Actions

Work Header

Run Aground

Work Text:

By the time Sam gets in Dean is huddled beside the clanking gas heater, three layers of flannel and his jeans and boots doing little to keep out the chill of a February in Maine. The damp in Sam’s hair is beaded into ice, and he shakes it off like a puppy as he kicks off snow onto the mat outside.

“Move over, dude,” he says, snugging up beside Dean on the uncomfortable couch and holding out his hands towards the heater’s metal bar. Dean shoves up, a little, cramming into a corner, and the two of them sit in silence steaming off the damp of the outside world.

Dean watches Sam’s hands. His brother is wearing a pair of gloves that Dean’s pretty sure he remembers buying for him last winter, at a gas station on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio. But Sam’s fingers are busting out of the ends already, poking pink and cold through the frayed grey wool. It seems crazy that his little brother can still be growing, sprouting elastic in every direction, despite the fact that the kid eats less than nothing and despite the more outrageous truth that he’s already an inch taller than Dean. Truth told, it makes Dean a little uneasy. Sometimes when they’re driving he looks across the car, sees Sam crammed awkward and uncomfortable into his seat, and wonders how much longer it is likely to be before his brother outgrows the Impala altogether.

The thought, surfacing unbidden, makes Dean feel suddenly untethered, and he has to ground himself by focusing hard on the line of Sam’s body at his side; skinny hipbones and elbows and knees, bones sticking sharp into his flesh. Sam might be prickly and grumpy and always on the point of slipping out of reach, but he’s here right now. That’s what should matter.

Time passes. Dean’s fingers begin to sting red and stiff. Reluctantly, he hauls himself to his feet.

“Dinner?” he says.

Sam doesn’t look up, still intent on the white-orange glow of the filament. “There’s some stuff in my backpack.”

Sam’s working in the grocery store down the street, which isn’t great money but which does come with perks in the form of the beat-up merchandise that the owner lets Sam take home for free. Today, there’s a frozen pizza with a ripped-up box, a head of lettuce gently browning at the edges, and a cheesecake with a concave dent across the centre.

“Livin’ the high life, Sammy,” says Dean, brandishing the cheesecake at his brother. As he pulls it out of Sam’s bag, a brightly-coloured paper figure drifts zig-zag to the floor; evidence of Sam’s other job, babysitting for a pair of little kids who live two doors down.

Dean picks it up. It’s Sam, probably. Certainly, the bangs and the hoodie look familiar; as does the sour expression that’s been stuck on Sam’s face since they rolled into town, intensifying steadily since Dad took off six weeks ago with a few cryptic words about demonic omens and an injunction to stay put and stay out of trouble. ‘ZAM’, says a handwritten label on the back.

“Hey, Dean,” says Dean in a high-pitched imitation of his brother’s voice, dancing the doll through the air. “Did I ever tell you you’re the world’s greatest guy?”

Sam doesn’t look around, but Dean can feel him rolling his eyes. It’s the being ignored, more than the bitchy gesture, that niggles, and almost despite himself Dean starts needling back. “Gee, I’d sure be lost without an awesome big brother like you,” he continues, waggling the paper Sam. “Guess I’d just be sitting at home crying all by myself. Christ knows I find it hard enough to make my own amusement.”

The jibe, as Dean has known it would, provokes a proper response; though it’s a terse one.

“Fuck off.”

Rising, Sam tugs the little figure out of Dean’s hands. He strides over to prop it against the rubber plant on the hallway table, next to a pile of leaflets and long-departed strangers’ unopened mail. The doll slides slowly down into something like a sitting position, its legs extended across the table’s shiny surface and its head hanging low and forlorn above its papery lap.

“Accurate,” says Dean. “Almost uncanny.”

Sam throws him a heavy, disdainful glance before swiping the pizza and heading on through to the kitchen out back.

There was a window somewhere in Sam’s late teens, after he was old enough to get into the bad kinds of bars, but before this new world-weariness had enveloped him too absolutely, when Dad leaving them alone while he went off hunting meant that a giddy feeling of licensed freedom would descend on them both. They’d slack off on their training, loll on the couch or the motel beds and watch bad movies and drink cheap beer. Dean would tease Sam about girls and make fun of his hairstyle, and Sam would bitch and moan about it but he’d be smiling while he did. Dean thinks probably those were the best times of his life.

