Actions

Work Header

The Hunter Games

Chapter Text

 

Dean

 

"Dean. Wake up."

Dean was jolted into consciousness to the sight of his brother looming over him, hair still wet from the shower and dripping down Sam's nose.

"We're gonna miss the Reaping," Sam said, making the face. The bitchy one.

Dean sat up and stretched, blinking confusedly. He was a light sleeper so he should've woken immediately when Sam started walking around; the kid had gotten big over the past few years and his footsteps sounded ridiculously loud on the creaky wooden floorboards of their old house. "Right," he rasped, throat still dry. "Wouldn't wanna miss that."

"The penalty being death and all," Sam added lightly, and thrust a (mostly) fresh towel and change of clothes at him. "Hurry up."

"This could be my last shower, Sam." He stood and grabbed the neatly folded clothes, bundling them so he could hold it all in one hand. "How dare you ask me to--"

"Hurry up."

Sam glared at him with grey-blue-hazel-ish eyes (Sam's eyes were stupid and hadn't ever settled on having an actual identifiable color) and Dean took the opportunity to search his brother’s face for ominous signs. Thankfully, he found none--Sam looked a little tired maybe, but not the way he looked after he had a 'special' dream.

"Time's it, anyway?"

"Dunno, but late."

Dean fumbled on the bedside table for his watch and swore when he found it. They had ten minutes to get to the Main Square of District Twelve.

"You know what? I'm thinkin' I'll skip the shower."

He quickly stripped while Sam hastened off to... somewhere that hopefully had to do with making a quick breakfast for them both, and slipped into the nicest shirt-and-pants combo he owned. The Gamemakers liked to say that it was 'traditional', but it was actually compulsory to dress up for the Reaping.

Because obviously if you're getting auctioned off to die you might as well look good while you're at it.

"We got any food?" Dean yelled while he tucked his pant-legs into his combat boots. The shoes were his only pair, old and worn but sturdy enough, and they'd have to do. He'd been going to the Reaping each year for as long as he could remember and no one had ever been killed for improper dress code, even though it still made him a bit nervous to risk it. District Twelve was usually peaceful and the police force were all Dad’s old buddies, who Dean knew by name, but the Gamemakers' lackeys brought their own law-enforcement.

"Sam! Any food?"

"Some pigeon left over from yesterday!" came Sam's voice after a pause. "That's it!"

Dean rushed down the stairs and stomped into the kitchen, where he grabbed a still-steaming plate of burnt, stringy meat that was mostly bone. It was pretty disgusting, but he licked it clean anyway and watched Sam do the same.

"We should go hunting."

"I know."

They didn't mention how there was the possibility one of them could get picked for the Games.

It was hard to believe that the Reaping still worked with a giant container and little slips of paper with names on them. You'd think in this day and age there would be a kind of computerized random selection matrix thingy... then again, maybe that was easier to hack. Dean didn't know much about computers, that was more Sam's area.

If your name got picked out you instantly became a contestant in the Games; one of twenty-four Tributes, more often known as Hunters (two for each one of the United Districts under the City). In District Twelve this usually meant you had just been sentenced to die in a couple of weeks.

The contestants got thrown into an Arena by the Gamemakers and made to fight to the death with whatever weapons they could find. It was bloody, and uncensored, and televised so that it could be broadcast all over the United Districts. Dean would rather end today at home pretending Sam was the one who wanted to watch the Dr Sexy MD season finale, if it wasn't too much to ask—just him and his brother and some light banter like it had been for nearly five years now; not as an unwilling contestant in the most brutal reality TV show the world had ever seen.

"Come on," Dean said, tossing the plate into the sink with a clatter. "We'll do the dishes when we get back."

If we get back, he thought grimly. If we both get back.

Dean's name was entered nineteen times this year. Sam's, only once.

Every child had to enter their name into the Reaping when they turned fourteen and keep participating each year until they turned twenty-four (Dean was, sadly, a couple of years short of avoiding his fate). But if you volunteered to have your name entered more times, the Gamemakers gave you extra rations: a payment of food supplies for every added risk you took.

Five years ago, he and Sam had needed all the extra rations they could get.

"How long have we got?" Sam asked.

They ran out of the house, Dean stopping to hastily lock the door behind them, and down the narrow cobbled street towards the Main Square. Every District had one, from One to Twelve, but Dean had seen them all on television and he thought District Twelve's Square was the ugliest and the smallest. Which probably made sense, because they were the poorer District by far. Coal mining had never been a booming business, and City taxes took their toll on the District denizens.

"Plenty of time," he lied.

"Dean."

Used to be that kind of stuff worked. But Sammy had grown up; eighteen years old as of last month. "Four minutes. Come on, I'll race ya!"

Sam let out a little choked laugh, like he couldn't believe Dean was stooping that low. But then he got that competitive gleam in his eye. "You know what? Fine. Loser makes dinner."

"Deal."

And they were off, sprinting as fast as they could down narrow alleys and well-known shortcuts to the Square, soon panting in the crisp morning air. The District was completely deserted (everyone was already there bright and early, of course); empty shops, empty streets, empty houses. A ghost town. They passed the bakery where Sam's crush Jessica worked, ran by Pastor Jim's church without a glance and tore through the grim, closed down market where they went to trade their hunting spoils for rice, milk and other essential foods. The stalls flew by in a blur of uniformly grey covers that had probably started out in different colors, only to succumb to the ash and dust with time.

"You getting slow in your old age, Dean?" Sam called smugly, his long legs eating up the road at an annoyingly impressive speed. Dean remembered when Sammy would complain about being shorter than his classmates, looking up at him with those wide cloudy eyes.

"Dream on, kid," Dean grunted and increased his pace.

Exactly four minutes later, they were there.

The Main Square was large enough to fit the vast majority of the population of their District, but it was paved by oft-cracked cobblestones in dire need of repair, as well as completely barren of any decorations whatsoever. District One's Main Square looked like a royal garden, and District Two had this huge gleaming fountain smack in the middle with golden statues spraying water from within (Dean figured one of the fancy golden fish alone could fetch enough to get through a year without needing to submit his name to the Games again). District Twelve's Main Square was sometimes referred to as the Main Space, because that was basically what it was: a whole lot of empty space that only got used once a year.

"Sucker," Sam panted when they grounded to a halt at the very edge.

Dean had clearly let Sam win but didn't point this out because today was the Reaping, and there was a tiny slip of paper with the name 'Samuel Winchester' on it that could end their lives.

It had already begun. Or, the boring introductory monologue had, at any rate. Meg Masters was the Gamemakers' spokesperson and TV presenter for their District; a short, pixie-like blonde with a deceptively playful smirk that didn't quite hide the edge of cruelty in her eyes. Allegedly she was also the daughter of one of the Gamemakers, which was how she'd gotten the gig. It was common knowledge that she was a little bit nuts; no one should be able to announce the names of two kids who were gonna die with that much... panache.

Right now she was repeating the same words they all knew by heart.

"...A chance to win glory and unimaginable wealth!"

The crowd that had gathered for this year's Reaping was just as large and just as silent as last year's. Mothers and fathers clutched their younger children hard enough to hurt (Dean still remembered that, when he was thirteen and Dad was still alive and he'd left a bruise, he'd held Dean's arm so hard at the mere prospect of what would soon come), terrified expressions concealed to varying degrees, families gravitating together as though that could protect their teenage members from the odds. And above all, the thick, cloying silence.

That happened every year as well.

Dean and Sam made their way through to the roped-off area where all the young adults from the ages fourteen to twenty-four were made to stand, closed in together.

"You're late," the guard muttered angrily, beady eyes under thick bushy eyebrows squinting up at them both. Dean just gave him a sunny smile and tapped his watch.

"Check again, handsome. We got time to spare."

It was true; they had about twenty seconds left. After that time the register was officially closed and you either managed to prove you were incapacitated and unable to attend the Reaping, or it was the death penalty.

"Names?"

"Sam and Dean Winchester."

The Reaping was also a good way of keeping a fairly accurate census of the young adult population. After rifling through a few pages, the guy crossed them off the list on his clipboard and let them pass, lifting the thick red-brown cord from its slightly rusted lock.

They shuffled onward but made no move to stand anywhere near the front, both because they were too tall and because neither Sam nor Dean had any desire to see the ceremony from up close. Sam waved at Jessica Moore, who stood next to a group of his classmates, but didn't go to her or Brady, his best friend. Dean decided not to comment on it but was glad it was just the two of them for this.

From the raised platform at the center of the Square, Meg Masters would announce the chosen contestants by picking their names out of a giant glass bowl. As was typical, the stage was the only thing in the entire Distrcit that actually looked like it could belong in Capital City; a brightly colored, festive-looking monstrosity with red City banners at either side and enough generator power to broadcast Meg's voice through the hastily installed speakers set up at intervals around the Square (to be dismantled the second camera crews stopped rolling). Compared to the barren, lifeless space around it, the stage was pathetically overdone.

"The Hunter Games are a tradition that exist since the Twelve Districts rebelled against the Capital City sixty-seven years ago," Meg was saying. "In order to maintain the peace among the United Districts Under the City, each District must offer up two Tributes between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four to become Hunters, and fight in the Arena. As we all know this Arena changes every year, and can range from a deserted plain to a dense forest..."

It was the exact same spiel every fucking time and she always left out the good parts; such as how the Games’ infamy had led to the rest of the world cutting off most international relations with the UD, or how the Gamemaker’s Guards’ methods for subduing the latest protests had included toxic gas. Dean tuned it out and looked up (looked up, and this would never not be weird) at Sam instead. Kid had somehow managed to get a smudge of ash on his cheekbone while running.

"--use whatever weapons they can find in order to fight to survive, and become the last Tribute standing. The Champion will bring riches to his District the likes of which they've never seen..."

"Klutz," Dean muttered with an eyeroll and swiped his sleeve over Sam's face, causing Sammy to startle and snort.

"Jerk," he muttered, but he was smiling a little too, in an indulgent, affectionate way that give Dean the urge to stick out his tongue and act even more childishly.

"And here to greet and instruct this year's elected Tributes, District Twelve's previous winner: Robert Singer!"

She clapped cheerfully and a couple of people in the crowd half-heartedly joined in. Again, other Districts had previous winners. As in plural. Everyone knew Bobby Singer was an old drunk who spoke in gruff cut-off sentences and didn't much care for company, but he was also the only Tribute in District Twelve ever to win the Hunter Games in sixty-seven years.

Singer stomped onto the stage and didn't even glance at the crowd; instead he settled on his designated chair and managed to irradiate disgruntled boredom without moving a single muscle. Dean wondered, not for the first time, how the hell this guy had managed to outlive twenty-three other kids, many of whom must have been way better trained than him. All the previous Games were available online, of course, but Dean never went back to rewatch them, and avoided highlight-reels and reruns on TV when he could. Maybe he'd look up Singer later today, though, if he and Sam had time after hunting their lunch.

"Time for the drawing!" Meg declared.

Dean stopped wondering about Bobby Singer and felt his gut clench in dread instead. He mustn't think about--making plans on Reaping Day was dumb. Nothing was safe yet.

Meg walked to the glass bowl. It reminded Dean of a giant fish tank, but he thought that he couldn't care less what it looked like so long as Sam's name was somewhere at the bottom of the pile.

"And the first contestant is..."

She thrust her arm inside and pulled out a slip of paper, waving it high in the air before bringing it down to her eye-level. Nobody cheered.

Like every year, Dean's heartbeat thundered in his ears and his breathing sped up. Not us, he thought forcefully. Not us. Unlike every year, however, Sam's hand shot out and his fingers wrapped around Dean's sleeve, clutching at the leather jacket tightly. Dean found his gaze once more sliding away from the stage to fix on Sam; his tough little brother, so grown up, so goddamn smart, so tall and strong. No, he thought fiercely. Our lives are fucked up enough, we've been through enough, we don't deserve this, please no.

Meg Masters smiled. Except it was more of a smirk.

"Samuel Winchester!"

It felt like a bullet.

Dean had been shot once when they were hunting. It was an accident; another group of scavengers who, like them, caught their food outside District walls and into the forest. The pain had been instantaneous, starbursting from his shoulder in a spray of blood, sudden and unexpected and shocking. Sam had been too young to come with them, but he'd turned white when they got home. Dad had later told Dean that he'd been good about it, son, and done well not to scare Sammy, 'cause Dean hadn't cried or any pansy shit like that... but he always remembered the agony of the impact, and the way it had ached like a motherfucker for days.

So he knew what to compare this feeling to.

