you move. I've never seen so much goodness in one person before, so much love."

Sam shook his head. "I corrupted Dean," he insisted. "He never would have been with me if I hadn't pushed him into it. Never would've crossed that line. Incest is – It's wrong."

Missouri pulled out a tray, put the three glasses on it, poured lemonade into each one as she shook her head. "Well, I don't know about incest. Even the Bible contradicts itself on that one. But what I do know is, the love between you two boys is strong, and pure, and good. There's white light all around you two, and when you're together it gets even brighter. That's good enough for me. Now let's take these out to your brother. I think we gave him enough time to make his phone call."

Sure enough, when they got out to the porch, Dean was just putting his phone away.

"Just checking in with Dad," he answered Sam's frown. "Letting him know what we're up to."

Sam set the plate of cookies down a little too hard, and Dean jumped, shot a wide-eyed glance at Sam as he took the glass of lemonade Missouri offered.

"Thank you," he said, sending a look of gratitude at the older psychic, who rolled her eyes as she sat down in the chair opposite.

"Boys," she muttered, shaking her head. "You think just cuz you're so big and tough on the outside, nobody can see what corn muffins you are on the inside. Huh." Missouri snorted, took a sip of her lemonade, and set it down.

Sam and Dean exchanged sheepish glances, sipped their lemonade in silence.

"No, I can't do that," Missouri said after a moment, as if one of them had asked a question. Sam had a wild thought that maybe they could sit here and do that, the three of them, reading each other's minds without ever having to say a word. Except Sam wouldn't read Missouri's mind, out of respect, and he suspected he couldn't even if he wanted to anyway. She knew how to shut him out just as well as Dean did. And Dean had already established that he wasn't reading anybody's mind, period. "But I know someone who can."

* // *

Pamela Barnes lived with her boyfriend Jesse on the top floor of an old warehouse that had been partially converted into loft spaces in Pontiac, Illinois. Jesse was the lead guitarist for the grunge band Nuvo-Nirvana, but he was out playing a gig when Sam and Dean arrived a few days after their visit with Missouri. They had taken the time for Dean's ankle to heal, and Sam had been just as grateful he hadn't heard any more demon voices whispering. He'd kept them moving around, though, just in case.

Pamela looked them up and down when she opened the door, then stepped aside to let them enter. Sam could feel her eyes on their backsides, heard her voice as clear as day in his head: I think my kinkiest fantasies just came true.

"Well, aren't you two a sight for sore eyes," she said out-loud, smirking as they turned to face her. She was picturing them naked and spread out on her bed now, Sam on top.

"You know I can see and hear everything you're thinking," Sam noted, slamming his mind shut on the psychic porn she was throwing at him.

Pamela smiled, slow and seductive. "I'm counting on it," she purred.

"Don't you have a boyfriend?" Dean demanded, and Sam wondered if he was picking up on Pamela's thoughts, or if he was just reading her body language.

"He can join us when he gets back," she shrugged. "He likes pretty boys almost as much as I do."

"Yeah, well, thanks for the invitation, but we think we'll pass," Dean said, and Sam glanced sharply at him. It wasn't like Dean to pass up sex. "We're working." He threw a frowning glance back at Sam, and Sam remembered exactly why there could be no threesome with Pamela.

"Ah well, your loss," Pamela sighed, crossing the room to a small refrigerator after gesturing for them to sit on the couch. "Beer?"

"I could step out, leave you two alone," Sam murmured low into Dean's ear, and Dean glared at him as they sat down. "You know, after we're done here."

"You know I can hear everything you're saying," Pamela noted as she brought the beers to them, then sank cross-legged onto a huge bean bag chair across from the couch.

"I'm counting on it," Sam tried to smirk, going for the same flirtatious manner she was using with them. "My brother's just playing a little hard to get."

Pamela took a sip of her beer, regarded them shrewdly for a moment. "Oh, I think your brother knows exactly what he wants," she noted. "And it's not some casual roll in the hay." She looked pointedly from one to the other of her guests, then shook her head. "Wow, you two are in so deep with each other, I pity the poor girl who thinks she can squeeze in between, no matter how much fun it might be to try."

Sam felt his cheeks heat and he lowered his eyes, unable to keep the satisfied grin off his face.

Dean was scowling. "Look, Missouri said you could do this hypnosis thing," he shifted uncomfortably next to Sam, making Sam think about Dean's ass and the fact that it probably still hurt, even if the swelling had finally gone down on his ankle. "So how about it?"

"Straight to business," Pamela nodded. "I can do that." She took another sip of her beer, then reached for the ashtray on the low table next to her seat. She picked up the roach lying there and brought it to her lips, then lit it, taking a long drag and holding it before offering it to Sam and Dean, who both shook their heads. The cloying sweet smell of marijuana wafted through the air, making Sam's head feel light. His limbs grew heavy, and his whole body seemed to be sinking into the couch. Pamela was speaking, but her voice was far away and tinny-sounding, like it was coming from the radio with the volume turned down. Sam's head felt like it was floating, lifting right off his body, hovering over the couch, watching his body sitting next to Dean, his eyes half-closed and unfocused. He looked stoned, Sam decided as he watched himself. Time was passing slowly. Sam wondered if he should worry about Dean, if Dean was worried about Sam; Sam could see Dean sitting next to Sam's body, a transfixed expression on his handsome face, green eyes staring and unseeing, and Sam felt a wave of love so strong it sucked him down, right back into his body, hard and fast so that he was suddenly gasping, blinking because his eyes felt dry, his throat sore.

"What – what happened?" he croaked, disoriented and off-balance. He reached out to steady himself, grabbing hold of Dean leg with one hand, the arm of the couch with the other. Pamela was staring at him, wide-eyed, all traces of her former smirking self-confidence wiped completely off her face, replaced by a pale, spooked look that was definitely freaking Sam out.

Then her gaze shifted to Dean and she practically flinched. Dean was sitting so still it was as if he had turned to stone. His eyes were still open, eyelids at half-mast, unseeing, his lips parted and slightly damp, as if he'd been licking them.

"Dean?" Sam took hold of his brother's shoulder, shook him, gently at first, then harder when Dean didn't react. "What's wrong with him?" he demanded, patting Dean's cheek, then snapping his fingers in front of his face, all to no avail. "Dean? Hey, hey, come on, man, wake up!"

He glanced at Pamela over his shoulder, hating to take his eyes off Dean for even a moment. "What the hell happened here? Why is he the one in a trance? You were supposed to hypnotize me, not him."

"I did," Pamela answered, shaking her head as if to clear it. "I did hypnotize you. Then he – he started speaking in this horrible voice, like something out of The Exorcist. I kid you not. Vile. And he was cursing and spitting like he was possessed..."

"Dean? Come on, big brother, snap out of it." Sam took Dean's hands and slid to the floor between Dean's knees, pressing Dean's hands to Sam's cheeks and leaning up so he was right in Dean's face, so that Sam filled Dean's field of vision completely. "Come on, Dean, come back to me. Come on!" Sam leaned in, closing his eyes, and touched his forehead to his brother's, holding Dean's hands against his cheeks and breathing deep. "Come on, Dean. It's me. It's Sammy. Wake up, man! Please!"

For another long moment, nothing happened; Dean was still and silent as Sam focused on projecting his voice deep into Dean's mind, silently pleading with him to wake up, ignoring the terror pumping through his veins, the fear that in the process of recovering Sam's memories, they had inadvertently broken something in Dean.

Sam could feel the moment Dean's consciousness returned. His body jerked backwards, and in the split second before he moved, Sam could hear Dean's voice in his head. Sammy? What the hell?