Now, though, Dean’s feeling Dad’s absence as a relief mostly because it means a respite from the acid, disagreeable tension between his father and Sam. If Dean finds it hard enough to keep Sam cheerful, Dad seems almost determined to make him mad: disregarding whatever Sam says, questioning his research and sending him out to work out at all hours. ‘Christ’s sake,’ Dean wants to tell him. ‘If you carry on treating the kid like that, you can’t expect him to stick around.’

He has never said this to Dad. He wouldn’t want to. There’s a tiny part of him that’s afraid Dad might just say ‘Good,’ and let Sam go.

All the way through the pizza and several slices into the cheesecake (though Sam eats hardly any of either, and don’t think that Dean hasn’t noticed), the atmosphere has thawed sufficiently that Dean suggests going out. Unsurprisingly, Sam’s not keen. Is he keen on anything, lately, at all?

“Come on,” Dean says. “One drink, dude. That’s all I ask.”

Sam sighs. “It’s freezing out. I’m exhausted. Can’t I just go to bed?”

“No,” Dean tells him. “We’re gonna go out and have fun.”

Sam rolls his eyes, and Dean thinks for a moment that he’s gonna flat-out refuse, just turn his back and disappear upstairs and back under the goddamn covers. Last weekend, Sam spent 36 hours in his bedroom and Dean spent what felt like 35 of them downstairs waiting for him to come out. It’s like some weird inversion of their roles growing up, where Sam was the isolated kid on the periphery waiting for the moment when Dean could make time just for him. Dean isn’t used to hanging around for his brother like this.

“Come on, man, please,” he says, and something of the genuine anxiety and loss and fear that he’s been feeling lately must bleed through onto his face; because the frowning set of Sam’s face softens just a little bit. Sam closes his eyes in a long blink, opens them finally and heaves a sigh.

“OK,” he says, and reaches for his coat.

The wind chill hits as soon as they get outside, and Dean has to admit a quick pang of regret for even the heater’s limited warmth; his heavy leather jacket isn’t enough to keep out this cold. But having persuaded Sam out of the house, the least he can do is hustle his brother into a good time, and so he smiles through his chattering teeth and leads the way briskly along the street. Around them, the snow continues to fall.

This is a small town and Dean isn’t surprised to notice Phil, his buddy from the workshop, propping up the bar. At the pool table in the corner, Jack and Don, two guys who spend the summer fishing and the winter building boats, look to be several frames into a serious grudge match, empty beer glasses lined up along the table beside. They nod as Dean enters, and Phil beckons him over, but Dean shakes his head, indicating Sam.

There’s no real reason why they couldn’t all drink together, nothing but Sam’s deliberately antisocial behaviour. Sam knows Phil himself: it’s his kids that Sam’s been babysitting after work, a boy who’s maybe seven years old and a girl a little under five. Dean finds it hard to compute in his head, Sam and small children, hanging out, but the dolly that Maisie drew this afternoon is probably evidence that he’s doing OK. If so, then Sam’s connecting a damn sight better with the kids than with any of the adults they’ve met since they rolled into town. He’s polite and respectful to everybody, sure, but Dean has yet to catch his brother exchanging a word of meaningful conversation with anyone here.

Tonight’s no different. They sit at a two-top table in the corner, almost in the dark. Sam drinks his beer, smiles weakly at Dean’s jokes and his stories about the guys at the shop. When Dean asks about his work, Sam shrugs.

“It’s fine,” he says. “Not really mentally taxing, man, you know?”

Dean doesn’t want to get in a fight, so he doesn’t point out that Sam’s properly crazy if he’s looking for fulfilment in the nothing kind of job that they always end up working when they’re in between hunts. It's the hunting that's the real thing, isn’t it? That’s where the reward comes in.

Not saying it, he finds himself floundering, and they sit trading stilted remarks for another few minutes until finally Sam looks at his empty glass.

“OK,” he says. “Good talk. Thanks for the beer.”

Half of Dean wants to stop him going, wants to buy him shots and force him to finally friggin’ loosen up and have fun. The other half is fed up trailing round after his little brother like a child. So, “Whatever”, he says, and watches Sam leave. Then he goes over to sit with Phil.