"No," he breathed, reflexive, kind of disbelieving. "No, Sammy. Not you."

How could this have happened? Sam's name was one tiny little slip within hundreds, how had this happened?

"Dean," Sam choked out, and the Gamemakers' guards were already opening the little enclosure's cord and pushing their way through the crowd towards them.

"No." Dean shook his head.

Sam clutched harder at Dean's jacket with one hand and with the other reached out to wrap long fingers around the amulet he'd given Dean for Christmas all those years ago. They were pressed together, not quite hugging, but it felt like everyone around them didn't matter anymore, melted away into nothingness, and this couldn't be real, it wasn't fair and the world couldn't let this happen, please, please no.

"Dean, it's okay." Sam's voice was almost a sob but he was fighting to keep it steady. Dean felt half-dead. "Dean, I'll fight, I promise I'll--"

"No you won't," Dean snapped. Didn't Sam understand? This couldn't happen. This wasn't happening, because Dean wasn't going to let it.

"Dean, I--"

"I volunteer."

The murmurs of the crowd abruptly stopped, which was the only reason Dean registered them at all.

"What?" Sam hissed. He pulled back and stared at Dean. "You what?"

"I volunteer!" Dean yelled, tearing his eyes away from Sam's betrayed gaze. "I volunteer as Tribute in his place!"

"No!"

Sam turned to the raised platform where Meg Masters was watching them, seemingly delighted at this dramatic turn of events.

"No, he can't! Tell him!"

Dean shoved Sam's hands away and tried to get to the dais, like he'd seen the chosen Tributes do every year (some by walking, some by being dragged, but they fucking got there), except Sam gripped the back of his jacket and tugged harder than Dean would have thought him capable of, making him stumble backwards and crash into his brother's arms.

"No," Sam said again, and his voice sounded gutted and rough in Dean's ear. "You can't do this, you can't--"

"Lemme go, Sam--"

"He can't!" Sam yelled.

"Actually he can, if he's older," Meg said apologetically, her voice amplified by the microphone. The lightness in her tone (like this was funny) felt jarring.

"I am! I'll take his place!" Dean said and felt Sam's grip tighten around him, one arm around his waist and the other spanning across his chest.

"No," Sam grunted, low and firm, as though he really thought he had a chance of stopping Dean from doing this, from saving Sam's life.

"Well, then we have our first Tribute of the year!" Meg called, clapping. The sound rang across the empty square, sharp and lonely. "What's your name, young man?"

She couldn't be more than a couple of years older than him, what the hell was she playing at?

"Dean Winchester," he called back, feeling Sam pressed behind him shake his head, no no nononono a chant of denial, and the guards reached them at that exact moment. They tore him away from Sam immediately, methodical and without pity, and propelled Dean forward with so much force he stumbled and nearly face-planted into the dirty cobblestones.

He righted himself and squared his shoulders. "My name is Dean Winchester," he said again, louder and more clearly.

"Dean, no, please, please don't do this to me, Imph--" Sam's voice was abruptly muffled but Dean couldn't look back, he just couldn't.

"Well, congratulations, Dean Winchester! You are the first Tribute of this year's Hunter Games!"

This time there was a weak smatter of applause and Dean climbed the few steps up to where Meg stood without acknowledging any of it. He knew some of the denizens in the crowd, of course; the whole District showed up for the Reaping, after all. Pastor Jim, looking thunderstruck. Caleb, an old friend of Dad's from the force, staring at him as though it was his own son up there. Inside the roped-off area a few of Dean's old classmates were gaping in disbelief (the ones who'd known him a bit better, though, they were the ones who didn't look so surprised by this turn of events).

Behind him, Bobby Singer coughed.

"Aw, was that your brother by any chance, Dean?" Meg asked, and her tone was mocking, as though she was about to ask him whether he was going to cry like a little girl.

Dean couldn't help a glance in Sam's direction, and he realized it was taking three of the guards to restrain Sam, and one of them had gagged him with a black scarf in order to keep him quiet. But it was for the best. It was... the world without Sam would just have been... Sammy would be safe. That was all that mattered. Sam would be safe and alive and Dean could die happy, knowing that.

"Yeah."

Below, Sam made a vicious move to free himself and was thrown onto the ground in the ensuing scuffle.

"He probably wanted all the glory for himself!" Meg grinned, all sly malice. Dean tried to resist the urge to curl his lip in distaste. This chick was fucking evil. "Let's see who gets to compete with this impressive-looking Hunter for the chance of being Champion, huh?"

Undeterred by the lack of audience participation, Meg reached into the bowl again, one slender arm plunging deep and Dean had the sudden thought that there was a good chance he was going to face the person she named in the Arena, and if it came to that he was going to have to try and kill them.

The implications of what he was doing started to trickle in, more real than they'd felt a few moments ago.

What if he knew them, this person he might have to hurt, to hunt? What if it was a girl? What if it was a girl that he knew? There weren't that many chicks around his age in District Twelve, but plenty were still eligible to become Tribute, and he could suddenly spot Cassie, standing not far from the front line, surrounded by her friends. She was looking up at Dean; gorgeous and dark-eyed and shocked. A few steps behind her, Lisa stared fixedly at where Sam was pinned to the ground, but still fighting. And then the terrifying thought occurred to him that, Jesus, what if it was Jessica? Sam's heart couldn't... Dean was sort of counting on her comin' round and helping take care of Sammy now that he was leaving.

But worse than any of those would be if it was some fourteen-year-old underfed kid whose parents lacked the time (or the coin) to trade for some of Dean and Sam's freshly-caught rabbits.

"The second contestant is..."

Meg unfurled the paper and her eyes widened comically. "Oh my."

A murmur started up instantly, and Dean's ribcage felt as though it was contracting in on itself, squeezing his lungs too tight. Because... but no, it was impossible, it was literally impossible--

"It appears we have a rather awkward situation on our hands." She glanced at Dean and suddenly he knew.

"What--"

"For the second Tribute is... none other than Samuel Winchester!"

"What?!"

Everyone started muttering, confusion and outrage on every face, the whispers steadily growing to a buzz of talk that made Dean's head spin because how was this real.

"No, his name was only-- this is a mistake, this can't—“

Meg thrust the slip of paper in front of Dean's face and there they were, the two words that spelled out Dean's death sentence: Sam's name.

Impossible.

Dean turned to look at his brother, because it was just, it wasn't--it wasn't possible... but when his eyes met Sam's he saw something there. Saw something that terrified him.

The guards had released Sammy the moment his name was called and he was standing up, brushing dust off of his hooded jacket without breaking Dean's gaze. Then he started walking towards the stage.

"Sam?" Dean said, and his voice shook a little but fuck it.

Sam didn't reply, just kept looking up at him as he climbed the steps purposely, the set of his jaw matching the terrifying thing in his eyes, the horrible, awful thing that told Dean... Sam wasn't surprised, or confused, or even all that upset.

"What did you do, Sam?" Dean demanded the second his brother got to the dais.

Sam's gaze was hard and he looked as determined as Dean had ever seen him.

"I'm sorry." He sounded anything but. "But it's not a mistake."

"How--"

"Congratulations!" Meg cried. "We have our Hunters for District Twelve!"

The noise of the crowd rose, like cheers, sounded almost genuine now, and Dean knew he should be feeling thankful for this little show of support from their District, from its people towards them; cheering for their victory. But all he felt was lost. He couldn't stop looking at Sam, drinking in Sam's expression and trying to take it apart, to understand what the hell had just happened.

"Sam," he said, putting all his questions into that word.

Sam opened his mouth to reply but Meg took one of their hands in each of hers and forced them to raise their arms, surprisingly strong for such a tiny girl.

"Sam and Dean!"

The noise grew louder, people calling their names, people who were probably trembling with relief that they'd been spared for another year, but Dean couldn't resent them for that, could only see the mass of familiar and unfamiliar faces in his peripheral vision, all blurring together into a colorful blob in the background with Sam before them, the only thing in sharp focus.

"And my, aren't our Tributes handsome and strong this year!" Meg let go of Dean's hand to run hers down Sam's bicep and something dark and violent inside of Dean roared to life.

"Lady--"

"I think we're going to get an excellent show! Pity only one of you gets to win, boys," she added with a theatrical sigh. That froze the moment like nothing else had, and it hit Dean like a second gunshot, powerful and staggering.

He hadn't forgotten it at any point, but somehow his mind must have protected itself from this knowledge for a few precious seconds. According to the rules of the Hunter Games, he'd either have to let someone else murder Sam, or do it himself.

Which meant that he was either going to die at the hands of an enemy, or there would be a time when Sammy was forced to choose between Dean's life and his own. And Dean wasn't going to let him make that choice.

So it was settled, then. He would die defending Sam, one way or another.

Even if, at the very end, the person he had to kill was himself.

 

Sam

 

Sam knew it was wrong. He knew it wasn't normal to feel so... relieved. He knew. The odds were against them. The rules were against them. Hell, twenty-two better-trained Hunters were going to be against them in less than a month and they had no hope of getting out of that.

But he still felt it. Relief, it was relief , this warm twisty thing coming alive in his gut, this thing that unfurled whenever he caught sight of Dean's troubled profile.

They'd just have to win. They'd just have to, and then the Gamemakers would need to change the rules, make an exception just this once. And at least Dean wouldn't be alone. At least his big brother wouldn't get away with sacrificing himself.

At least they'd be together.

He and Dean were escorted from the podium to awkward silence and the loud sound of Meg Masters' heels clicking against the cobblestones. Two cameramen followed them; both guys in all-black garb resting the equipment on their shoulders and angling them up from below, which made Sam think of the picture he and Dean would make next to tiny Meg in her tight blood-red jacket, shot at an angle so they seemed even taller. Maybe that would help their chances of being sponsored, if they looked big enough, menacing enough. After that thought, Sam made an effort to straighten his shoulders and lengthen his strides.

He knew they'd be taken to the Justice Building to say their goodbyes, everyone knew that, but having no family, he wasn't sure who'd come for them. Pastor Jim, maybe, or Caleb?

"Sam."

Dean slowed his steps some so that Meg was walking in front of them, and she noticed, but just smiled brightly. She'd still hear every word they said.

"Yeah."

Dean was looking at him with this utterly shattered expression and didn't even bother framing the question. Sam felt guilt rise like bile in his throat, the same way it had before, but just as he'd done then he choked it down now, because he might have lied to Dean but it had gotten him picked again, and that was something he wouldn't regret.

"I--" he started to say, then lost his train of thought in Dean's eyes. They looked shiny, like Dean was about to cry, which was stupid because Dean didn't cry, or at least he hadn't since Dad died. "Dean, I--" There were five guards around them, plus the two cameramen, and Meg only a few feet away. This wasn't the time, or the place.

So Sam worried his lower lip between his teeth and shook his head.

"Later, okay?"

Dean huffed out a breath and pointedly looked away, expression darkening, and Sam wanted to take his words back immediately, apologize, beg Dean to look at him again. But he was very aware of their surroundings; the pale marble steps of the Justice Building, slippery with the thin sheen of ash on them, and then the large double doors opened before their little committee.

"Have the Tributes been chosen?" the guard at the door asked. He didn't belong to the District's police force, Sam realized immediately. He was dressed in plain black, like the rest of the Gamemaker Guards.

"They have," Meg replied with a little nod at Sam and Dean.

"The train to the City leaves in an hour."

"Good. We'll be ready by then, I think."

The guard craned his neck to look behind Sam and Dean and his expression went from blank to mildly irritated.

"I trust the entire District isn't planning on saying their farewells to these kids? 'Cause you know they don't all fit in here."

Sam spun around and saw, stupefied, that a very large part of the crowd had followed them, slowly and silently, and were waiting below the steps. He couldn't remember that happening before, not since he'd been going to the Reapings with Dean and Dad.

"They're orphans," Meg replied with a shrug. Sam bristled at the casual way she dismissed his parent's deaths, but felt a hand on his shoulder that meant 'no'.

Dean still hadn't looked at him, but he'd known. Of course he had, he was Dean.

"Give them half an hour, then," the guard said, and stood aside to let them pass.

They were escorted into an empty room and left there, alone at last, with only a warning from Meg to 'behave, pretty boys'.

The instant the door was shut Sam turned to try and explain himself—and was shoved unceremoniously up against the nearest wall, the impact knocking the breath from his lungs.

"What the hell, Sam?" Dean yelled, hands fisted in the fabric of Sam’s hoodie. "What the hell were you thinking?!"