"Oh thank God," Sam breathed, sitting back on his heels, pulling his face out of Dean's hands as Dean blinked at him, frowning. His eyes darted around the room, stared at Pamela, then back at Sam as he got his bearings. When Dean looked down at their still-clasped hands, Sam squeezed once before releasing them, then rose smoothly to his feet, wiping his leaking eyes with the back of his hand. Now that the crisis was past, Sam's relief was palpable, the emotional release uncontrollable.

"Azazel," Dean said nonsensically, his voice slightly hoarse.

"What?" Sam blinked, confused by the unfamiliar word.

"The demon's name," Dean cleared his throat, tried again. "Azazel. He – he was talking to you, in your memory. He called himself your father. Gave you his blood."

"He what?" Sam felt the shock like a slap in the face.

"He whispered his plan to you, Sammy," Dean went on, talking fast. "To baby you. He said – he said you're his favorite because you were born with so much power in you already. He has other human children, but you're special. You – you're gonna open the gates someday."

"The gates?" Sam repeated. "What gates, Dean? What did he mean?"

Dean lifted his eyes to Sam's, and they were huge, round pools of green, translucent, like sunlight through water. Sam was drowning in them, in Dean's memory of Sam's baby memories.

"The Gates of Hell," Dean said with a little shake of his head, still appearing dazed, almost babbling, like he wasn't understanding the words coming out but he couldn't stop them. "You're supposed to let all the demons out."

"Jesus H. Christ on a stick," Pamela gasped, and both brothers jumped. Sam for one had almost forgotten she was there.

Dean glanced at Pamela, then stared back at Sam, his eyes getting wider, wilder, as he replayed the memory in his mind, realized what he'd just said out loud without being able to control it.

"We have to get out of here," he said, starting to hyperventilate. He jumped up, sudden and unbalanced, and would have gone crashing down across the coffee table if Sam hadn't leapt up to catch him.

"Whoa, hey, hang on, Dean." Sam had one arm around Dean's waist, the other hand grasping the front of his jacket, hauling him back up to standing. Dean spun around, his weight sending him hard into Sam, hand on Sam's chest in an effort to free himself, to put some distance between them. His face was turning colors, then going pale, and his whole body heaved, like he was fighting the urge to throw up.

"Think I'm gonna hurl," he croaked, and Sam shot a glance at Pamela.

"Bathroom?" he asked over Dean's head as he struggled to keep Dean upright.

"Through there," she pointed, watching them with a mixture of fascinated horror and – okay, if Sam had to describe the way Pamela was looking at them, he would have to admit that this entire display seemed to be actually turning her on, which was wrong on so many levels Sam couldn't even stop to think about it.

He concentrated on half-dragging, half-guiding Dean to the door Pamela indicated, then letting Dean push him away to stumble into the bathroom and slam the door behind him. Sam backed up from the door as the sound of Dean retching violently filled the silence; he turned and exchanged glances with Pamela, trying to decide if he was being more helpful by letting Dean have his privacy, or if he ought to be doing something. Pamela tilted her head and raised her eyebrows, letting her eyes slide to the king-size bed in a darkened corner of the large space, then raise in a look of open invitation.

Sam only had a moment to open his mouth, ready with an indignant protest, when the bathroom door was flung open and Dean stumbled out, face wet from the water he'd obviously been splashing on it.

"Let's get out of here," he demanded, trying to charge past Sam in his rush to get to the door, but stumbling so badly on his weak ankle Sam had to grab him again, had to slip his arm around his waist to keep him upright.

"You can send us the bill," Dean barked at Pamela as they stumbled to the front door. She got up, maybe to protest, maybe to see them out, Sam never found out because at that moment the front door opened and a young man with long, dark hair walked in. He was clad in a black leather jacket, black leather pants, and black boots with silver studs across them. He was carrying a guitar case in one hand, a guitar stand in the other, and he looked momentarily surprised to see them.

Jesse, Pamela's mind provided helpfully.

"Hey," Dean nodded. "How're ya doin'? We were just leaving."

Jesse frowned at them, and Pamela said, "Clients, Jess. They're just clients."

"I'll bet," Jesse muttered, glaring from one to the other of the Winchesters, pausing in the doorway just long enough to make his point – this was his home, Pamela was his girlfriend – before he stepped aside, letting them pass, Dean doing his best to shake loose of Sam's supporting arm to swagger toward the stairs, failing abysmally.

"How was the gig?" Pamela's voice was asking as Jesse closed the door.

Sam didn't hesitate, just shoved Dean against the wall and held him there, shaking him a little to get him to focus.

"Dude, that guy's a demon," Sam breathed quietly. "We need to get holy water and draw a devil's trap outside that door. Pamela's in danger."

"Shit," Dean muttered, closing his eyes and drawing in a deep breath to steady himself. When he opened his eyes the wild look was gone; he seemed centered and self-aware again. In command. "Okay. You get the holy water, I'll draw the trap."

Sam didn't like the idea of leaving Dean, even for the few minutes it would take him to run to the car, but there was no getting past the urgency of the situation. Plus, Dean was the one who carried chalk in his pocket. Sam didn't even stop to think about how weird that was, given that the number of actual run-ins with demons over the years had added up to exactly three, and one of those they had only heard about after the fact. But then, given their dad's ultimate mission, it made sense. Someday, there would be demons.

Sam had barely managed to grab the flask and the small book of Latin rites, then barrel back up the stairs of the building, before Dean had the devil's trap drawn. As soon as Sam rounded the corner onto the landing, he could see that Dean was ready, on his feet, fist raised to pound on the door of Pamela's apartment.

Sam got into position to one side of the door, open flask in one hand, open book with the exorcism rite in the other. He gave Dean a nod just as a crash was heard from inside and Pamela screamed.

"Jesse?" Dean pounded on the door, boomed in his loudest, most commanding voice. "Jesse Bookman? We need to talk to you!"

There was silence on the other side of the door, and Sam glanced up at Dean, fearing the worst. Plan B was to storm the apartment, of course, try to rescue the girl with sheer brute force, which probably wasn't a great idea since demons were strong and Sam and Dean were most likely going to get themselves pretty badly beaten if they did that. But if they couldn't get it to come out...

Then the door was flung open and Jesse stormed out, not even hesitating, foolhardy to a fault, which was so lucky Sam didn't even stop to think about it, didn't even stop to watch the look of surprise on Jesse's face as he realized he couldn't move, as he looked down and saw the trap he had walked into.

"Exorcizamus te, omnis immendus spiritus, omnis satanica potestas..."

Sam splashed the holy water into Jesse's face, began reciting the exorcism rite as Jesse howled, flesh sizzling, eyes going obsidian black, fists flying. He managed to clip Dean in the jaw, sent him flying against the opposite wall, where he collapsed in a heap, stunned but still moving. Sam barreled on, keeping his voice steady when every ounce of strength in his body was screaming at him to go to Dean, make sure he was okay.

"We're keeping an eye on you, Sam Winchester!" Jesse growled, turning his black gaze in Sam's direction. "Our father knows where you are! He's coming for you!"

Sam resisted the urge to question the demon, knowing instinctively that his only chance against it was to exorcise it, that if he let it talk him into having a conversation, its chances of escape went up by about a thousand percent, and Sam couldn't afford that. He couldn't afford to let the demon go when it had probably just killed Pamela, had tried to kill Dean.

"...Ergo, draco maledicte et omnis legio diabolica..."

Jesse threw his head back and howled, clenching his fists, shaking violently, all the muscles in his neck strained, making his face turn red.