The night gets a lot more rowdy after that, and Dean’s full of whisky by the time that he leaves, maybe two or three hours after Sam has gone home. The moon is bright in the sky above him, illuminating the frost that’s encasing the town and winking alluring off the surface of the sea, which Dean can see clearly through a gap in the houses at the end of the road. Something, some unnameable drunken urge, prompts him through this alleyway and onto the beachfront, a long low path running straight across the top of the sand. Reaching it, he stops. It’s still windy out and the waves are jumping, high and dramatic, white caps ghostly in the dark of the night. There’s a power to it that Dean has to respect; and, watching the yellow eye of the lighthouse out on the rocks, he thinks about the fishermen who must have drowned along this coast, about their bones crusted and barnacled, floating in the tide.

It’s too cold for him to pause for long. Out here, with nothing between the road and the open sea, the wind is almost shattering. Dean feels like his skin is crystallising, hardening over. It burns. Tugging his jacket around him and cursing, he starts toward home, along the back of the houses, the windows facing out to sea.

It’s then that he sees the solitary figure, out at the end of the jetty, wrapped in a seriously insulated coat and looking intently out into the dark.

The heavy coat makes it difficult at first to identify the watcher; makes it hard even to know their sex. But as Dean crosses past the end of the platform, the figure turns its head. Red hair streams out of its hood, bright in the white-blue light of the moon: a distinctive auburn colour that’s impossible to mistake. The watcher is Barbara, their next-door-neighbour; Phil’s wife. Dean’s met her a couple of times, although he doesn’t know her well, and he raises his hand in silent greeting when he sees the pale flash of her face against her hood’s grey fur. But she’s still gazing away from him, towards the sea, and she doesn’t seem to notice him. Dean shrugs, and walks on by.

His teeth are chattering hard by the time he gets home, fumbling for his ice-sharp key with frozen hands. Inside, however, he’s hit by a wave of heat, soundtracked by the radiator’s low, rattling buzz and illustrated by an unexpectedly touching tableau. Sam has brought his blankets down to the living room and fallen asleep on the couch, face glowing in the element’s dim, peach-coloured light. A big, heavy textbook on American political history lies face-down on the floor, splayed open awkwardly where it’s slipped out of his softening grip. Unguarded like this, his brother looks so much younger that Dean’s immediate instinct is to gather him into his arms.

Instead, he prods at Sam’s shoulder and watches him blearily blinking awake. “Bed time, Sammy,” Dean says, and hoists Sam still dozy and staggering to his feet. They climb the stairs together, arms around each other’s shoulders, Sam’s warmth after the blankets and the heater bleeding into Dean and beginning to thaw out the iciness of the cold walk home. Muzzy with sleep, Sam makes at first to crash onto Dean’s bed – his room is nearest – and for a moment Dean considers letting him, using the excuse of the freezing bedrooms to justify the physical comfort of his brother’s proximity. It’s pretty sad that lately he feels closest to Sam when the kid is unconscious.

Trying to do the right thing (and mindful, if he's honest, of the possible sting of Sam's grimace if he were to wake the next day in Dean's bed), Dean steers Sam carefully down the corridor to his own small room, thumping him down onto the mattress and tucking the covers in around him tight.

“Night, Sam,” he says.

Sam’s already slipping into sleep. "Night. Love you, De."