Sam knocked Dean's grip away, breathing hard, and felt a shudder run through him, something he couldn't identify sparking red-hot in his gut. Dean's breath was harsh too, as though he'd been sprinting, and Sam could feel it in warm puffs against his jaw, they stood so close.

"I'm sorry." But he wasn't. He wasn't sorry and could hear the truth reflected in his own tone, because thanks to what he'd done he'd gotten picked twice, not just once, and he was here with Dean now, not outside the door waiting to come in and say an impossible goodbye.

"How could you do this, Sammy?"

Dean was looking at him with hurt plain in his eyes, and Sam suddenly wanted him to step away, because they were standing claustrophobically close, pressed together, too much. The throbbing heat in his belly was uncomfortable, still unnamed, and insinuating its way up to his chest. So he shoved at Dean with the knowledge that superior height or no, Dean wouldn’t budge if he really didn’t want to, but thankfully his brother stumbled back a little, pliable this once.

"You did it for me, Dean,” Sam said, flat.

"So?"

"Don't."

It was... goddamnit it was so like Dean to be so hypocritical. He'd submitted his name nineteen times, and expected Sam not to do the same?

Dean snorted, looked away. "I'm supposed to take care of--"

"Don't even start with that," Sam snarled, and finally, finally identified the red-hot pulse for what it was: fury. For a moment there he felt so out of control he wanted to choke Dean with it. "Don't. You think I never noticed the days when there was only food for one? I'm a big boy, Dean, I stopped buying the 'I already ate while you were at school' bullshit a month after Dad died. And you wouldn't let me hunt even when I became eligible to submit my name for more rations, what was I supposed to do?"

"So all those times you said Jessica gave you free bread... all those days you said you snuck food from school...?" Dean trailed off, and Sam didn't bother answering him. It had been true, some days. He really had taken food from school and Jessica had tried to help him when she could, but--

"How many?" Dean snapped suddenly.

"What?"

Dean rubbed the back of his neck and glowered at Sam from under his stupidly thick lashes. "How many extra submissions, Sam?"

"Fifteen."

Dean swore. "You little shit."

"Says the martyr of the family."

"You think I was gonna let...?"

"It was not your decision!"

"The hell it wasn't!"

The door opened.

Sam looked around and found himself face to face with Jessica.

"Jess...?"

She was crying and only hesitated a split second before leaping into his arms.

"Oh God, Sam, oh my God..." she fisted her hands around the soft, well-worn fabric of Sam's hoodie, like Dean had, but her hands were small and engulfed by the material. Sam pulled her closer, so they were flush together in a manner not entirely unlike the way Dean had pressed against him before.

After a short minute she pulled away and walked over to Dean, furiously wiping her tears with one too-long sleeve, frowning like she was disappointed in herself for making a scene. Jess had never been one for drama; Sam had always liked that about her.

"Dean, I can't believe... what you did, that was amazing." She didn't throw her arms around him, but she looked a little like she wanted to. "I'm so sorry you're both..." a fresh wave of tears rolled down her cheeks. "I'm just so sorry this happened to you. I-I'll be watching... I'll be hoping for your victory. Both..." here she looked back at Sam, and even puffy-eyed and red-faced Sam thought she was beautiful. "Both of you. You'll just have to... they'll have to let you both win."

Sam nodded. "Yeah."

Jess swallowed thickly and gave her eyes another firm rub. "God, sorry, I'm--"

"Hey."

Sam took her hand and squeezed it lightly. He'd always had this idea... this vision of a future in which he married this gorgeous girl and they lived happily ever after. Jess had always been... they'd known each other for so long and they'd dated on and off since what felt like forever. He'd always thought...

Dean cleared his throat awkwardly and shuffled his feet.

"I can... I'll leave, if you kids got somethin' to talk about."

Jess shook her head. "No, there's more people... it's three minutes per person. I should go."

She hugged Sam one last time and then she drew back and kissed him, firmly on the lips. Sam kissed back despite his surprise, and despite the fact that he hadn't even told Dean that he and Jess had hooked up a few times. He figured it must be the thing that was done; taking this memory and others like it to the Arena, precious shards of his past life—funny how it was already his past life and this morning it had just been ordinary. Jessica was warm and soft and delicious and she always smelled of freshly-baked bread, so yeah, Sam tightened his arms around her and kissed back, even though he felt incredibly aware of the way Dean was right there, just a couple of feet away, watching.

They separated seconds later and she left without another word, a whirl of blonde hair, not looking back even once.

Dean made a humming noise. "Well hell Sammy, if I'd known you'd be getting that farewell I woulda asked for--"

"Shut up, Dean."

After Jess came Brady, of course, and then Caleb. Both of them offered advice--play your strengths, team up with other Hunters but only at first, trust no one, trust each other, get your hands on some guns if possible, use bow-and-arrows if not, train hard, listen to Bobby Singer's counsel... but Sam could tell they were shook up, and before he left Brady defiantly declared that he had something in his eye, and Sam pretended to believe him.

After Caleb came Cassie, much to both Sam and Dean's surprise. She didn't kiss Dean like Jess had kissed Sam, she just spoke to him low and serious, too quiet for Sam to hear. She sounded almost angry, like she was scolding Dean, but then she hugged him and Dean looked pleased. After that she hugged Sam, too, and very composedly wished them both good luck.

"You should have married her when you had the chance."

"Shut up, Sam."

Finally it was Pastor Jim's turn.

"Boys."

He was around John Winchester's age--or the age John Winchester would be now, were he still alive, but he looked much older, and it wasn't because of the robes of his office, Sam thought. He looked like he'd aged twenty years in almost as many minutes. This man had babysat them through John's worst times with the drink, had watched out for them all their lives, had seen them grow up. And now he was going to see one of them die.

To no one's surprise, however, the pastor didn't waste time with sentiment.

"It's hunting. You're hunters. You can do this, together."

Sam swallowed. "But they're people, District denizens just like--"

"No. You can't think like that." It earned him a hard look. "They won't be thinking like that and you can't afford to either. I know you youngsters have been hearing the rumors about Cancellation..."

"Sir--" Dean started to say, eyes wide because they were in a City building and saying that word in public was about as safe as suddenly declaring one's intent to move to the Capital as a free citizen.

"Be quiet, Dean, there's not much time. We've all seen the revolts, we've all hoped it would end before it was your turn; well, it hasn't, and this is your fate now. If you feel pity or sympathy you are going to die. So don't."

Sam nodded slowly, and out of the corner of his eye saw Dean nod too. District Eight had seen the most violent uprising of late, and there had even been a few small-scale City protests that triggered the whispers of 'Cancellation' of the Hunter Games... but all that was wishful thinking now. Pastor Jim was right.

Soon after that they were told time was up by a bored-looking guard, and four more black-clad men appeared to escort them to the train station where Meg Masters, Bobby Singer and a retinue of Gamemaker lackeys were going to accompany them and two camera crews on their journey to the City.

It was a short and silent car ride, and Sam and Dean wordlessly agreed to postpone their argument, instead choosing to look out of their respective windows, knowing it might be the last time they'd ever see the District they grew up in. Gray streets flew by and frightened people scurried out of their way. It wasn’t a grand place and it didn’t make for a very attractive nostalgic sight, but it was—had been—their home.

The train station was swarming with journalists and flashing lights.

Sam blinked dazedly and drew automatically closer to Dean, then caught his own movement on a large screen that had been set up to broadcast City News. People jostled for their attention and this crowd wasn’t like the one at the main square. Interspersed with the many, many paparazzi were the gamblers, the men and women whose hearts had hardened enough that they were willing to place bets on which Tributes would win. The guards kept a clear perimeter around Sam and Dean to enable their walk to the train, but it was slow going.

Finally Meg caught up to them just as they reached the sliding door into their sleek silver transport. She was in a different outfit than before--she'd left her long red coat in favor of a dark leather jacket, high heels and fashionable-looking jeans.

"My pretty boys!" she smiled widely from within a circle of guards. “I missed you.” She waved at three cameras simultaneously, then blew a kiss at the one from City News. "Here, stand here, and by all means brood as much as you want, they'll love that."

They had to wait on the doorway of the train for the endless procession of flashes and snapshots to end. Dean was clearly as uncomfortable with the situation as Sam was, but his natural reaction to things that unnerved him was often an overdose of bravado, and right now was no exception; the cheeky, slightly mocking grin he wore was eaten up by the press, who clicked and clicked away and tried to capture Dean's perfect face from every angle. Sam just scowled, although they seemed to like that, too, and he could see both their faces on the giant screen of City News in high definition.

Thankfully it was over when the whistle blew and the train seemed to be threatening to start its voyage with them at the door.

Once inside, Meg directed them to an expensive-looking sitting area and told them to wait there until further notice. There was an enormous television set for them to watch the Reaping Day reel, which would start very soon.

Sam sat down on the large velvety couch and felt disappointed at the lack of windows; he’d never been on a train before, and this just felt like every other posh room he’d imagined (not that he’d been in many of those, either, but trains seemed far more exciting than riches at this point).

Dean didn’t sit.

“Look, you wanna be mad at me, that’s fine,” Sam said finally, unable to stand the tension. “But please say something.”

He hated this feeling between him and Dean. Oh, they argued all the time, and bickered, and sniped at each other, but most of it was playful and teasing. Real fights, like this one, were kind of rare, and the last one had been more than a year ago, when Sam took off to hunt on his own and lost track of time, came home hours later than Dean had been expecting.

“I’ve got plenty to say, Sam.” Dean widened his stance slightly and put his hands in his jacket pockets, like he was preparing for a blow and trying to be subtle about it.

“Then spit it out. Lay it on me, c’mon.”

“You…” Dean stared at him. “You’re not even really sorry, are you?” he said instead.

Sam clenched his jaw. “I’m sorry you feel—“

“No, screw that. You think I can't hear the fucking smugness in your voice, you've got another thing coming. God fucking dammit, Sam!"

“Stop yelling at me like this is all my fault! You shouldn't have volunteered to take my place!"

"What was I supposed to do? Let you die when I could save your--"

"Not save, Dean, trade. You traded your life for mine, and don't think I'm forgiving you for that anytime soon."

"I wouldn’t have cared whether you forgave me or not, if it meant you were alive," Dean said flatly. Sam suddenly wanted to slam him against a wall. His brother had to know that Sam's definition of 'alive' was incompatible with Dean's death.

"It's a good thing I didn't tell you about the extra submissions, then," he snapped.

"Oh, sure! Instead of me having a shot at winning and you staying safe back home, we're now in an even bigger mess! Have you forgotten we’ll be expected to fight each other? If we both make it to the final two they’ll sit back and wait for us to kill each other, Sam!”

"For God's sake, of course we’re not going to kill each other!”

“When have the Gamemakers ever made an exception, you idiot?”

“There’s never been brothers before! We’re brothers, they wouldn’t—“

“Oh yes they would,” Dean interrupted. “Were you not here four years ago, when they made that chick kill her boyfriend? And she did it, too.”

Sam remembered. The boy had been bleeding pretty bad, probably would have died anyway, but the girl had shot him and won the Games for it. “That was a mercy kill. And anyway they hooked up halfway through the game, they knew what would happen eventually. We... we’re brothers.”

Dean rubbed his eyes tiredly, and his shoulders slumped. “I can’t believe this.”

“It’s not my fault,” Sam repeated stubbornly. The odds… the ridiculously improbable odds were to blame. He’d just done what was right. He’d had no other choice. Dean hadn’t let him hunt until he was fifteen, and anyway in those years catching a squirrel on his own would have been miracle enough. Dean had been going hungry, and it had been in Sam's power to help.

They were silent for a long moment, Sam unable to tear his gaze away from Dean’s expression.

“Dean.”

His brother looked at him, and for a second he looked like the old man Sam liked to tease him about being.

“I really am sorry.”

Dean snorted. “But not for the right reasons.”

“Maybe not. I still am.”

Dean let out a long, tired breath.

“Dammit dude, it’s not fair if you use that expression.”

“What expression?” He knew exactly what expression. Years of living with his brother had helped hone it for maximum effect.

“The face.” The corner of Dean’s mouth twitched, and he finally walked over to sit on the couch beside Sam. “The you-just-ripped-my-puppy’s-head-off-in-front-of-me face.”

Sam smiled tentatively. “Wow, that was specific.”

“Accurate, bitch, there’s a difference.” Dean was smiling a little too, and maybe the world wouldn’t end today after all. “So… you wanna watch the other reapings?”

Sam really, really didn’t, but it could be useful to take a look at the competition.