Sam raised his voice above Jesse's howls, continued on, grateful now that he'd taken the time to memorize the rite so he barely had to glance at the book.

"Don't you want to know what he has planned for you?" Jesse stopped howling, turning his black-eyed gaze on Sam again. "Don't you want to know why you were chosen? What makes you so special?"

Sam paused for a second and the demon grasped its advantage, speaking fast. "You're still too young now, but in three more years, when you've come of age, he'll come for you, Sam. There's nothing you can do to stop it. It's your destiny."

Sam clenched his fists, glared fiercely at the creature as he continued the rite, the only response the demon deserved, the only response it was gonna get.

"...Vade, santana, inventor et magister omnis fallaciae..."

"No! Sam! I can help you! You need me! Don't send me back to Hell, Sam! Let me help you!"

Too late, asshole, Sam projected silently, watching in satisfaction as the demon got the message, the look of shocked surprise that crossed Jesse's handsome features the moment before he threw his head back and opened his mouth. Black smoke rolled forth in a steady stream, still caught in the trap and with nowhere to go but down, sinking through the floorboards and straight back to Hell, accompanied by that impressive display of stormy rushing wind that Sam had felt before, when this happened in Bobby's basement three years ago. Sam heard the voices, just like before, the moaning and sobbing of tortured souls begging for release. The air was filled with the sharp rotten smell of sulfur, and Sam had the sensation of a tunnel reaching up and sucking the demon right back where it belonged, then closing off with an almost-audible clanging sound, as of a heavy iron door being shut, hard.

Jesse collapsed to the ground, dead or unconscious, but in the sudden silence Sam's first thought was for his brother.

"Dean!" Sam dropped the book and the flask, crossed the hall in two giant strides and knelt next to Dean, who had managed to prop himself up to sitting against the wall.

"I'm all right, Sam," Dean insisted, barely tolerating Sam's anxious touch as he checked Dean over for injuries. "Nothing broken, just a little bruised. Maybe a concussion. Go check on Pamela and her boyfriend."

Dean's slurred speech confirmed the concussion, which was what worried Sam most.

"Don't go to sleep," he commanded, hating to leave Dean even for the few minutes it would take him to check on Pamela, but he did it.

Pamela was lying in a pool of her own blood in a pile of broken furniture on the far side of the loft. She managed to open her eyes when Sam knelt down to check her pulse, noted that she had been stabbed in the abdomen. There were bruises on her neck in the shape of fingers.

"I didn't tell him about the gates," she croaked hoarsely. "Or the name. The name is important, Sam. You have the demon's name. I didn't tell."

"Okay, okay," Sam tried to shush her, pulled out his phone so he could dial 911. "Just rest. Help is on the way."

Jesse was dead, blessedly; his neck had been broken, probably some time ago, the demon inside him the only thing that kept him alive as long as it did. Sam left him where he had fallen, inside the devil's trap, leaving that for the authorities to try to figure out as he helped Dean down the stairs and out to the car.

"Pamela..." Dean croaked, and Sam shook his head.

"She's lost a lot of blood, but she'll make it, as long as they get here soon," Sam answered, settling Dean into the front seat of the car. The sound of sirens wailing in the distance was enough to make Sam hurry; they couldn't be here when the police arrived. Sam had gathered the Latin book and holy water flask, even Dean's chalk, on his way out of the building, and he was fairly sure there wouldn't be any other evidence of what had gone down here. The devil's trap would mystify the authorities, but when they found out that Pamela was a palm-reader and then found the bloody knife Jesse had used to try to kill her, it would seem to be a fairly open-and-shut case of domestic violence gone weird, of that Sam was pretty confident. Nobody would go looking for the two young men in the black car who were leaving the scene just before the police arrived, and that was just the way it should be.

**//**

Two days later, Sam dropped by the hospital to visit Pamela, unable to shake the guilt he felt for having dragged her into their mess. She was weak and sleepy, so pumped full of painkillers he couldn't be sure she recognized him. She gave him a big smile, though, slipped the hand that wasn't hooked up to an IV around behind him so she could squeeze his ass, chuckled when he jumped a little.

"You know, you did me a favor, Grumpy," she winced as the movement jarred her stitches. "Jesse was an asshole. I needed to dump him but just couldn't be bothered. I'm no good at long-term relationships." She managed to open one eye so she could peer up at Sam, smirking a little. "You and Dean, on the other hand...That's the real deal. Don't you dare let that go. You two almost make me believe in fairy tales. No pun intended."

Sam felt more than a little responsible for making sure Pamela's life worked out, and he wasn't feeling too comfortable about leaving her in Pontiac, where at least one demon could report on her whereabouts. The idea of Hell sending another demon after her was enough for Sam to call Bobby, with Dean's wholehearted approval, and see if Bobby could help them get Pamela relocated.

"Now you call," Bobby groused over the phone. "Not a word for a year, not so much as a goddamn Christmas card, and now you need my help."

"Sorry, Bobby," Sam let out a long breath, more relieved than he wanted to admit just to hear the older hunter's voice. "It's been a little crazy."

"When isn't it a little crazy with you boys?" Bobby huffed. "Where's Dean? He with you?"

"He's right here, Bobby, yeah," Sam glanced over to where Dean was sitting at the motel table, cleaning his gun. Again. Ever since the run-in with the Jesse-demon, Dean had been on hyper-alert, checking and double-checking their weapons, reciting the Latin exorcism rite under his breath, determined to be twice as prepared for the next time.

"Well, thank God for small favors," Bobby commented. "You have any idea how bad things were after you left?"

"I think I got an idea, yeah," Sam winced, guilt climbing up the back of his skull, scratching behind his eyeballs.

"Yeah, well, just don't do that again. That boy needs you. Losing you is like losing a lung. He don't function too good without it."

"I gotcha, Bobby," Sam assured him. "So, about Pamela..."

Once Sam had explained the short version of what had happened at Pamela's apartment and conveyed his concern about her being targeted by another demon, Bobby was all too willing to help. He promised to drive down the next day, help Pamela gather her stuff, let her stay at his place until she was on her feet again.

Sam had a feeling Bobby and Pamela would get along just fine, and Dean agreed. It was a little like welcoming an adoptive sister into the fold, and they were both painfully aware of the kinds of conversations Bobby and Pamela were likely to have, with the brothers as the main topic. But they both agreed they owed it to Pamela, agreed that bringing her into the family was the least they could do after what she'd suffered, and almost died for, to help them.

Sam and Dean had a harder time agreeing on what to do about what they'd learned. Dean wanted to bring John into the loop, maybe Bobby too, use the demon's name to summon it, find a way to kill it.

"You can't kill a demon, Dean," Sam protested. "You can exorcise it, send it back to Hell, but you can't destroy it."

"Maybe Dad knows something we don't about that," Dean said. "He's been tracking this thing for years. Maybe if we tell him what we found out, he'll know what to do to kill it. This may be the intel he's been waiting for."

"You want to tell him what Jesse said about me, too?" Sam demanded. "About Azazel coming for me in three years? About my fucking destiny?"

"Sam," Dean shook his head. "Demons lie. Dad would be the first to tell you that."

"Yeah, except when they don't," Sam shot back. "Which you and I both know from experience. And so does John."

"I can't keep this from Dad," Dean insisted, although Sam could see him wince a little as he remembered exactly what Sam was referring to, that demon in Bobby's basement three years ago, taunting Dean for having more-than-brotherly feelings for Sam. "It's too big. He needs to know. We don't have to tell him everything – all that demon prophecy crap is just bullshit anyway. You're not opening the gates of Hell or anything else for those sons-o-bitches. And now we know when Azazel's coming, we can be ready for the bastard. Like Dad always says, 'preparation is nine-tenths of the game.'"