He hasn’t said that since he was tiny. Dean swallows it down.

~~~~

Up early in the morning and out into a bright, biting day, Dean rolls into work and is accosted by Chris, a tall, blond-haired, taciturn guy who’s notable mostly for his silent, ferocious efficiency.

“Your brother,” he says. “D’you think he’d have time for a little extra childcare?”

“Sure,” Dean says. “For you?” He doesn’t know Chris well, but he does know that the guy is a single dad, raising twin six-year-old boys.

“No, I’ve got it covered,” Chris says. “This is for my brother, Steve.” He looks around, lowers his voice. “His wife just walked out and left him with Megan. The kid’s only three years old and Steve can’t afford to take time out. He needs somebody to sit for her until he can sort something permanent. Your brother do that?”

“Sure,” Dean says again. He doesn’t know if he should say it, make the connection. Eventually, “Rough luck,” he says. “You and Steve, both?”

Chris frowns. “I need to get back to work. Get your brother to give Steve a call.” He passes over a grubby piece of paper.

The dismissal is clear, and Dean takes it on the chin. Fair enough. A guy probably doesn’t wanna discuss how his wife decided to abandon him and their kids, maybe less than ever if he’s half-reliving the whole thing again. That doesn’t stop him raising the subject with Phil, at lunch; but he’s shut down there, too.

“These things happen,” Phil says; and there’s an awkward pause before Dean starts again with a safer topic, and soon the two of them are laughing and relaxed like normal.

That doesn’t stop the conversation sitting at the back of Dean’s mind for the rest of the day, brewing in a way that he’s learned to trust. By the time he makes it home and tells Sam about the offer, a thought is starting to take shape.

“How many single fathers are there in town, Sam?” he says.

Sam looks at him, thoughtful. He counts on his fingers. “That first guy at your work. Maisie’s best friend, Tessa; she lives just with her dad. Matt, at the bar.”

“Another now another one,” Dean says, “Steve.”

Sam’s considering. “Is it enough?” he says.

“Four single fathers in a town of, what, five hundred people? All of them in their thirties with children under ten? It’s some kind of a pattern,” Dean says.

He’s not really sure how much he believes it. OK, so in the summer this place is apparently a helluva lot more lively. But right now, at the back-end of an angry winter, it’s not hard to imagine why a person might want to leave; especially if she had come from out of town, from somewhere warmer or busier and easier to inhabit. Still, it almost doesn’t matter if this is really a case or not. A good 95% of the point is the hope of finding the magic solution that might haul Sam out of his sulk. Proposing a case is almost the only thing that Dean hasn’t yet tried.

“Yeah,” Sam says, slowly. “Yeah. You’re right. It does seem odd.”

That’s it, for the evening: there’s not much they can do right now. But just the agreement to start investigating seems to have made things easier, prompting Sam’s brain back into action and dispelling the lethargy that’s enveloped him for the past several weeks. He stays downstairs all evening, playing backgammon and eating candy, chatting to Dean about obscure Presidents and other kinds of weird, inconsequential crap that only Sam would ever think of and that Dean has been missing since they arrived in town. Going up to bed, Dean is conscious of a loosening in the tight band of worry that has settled, almost without his noticing it, around his chest.

~~~~

Over the next few days, they start to work the case: just casually, at first, although they soon run up against a set of obstacles that pique Dean’s interest for real. He tries the personal angle, taking himself to the bar two nights in a row in order to go drinking with Matt, Jack and Chris. He doesn’t get much more than a hangover for his efforts; that and the lingering, definite sense that there’s something more than the usual taboo about discussing their wives. You’d think, surely, that three guys all left by their women might wanna sound off to each other about it. If they do, they don’t want Dean involved. Instead, his every attempt to steer the conversation in that direction is politely rebuffed, so that by the end of the second night it’s almost impossible for him to raise the topic in way that isn’t painfully crude. Essentially, no dice.

Sam has better luck. Mid-week, he’s unusually late from work and Dean starts worrying before he gets a text: ‘In the library. Back asap.’

Dean finds himself oddly pleased. If Sam’s still in the library at 6pm, when it usually closes at five, then he has to have been working his charm with the archivist. And if Sam is feeling peppy enough to flirt with middle-aged ladies (a skill which he possesses in alarming abundance, when he chooses to use it) then the dark cloud that’s hung over him lately really must have begun to lift. Dean knew it. Boredom has never been good for Sam. This slump in mood is just the result of inactivity. A proper hunt – a proper goal – something to keep moving for – and Sam will be back to his old, snappy, crackling self in no time.

Humming softly under his breath, Dean pokes through the refrigerator. Coming up empty, he decides to order in from the cut-price Chinese that’s the only takeout place in town. He chooses Sam’s favourites: orange chicken, egg rolls, crab Rangoon. They arrive a few minutes before Sam does and he spreads them out across the kitchen table, soothed by the smell of the identikit dishes. These are the anchors Dean depends on: cheap fast food that tastes the same in every town; the cassette tapes of jumpy music that he’s listened to for the whole of his life.

“So, hit me,” Dean says, when Sam finally gets in, huffing warmth into his hands as he strips off layers onto the hallway floor. “What did you find?”

“Nothing,” says Sam, but there’s a promising light in his eye.

“Nothing?” prompts Dean.

“Yes,” Sam says, “Nothing about any of them, and don’t you think that’s interesting?”

“I don’t –“ Dean says, and Sam gives a little impatient huff, a ‘look Dean you idiot’ research huff that is so completely characteristic Dean can’t help but smile.