“We should, yeah.”

They tuned in right when the host was announcing what an exciting Reaping Day they'd had this year. Like he did every single year.

There were a lot of faces to remember, but several caught Sam’s attention. A very tall, well-muscled guy from District Three whose mother and sister tried to prevent from reaching the stage. From District One, a gorgeous catlike girl whose charming smile held a hint of scorn (the kind of girl Sam knew Dean would love, under normal circumstances). A pair of obviously trained Tributes from District Two, one of whom wouldn’t stop gripping the cross around his neck. A sobbing girl from District Five whose girlfriend sent away with a heartbreaking kiss.

The most terrible of all, however, was a tiny, adorable little girl from District Eleven who couldn’t be a day over fourteen and who bravely didn’t cry when nobody volunteered to take her place. To add insult to injury, the commentator explained that she was the daughter of a previous Eleven winner: the famous Ellen Harvelle, who would now have to train her daughter and try to help her win (and who would be first in line to watch her die if she failed).

Then they saw their reaping: Dean's stupid volunteering act, Sam's struggle to get to him, Dean's face when they called Sam's name a second time. It was really weird, watching himself with Dean from the outside, the way they looked together on that stage with only small Meg between them.

When it was over Sam turned to Dean and saw that his brother was already looking at him.

“That girl. The little blonde one—“

“Yeah.” Dean’s mouth was set. “Yeah, I know. Let’s just hope someone else gets to her first, Sammy.”

 

*

It was nearly a day’s journey to the City from their District, so they wouldn't get there until tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, Meg had called to inform Sam and Dean that they would eat with her and Bobby Singer at the front coach for dinner, but first they must change into appropriate attire, whatever the hell that meant.

They’d been assigned a room together near the back of the train, despite the fact that Meg told them Tributes were traditionally kept apart. “This’ll be the last favor you get from me, though. You two’d better get used to thinking of each other as enemies.”

As it would turn out, that was the first and only piece of advice Meg Masters would ever give them, and even then it fell to deaf ears.

“Whoa.”

Dean’s grin when they actually saw the room was a sight to see. Huge and childish, lit by the warm lights, it made Sam temporarily blind to the glamorous things before them.

“Dude. This is awesome!” Dean threw himself onto one of the beds and happily bounced several times. “I think it’s a water bed,” he said wonderingly and promptly tossed his leather jacket and crossed over to the bathroom.

Sam wondered whether Dean was as excited as he seemed, or if some of this sudden gleeful enthusiasm was more for Sam’s benefit.

“Sam! Check this out!”

“What is it?”

He followed Dean inside, noting the plush cream-colored carpet had already been dirtied by Dean’s sooty footprints and only being able to smile helplessly.

“Look. It’s a swimming pool!”

It wasn’t a swimming pool. Sam had read about these in one of his books, though.

“Jacuzzi.”

Gesundheit.”

Sam snorted. “It’s like a hot tub.”

“We have a hot tub?” A truly manic gleam was lighting Dean’s eyes now, and Sam was suddenly less sure that this was his brother putting on a show for him. “Dude, this thing is big enough to fit the both of us!”

“Uh… you think?” It was really very big, but Sam wasn’t so sure about them both fitting in there. Four, hell, three years ago, maybe. Not now. He still felt overgrown and clumsy sometimes, despite having mostly caught up to his height with his muscles, but Dean was only a few inches shorter than him, and by no means small. The two of them naked in there would be a tight fit. There’d be… touching.

Abruptly a wave of nausea made Sam step out of the bathroom, tugging at the neck of his hoodie to breathe more comfortably.

“Hey, Sammy, everything okay?”

Sam let his body slump at the edge of the bed whose sheets hadn’t been crumpled by his big brother.

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat, felt a bit of the earlier red anger wash over him, which was strange. Left-over adrenalin most likely, he reasoned. Plus he hadn’t eaten anything since that one bite of pigeon for their late breakfast. “What are we gonna wear?”

Dean cocked his head to the side and looked at him for another moment, then seemed to decide to not force the issue.

“Dunno.” He looked around and gestured towards a large closet at the furthest wall (this room, like the others, had no windows). “Maybe we’ll find something in there.”

What they found was a veritable army of clothes of every shape and size, ranging from the intimidatingly formal to very casual. There were jackets, jerseys, shirts, T-shirts, dress shirts, dress pants, dress shoes, dresses, jeans, and even socks and underwear.

Dean dove in and selected Sam’s clothes for him; a black V-neck tee and some obviously expensive dark jeans that had rips in them (which meant they looked like a slightly tighter version of the exact same pants Sam was wearing). When he asked for underwear Dean handed him a lacy black bra and satin panties.

“Go change, Sammy.”

“Hilarious.”

“Sorry, isn’t that your size?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Can I please have some underwear now?”

Dean threw him a red speedo.

Dean.”

“For the hot tub!”

Sam shoved Dean aside and grabbed a pair of plain white boxers.

“Jerk.”

Dean smiled at him, and it wasn't a huge grin and it wasn't a mocking smirk; it was one of those rare, completely sincere smiles that took Sam's breath away with how much affection Dean let shine through.

“Bitch.”

 

Dean

 

Bobby Singer didn't... seem very helpful.

So far he'd eaten a lamb chop and drunk an entire bottle of wine, all without saying a single word to them, or even looking up from his plate for that matter.

At the start of the meal Dean hadn't really cared because he'd been too busy stuffing his face with unimaginably expensive City delicacies; first the lamb and then steak and then there had been these potatoes, chopped into rectangles and fried, that tasted like juicy salted heaven. And yes, fine, so admittedly some of it got on his fancy green shirt but he was ravenous and this was the most amount of food he'd ever seen on one table, he was sure of it.

He'd also been sipping the wine intermittently and it had this girly fruity taste that was nothing like the hard alcohol Dad had coveted back on their District, but it was pretty good, it made him feel pretty good... or so Dean had thought, only to discover his Holy Grail during dessert. Dean's Holy Grail, it turned out, was called pie. He'd heard of pie before, of course, and seen it in passing at Jessica’s folks’ bakery, but he'd had no idea... and the moan he'd let escape when he first bit into that sugary, creamy apple filling had been horribly inappropriate.

Around dessert, though, was when Singer's silence had started to become... pointed.

Meg had eaten an oozing red steak without taking her eyes off of Sam, who was apparently bent on tasting every single thing on the table that had once been green or had leaves (and Dean decided from then on that he definitely did not like the way she eyed his kid brother; it was too speculative). But hell, she'd at least talked to them a little, even if it was mostly light taunting and some rather confusing innuendo.

By the time Dean conceded defeat before the fourth helping of pie, Bobby Singer's silence had become another presence in the room with them.

"Well, I should leave you to discuss your approach to the arrival at the City," Meg said, standing up and grinning slyly at Sam. "Sleep tight, boys."

She left, and now the silence was just plain awkward.

"Uh... Mr Singer?" Sam prompted politely.

Singer looked up from his empty glass and his gaze went to Sam first, then Dean, and it was steadier than Dean would have expected after all that wine. Dean himself felt a little bit fuzzy and he'd had less than half.

"You two wanna win, eh?"

Sam nodded, eyes all puppy-wide and earnest. Kid was so fucking cute, Dean thought, affection warm and heavy in his chest. Not that he'd ever tell Sam this, mind.

"You idjits have any trainin' whatsoever?"

They were silent.

"Ever handled a gun, ever used a bow-and-arrow, ever killed a man, a woman, hell, anyone? Ever hunted a fifteen-year-old kid whose only crime was gettin' picked for this insane contest same way you were? No? Then I'd say your chances are lookin' pretty grim. Sorry boys."

He sounded bored. He sounded fucking bored, and Dean had been watching Sam's face so he'd caught the exact moment when the eager attentiveness gave way to closed-off hurt. How dare this guy crush Sammy's hope like that?

"Hey," he snapped. "Your job is to help us. You can't say shit like that and then expect us to roll over and die, what kind of unfeeling dick does that?"

Singer raised an eyebrow and that was probably the most interest Dean had seen him show in anything ever.

"Dean--" Sam started to say, but Dean was mad now.

"We may not have any professional training but we've been hunting our food for years," he went on. "And we may not be psycho murderers like some of them kids from Districts One or Two but we know about guns, been using them to hunt since we could, and Sammy here's better at the arrows than me."

Singer stared at him.

"What're you better at, then?" he said finally, face inscrutable.

"I'm good with knives."

Bobby Singer sat back and eyed them more keenly, almost like he was seeing them for the first time.

"Well, well. Seems I got me some fighters this year." He motioned for Sam and Dean to stand up. "Let me see."

Dean felt a bit ridiculous but he scraped back the ornate chair and stood, and made sure Sam did the same. They exchanged a slightly chagrined, incredulous look.

"You're in shape, at least," Singer said. "And the press already loves your mugs; I noticed the extra close-ups you two got during the Reaping Reels."

Dean turned to share another look with Sam, but Sam just glanced at him and nodded with this little shrug like, yeah, he got what Singer was saying.

"Tragic heroes is the best angle for now, but the fact that you're brothers will only help you at the start of the Games. By the end sponsors will be droppin' away from you like flies."

"Why?" Sam asked, frowning.

"'Cause y'all won't be playing to win. Sponsors will think, and rightly so, that you'll be more concerned with savin' each other than savin' yourselves. You won't be thinking selfishly."

Dean kept silent, but Sam looked more upset. "But... but we're a team. We'll be stronger together."

"At the start," Singer repeated. "And only then. It's fine to pose together for pictures, but I want you ready to split up. That's the only way one of you will have a shot."

"But--"

"We'll start with distancing you at the chariot ride, making you both clear and separate contestants; you'll spend the whole of tomorrow with your stylists so you should let them do their thing--"

"No, wait--"

"And go from there. You're both decent-lookin’ enough to get attention, which is great as long as we figure out what to do with that attention by the time the interviews come up--"

"Wait!" Sam interrupted loudly.

Singer looked at him coldly. "You want my help or don't you, son?"

"I do, we do, but--"

"Then do as I say. Else you're both gonna die and I'll be left to curse your stubborn asses for not listenin'." Singer eyed Dean then, thoughtful, and Dean boldly eyed him right back. "Something tells me you're not willing to take that chance and it ain't for your own sake, Dean. I think your brother would do good to follow your example in this case."

Dean promptly forgot about staring down the former Champion, and he glanced guiltily at Sam. The kid had drawn himself up to his full, impressive height, and if looks could kill Bobby Singer would be bleeding to death on this fancy carpeted floor.

"Uh..." he felt a little uneasy, because Sammy was apparently suddenly capable of looming even though Singer didn't seem to have noticed and if he had, didn't seem to care. "So what do you suggest? Sir?"

"Well first of all, you need to stop with that," Bobby said to Dean, ignoring Sam's thunderous expression.

"Stop what?"

"Stop thinking like a big brother. Stop staring at the kid like he's..."

Whoa, whoa. "Like what?"

Singer gave a slightly uncomfortable shrug and Dean crossed his arms over his chest defensively.

"What?"

"Son, no one is gonna sponsor you if they think you're just gonna be Sam's bodyguard."

"Huh?"

"You look at your brother and even I can tell you ain't gonna let nothing hurt him. You wanna protect him, right? Whatever the cost? He's your responsibility?"

Dean's stomach churned in embarrassment and he dropped his gaze to the floor, not feeling too hot about having his guts carefully dissected in front of Sam.

"If you go into that Arena for the sole purpose of keeping your brother alive you're gonna die a day into the Games."

"He's not."

Sam took a step forward and once more Dean was forced to appreciate his baby brother's height. Sam was already too tall when he wasn't trying; and oh, he was trying now.

"He's not gonna do that and he's not gonna die," Sam said fiercely, Dean suspected partly as a warning directed at him. "So stop talking to him like that. Don't... just don't say that."

"It wouldn't be the first time the last two champions refuse to kill each other," Singer said to Sam, this tired shadow ghosting over his features. "You two think you're the first pair of geniuses as figured they could both win? Someone always caves, or the Gamemakers force them to, and by that point in the Games it don't take a whole lot. People change in the Arena." He was clearly willing them to understand some undeniable truth, but it wasn't his fault if he didn't know that there was absolutely no way, no universe, nothing in this world that would make Dean try to hurt his little brother.

"We won't." Sam looked so fierce and sure of himself and of that fact that Dean wanted to—hug him. A brotherly hug. A manly, brotherly hug. "We'd never do that and they'll have to let us both win."