Sam shook his head, unconvinced, and frankly spooked as hell if he thought about it too much, but Dean's presence was a balm on his jangled nerves; his brother's steady confidence in their ability to beat this thing, however misguided and naive it might be, was just the salve on his conscience that Sam needed. It anchored him, kept him grounded when his mind began to dwell too deep on the dark things that were revealed to them over the past week.

They decided to take on one more hunt before the summer ended, before Sam returned to Stanford to continue his studies.

"I'll be around this time," Dean assured him. "Not going far. But you need to get that degree, go on being part of that world as long as you can. You're preparing for life afterwards, Sam, after all this is over. The normal life you'll be able to live someday."

Sam doubted that would ever be possible, after all they'd seen and gone through, but he conceded that there was a kind of logic in his returning to school, getting his degree. They would need the skills he was gaining, learning to mingle and fit in with different socio-economic types. He could see how it might be handy for him to be able to socialize with future doctors and lawyers and morticians, how being comfortable with educated people could help them work cases, do the job they were supposed to do.

Because if there was one thing Sam was beginning to see, it was that there was no escape. Sam had been marked from birth, or shortly after, and this was who he was meant to be. He was meant to fight the thing that tried to claim him, the thing that stole him out of his crib and killed his mother that night, the monster that destroyed Dean's happy childhood and separated the brothers before they even had a chance to get to know each other. Yet, somehow, they had found each other. Somehow, they reunited despite the demon's plan to keep them apart, to excise Dean from Sam's mind in childhood when his dreams gave him back the brother he didn't know he'd lost.

Dean and Sam together wasn't part of Azazel's plan, of that Sam was absolutely certain. Nor were Dean's psychic abilities, Sam felt fairly sure about that as well. The fact was, Dean was Sam's secret weapon, or maybe more accurately his shield, the unpredicted spanner in Azazel's works. The demon had never paid Dean much heed, except as an annoying distraction. Sam believed now that Azazel had planned their break-up, just as he had twice before, setting them up to run in horror and disgust from each other when they discovered they'd been committing incest.

But Azazel hadn't planned on their soul-bond, on the strength of their union. He hadn't understood that it wasn't just about sex, this thing between them.

Not that the sex wasn't important.

*//*

Sam's head was messing with him again. They were in a bar, two weeks later, having salted and burned the bones of the vengeful spirit they'd just finished hunting. It was a good hunt, fairly straight-forward, and this time nobody got hurt. Sam and Dean were getting better at working together, reading each other's signals, moving in sync on a job so that things unfolded almost seamlessly until the work was done.

There hadn't been anything unusual or remarkable about the job, other than the obvious, so the brothers were feeling confident, on familiar territory again after all the chaos of the demon revelations. Dean's injuries had healed, both physical and mental, and he was keeping his psychic sensibilities tightly repressed for the time being, which Sam respected. It had been more terrifying than Sam wanted to think about, watching Dean locked inside his own mind, struggling with the memories of the most traumatic event in his life. Sam couldn't imagine what it must have felt like to see the horror of that night replayed in living color, yet to be helpless to stop it.

Yeah, Sam could totally respect Dean's not talking about it.

They didn't talk about John, either. Sam knew Dean had talked to his father, had repeated much of what happened that night in Pontiac. John had agreed to Sam going back to school, not that Sam needed John's approval for that. Sam understood that from John's point of view, Sam was relatively safe and contained at Stanford. He'd pretty much told him so himself over the phone the previous fall. As long as Sam stayed where he could be found and checked on regularly, even John had to admit to the benefits of at least one Winchester getting a good education.

"So, you gonna hook up with that roommate of yours?" Dean asked conversationally. They were both about three beers in, and Dean had just ordered tequila shots. The place was enough of a dive that the bartender barely looked at their fake IDs. They sat side by side at the bar, shoulders just touching, Sam trying not to stare too long at Dean's perfect face in the mirror behind the bar.

"Hell no," Sam shook his head, blushed involuntarily. "That's definitely not happening."

"Why no?" Dean insisted, jaw tightening as he jostled Sam's shoulder. "He's nice-looking, for a guy, I guess. Plus, he seemed to care about you. You like that kind of thing."

"Shut up," Sam looked down at his beer, played with the label. "I already told him I'm not interested. We're just friends."

"Huh," Dean took a swig of his beer, raised an eyebrow. "Well, there's a lot of smart, good-looking guys on that campus. I'm sure you'll find somebody."

"Can we not talk about this?" Sam complained.

Dean shrugged. "It's just, tomorrow when I drop you off, I hate to think of you all lonely and moping around for the next three years. Y'know?"

"I'll be busy," Sam reminded him. "Studying. Not a lot of time for anything else."

"There's always time for something else, Sam," Dean winked. "The body has needs. You repress and deny yourself too much, you get sick. Don't wanna have to come visit you in the hospital again."

"Oh my God, Dean. Abstinence from sex cannot make you sick." Sam was so wishing Dean would drop this conversation it wasn't even funny.

"I'm pretty sure it can, Sam," Dean argued. "Ya gotta keep those pipes clean, baby! For peak performance, you need a regular engine flush. Keeps all the parts well-lubed and working smooth."

"Good thing you're a mechanic and not a doctor," Sam said. "Your medical advice needs a little tuning."

"Ah-ha-ha-ha, college boy," Dean slammed back the first of the shots. "Let's see how much better your puns sound after some lime-juice."

Sam wasn't sure this was a good idea, but after three shots he wasn't thinking about much of anything except how nice it felt when Dean's shoulder brushed his, or when his hand pushed another shot glass into Sam's. When Dean leaned close, Sam was overwhelmed by the smell of his aftershave, tinged with sweat and leather and that spicy hair-gel he used, and Sam leaned after him when Dean pulled back, chasing the smell into the crook of Dean's neck, closing his eyes so he could inhale deeply, hold that part of Dean inside him for as long as he could. Dean was still talking, going on about classic cars and the work he did with Bobby at his salvage yard over the past year, the cars he helped restore. Sam sighed, finally letting his breath out, keeping his head on Dean's shoulder, his eyes closed so he could savor the warmth radiating off Dean's neck, wondering if he could get away with scooting in and pressing his face there, maybe even his lips...

"Dean!" A booming male voice cut through the haze of his daydream, shocked Sam into opening his eyes. "Fancy meeting you here!"

Dean jerked as a tall, dark-haired man put his hand on Dean's shoulder, moving in on Dean's other side. Sam lifted his head, blinking and staring as the man slid his hand along Dean's back, smiled so that dimples creased his cheeks, and Sam felt an overwhelming surge of rage as Dean flicked a guilty glance at him.

"Hey, Pete," Dean acknowledged the man - the huge, overpowering jerk, as Sam henceforth referred to him.

"Wow, what are the chances?" the guy went on, and now he was actually rubbing Dean's back, the bastard. "Where've you been? You look good."

The asshole actually had the nerve to lean in, right next to Dean's ear, murmur, "I missed you," in a manner that was way, way too familiar.

"Excuse me?" Sam was on his feet before he had a chance to think about what he was doing, pressing up against Dean's other side so Pete the Jerk would get the message, so that Pete the Jerk would get the full effect of Sam's height and build.

Pete looked up, surprised, like he'd just noticed Sam was there.

"Sammy, let it go," Dean's hand was on Sam's arm, a light pressure.

Pete's eyes widened as he looked at Sam, then he grinned big, dimples on display again, running a hand through his long hair as he let his eyes wander up and down Sam's tall frame.