Sam leans over and picks up an egg roll, bites into it without thinking, without the disgusted glance that he’s started lately to direct at whatever he eats. He gestures with it while he talks. “Listen,” he says. “None of these women were ever reported missing. There’s nothing about it in the local news, no notices, no mention of it at all. I’ve been backwards and forwards through the Courier for the past ten years. I’d lay money that they never even told the police.”

Yeah, OK. Dean gets it. That’s weird. “So, what?” he says. “The guys saw something that they didn’t want to discuss? I guess it could make sense. You see some, I don’t know, some sea-monster reaching tentacles through the window and snatching your wife, you’re probably not gonna go to the police with what you saw. Not when you’ve got little kids you don’t want to be taken away.”

“Well maybe,” Sam said. “But that’s not all.” He digs down into his bag, underneath the squashed-looking vegetables sitting on top. A chipped carrot falls out and rolls along the floorboards, under the fridge. Eventually Sam extracts what he’s looking for, five photocopied pages, grainy and speckled but still legible enough: images of the announcements column from the local newspaper. Sam’s scratchy handwriting stands out blue in the corner of each one, recording the date.

“This is the first one,” Sam says. “September, 1994.” His big hand splays out across the page, fingers framing the notice. It’s functional, brief.

THE WEDDING OF HELEN AND CHRIS MCALLISTER IS ANNOUNCED. SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 17TH. ST FRANCIS’ CHURCH.

“Right,” Dean says.

“September 17th,” Sam says. “Now look at this.”

           MARRIAGE: LAURA AND MATTHEW DARROW. OCTOBER 8TH.

“There are more of them,” Sam says, shuffling out the pages, “five weddings in three months. Chris, Matt, Steven and Jack, they all got married within the same really short span of time. Don’t you think that’s weird?”

Five weddings?” says Dean.

Sam slides the final piece of paper towards him.

           PHIL & BARBARA KENDRICK. MARRIED, LAST WEEK AT ST FRANCIS’. NO GIFTS.

Dean studies the pages for a second, chewing his lip. It’s not nice, seeing Phil’s name there, but he has to admit that Sam’s case is compelling. More compelling, even, than Sam’s made it.

“It’s not just the timings,” he says. “Look. No last names.” Sam glances up at him, forehead furrowing between his eyes. “The women,” Dean says, impatiently, “none of them have last names listed. That’s unusual, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Sam drums his fingers. They’ve looked at a lot of announcements pages, after all. Bread and butter of hunting research. “Usually they give them both.” The boys eye each other across the table.