"That's an attitude that's gonna get you killed, boy--"

"I'll never hurt Dean," Sam growled. Dean knew this full well, of course, which was why he was keeping quiet for now. When it was time, he was ready for what would need to be done. Sammy might not even expect him to actually go through with it.

Bobby Singer sighed and seemed to default back to his indifferent setting.

"Fine, then I'm going to bed. You two idjits decide whether you wanna live or die and tell me in the morning, that seem fair?"

Without waiting for an answer he got to his feet and left them there.

*

 

"What are we gonna do, Dean?" Sam asked the low ceiling of their fancy room.

Dean had to keep reminding himself that this was a train even as he stretched his arms out on a bed twice the size of his own bunk back home.

"About what?"

Sam snorted. "About the terrible weather there's been lately."

"Sam--"

"About what Mr Singer said. About separating us... distancing us. Or, y'know, pretending to distance us."

Dean was still caught on Singer's unwelcome and intrusive insight from earlier.

"Stop thinking like a big brother. Stop staring at the kid like he's..."

He 'd never know what Singer had been about to follow that with, but when he tried to finish the sentence in his head he could only come up with totally cheesy bullshit, such as “Stop staring at the kid like he's everything,” or “Stop staring at the kid like he's your whole world.”

Probably Singer hadn't been going to say that, but the idea wouldn't leave Dean alone. 'Cause it was... it was kinda true, wasn't it? Mom was only a few memories of warmth and light and beauty bright, until the fire took her and their first house with it, and nothing else had felt quite like a home since. Dad was discipline and a steady presence that had abruptly left them both alone when Dean was seventeen, but Sammy. Sammy felt like the reason Dean existed. Dean loved Sam with a depth and force of intensity he wasn't entirely sure others could comprehend. Sometimes he himself didn’t understand it, either.

He'd never had a lot of close friends, not the way Sam did. None of the Winchesters had quite fit in District Twelve, not even John; something off since Mary had died, but Dean had always thought his kid brother was better at faking it. Whatever 'it' was. When Dad died Dean had dropped out of school, put himself to work, become useful, and Sam had tried to drop out too, but he'd been young enough that Dean's authority had prevailed (and anyway Sammy was made for that shit; he loved studying, did all of his homework, always wanted to learn more). Hunting took up plenty of hours every day, sometimes more than Sam knew, but Dean hadn't really missed that kind of contact with other people either. He felt like, if he had Sam, he had everything.

It had taken him a while to realize that the way he felt about his little brother wasn't exactly conventional, but by the time Dean noticed it was too late to make him second-guess himself. It made up who he was, caring for Sam. Lisa Braeden had dumped him the day after he’d tried to explain it to her and after that he’d never said it aloud again. So if he needed Sam more than Sam needed him, well. That was... it was just how things were. No one needed to know how pathetic Dean was, how needy. Especially not Sam.

You look at your brother and even I can tell you ain't gonna let nothing hurt him. You wanna protect him, right? Whatever the cost? He's your responsibility?

"Dean?"

"Yeah."

Sam rolled over onto his stomach and stared at Dean in the dim light, his eyes glinting. "You know I won't let you die, right?"

"Sam--"

"You have to understand." Sam's gaze felt hot and hard and unforgiving. "You have to accept that I'm gonna protect you."

Dean wanted to laugh at the kid's bravado, aw Sammy, wanted to coo at how very earnestly he said it, how goddamn adorable he looked buried under the large feather blanket, silly mop of unruly hair spread out on the pillow.

"It’s not funny."

Sam lifted his torso off the mattress, leaning on his elbows, and narrowed his eyes at his older brother.

"You'd better get it in your head right now, Dean, I swear it."

The blanket had fallen down to his waist, and suddenly, fleetingly in the darkness, Sam looked tall and... more than tall. He looked big. Just plain... large, all laid out on the bed with his wide shoulders and strong arms, he looked perfectly capable of keeping his word, of protecting Dean. What he was saying felt unsettlingly believable.

"I swear it."

Dean closed his eyes. "I think we should do as Singer says."

Before Sam could start an outraged protest Dean went on.

"But only as long as it gets us to the end. Only pretending. He's smart and he knows how this stuff works, so we do as he tells us until it's time to turn on each other, and then we just don't."

"It won't be that simple." There was a rustle of bed-sheets and the squelchy sound of the waterbed mattress, but Dean was done looking; he was keeping his eyes shut. "He said it was a gradual thing. I think he'll ask us to separate in the Arena at some point."

"Then we do that too."

"I'm not leaving you."

"Fuck's sake, Sam, we'll come to that problem when we come to it, okay? There's still loads of shit to get through before the Arena is our main concern; everyone knows you don't get anywhere without sponsors. For now, Singer's advice is our best bet."

Sam sighed audibly and Dean wanted to chuck something at him to get him to stop being such a little bitch. Sadly, there was nothing practical at hand.

"For now, Sammy."

"M'name's Sam," his baby brother muttered.

Dean pretended he hadn't heard and rolled away to try and get some sleep.

*

The intercom woke them both by announcing the arrival at City limits, and Sam and Dean scrambled out of bed to try and catch a glimpse of it. They had seen many airplane shots of the City on TV, but it wouldn't be the same.

Their room had no windows so they stumbled out into the corridor and walked until they finally found one. It was a thin rectangle of thick clean glass that Sam had to duck down to see through. Dean gaped at the speed the earth flew by and waited, waited for that first glimpse. His breath fogged up the glass a little so he had to keep rubbing it with his palm to see properly but he didn't much care.

Despite being referred to as Capital City (or more often than not just “the City”), this was no ordinary metropolitan territory. Larger than Districts One, Two and Three combined, it spanned miles and miles from the center of the continent formerly known as North America. The City was home to every free civilian in the country and completely off-limits to District denizens... unless they were Tributes in the annual Hunter Games, and therefore part of the pre-Games training and festivities.

There was a silent, expectant minute during which the deserted, ravaged landscape was the only thing they could see, tumbleweed and dark rocks jutting out of the cracked earth, zooming past their window at an impossible velocity.

And then, suddenly, there it was. The Eastern Gate.

Their crappy little living-room TV hadn't done the City justice.

Dean’s first impression was of color. District Twelve was ashy smears and dark streets, famished children, factory smoke, grim cold winters, grey clouds above them seemingly every day. The City looked as if a rainbow had exploded and painted everything it hit in a different, vibrant hue; bright yellows and deep blues and blood reds; impossibly green trees lining the wide, sunlit streets and the people. Everyone was dressed differently and as the train slowed down upon entering the main roadway Dean got to see individual faces staring up at them, some pointing excitedly upon recognising a Tribute train. These people were City civilians who had never gone hungry in their lives, and they’d all grown up watching the Hunter Games on their fancy TV sets without being taught to question why twenty-three kids from far away Districts died every year, with no more explanation than that they deserved to be punished for their ancestor’s crimes.

Only a handful of protests had started up recently, detonated by the particularly cruel games of the past five years. Dean tried to catch a few gazes, tried to look these people in the eye and to judge whether they might be angry on his behalf, hoping the rumors of Cancellation were true… or just waiting to see him die. Needless to say he was too far away and the window was too small to actually manage this.

"You kids ready?"

Dean spun around, startled, and saw Bobby Singer calmly leaning against the compartment wall, dressed in cheap worn plaid and incredibly plain overalls as though he was wearing his least elegant clothes on purpose.

"Well?"

Sam frowned at the question, and it made his nose wrinkle in a way that took ten years off of his age. Dean exchanged a look with his brother and then pointedly gestured at their state of undress; both were in boxers and a T-shirt. And barefoot.

"What do you think?"

Singer rolled his eyes. "I want you ready for your stylists in fifteen minutes. You’ll spend the entire day getting ready for the chariot welcome ride, so best get a move on if you want some food in ya’.”

Dean very much wanted food, especially more of that pie, so he tore himself away from the window and quickly went to their room.

“Sammy, come on.”

They grabbed the same clothes from the night before but had no time for showers. Dean knew he looked like crap; bed-head and sleep-puffy eyes and grimy nails, and he probably reeked, but he didn’t care. Let them fancy stylists do their little makeover thing, he was hungry.

 

Sam

“Oh boy.”

The look on the girl’s face when Sam and Dean were shown inside the enormous Styling Suite was… a bit frightening.

“Oh boy oh boy… Pamela!”

Her voice sounded choked with barely suppressed glee but it was obviously loud enough to reach the far wall, where a door opened briefly and another female voice yelled: “Coming!” before it was slammed shut again.

The Styling Suite for District Twelve took up the entire top floor of the Remake Center, a City building destined for the preparation of the chariot procession. It was not, in fact, an actual 'suite' so much as a room large enough to fit a basketball court in, maybe even two, although the ceiling was rather low. Mirrors lined the walls and unforgiving, bright fluorescent lights shone around every single one. The row of tables at either side was chock-full of things Sam couldn’t identify, but some of which reminded him eerily of the medical instruments Doctor Greene used back at the District. Littering every surface were jars and pots of makeup, so many of them and in so many colors that the effect was rather that of a demented painter’s lair. Spilling from the overflowing open drawers under the tables was a chaos of combs, brushes, toothbrushes, curling irons and plenty of other things Sam could only guess at. Five sinks shone merrily polished from the end nearest the far door. There was a small shower next to those, and overall the entire room felt more threatening to Sam than the plush train cabin, the fancy car ride to this place or even the frighteningly high building had.

"So you work here all year, sweetheart?"

Sam fought the urge to roll his eyes. Dean may not have caught on yet but they were definitely the 'prey' in this scenario.

"Yeah," the girl said, breathless even though Dean was barely even trying, even though he hadn't showered in two days and his clothes were the same ones he'd worn last night to dinner, only rumpled. Oh, well. Sam was used to girls acting this way around his brother by now, so he supposed City girls were just like District girls in that sense. This one wasn't exactly pretty, but then again she was wearing so much makeup that her features were barely identifiable under the layer of tanner that made her face look orange.

Sam had never shared Dean's natural propensity for casual flirting, but he didn't resent it either. First, because the kind of relationships Dean had were nothing like the relationships Sam wanted (Cassie being the only exception, maybe, and even then she'd dumped Dean after a few weeks). And second, because Sam had long ago accepted this magnetism his brother commanded as fact and, hell, he'd come to understand it. One simply had to look at Dean, see the way he carried himself; the flash of his stupidly green eyes and the confident tilt of his head, those plush lips curved in an inviting smile... yes, one simply had to see how Dean was made and it was easy to understand.

"Hello, boys!"

The far door was flung open and a woman emerged from the other room, followed by three more people carrying ominously heavy-looking boxes.

"It’s a pleasure to finally meet you!"

Sam couldn’t help staring a little and felt Dean perk up beside him. The woman (Pamela?) was much younger than expected and pretty, pretty in a way Sam wasn't used to seeing in person, although he'd seen plenty of City beauty on television.

Once again, the contrast between low quality on a small screen and real life became glaringly evident. Jess' beauty, for example, was real and honest and raw to Sam; she worked long hours and she didn’t have enough money to paint her eyes or take proper care of her hair, but she remained undeniably gorgeous. When compared to her, Sam had always thought City people looked plasticky and impossibly accentuated; lips too red and cheeks too pink and not a trace of a day's work on them (the only exception in District Twelve being, of course, Dean, who defied any and all standards of human attractiveness).

This woman seemed to embody City beauty, but up front the effect wasn't fake at all; it was staggering. Pamela's eyes were very blue, with thick eyeliner and eyelashes that couldn't naturally be that long, and her hair was long and flowing dark down her shoulders. She was wearing a black dress with strategic tears along the sides and high-heeled boots, although she was by no means short. Her nails were painted black, and she had a tattoo of something flowery on her shoulder.

Her three minions were two men and another woman, each in a plain black uniform and also wearing makeup, although they all looked decidedly less orange than their coworker.

"Oh, my."

The woman had started out with a winning grin but it faltered once she drew close enough to actually get a good look at Sam and Dean. Then her expression mimicked her assistant's; pure, unadulterated glee.

"My, my my." She ignored Sam's awkward nod and Dean's half-wave and just stared. "They're so tall."

"I know right?" her assistant said, face quite literally aglow.

"This is what I get in my first year? This?" Her gaze raked them both up and down without an ounce of shame. "They did not do enough close-ups during the Reaping Reels." Then she fixed her eyes on Sam. "Are you Samuel Winchester, gorgeous?"

Sam was so nonplussed he forgot to answer.

"Yeah, this is Sam," Dean said, giving the woman a charming smile. "But if anyone's gonna be called gorgeous around here it should be you."