"Sammy?" he repeated. "You're Sam? Of course you are."

Sam's fists clenched; he could feel his jaw tighten and his chest heave as every inch of his body got ready to fight, alcoholic haze be damned.

"Hey, don't mind me, man," Pete took a step back, put his hands up, placating. "It's you he wants, don't think I don't get that. I was just a cheap substitute."

Pete put his hands on Dean's shoulder again, but this time the touch was casual, light. "Hey, Dean, I wish you all the best. I really do, man." His eyes flicked up to Sam as he took his hands away, backed up. "Good luck to both of you."

Sam watched as Pete the Jerk backed away a few more steps, face and hands open in surrender, taking his smarmy, stupid-ass skinny-college-boy act back to the little table in a dark corner of the bar, where a couple of other skinny college boys sat watching.

"That?" Sam gestured after Pete the Jerk as he turned incredulously toward Dean again. "You replaced me with that?"

Dean's face flushed red to the tips of his ears. "It was a fling," he growled. "Lasted a couple of months. Three, tops."

"Who picked up who?" Sam demanded.

"Who do you think?" Dean glared. "Look Sam, you were gone. I was messed up. These things happen. It's over. It's all over."

"You let that jerk fuck you," Sam stated flatly, watched Dean's face as he flinched.

"Jeez, Sammy, keep it down!" Dean lurched to his feet, pulled out his wallet, slammed some bills down on the bar. "Come on. Time to go."

Sam followed Dean out of the bar, clenching and unclenching his teeth and fists, fury and helpless rage cutting through the alcohol, keeping him almost steady on his feet until they were outside, until the cool late summer air accosted his senses and cleared his thoughts.

He was going back to school tomorrow, and Dean would find someone to replace him again, in his bed if not in his heart. The reality of that eventuality hit Sam like a freight train, knocked all the air out of his lungs for a minute so that he had to stop, gasp for breath. He leaned over, put his hands on his knees, sucked in air through his nose and out through his mouth, just trying to calm his pounding heart. After a moment he could see Dean's boots move into his line of vision, felt Dean's hand on his back, soothing.

"Hey, lightweight," Dean murmured. "You need to learn to drink. Dulls the pain, man. Washes all the bad stuff away."

Sam shook his head, fighting back the tears at the edges of his vision. "Don't wanna," he gritted out, heaving himself up, shaking Dean's hand off as he pulled himself up to his full height, right up in Dean's personal space. "Don't wanna dull it, Dean. Need to feel it. Need to feel you inside me. Like a brand. Need it to hurt."

Dean blinked up at him, apprehensive, helpless against the onslaught of Sam's emotions for a moment, that skittish expression that reminded Sam he'd always had the upper hand in their relationship, that when push came to shove Dean couldn't resist Sam's needs, Sam's desires. Dean was programmed to give in to Sam, always would be.

Dean's glance dropped to Sam's mouth, his lips parting like an invitation, his tongue darting out to lick them as he swallowed, adam's apple bobbing enticingly, and Sam leaned in, slipping his hands up to cup Dean's face, thumb skimming over Dean's full, lower lip, glistening with spit.

"Just this one time," Sam pushed himself against Dean so their bodies were flush, so that Dean had to grab onto Sam's biceps just to keep from falling backwards. "Just give me this last memory, Dean. This last night. I swear I'll – I'll leave you alone after that. I'll never touch you again if that's what you want..."

"Yes," Dean let the word slip out in a rush, interrupting. "God, yes. Just shut up already."

Tears slipped out of Sam's eyes then, sliding unnoticed down his cheeks as he stared in disbelief at Dean's beautiful, beloved face. He studied every strong yet delicate feature for another moment before parting his lips, leaning in to capture Dean's generous mouth. A sob rose out of his chest as Dean's eager tongue touched his, as Dean's fingers tangled into the hair at the back of his neck, deepening the kiss, ravaging Sam's mouth like a starving man, like a man who had waited beyond his capacity for tolerance for the one thing that kept him alive. The one thing that he needed more than air, or food, or sustenance of any kind.

It was a good thing the motel was just down the block, because neither of them was capable of waiting for the thing they had denied themselves for almost a year, the thing they both thought they'd never have again. Sam wouldn't give it a name; didn't want to jinx it now that Dean was willing, now that Dean was practically crawling into his pants and under his shirts to touch him with hot, trembling hands, and Sam didn't have it in him to wonder where this would lead, how they would deal with this in the morning when they were both sober again, when they would have to face the reality of a new separation.

Tonight it was just them. Not like before, not like when they didn't know they were brothers, when they could fuck with impunity, careless of what the world thought or whether they would have forever. Not like when Sam worried that Dean would grow tired of him and leave, when he couldn't quite believe in the thing between them, the soul-bond thing, worried it wouldn't last or wasn't strong enough to endure. Not like when Sam couldn't imagine being with Dean forever because he didn't dare.

Now Sam could see they were in it for the long haul, or at least the foreseeable future. Dean had always been loyal to a fault where family was concerned, and Sam was family now. They were stuck with each other, soul-bond or not. Dean would never leave his own brother, would always be there for him. Sam didn't need to worry that anything he did would drive Dean away, because Dean would always forgive him, would always want him back.

After they stumbled into the motel room, Sam slammed Dean up against the door, devoured his mouth as he pulled Dean's jacket off, then his shirt, taking his mouth away only long enough to lift Dean's tee-shirt off over his head. Dean pushed at Sam's shirts as he chased Sam's lips with his own until and Sam had to pull back as he shrugged his shirt off, pulled his tee-shirt off impatiently, taking Dean's head in his hands again as he leaned back in for more kisses. The familiar scratch of Dean's unshaven jaw against his was tantalizing, bordering on painful, and Sam tore his mouth away long enough to tip Dean's head back so Sam could mouth along Dean's throat, licking and sucking as he ran his hands over the smooth skin of Dean's chest, his sides and belly, skimming along the waistband of his jeans. When Sam's hand slipped down over Dean's jean-covered erection, Dean stiffened and let out a strangled moan, thrusting up against Sam's hand.

It was all the invitation Sam needed. He dropped to his knees, hands working frantically at Dean's belt, at the button and zipper on his jeans.

"Okay, Sammy, okay." Dean carded his hands through Sam's hair, over and over, letting the strands slide between his fingers, combing Sam's bangs back like it was his favorite thing to do, like it was something he'd been itching to do and thinking about for months. When Sam finally managed to push Dean's jeans and boxers down over his hips, fisting his cock as it sprang free, Sam slid his tongue around the base of the head and into the slit, glancing up to watch Dean's face as he swallowed his cock.

"Jesus fuck," Dean hissed, slamming his head back against the door and squeezing his eyes shut, hand fisting almost painfully in Sam's hair.

Sam smirked around a mouthful of cock, concentrating on opening and relaxing his throat so he could take more in, almost masochistic in his determination to give Dean the blow job of his life, the one he would never forget, no matter how many he received in the future. Tears squeezed out of the edges of his eyes as Dean's cock hit the back of Sam's throat, cutting off his air-flow, and Sam hollowed out his cheeks, sucked down hard as he took an ass-cheek in each hand and kneaded the firm muscles, urging Dean to push deeper into his mouth and throat.

"Fuck, Sammy," Dean gasped as his hips pumped, reflexive and shallow. "Your mouth. So good. So good for me."

Dean's hand worked through Sam's hair, caressed his cheek, swiped through tears and spit as Sam slid his fingers into Dean's crack, brushed over his hole.