“Guess we know who to talk to next,” Dean says.

~~~~

“This is madness,” Dean says again, as they climb through the back window of Phil’s house.

“You come up with a better idea,” Sam says. “I know for a fact they’re at the school. Maisie’s been talking about this dance recital for the past two weeks.”

“We don’t even know what we’re looking for,” Dean says.

“Just… something,” says Sam. “Come on. You start asking questions of his friends and he suddenly decides that he doesn’t need a sitter any more? He doesn’t want me in the house.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” says Dean. “You’re right.” And Sam is, he’s spot on. At work, Phil’s been finding excuses to avoid him, assigning Dean to different shifts and shutting him down when he starts to talk. That doesn’t change the fact that this is the guy to whom Dean’s been closer over the past few months than he has to anybody else, including Sam. Still, he reminds himself. This might be for Phil’s own good. They don’t yet know that it isn’t something outside, something that the guys are afraid of. Maybe it’s threatened to come back for their kids.

The pair of them have searched enough houses to do this job clean and efficient and fast; done enough, also, to know when they’re coming up empty. Meeting outside the bedrooms upstairs, they exchange a head-shake. Nothing doing.

Dean allows himself to think, maybe they’ve done Phil a disservice. But he’s not really that naive; and when Sam’s flashlight flicks upwards to the outline of a trapdoor, he isn’t surprised. What a cliche. Something nasty in the rafters; something lurking in the bones of the house.

There’s a ladder in the storage closet downstairs and it doesn’t take long to get it propped against the lip of the door, Sam climbing up and through as Dean hurriedly follows, both of them conscious of the passing time.

As they emerge into the room, "Christ," Dean says, wrinkling his nose. Something, somewhere in the attic, smells sour and dead. Sam's mouth compresses tight. A muscle twitches at his jaw.

"Probably a squirrel," Dean says. "A racoon." But his mind is popping with Bluebeard visions: decomposing female limbs, uncoiling soft and pale from an opened trunk; heads with the hair still on them and the eye sockets blank and dark. He hates himself for thinking it. Phil’s his buddy: he’s a solid guy. But in this job you learn pretty quickly that you can’t trust anyone, however nice they seem. Hunting monsters, Dean’s found enough humans with grisly secrets in the closet or the depths of their hard drive not to take the most sunshiny family life on face value.

“Let’s just deal with it,” Sam says, and he moves away, the pale circle of his flashlight illuminating the crates and boxes and rolled-up insulation filling the room. He starts to search.

When they eventually find it, stuffed almost inaccessible up into the wall of the chimney, the stench of it is strong enough to make Sam gag. But it’s not a body, not even an animal’s body, not quite. Despite the fact that they’ve been almost three months in this town so defined by the sea, that they should have been looking for this if they’d had brains in their head, it takes both boys a couple of confused minutes before they understand what it is that they have in their hands. Predictably, it’s Sam who gets there first.

“Of course. She’s a selkie. They’re selkies,” he says.

Dean looks in horror at the thick dark greasy seal skin that he’s carrying, and he knows that his brother is right. It makes perfect sense. He thinks about Barbara, out on the sea wall, wrapped in her goose-down jacket and staring fixed and pale into the churning tide.

“Of course,” Sam is saying. “Of course. How dumb did we have to be? It’s all there. The women, all of the women, and none of them with any families outside of the town.” He looks at Dean. “You know we have to give it back to her,” he says. He steps forward, his hand outstretched.

“Hang on,” says Dean. He’s trying to be rational, is being rational, maybe, but he’s also occupied in fighting down an unexpected tide of panic that’s threatening to rise in his throat. “She’s got kids, Sam. Tiny kids. Are you really saying they deserve to be without their mom?”

Sam looks at him as though he’s a complete stranger. “You’re kidding me,” he says.

“Fuck,” says Dean. “If she was so unhappy she’d have left anyway, already. She likes it here. You can see that she likes it. They’re happy. The kids, Sam. All of them. They’re a family. You telling me you wanna break that up?” He can hear his own voice rising and hardening, knows this conversation can only go places that he’ll later regret.

“It’s not about the kids,” Sam says, tight and angry.

“Maybe not to you,” says Dean. “I guess I forgot that it’s different, for you. You can’t remember having a mother. You don’t know what they’re about to lose.”

There are two spots on Sam’s cheeks that turn a virulent pink when he’s absolutely furious. They’re glowing now.

“That must be it,” he says. “I’ve never had a mother. So for some reason, I don’t understand that having a family means giving up everything you might want for yourself.”

Dean feels like he’s standing on a merry-go-round, some kind of disorienting whirling ride where the ground keeps sliding away from his feet.

“That’s not,” he says. But then the trapdoor into the attic slams open and Phil’s there, head and shoulders bursting through into the space.

“What the fuck,” he says as he looks at Dean, frozen guilty in the beam of his flashlight. “What the fuck do you think that you’re doing in my house?” He’s hauling himself up, big and brawny and mad, ready to throw them both out on their asses. Just as he finds his feet, he notices what it is that Dean is carrying in his hands. He freezes.

Got you, thinks Dean.

“What – what –“ Phil stammers.

“Come on, Phil,” Dean says. “We both know what this is.”

Phil breathes heavy, tries to make a recovery, scrabbling for the high ground from which he’s so rapidly slipped. “It’s mine, is what it is,” he says. “You’re in my house. Get out.”

“Come on. It’s not yours,” says Sam, interrupting, strident and clear. He steps towards Phil. “You stole it from Barbara, what, eight years ago? Some time in the summer, maybe midsummer, am I right? You were down on the beach with your buddies and you saw them, Barbara and all those other women, and the skins hanging on the rocks, and you thought, yeah. Yeah. I’ll have her. I’ll just take her home. And you did, you took the skin and you knew she’d have to follow you.”

Phil’s silent, looking at Sam.

“You forced her to come home with you,” Sam says, “and you slept with her anyway. You had kids with her. And you’ve kept her here for the past eight years. It’s disgusting. You should be ashamed.”

Dean moves forward, half a step, cut short. He can’t quite understand why Phil hasn’t yet hit Sam in the face. He’s certain that if or when that happens, Sam will lash back, hard. The kid is spoiling for a brawl, buzzing with a nervous energy that’s intimately familiar from the long years Dean’s spent tamping Sam down, desperately trying to muffle the sparks that threaten almost constantly to ignite Dad’s rage.

“It’s disgusting,” Sam says again, and Phil’s face kind of crumples.

“It’s not like that,” he says. “I love her. She loves me.”

Sam lets the silence extend.

“You make it sound horrible,” says Phil, “but she’s happy here. We’re making it work.”

“Right. That’s why you keep this hidden in the chimney stack,” says Dean.

Phil shifts his attention, looks Dean in the eye. “Give it back to me,” he says. “Give it back to me, Dean.” He’s pleading now, this big burly guy with his tattoos and his easy laugh. His voice quavers. “Please. I can’t live without her.”

“Give me a break,” Sam says.

Dean looks at his brother, watches him bubble with righteous fury, angry and scornful and proud. This kid. So spiky and pig-headed and sure, so constantly aggravating and so absolutely necessary to everything that Dean is.

He settles his fingers around the skin.

“Here you go,” he says; and he hands it to Phil, passes over this stinking thing that suddenly means so much.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sam’s mouth fall open, a blank little judging O.

“You need to tell her,” Dean says. “You need to give her the choice.”

Big ugly tears spill over Phil’s cheeks.

“Thank you,” he says. The absence of his response to Dean’s instruction stands stark in the air. Dean expects Sam to speak, to exact a promise, but the shock of his decision seems to have stunned Sam mute. His brother doesn’t say a word as he follows Dean down the ladder of the attic and back into Phil’s house; doesn’t speak even when they pass Barbara walking up the path, doesn’t respond to her cheery ‘hello’.

It’s not until they’re back in their own rickety cottage, standing awkward in the empty front room, that Sam makes a sound. When he does, the pretence of their earlier conversation is stripped away.

“I don’t know what you’re so worried about,” Sam says. His voice is high and thin and only barely under control. “I’m not going anywhere. Nobody else would want me anyway. I’m not qualified for anything, I can’t do anything apart from this.”

Dean’s heart pounds in his chest, really pounds with the painful thud of a fist into the back of his ribs.

“It’s not so bad, Sammy,” he says. Then, “Is it really so bad?”

“Jesus Christ,” says Sam, and he actually stomps his foot. “Fuck,” he says. “Fuck. I can’t do this any more.” He strides straight at Dean, muscles past him with broad shoulders that jar hard against the door frame as he slams out of the room. Dean listens as Sam crashes up the stairs to his bedroom, hears the springs and the floorboards creak as he lands on his bed.

He finds himself almost waiting for the muffled, choking sob that follows. It’s inevitable: Sam can rein it in for a little, in public, but the counterpart to his flaring temper has always been a quickness to tears. The sound’s familiarity does nothing to stop it slicing at Dean’s guilty heart.