She let out a bark-like laugh, apparently delighted. "Oh, I like this one too! So much pretty, Jesus. I'm Pamela, your stylist. I get to decide what you'll be wearing for the chariot ride." She shook their hands vigorously, still with that wide smile. "You must be Dean."

"That's me."

"So what are we gonna be wearing?" Sam blurted out.

"Baby, if it were up to me? Nothing at all." Pamela smirked at him, and Sam gulped.

"I thought you just said it is up to you," Dean put in, his smile unwavering.

"Well, we can't go NC-17 on national television now. Much as it would help ratings..." she trailed off, her eyes going to Sam's crotch pointedly. Sam fought the urge to cover himself.

"And Sam was underage a month ago," Dean added, drawing Pamela's gaze again. She didn't seem at all abashed, while Sam kept getting this urge to duck his head, torn between amusement and being plain old embarrassed. He wasn't exactly used to this sort of open admiration from an older woman. Or a younger one. Or any woman ever. Except maybe Meg Masters yesterday, but that had been totally different.

"Yes.” She nodded challengingly at Dean. “Which makes him one of the lucky ones, kid, don’t you forget that.”

Dean blanched, and Sam knew that he, too, was remembering the fourteen-year-old girl from District Eleven.

Suddenly it hit him again, why they were here. Had he really forgotten?

Pamela’s expression softened and for a few seconds there was a weary sadness behind her eyes. "This is about making the best of the worst situation, boys. Just so you know, I tend not to dwell on what can’t be changed, but I am truly sorry about what you’re going through. Your Reaping was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, and I have to watch these Games every year same as you do.”

Sam made an effort to shake off the grim mood threatening to take him over. They’d have enough of that in a few days. He should just hold on to the relief that Dean wasn’t going through this alone.

So,” Pamela clapped, effectively dismissing the serious moment. “I got a call from Bobby Singer about themed but not identical costumes, and we've been working on them non-stop since. I promised him I’d get you noticed, and I keep my promises.”

She winked at them, grin back in place as though nothing had happened.

“You two are going to be a blast, each in your own right, and I’ll get you sponsored in no time."

Sam and Dean exchanged a look. Previous District Twelve Tributes had not been very lucky. Typically Hunters wore something characteristic of their District, but there was nothing very artistic about coal so costumes had been... unflattering, to say the least. Lots of sexy coal miner outfits had been attempted over the years. None had been particularly successful.

“Well, time's a'wastin', so say goodbye to your big brother, Sam, you're not going to see him for a little while."

Pamela sidled up to him (her head was level with his shoulder even with the heels she wore) and Sam looked at Dean, uncertain.

"See you later?" he hedged.

Dean nodded, his smile a little bit off (more fixed, less sincere) and his stare lingering on where Pamela was touching Sam's arm. Like Sam, Dean probably wasn't used to older women giving his younger brother a second glance, let alone the looks Pamela was aiming his way.

"Dean, you'll be with my amazingly talented coworker Missouri. She'll be here any second, we're still preparing quite a lot of stuff."

"Uh, oka--"

"Sam, your fine ass will be with me. Get naked."

"Huh?"

"Both of you, actually," one of the male assistants piped in apologetically.

"But what do you mean, naked?" Dean said, his eyes incredulously wide.

"What do you think we mean, Dean?" Pamela asked with a sly smile.

Sam gulped again.

*

Eight hours.

They spent eight hours inside the Styling Suite. Lunch included.

Eight.

When Missouri, Pamela's coworker, had finally emerged from the far office, she and her assistants had helped set up a bunch of temporary screens with several enormous black panels that split the room in two, leaving the sinks and the shower on one side and them on the other.

Sam was made to shower first, then his hair was scrubbed again and cut because, as Pamela calmly informed him, it looked like an upturned bird's nest had fallen on his scalp. Then his nails were cut and filed (filed... he was glad Dean would undergo the same thing or he'd never have lived that down), and at several points so many things were being done to his body at once that he felt rather lost to the plucking, painful sensations in an intensely unpleasant way.

When it was over and Sam asked for his clothes (after the shower he'd been given a pair of tight black boxer-briefs and nothing more), Pamela laughed.

"Honey, that was to get you presentable. Now comes the fun part."

From the other side of the screens, Dean yelped.

All these hours later, and Sam was feeling decidedly uncomfortable. He was wearing black cargo pants and these big, futuristic-looking black boots, but not much else. His entire torso had been covered in glittery black powder that was probably meant to resemble coal but actually did nothing of the sort; instead it highlighted the lines of his body so that his lithe muscles actually looked way more impressive than they were. Pamela had even left traces of it on his face, so it looked like fake shiny grit on his cheekbones and jaw.

And they’d put makeup on him. Like, actual makeup, with a brush and everything, so that his face was perfectly smoothed. Pamela had added a touch of pink on his lips, taken care to smudge a bit of the black powder around his eyes. He couldn't remember ever feeling so self-conscious, including that one time Jess’ little sister had insisted on braiding his hair. He looked… he looked stupid, like someone playing pretend, surely. Dean was gonna laugh himself silly at the sight. Sam could almost hear it: aw shucks, Sammy, did they confuse you with a girl again?

Sam twisted awkwardly around to look behind him in the mirrors. They’d strapped a weirdly clunky black contraption to each of his shoulder blades and Pamela had refused to tell him what it was. It pulled at the skin on his back when he moved his arms.

“Checking yourself out, little brother?”

Sam startled guiltily and looked around. He’d thought he was alone, that everyone was on the other side, finishing Dean’s costume.

But no, there Dean was, squeezing himself in between two screens—

Sam’s breath lodged in his windpipe.

Dean.

What...? What had they done to Dean?

It--it was... Sam had always known Dean was beautiful. Fact. Impossible to forget, and not easy to ignore. Remarked upon often enough, to be sure. Redundant words, always, an overused litany.

But.

But the air in District Twelve was thick, a suspension of ash and dust that lent a grainy, dark filter to everything you saw. And maybe... maybe until this very moment Sam had been able to avoid facing the truth of--of something that here, now, was made absolutely obvious, something that couldn't be overlooked anymore. Like a window being scrubbed clean, all filters removed, every particle sucked out of the air; the image of Dean sharpened to such painful clarity that it tore through Sam's defenses with terrifying ease.

Dean looked... not real. He looked like something out of a dream.

He was wearing a pair of pants not unlike Sam's in shape, low-slung and slightly baggy, but instead of black, Dean's clothes, and boots, were blood red. He was also shirtless, and they'd painted his bare chest with streaks of deep, rich ochre, so it looked like dark gold-dust that made him nearly glow in the warm lights. They'd let him keep his amulet on, black cord and all. The tips of his artfully spiked dirty-blond hair were dyed scarlet and orange, and oh, it should have looked comically bad; something for Sam to mock him about until the end of time, it should have looked hilarious. But Sam didn't feel like laughing.

Sam was stuck. Stuck taking it in, how goddamn gorgeous Dean was. Dean’s lips... fuck. Fucking hell, Dean’s mouth. Had it always looked so ridiculously full and pouty pink and inviting? Speechless, Sam tracked the lines of muscle that cut into Dean's flesh, a sight he'd seen before, but never in this light, never with this focus. The subtle crest of his hipbones, the iron strength in his arms... it was as though Dean's body was forcefully burdening him with knowledge he never should have had, and now his brother's impossible eyelashes and narrow waist held strange new secrets Sam wouldn't have even considered yesterday.

"Huh. Look at you."

Sam jolted back into awareness and realized Dean had been checking him out while his brain was busy ringing with white noise.

"Not bad, kiddo," Dean said appreciatively, then let out a low whistle. "Where were you hiding those abs?"

Sam couldn't answer. His guts felt liquefied and volatile, like he might puke at any second. And Dean was just standing there, looking at him. Looking like that.

"Well, at least you look like a fucking dude," Dean continued, oblivious to the tide of nausea making Sam's head spin. He then looked down at his own gleaming chest and grimaced. "I look like a painted whore."

"I."

Completely out of the blue Sam remembered the noise Dean had made on the train when he'd tasted his first bite of pie; a pornographic groan of pleasure that had made Sam's belly flip-flop with embarrassment.

"I--I. Uh."

Sam's pulse was a hot throb in his wrists and in his neck and in his... his... oh god ohgodohgod.

"I."

Oh please no. Please.

No.

No way, no, come on.

"Sam? Cat get your tongue?" Dean quirked a puzzled brow at him. His eyes were shining and the little golden flecks in them were more noticeable than ever and too much, Sam thought frantically, it was, everything, all of it too much.

"N-no." Sam swallowed. He was going to puke. He felt shuddery and out-of-control and sick, so sick. "I-I just..." He drew in a panicked breath with absolutely no idea as to what he was going to say... in time for Pamela and her team to appear.

"Boys! Let's get going, we don't want to be late."

They were ushered to the same elevator they'd come up in and Sam, Dean, Pamela and her three assistants filed inside with space to spare (the thing was larger than the living room of their old house).

"Bye!" the girl who'd greeted them called. Behind her, Missouri fondly rolled her eyes at Dean, who winked.

Sam resolutely faced the wall and tried to take deep breaths in case that would help calm his erratic heartbeat, or maybe stop his nervous system from firing spasmodic, epileptic shocks through his spine every few seconds. He had the hysterical thought that the heat his skin was giving off would be visible, a haze in the air that would outline his body, make it fuzzy around the edges.

“You two are going to be a sensation,” Pamela was saying. “Trust me, something like this has never been attempted on the chariot procession before.”

She still refused to answer Dean’s questions as to what, exactly, the contraption strapped to their backs was, or why it would be such a hit.

By the time the lift doors hissed open Sam’s breathing seemed to have evened out, but he still felt dizzy.

There was a man waiting outside, carrying a clipboard and speaking into a headset.

“Are you Twelve?” he asked, half-distractedly, and seemingly unfazed by Sam and Dean’s getups.

“Dude, do I look twelve to you?” Dean asked. He had obviously settled on his smartass cocky persona for the evening, Sam thought, unsure as to whether he’d have preferred brooding, pissed-off Dean instead. God, he couldn’t even look at his brother right now, for risk of hyperventilating again.

“Yes, we’re Twelve,” Pamela put in with a fond eyeroll. “Is everything on schedule?”

“For now, sure,” headset guy replied with a shrug. “In ten minutes, who knows? Follow me.”

He led them down a short corridor and out into... what looked oddly like an enormous parking lot. Except, the twelve cars set up at intervals each had a large carriage attached where the Tributes would ride in, and a crew of people milling around every one. There were no cameras here, for which Sam was vaguely grateful, but he knew what came soon enough; marching out in front of thousands of cheering citizens, people he’d never seen before and would never see again, people who in a few days would watch him struggle to stay alive and lay bets on his chances of survival.

“You’re over there,” headset guy pointed at one of the furthest vehicles.

“Thanks, we got this,” Pamela said with a confident nod and led their small group onward.

As they walked, Dean stared openly at the other carriages, where most of the Tributes were already standing in preparation. Sam looked around as well, of course (anywhere but at Dean, anywhere but at Dean) but it all seemed kind of blurred; as though his brain was having enough trouble dealing with everything else going on and now refused to process new information.

“Sammy. Oh, Sammy, look,” Dean breathed, nothing short of reverence in his voice at the sight of a girl wearing a fancy sparkling fishing-net... and not a stitch more. She eyed them contemptuously and raised her eyebrows at Dean when he didn’t stop gaping the entire walk past. Sam, hysterically, sent a prayer of thanks that it appeared they’d been lucky with the amount of skin Pamela had covered.

As though she’d read his mind, Pamela threw him a smirk over her shoulder. “See, Sam? It could have been way worse.”

She had no idea.

“Worse how? I’m covered in glitter.”

And neither did Dean.

On the next carriage stood someone Sam distinctly remembered from the Reaping Reels; handsome, dark-skinned and tall, the electric cables crossing his naked chest in an X made the guy from District Three look pretty impressive. He met Sam’s gaze and gave him a polite nod, which Sam returned automatically.

Dean missed this because he was too busy gaping at another girl two carriages over, this one with lustrous long black hair and chalk-pale skin, wearing a fur two-piece that would do little to protect her from even the slightest breeze. She seemed to sense someone staring because she looked around until she spotted them, but before Sam or Dean could do anything one of her stylists barked at her angrily.

“Madison! Face forward, please!”