"Fuck!" Dean's cock pulsed in Sam's mouth and his fingers tightened in Sam's hair again as his head tipped back against the door, jaw clenched, the tendons in his neck bulging as he grit his teeth. That was all the encouragement Sam needed. In a single smooth movement Sam released Dean's dick, yanked Dean's jeans and boxers down to his ankles, and manhandled him awkwardly towards the bed.

"Naked," Sam growled, instincts taking over. "Now."

Dean fell back on the bed with an audible "umpf" as Sam stood over him to strip out of the rest of his clothes. Dean sat up to struggle with his boots, barely taking his eyes off Sam as he toed out of his sneakers, pulled his socks off, then wiggled out of his jeans and boxers, pushing them down off his hips without any particular finesse. Dean's eyes got big when Sam's cock bobbed free; he leaned forward as if he planned to return the favor of the blow job, but Sam pushed him onto his back on the bed and climbed on top, stroking himself as Dean watched.

"Gonna fuck you, Dean," Sam breathed as he loomed over the man spread out under him, leaning down to rub the head of his cock against Dean's lips, watching Dean's eyes widen and go dark. "Gonna take what's mine. Gonna ruin you for any other guy."

Dean's breath hitched and his tongue flicked out, licking along the slit of Sam's dick, lubricating it so Sam could slide it more easily over Dean's plush lips. Dean's eyes fluttered closed and Sam watched his lashes fan along his freckled cheek, lacy and delicate. In the stark street-light through the curtains, Dean's features were even more ethereal than usual, waif-like and pale, like one of Sam's dreams come temporarily to life. Sam had the distinct impression that none of this was real, that it couldn't be happening. Dean was too thin, too light, his skin too fragile and soft. This wasn't real.

Then Dean's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at Sam with unadulterated lust, his pupils blown dark, and Sam had to fight to control the desire to fuck into Dean's mouth, just to watch those full lips wrapped around his dick. Dean's hands were on Sam's hips, bracing himself for the inevitable, and for a second or two Sam considered it, let his dick slip inside that warm, wet mouth and thrust shallowly as Dean gazed up at him.

"That's it," Sam breathed. "Get it nice and wet. That's it."

Then he sat back, pulling his dick out of Dean's mouth and letting the head caress Dean's lips one last time as he backed up, crawling backwards down Dean's body, mouth dragging along Dean's chest and abs till he settled between Dean's legs. He ignored Dean's dick as he suckled his balls, then licked a long flat stripe under them, pushing Dean's thighs back so he could reach his hole. Dean cried out, startled as Sam thrust his tongue into the tight space, tasting the rich, dark flavor, the earthy musk that was all Dean. Sam grabbed Dean's hand, guided it to his dick so that Dean could jerk himself as Sam devoured his hole, working it with his mouth and tongue till it was loose enough to add a finger.

"You got any stuff?" he asked when he lifted his head, looked up Dean's long body to his face, slack and flush with pleasure.

Dean nodded, reached with his free hand into the bedside drawer, pulled out the little tube of lubricant and handed it to Sam, who made quick work of warming it with his hands, tipping Dean's thigh up as he thrust his fingers one at a time into Dean's hole, working it till he found the spot that made Dean gasp and arch off the bed, eyes fluttering as his lips parted, hand clutching the blankets reflexively.

"Good," Sam murmured approvingly. "That's it. So good."

Sam kept thrusting and scissoring into Dean with one hand as he used the other to lubricate his own dick, watching Dean's reactions carefully. When he lined up the head of his dick and pushed, Dean tensed up and his eyes flew open, wild and almost animal in their intensity.

"Gonna fuck you now, Dean," Sam breathed. "You ready?"

Dean nodded frantically, pushing down on Sam's dick so the head slipped past the tight muscle, so that Sam was inside.

Holy shit. Sam was inside his brother. Inside Dean. Home. Where he belonged.

The effort it took to avoid thrusting deep, to keep from just slamming home into Dean's body, was beyond anything Sam had ever experienced. He was overwhelmed by his own emotions, by the waves of feeling pounding against the inside of his head, threatening to drown them both. He could feel Dean all around him, could hear him in his head, incoherent babbling mostly, curses and endearments punctuated by Sam's name over and over.

Dean recovered first. "Do it!" He grit his teeth fiercely as he grabbed Sam's biceps, thrust his hips up, and Sam slid all the way in, burying himself balls deep. Sam heard himself groan deep and long, more like a growl, and Dean made a low, rough grunt that sounded punched out of his chest as all the air left his body. They stared at each other for a moment, the shock of their joining almost more emotional than physical. Then Sam leaned down to kiss Dean's swollen lips and Dean allowed it, kissed back for nearly a minute before wrenching his mouth away, arching up against Sam restlessly.

"Come on, Sam, come on, damn you!" he commanded, voice rough, wrecked, as he squirmed and thrust ineffectually, reaching down to grab behind his knees, pulling his legs back to give Sam a better angle.

Sam didn't need to be asked twice. His body knew exactly what it wanted, thrusting slow and shallow at first, then increasing the speed and urgency until he was fucking into Dean at a brutal pace, hitting his prostate every time. The choked sob ripped out of Sam's chest matched Dean's deep, guttural grunt as they reached orgasm almost simultaneously, Dean coming untouched all over his belly and chest. Sam had a brief feeling of weightlessness as he released deep inside Dean, and as his consciousness flickered he had the distinct impression of Dean's voice in his head again, babbling words that made no sense but that made Sam feel loved, adored even, as he never had before.

When Sam came back to himself he seemed to be drifting, almost as if he'd left his body, like he had in Pamela's apartment, hovering over the bed with Dean's presence all around him, in his head, shifting around his body so that he felt young and small again, wrapped up in Dean's embrace, held safe and warm and cared for. He lay his head against Dean's chest, ear pressed where he could hear Dean's heart, the frantic pounding slowing till the beat was strong and steady as sleep overcame him.

When Sam was sure Dean was sleeping, when he couldn't feel him in his head anymore, Sam got up carefully to go to the bathroom, came back with a warm washcloth to clean Dean off. He ran the tips of his fingers over the scars on Dean's chest, slipped his hand against Dean's side where the beast had almost gutted him last winter, willing himself to prevent the horrible wound in absentia, to go back to the moment before it happened so he could stop the monster from hurting his brother, to be there this time so he could have Dean's back.

"I'm sorry," he whispered as he leaned down to press his lips to the scar. Never again, brother. Never again.

*//*

He left the note where Dean would see it when he woke up, would understand instantly that Sam was gone.

Dean,

I know you didn't mean last night to happen, and I'm sorry I pushed you into doing something you feel is wrong. It won't ever feel wrong to me, just so you know. But I'm pretty fucked up.

Please don't hunt without me again. Call me whenever you need back-up, okay? You have my number. I promise I'll always pick up.

Your brother,
Sam

As he pulled the door shut softly behind him, Sam's attention was caught by a family who were loading an older-model Ford station-wagon four doors down. The mother, a pretty, slim blond with a harried expression and a diaper bag over her shoulder, was herding two little boys into the back seat of the car, where a toddler was already strapped into a car seat, his chubby fingers playing with a brightly-colored rubber chew-toy. The father was a tall, dark-haired man with a grim set to his jaw who was busy packing bags into the car's rear compartment.

"Come on," he said to the boys. "Listen to your mother. We need to get on the road if we're gonna make it home by suppertime."

"Okay, Daddy," the older of the two boys nodded solemnly, taking his little brother by the hand and pulling him into the car.

"I wanna sit behind Mom," the younger boy complained, and his brother relented immediately, ran around the car to the other side, pulled open the door so he could jump in next to the toddler.