~~~~

Twenty minutes later, when Dean pushes open Sam’s bedroom door, he finds his brother sprawling face-down on the bed, his feet on the pillows. As Dean enters, Sam raises his head; his hair is mussed and his face is blotchy and wet, tracked with tears like he’s a little kid coming down from a tantrum. Seeing Dean, he hitches up a wobbly front of defiance, a mask settling over his features paper-thin. It’s nowhere near enough to hide the flat misery of his underlying expression.

There’s a long moment in which neither of them speak.

At last, Dean shifts his hand from behind his back and holds out the letter to Sam. It’s a big letter, heavy and thick, in an expensive-looking cream-coloured envelope with a university crest in the corner; and it’s been hidden under Dean’s bed for the past two weeks, ever since he picked it up from the table by the door on his way in from work. He’s felt its presence underneath him every night: a time-bomb nestled flat and silent between the mattress and the slats of the frame. Even now, he can feel it tick.

Sam goes white when he sees the packet in Dean’s hand, white and then a bright red that washes slowly from his neck to his forehead. “What is that?” he says, shaky and hurt.

Dean’s hand is sticky and damp with sweat. He’s probably leaving finger-marks on the paper; dirty smudges on the smooth clean surface of Sam’s bright new life. He scowls.

“Take the fucking letter, Sam,” he says.