Sam looked away and realized they’d nearly reached their destination. A group of people was waiting for them around the District Twelve carriage, mostly technicians. Unsurprisingly, the carriage itself was black, but it was much nicer than Sam had expected; something sleek and understated, as opposed to other more generously decorated ones. The classic car that would pull it forward was the real attraction of the ensemble, though, and it drew his gaze immediately. It was a gorgeous ride, an old Chevy from before the Uprising.

“She’s a beauty, this one,” Pamela said as they approached. “Been in use for a long time, I’ve heard, but I love her quiet grace. They call her the Impala.”

Dean eyed the vehicle with the same kind of adoration he’d given fishing-net girl. Sam realized he was tracking the gap between Dean's slightly bowed legs a few moments later and immediately jerked his head away, shame burning acidic holes through his stomach, or so it felt like.

“Wow! They look gorgeous, Pamela!” one of the techs exclaimed. Something about the way she said it, however, and the way she was smiling widely at the stylist instead of either of them, made it sound as though Sam and Dean were mere props or pretty mannequins.

Sam felt a ripple of revulsion break through his panicked fog.

“Thanks, Em.” Pamela smiled back, a little thinly, and directed Sam and Dean to climb onto the small platform. Dean went first, but when Sam moved to follow him Dean shook his head subtly. Caught staring up at his brother’s gleaming body, Sam complied with the unspoken command without a thought.

“All right, look,” Dean announced, loud and firm enough to get everyone’s attention. His legs were set apart in a wide stance and Sam was staring again. “Either you tell us what the big surprise is or I’m ripping those things off my brother’s back and we make a run for it, y’hear?”

Several jaws dropped at his tone. The pretty doll speaks.

“Okay, okay,” Pamela said quickly. “Look, this sounds way worse than it actually... it’s kind of a modified flamethrower, all right? We coated you in protective, non-flammable materials and you’ll be perfectly safe. It’ll look amazing.”

Dean stared at her. Sam did too.

“You want to light us on fire?”

Flamethrower?”

“Uh, okay maybe flamethrower is a bit of an exaggeration. It just gives off a bit of synthetic gas, like a lighter only... bigger. But not as dangerous, I promise. Get it? The costumes are a play on fire and coal!” Pamela sighed at their less-than-enthusiastic expressions. “You’ll be safe, I swear. We tested it out, look.”

And without a warning she sneaked a hand around Sam’s torso, pulled some sort of lever with two loud clacks, and stepped away. There was a rustling noise and then heat bloomed across Sam’s back.

“Sammy!”

Sam had gasped, but more in shock than anything, because it didn’t hurt. The device exerted soft pressure against his shoulders, and the twin jets of fire gave off an almost pleasant sort of warmth.

Dean leapt off the platform and landed in front of him. “Sam. You okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine,” Sam said. He twisted to try and get a look at his back, and nearly singed his hair in the process.

“No turning!” Pamela said. “Sorry, thought I’d mentioned that. Also try to keep your arms in front of you.”

Sam nodded, panting. “Right. Got it.”

“Well...” Dean was looking at Sam with wide, admiring eyes. “It does look pretty awesome, actually. Like you have wings, dude.”

Pamela beamed at him. “That was the idea.” She turned the flames off by pressing down on a hand-held remote, which seemed convenient, and ushered them both back onto the platform, because the other chariots seemed to be getting into position. When Sam hoisted himself onto the stairs he felt a firm slap on his ass.

“Damn, you could bounce a nickel off that thing!”

Dean snorted, not altogether amused, but Sam decided he liked Pamela after all and smiled down at her.

“Gee, thanks.”

“Oh no, thank you, sweetheart." She winked. "Now, you turn the device back on with the red switch on the top left, but I want you to wait until you’re just outside, all right? And obviously be quick to back away after.”

They both nodded down at her.

"Good. Okay people, listen up!" Pamela turned back to her team and the technicians preparing the final touches to their ensemble. "We get one shot at this, so everything needs to be perfect!" She kept calling instructions until the last second, when the Impala’s engine roared to life and they started to move in its pre-programmed path.

Dean nudged Sam on the arm. "We should probably get ready to switch these things on, huh?”

"Right."

The enormous door of the enclosure opened slowly and with it, came the noise of the crowd outside. The route of the procession itself was short; from the Remake Center to the Training Center with a brief stop at the Main Square of the City, where the Gamemakers would greet them. But it was one of the most important events, pre-Games, and the chariot for District One was already moving forward to tumultuous applause.

“Potential fire-hazard aside, the wings really did look awesome,” Dean muttered, too low for anyone but Sam to hear.

“Great.”

“I mean it, you looked badass, dude.”

“...Thanks."

Sam tried to picture himself; clad all in black and with fiery wings. Hm. Maybe he wouldn’t look so ridiculous after all. Maybe he could still escape this nightmare with some of his dignity. Maybe the little freak-out over Dean earlier had been more of a fluke than anything, and later this would all feel like nothing more than a crazy, adrenalin-induced nightmare.

It was almost their turn now, and Sam felt a flare of hope that he would have thought impossible ten minutes ago. But maybe, god, just maybe everything would be all right. Maybe he'd get better, and the weird Dean-attraction would just go away with these ridiculous costumes.

“Sammy, c'mon. I’ll do yours if you do mine.”

Then again maybe not.

 

Dean  

Pamela had been totally right.

They freakin’ rocked those costumes.

With eleven other Districts to march before them, Sam and Dean had the disadvantage of being last and not exactly popular, historically speaking. But once they got the fires going, the crowd went wild.

Every now and then Dean would catch a glimpse of himself on a screen set up high in the air, and he would be amazed by the awesome effect the wings created. His crazy hair and red-and-gold outfit went from being totally lame to scorching hot thanks to the two jets of flame shooting from his back and, if Dean did say so himself, the scorching hot part was in every sense of the word.

He remembered Pamela's suggestion that they not wave or smile, and found it easy to follow, because he hadn't forgotten, not for one second, why he was here with his baby brother. Oh, sure, those people behind the waist-high fence were leaning forward adoringly, yelling his name, crying out for him and Sam to look at them, but to them he was just another source of entertainment. Maybe an important one, maybe even the highlight of the year, but gone soon enough. So he curled his hands into fists and glared at them all, half-disgusted and half-furious, wishing the wings were real and he could just take Sam and fly him away from here.

Sam, who'd been acting kind of dorky and quiet since the Styling Suite, was looking out at the public with an almost tragically grave expression. He’d always been a deep little fucker. Dean knew he couldn’t well turn to look at him too often, so when he could he tried to watch Sam through the screens they passed. The lethal angles of the guy’s cheekbones and narrowed eyes, smudged with that black powder, were lit up from behind, and every time he saw him Dean felt a surge of hot pride at the impressive sight his kid brother made.

They'd stolen the show. No one was paying any attention to the chariots in front of them. By the time they pulled into the Main Square of the City (an expanse ten times the size of District Twelve's and ringed by buildings about a million times more wealthy) the sky had darkened and Sam and Dean's still sparking, flickering wings were one of the main light sources, aside from the television crews.

The crowd quieted soon after, signalling that it was time for the welcome speech.

Since the disappearance of the Presidential office and position, the Gamemakers had taken over the government of the United Districts under the City, and despite the many rumors of dissent from within all twelve of them now stood on the balcony of the City Office Building. The speech was given by a different Gamemaker each year, and this year the task fell to Uriel: an ex-military commander with a deep voice and authoritative intonation.

He announced the Tribute's names through a microphone and then explained, yet again, why and how the Games served as a necessary reminder of the Districts' past mistakes. He even made a passing mention at District Thirteen, which had been completely obliterated during the war and was now allegedly a barren wasteland (some of the older folk back at Twelve called it the Hell District, but Dean had never really understood why, or how the nickname originated).

Finally Uriel wished every Tribute good luck and good hunting and the ceremony was, abruptly, over.

"What, no afterparty?" Dean whispered at Sam, peering up at the eleven other Gamemakers standing in the shadows behind Uriel. He knew most of their names and could remember at least half of them presenting twice, most notably perhaps Anna Milton, who he'd had a huge crush on as a kid, before he understood what she was. Beside her stood Alistair, an incredibly creepy-looking dude who was now, yep, talking to Azazel, the Gamemaker with the trademark yellow contacts. They all looked like they'd already forgotten the twelve lavish chariots below.

With one notable exception.

Even as Dean stared up at him, the Gamemaker called Castiel slowly raised his eyes and seemed, for a moment, to be looking right back.

*

A second after the doors of the Training Center shut behind them, Sam and Dean's wings flared out and they were surrounded by their prep team, this time including Missouri, Pamela, and much to Dean's chagrin, Meg.

"Fantastic!"

"They already love you!"

"What a triumph!"

"You are both so pretty, my God--"

Beautiful!”

Girly compliments aside, Dean gladly let Missouri's assistants manhandle him out of the contraption.

"Excuse me," said a soft voice beside him.

Amidst the confusion and people, Dean's eyes fell on the chick in the fur bikini thing, undoubtedly one of the Tributes from Eight, the textile District. Holy shit, she looked even better up close.

"Hey."

Hot or not, however, Dean was perfectly aware of the fact that from this point onwards every Hunter would have a strategy, and this girl was no exception.

"I'm Madison," she said after a short pause.

"Dean."

"Nice to meet you. Congrats on the costume." Her eyes flicked to the side and Dean followed them to Sam's broad back, still glittering black and currently being divested of the remaining fire-generator over his left shoulder blade.

"Thanks. You, uh..." Dean raised an appreciative eyebrow at her getup. "Well--"

"Oh, please." She rolled her eyes. "Anyways, just wanted to..." again, her eyes went to Sam, only this time they slid down to his tight ass as Sam bent over to allow one of Pamela's assistants to reach his shoulders properly. Madison looked back up at Dean guiltily once she realized he’d caught her staring. "Uh, that is, I have a sister."

“O-kay?”

“No, I mean... she’s younger than me and if she’d been chosen, I’d like to think I would have done the same thing you did.” Madison’s expression was startlingly earnest, but Dean didn't trust her for one second. "I'm sorry. I saw the Reaping Reel, and you... that's—these things shouldn't happen." She sighed, bit her lower lip. "I mean, obviously none of this... my point is that I'm sorry. It was a brave thing you did, volunteering. That's all I wanted to say."

"Yeah, well. Had no other choice."

He didn't really know what else to add, but Madison didn't wait for further elaboration either. With a sad sigh and a nod, she took off.

Dean watched her go, slender legs and dainty steps, and that was probably why it took him a couple of extra seconds to realize Sam's stylists had freed him as well, and his brother was talking to another Hunter. This other dude, though, looked nothing like Madison, which was to say he wasn't small or thin or soft or unthreatening. No, this guy was practically as tall as Sam.

"—please call me Jake," the guy was saying, and shaking Sam's hand.

"Sam," said Sam.

Well well, people looking for alliances already? That was impressively fast work, Dean thought suspiciously. Then again, it wasn't like they had that much time left, and Sam’s sheer size put him forward as a tough contender for sure.

"Shiny costume you got there," Jake told Sam. His eyes took in Sam's shoulders and pecs in a way that made Dean think of Madison from moments before, and the way she'd checked out Sam's body. Huh.

Deciding this was his cue, Dean stepped to Sam's side. "Goes with his sparkling personality," he put in, grinning widely. "Yours is... electric."

"Y'think," Jake replied flatly. District Three was the forerunner in electronics and the most technologically advanced (although the City still reaped all the benefits, of course), and Jake's stylist had put him in midnight-blue pants that had criss-crossing computer cables instead of suspenders. The guy was kind of hot, actually—for a dude, Dean figured, although he was no Dr Sexy—and it didn't look bad, but Dean was finding himself having a hard time of approving anything about this kid, and with perfect reason.

"Well, I guess I'll see ya 'round, Sam."

"Yeah, yeah, sure. It was nice to meet you."

Sam still seemed a bit confused, but he gave Jake a tentative smile from under his bangs, dimples peeking out, and Dean frowned. His frown became a scowl when Jake then proceeded to leave without even acknowledging Dean's existence.

"Boys!" came a drawl from behind Dean, startling them both. "You two should really get a move on if you want to sleep at all. One would think you'd want to take advantage of what little time you have left."

It was Meg, cheerfully mean as always.

"Dinner will be sent to your rooms, but I'm guessing it's gonna take some pretty thorough scrubbing to get all of this off.” Her fingers trailed down Sam's ribs and okay, seriously, what the hell was with people groping Sam today? Be it physically or mentally? “You’re gonna do each other’s backs, right? Such good brothers, so caring."