Sam watched as the toddler dropped his toy and the older boy bent to pick it up, blew on it before handing it back to the child.

"I want Booz!" the younger boy cried as his mother strapped him in, handed the diaper bag to her husband.

"I know where he is!" yelled the older boy, jumping out of the car to run back into the motel room, running back out two seconds later with a much-loved, soft blue stuffed puppy and handing to his mother.

"Thank you, Justin," the mother said as she handed the plush toy to the younger boy, who snuggled it and immediately began sucking his thumb. "Good job. Now, can you get yourself strapped in?"

"Yes, I can!" Justin ran around to his side of the car and climbed in again, yanking the door shut behind him. Sam watched as he pulled the seat-belt over his shoulder, struggled with it for a few seconds with a frown of concentration on his freckled face before snapping it into place. He looked up with a smile of pure satisfaction and pride then, meeting Sam's eyes, and Sam couldn't help smiling back. The boy's eyes were green, deep pools of translucent sea-water, deep enough to swim in.

Sam was aware of catching the father's attention, looked up to meet the man's curious, wary glance. Sam had been watching the family for no more than a minute, but it was long enough; he knew it was time to move on, to shrug his duffel over his shoulder and turn away, walk off toward the highway to try to hitch a ride with a trucker.

Then the man spoke.

"She yours?" he nodded toward the Impala, and Sam sucked in a breath, shook his head.

"My brother's," he answered, following the man's appreciative gaze.

"She's a beaut, all right," the man said, his voice sounding almost wistful. He glanced at the rear license plate and raised an eyebrow. "You're a long way from home."

Which is when it struck Sam that he wasn't, actually. He glanced at the closed motel-room door, then back at the man with the nice family, his three little boys and his beautiful wife and an old, beat-up car with California plates. Suddenly, Sam knew what he had to do.

He nodded at the man and smiled. "Have a good trip," he waved, dropping his duffel next to the car before heading back into the room. If he was lucky, Dean would still be asleep. Sam could fix this.

Dean was up, dressed in boxers and a tee-shirt, sitting on the edge of the bed with Sam's letter in his hand. He looked up when the door opened, and for a brief moment Sam caught a look so vulnerable and full of pain it made Sam's legs weak, made his knees buckle. Then his expression changed, shut down, replaced by the familiar ironic mask, the tough-guy devil-may-care face that Dean put on when he was hurting too much to admit it, even to himself.

"Hey." Sam steeled himself, shutting the door behind him. "I just – I was going for coffee – "

Dean's eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched.

"So where's the coffee, Sam?" Dean demanded. "Huh?"

"I forgot my wallet," Sam hedged, knowing how lame he sounded.

"Yeah? Then what's with the note?" Dean lifted the paper toward him, shaking it a little. "You just gonna pull another fast one there, Wylie Coyote? Runnin' for the hills? Just like last time?"

"No!" Sam protested. "I just – I figured you wouldn't want to talk about it. Figured it would be easier if I just – "

"Easier if you just left? Huh? Easier for who, Sam? Haven't we already been through all this?"

Sam shifted his feet, ran a hand over the scruff on his jaw, put the other hand on his hip. He nodded, taking a deep breath, forcing himself to let it out slow. "Yeah," he agreed, meeting Dean's eyes, trying not to flinch. "Yeah, and you're right. Running isn't the answer."

Dean glared, silent and accusing, and Sam took another deep breath, shifted his feet again. "I don't wanna wreck this, Dean," Sam said, going for broke. "You're my brother. Whatever else we are to each other, whatever else there is between us, that's the main thing. That's what really matters. And if I just fucked it all up..."

Dean glared at him for another moment, and Sam could feel himself starting to choke up, getting ready to beg forgiveness, whatever it took.

Then Dean blinked, looked down at the paper in his hand, shook his head. "You didn't," he said quietly, more to the paper than to Sam. "We didn't. We made a mistake, that's all. It happens." He cleared his throat, looked up at Sam, and the anger was gone, replaced by renewed determination. "Old habits die hard."

Something about Dean's face, the obvious struggle it took to forgive himself for what had happened, never mind forgiving Sam, choked Sam up even more. He closed his eyes and the tears slipped freely down his cheeks as he nodded his agreement, sentencing their sex life to its locked box again, helping to nail shut the door.

Sickest of all, Sam knew he could never do it by himself. If Dean ever gave in again, like he had last night, Sam would never be able to stop himself. He would never want to. Their lives going forward might consist of any number of slip-ups like the one they had had last night, and Sam would savor every one, would carry them in his heart and his memory like precious relics, to be pulled out frequently and remembered with reverence and gratitude, to help confirm in his mind that Dean's love was absolute, all-encompassing, complete. Sam and Dean were everything to each other, even if Dean's moral compass needed some limits.

And Sam was determined to honor those limits with every ounce of strength in his body. Forever, if necessary.

Forever.

// *
They drove in silence most of the day, pulling into a McDonald's drive-through for lunch so they didn't have to sit across a table from each other. When they pulled up in front of the student dorms at Stanford that afternoon, Dean waited for Sam to grab his bags, and for a moment Sam was afraid Dean would just peel away from the curb, unable even to say goodbye. When he didn’t, Sam put one hand flat on the roof of the car, leaned down so he could look in at Dean through the open passenger-side window.

“Thanks, Dean,” he said softly. “For everything.”

Dean rolled his eyes, wrinkled his nose, squinted straight ahead out the front windshield, so that Sam could tell he was fighting some strong emotions. “You never have to say that to me, Sam,” he said. “You know that.”

Sam smiled, nodded, straightened up and patted the roof of the car. “See ya around, Dean,” he said, almost hopefully, trusting that even after last night, Dean would want to see him again.

“Hey, Sam?” Dean called, and Sam leaned down into the window a little too eagerly, fighting back the ridiculous hope that Dean was going to ask him to stay, to get back in the car and come away with him after all. But Dean had got himself under control now, so he could turn and look Sam square in the eye this time. “We make a helluva team, Sam.”

Sam sucked in a deep breath, relieved and disappointed at the same time. “Yeah, we do,” he agreed, giving Dean a shaky smile.

“And don't forget, Thanksgiving at Bobby’s,” Dean reminded him, like forgetting the next time they knew they'd be together was ever an option.

"Right," Sam agreed. "Thanksgiving at Bobby's." Sam attempted another weak smile, fighting the urge to cry so it probably came out more like a grimace.

Dean nodded, turned away to squint out the front windshield again, and Sam stepped back, giving the car one last pat as Dean pulled away from the curb. Sam watched until the car was out of sight, then he leaned down to gather his bags and head into the dorms to meet his new roommate.

* // *

Sophomore year at Stanford was different. Sam was more focused, had fewer general requirements to satisfy so he could begin taking the classes he wanted to for his pre-law emphasis. He still worked out hard, ate healthy, but he began to find it easier to socialize.

Brady had moved off campus for his second year, into a house with some other pre-med students, all serious, hard-working students like Brady. He greeted Sam with a wry smile and a firm hand-shake, obviously over Sam and now left with a lot of embarrassment over his freshman crush. Sam put him at ease as best he could, assuring him they could get together for drinks sometime, never intending to follow through. And Sam could see by the relieved look on Brady's face that he knew he'd never have to.

Sam was more than a little surprised to be greeted in the cafeteria by a tall, leggy blonde who looked oddly familiar.

"I'm Jessica," she announced with a smile that lit up her green eyes and drew his attention to her full lips. "Mind if I join you?"

Sam had just recognized her as the girl in Brady's mind, the one Brady had confided in about his crush on Sam, when she added, "I'm a friend of Tyson Brady's."

When Sam lifted an eyebrow, Jessica flopped her tray with its cheeseburger and fries on the table in front of him and sat down, knocking his knees casually under the table.

"Don't worry," she said. "I know he's over you. He told me so. I didn't want to get in the way before. You know, if something was meant to happen between you two. But now I feel like I already know you, and I'm kind of intrigued. Is that creepy?"

Sam grinned despite himself, ducking his head and pushing his food around with his fork. "Not at all," he said, and Jessica laughed, the sound as warm and musical as he remembered from Brady's mind.

"You are adorable," she said, reaching up to swipe Sam's bangs back from his face. "Did anybody ever tell you that?"

Sam looked up at her, considering. "You do know I'm gay, right?" he said softly, and Jessica sighed.

"Yeah, the gorgeous ones always are," she shrugged. "But don't worry. I'll be your convenience date when you need one, and you can be my pretend boyfriend, so my mom will stop bugging me every time she calls."

Sam's grin broadened. He was completely charmed by Jessica's infectious smile, her easy manner.

"Okay, it's a deal," he agreed, and just like that Sam and Jessica were best friends.

*//*

Six weeks later, Sam woke up from another nightmare, and it was about Dean, and he just couldn't shake it. Four times in one week was too many for this to be just a coincidence. And even though he hadn't spoken to Dean since that afternoon almost two months ago, even though he knew they had a mostly-unspoken agreement to get together for school breaks and it wasn't even Thanksgiving yet, Sam picked up the phone and called his brother.

"Sam." Dean picked up after the second ring, and his voice made Sam's insides turn to molten glue, all sticky and hot, memories of Dean's hands and lips and ass, all those pink scars where the black dog bit into him..."You drunk?"

"What?" Sam frowned, glanced at the clock. "It's seven-thirty in the morning, Dean."

"Yeah?" Dean countered. "So are you drunk?"

"No," Sam snapped irritably. "Are you?"

"You called me, remember?" Dean answered, like that explained his question.

Sam took a deep breath, let it out slow, fighting to keep down his frustration. "I know," he answered finally. "I've been having this dream. All week."

"Clowns or midgets?" Dean asked promptly, nonsensical.

"What? No, Dean, it's about you," Sam answered. "You in a burning house. I keep trying to get you out, but I can't find you."

"I'm right here, Sam," Dean said. "Not lost. Not dead. Wishing I could've slept another hour or two..."

"I know," Sam sighed. "I miss you, I guess. Sorry."

Sam could hear Dean taking a deep breath, letting it out slow, just like Sam did a minute before.

"I know," Dean said finally. "Me, too."

"You're not hunting alone, are you?" Sam asked.

"Livin' at Bobby's at the moment," Dean answered. "He's got me running errands for him. Doin' recon missions with Travis and Rusty, mostly."

"Yeah," Sam nodded. "That's good. That sounds good, Dean."

"Miss you, though," Dean admitted, and Sam swallowed hard, fighting the tears stinging the backs of his eyes. "We make a pretty good team, all things considered."

"Yeah," Sam breathed, grateful for the reminder of Dean's parting words from two months ago. "Yeah, we do." He cleared his throat. "So, how's Bobby?"

"He's good. He's been helping me with the research on your deal. Psychic kids, yellow-eyed demons, nursery fires. We've managed to locate a couple of the kids."

"Yeah?" Sam sucked in a breath, tried not to drop the phone because his heart was pounding and his palms were sweating. "What did you find?"

"Not much," Dean answered. "They're not psychic, Sam. Not like you at all. Messed up, unhappy, but not psychic. It's fuckin' weird."

"What does John think?"

Dean was silent so long Sam wondered if the call had been dropped.

"Dad's gone A.W.O.L. again," Dean said finally. "Haven't heard from him in over a month now."

"Why am I not surprised?" Sam rolled his eyes.

"I don't know, Sam," Dean said, sounding worried. "After I gave him the thing's name, he started researching conjuring spells. I'm thinking he's trying to summon it."

"Alone," Sam huffed out a breath. "Right. What an ass."

"I guess he can't be being very successful or we'd have heard," Dean went on. "You'd hear something. Voices or something. Another demon. You haven't seen any demons lately, have you, Sam?"

Sam shook his head. "No," he admitted. "Not one. It's like – " He bit his lips, cutting himself off because his sudden thought was creeping him out.

"It's like what?" Dean prodded.

Sam huffed out a breath, let the words out in a rush. "It's like things are going along the right path again, the way they're meant to be. The way the demons want the story to go." Sam chewed on a nail, frowning. "You haven't had any more visions, have you?"

"Hell, no," Dean scoffed, then added after a short pause, "Nothin' I can't handle, anyway."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sam demanded. "Dean? You're having more visions? And you didn't tell me?"

"Forget it, Sam," Dean snapped. "It's nothing bad. You'd think it's all good, in fact, knowing you, but that's all I'm gonna say."

"Dean? What the hell?"

"No way," Dean sounded adamant. "You're gonna have to trust me on this, college boy; just let it go. Maybe I'll tell you about it when I see you. Thanksgiving at Bobby's, remember?"

How could Sam forget? He'd been counting the days – okay, maybe the hours till Dean would come collect him.

"Okay," Sam sighed. "Yeah, I remember."

"So study hard and get good grades and I'll see you in a few weeks," Dean said, and Sam knew it was his cue to say goodbye.

"Yeah, okay," Sam sighed again.

"You take good care of yourself, Sammy," Dean said, trying to dismiss him again. "Y'hear?"

Sam nodded, sniffled as the tears start streaming unchecked down his cheeks. He swiped at them irritably with the back of his hand. “Yeah,” he tried to say, but his voice choked off.

"I'm gonna hang up now, Sam," Dean said, his voice soft because he could obviously hear Sam crying.

"Can I call you again?" Sam choked out, giving up on trying to contain his sobs.

"'Course you can, Sammy," Dean answered. "Anytime. I'm always right here, you know that. Always right here for you. Not goin' anywhere. Okay?"

"Okay," Sam sobbed.

"Always here, little brother," Dean soothed, and now Sam was weeping openly, unable to tell whether Dean was still there listening or not. Sam couldn't seem to stop now that the waterworks had started; it was like a dam breaking. All the pent-up stress of leaving – again – just pouring forth. All the guilt Sam felt gnawing away inside, the misery of his childhood compounded by about a hundred percent now that they knew that he really was a freak, that in fact the other children weren't like him after all, that there was something uniquely horrifying about Sam Winchester, and the demonic forces in play to use him were just getting started.

Sam had worn himself out by the time he cried himself dry. He curled up on the bed, dried the last of his tears on the edge of his sheet, still holding the phone to his ear, his breathing slowly evening out, deepening. His eyes slipped closed and he could see Dean in his mind, driving with one hand on the wheel, the other hand holding the phone to his ear, just listening.

"Dean?" Sam whispered, his voice hoarse from crying.

"Right here, little brother," Dean's voice answered promptly, and Sam heaved a deep sigh of relief.

"You don't have to come," Sam choked out. "I'll be okay."

"I know," Dean said gruffly. "Found a case in Sausalito. I'll be there in about three hours."

"Okay," Sam sighed, the relief palpable in his voice. "Thank you."

Sam put the phone down, took a deep breath. Dean was coming. Dean would always be there. Sam and Dean were in this together, no matter what happened. No matter what horrible, sick, terrifying shit-storms were coming their way, they would weather them together.

Always.

 

FIN