What—“ Sam began, but Dean had had enough.

"Come on, Sammy," he said and hauled his kid brother towards the nearest elevator by the arm. His hand came away stained dark, and a strange thought fluttered through his mind then; that there would be evidence, if anyone tried to touch Sam again. That Dean would have a way of knowing who it had been, and then--and then...

"Sleep tight!" Meg cooed at them. Dean snapped out of the totally weird headspace he'd gone into.

Pamela waved goodbye and Missouri tossed a prophetic "See you soon" in their direction, but thankfully none of the other Tributes tried to approach Sam or Dean as they made their way through the many techs, cleanup crews, stylists and contestants milling about the Training Center parking lot.

That was... not until they were inside the elevator itself.

"Hold it please!"

Oh no. Not her.

The little blonde girl stuck one bony arm between the doors and wriggled inside, then let them shut after her.

"Thanks for waiting," she said sarcastically. Dean stared.

She was wearing a ridiculous farm-girl costume complete with cowboy boots that made Dean wonder what the hell her stylist had been trying to achieve. With her hair in two braids like that the girl didn't look fourteen, she looked ten.

"My name is Joanna-Beth but you can call me Jo," she informed them both primly and pressed the button for the eleventh floor. Of course; she was District Eleven. Agriculture. "You're Sam and Dean, right? The brothers?"

"Yeah," Sam replied faintly.

"Well, that must suck."

The elevator was so fast in this building that it dinged open moments later, and Jo trotted out. "Good luck, and good hunting," she said, something almost like defiance in her tone, as though she was daring them to mock her.

"You too," Sam said quickly. "It was nice meeting—“

The doors slid shut.

"Well, shit," Dean breathed. He felt so suddenly and brutally angry that he nearly put his fist through the elevator wall, which would have been a serious problem. "Fucking... shit."

Sam remained silent, still staring at the closed doors like he'd been struck dumb.

Waking up the next day was weird, because he and Sam each had their own quarters now, and despite being on the same floor they were pretty far apart.

Dean showered and dressed in a cool tracksuit that echoed the dark red color of the pants he'd worn yesterday, but at a much more subdued hue. The highlights in his hair had mostly faded, but there were some orange-y remnants from last night, and his eyelashes still looked weird because the water hadn't completely washed away the mascara, only smudged it a little on his eyelids. Well, fuck it; he was a guy, he was not going to ask for makeup remover. That shit would eventually flake off on its own, right?

He and Sam hadn't talked about how they'd meet up, but since the alarm sounded at the exact same time for each Tribute, Dean figured he'd find his little brother downstairs for breakfast. It soon appeared that he was right, but he'd been expecting to see Sam at a table by himself, maybe even having saved Dean a seat.

Instead, Sam was sitting with Jake and two other kids Dean vaguely recalled from the Reaping Reel, and already eating. Pie, to be precise. Eating pie. Without Dean.

"Mornin' there, Sammy," Dean said, slapping a hand down on Sam's shoulder with enough force to make Sam spill some of his juice onto his own wrist as well as the posh white tablecloth. "Oops."

"Dean!" Sam spluttered. But, to Dean's surprise, Sam didn't look upset, and he wasn't even making the face. He looked... a little bit wide-eyed, and a little bit embarrassed, like he'd been caught doing something wrong which, damn right, he had.

"Wanna introduce me to your new friends?" Dean said, sunny smile still firmly in place.

"Uh." Sam gaped at him for a very long moment, then seemed to shake himself awake. "Right. Well, you met Jake..." Jake nodded. "...and this is Andy..." a nervous-looking kid gave a little wave. "... and Lily." Lily was a looker; Dean remembered her from the Reels. She'd cried miserably as her girlfriend kissed her goodbye. "Andy is from District Six, and Lily is Nine."

Jake was clearly strong, physically capable and resourceful, but Dean didn’t trust him as far as he could throw the chariot they’d ridden on last night, and he was doubtful about the other two as well. Andy looked to be about Sam's age (they all did, actually) and was probably a good kid, but they had a name for his type back at the District: cannon fodder. Lily seemed to be in better shape and possibly made of slightly tougher stuff, if the haunted look in her eyes was anything to go by, but that still didn't tell him much. If they were planning on joining some sort of team, no matter how short-lived these pacts were in the Games, they might as well find better players, right?

It occurred to Dean then, even as he declared his intent to get some food and left the table, that maybe there was something a little bit wrong with him if he was capable of making these judgements so quickly. These kids were going to die, and Dean was going to contribute to their deaths, directly or indirectly, to protect Sam. He hadn't had even a second's doubt about it. Should it scare him, how easily he dismissed other people's lives in favor of Sam's?

Shouldn't it?

With that disturbing notion slithering inside his brain, he was a bit distracted and bumped carelessly into another Tribute on the way to the buffet.

"Whoa, sorry."

The arm he instinctively put out to steady them was slapped away, and Dean blinked. It was fishing-net girl.

"Oh, great. You." She sighed wearily and moved around him.

"What?"

Large green eyes met his with scorn. "'What'?" she mimicked. "The next time you're wearing something that's ninety-percent translucent be sure to let me know, I'll come by and drool at you to make you feel better."

Her accent was impossible to miss: she was District One; precious stones and oil. The richest District by far.

"Geesh, relax," Dean said, lifting his palms defensively. "You should take it as a co--"

"If you say 'compliment' I am going to break both your legs right here in this dining room, and you'll die a minute into the Games," she snapped and flounced away in her elegant sporty uniform. "Sexist pig," she added over her shoulder.

Dean tried to discreetly check out his surroundings in case he'd managed to—nope, every single person was staring at him. Including Sam.

What a fantastic start of the day.

*

Most of the other Tributes headed immediately to the Training Complex, which was underneath the building itself, but a guard came up to Sam and Dean to tell them that Bobby Singer was waiting for them at his quarters, to discuss strategy.

"Finally," Dean muttered. The other Hunters must have already planned this with their multiple ex-Champions, probably on the train ride to the City, but he figured better late than never.

They arrived at Singer's room five minutes later, after having discovered that it was on the twelfth floor, just like theirs.

"Come on in."

Singer motioned at the unmade bed for Sam and Dean to perch on the edge of and promptly dropped on a chair in front of them.

"So. We’re off to a good start. Pam and Missouri know what they’re doin’."

They nodded.

"But this isn’t much unless you keep up the interest. Training scores and interviews will be here before you know it and I still don’t know how you wanna play this.”

Dean quirked an eyebrow. “You saying we get a choice?”

“You get the choice as whether you listen to me or die, sure,” Bobby said expansively. Beside Dean, Sam sighed in a very long-suffering manner.

“Then tell us the plan.”

“I want you to be fan-favorites,” Singer said without hesitation. “Boys, girls, we need to get everybody wanting you both to win before the Games even start. The public should identify with your tragic situation, and want to change it. Turning you into heroes means they have to root for you. If we play it right, this’ll get you both sponsored, no preferences, which is why we’ll start with you as a team.”

Dean was heartened by this apparent change of pace from their previously indifferent coach, but a bit apprehensive about the actual words coming out of Singer’s mouth.

“So we are gonna be... united, or whatever?”

Bobby Singer looked between them. “Until the interviews, yes. I don’t see another way of getting you two to realistically ignore each other, correct?” Neither of them answered, but their expressions must have given away enough because Bobby snorted. “Right. After, though...”

Sam tensed. “What happens after the interviews?”

“You stop training together. Stop spending your free time together. It’s only the last day, so don’t eat together either, to send a message to the other Tributes—“

“That’s not gonna happen,” Sam said instantly. Dean knew he wasn’t talking about not training together for one day.

“I’m not saying you’re not allowed to talk anymore, boy.” Singer glared at Sam, voice rising. He hadn’t understood. “But you need to give the appearance of some sorta separation—“

No!” Sam burst out, leaping to his feet. “There’s got to be something else we can do, some other way of—“

“Alright, look.” Singer stood up as well, obviously angry. “You either accept that one of you is gonna die or you both will, in which case I am done helping.”

“No, wait.” Feeling left out, Dean also got to his feet and put a placating hand on Sam’s arm. “Give us a second?” he said to Bobby.

Bobby grunted and headed to the toilet. “You have ‘till I’m done,” he said.

Dean immediately shoved Sam’s muscled shoulder, even though it felt a little like pushing an immovable fleshy wall. “I thought we agreed on this!” He hissed. “Fake it ‘till the end, Sammy! What’s got your panties in a twist?”

“You’re cool with us splitting up in the Arena?” Sam snapped, abusing his height to crowd Dean, who refused to back down even though he could practically taste the pie on Sam’s hot breath (and it made him weirdly hungry again, for some reason). “Of course I don’t care about the interviews, it’s all PR bullshit anyway and Jake says—“

“Oh, we’re staking our lives on what Jake says now?”

“No, but he’s watched more Games than us and he says that no matter what happens before, the Arena is where you live or die! And he’s right!”

“Bobby hasn’t even said anything about the Arena—“

“He’s leading up to it.”

“You don’t know that—“

“Yes I do, okay? He implied as much on the train, you were there.”

“Then why are you so hung-up on this, Sam? We already decided to play along, it’s not like it’ll be permanent! Why are you still fighting—“

“Because I can’t!” Sam exploded frantically, his face inches from Dean’s. “I can’t not know whether you’re okay, Dean, how can you...?” The energy seemed to drain out of him suddenly and those earnest, intent eyes sparked with the same guilty fear from earlier at breakfast, which in this context didn’t make much sense. “Christ.”

Sam jerked away and slumped down on the bed, flushed.

“Sammy?”

“How can you be okay with this?” Sam asked his new sneakers in a low, hurt voice.

The truth was that Dean wasn’t okay with this, obviously. He was about as far from okay with it as it was humanly possible to be, but he had perfected his previously half-formed plan while Sam and Bobby argued.

He couldn’t team up with Sam in the Arena. Fine. Dean wasn’t going to leave Sam alone, of course, but Sam couldn’t know that.

So he’d follow Sam’s team. Track them, and protect Sammy unseen. All he had to do was convince Sam that Dean trusted him to take care of himself, that he’d do the same on his own, and this might just work. He wouldn’t get sponsors but he didn’t care about that. He could make sure Sam was okay until the very end, and then, well. It might even be best to finish it without saying goodbye. Make things easier for Sammy. Kid was tough; he’d be sad for a while and then get better. If Sam won he’d go back to District Twelve a billionaire; he could marry Jess and start a family, live a great life. Maybe even a better one than he would have had if they’d never gotten picked for the Games in the first place.

“Dean?”

“It’s the last thing I want,” Dean said, which was the easy part ‘cause it was true. “But we’ve gotta trust this guy, Sammy. He’s not the only one who thinks there’s no way we can both win and we’re gonna have to convince them all that we believe they’re right. The only way of doing that is to act like we each wanna beat the other, and if that means spendin’ less time together for a day then hey, you should be glad you’ll have to see less of my mug for a few hours, huh?”

“It’s the Arena, Dean,” Sam said, finally looking up at him from where he sat. Even at this hour, the kid looked wrecked, and Dean wondered whether he’d had a vision tonight, or just general trouble sleeping. “I told you I don’t care about one day after the interviews. We’ll be in the actual Games after that. You realize we’ll have no way of contacting each other? No way of knowing if the other’s safe?”

The toilet flushed and Dean stepped closer, standing between Sam’s legs to lean down and speak in a quiet rush. “Then we keep a thorough recount of who’s died. We figure out a signal. It’s not impossible; we can plan it and make it our secret.” The door opened. “I trust you to take care of yourself, Sammy.”

Sam’s gaze flashed at that and Dean felt an uneasy twinge, but Bobby was back and they didn’t have a chance to keep talking.

“You girls come to a decision?”

“Yeah,” Dean said. “Yeah, we’ll do as you say.”

The old Champion looked from one to the other steadily. “Look, our District is the smallest, and the only thing this means is that you've got the advantage of an unexpectedly good first impression and novelty, ‘cause there's never been siblings on the Games before. But that’s not gonna win you anything. No one ever said this was fair, but it’s what you got, and there ain’t no changing it now. I’m sorry, boys.”

Sam nodded absently.

“Well, I suggest you go train with the others for today, and after dinner I want a private word with each of ya.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Remember, for now it’s okay if you work together. You mentioned being good at the bow-and-arrows, right Sam? And Dean, you said knives?”

“Yeah.”

“Anything else?”

“Well, our Dad was in the police force and he taught us some hand-to-hand combat. Made us practice.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, but guns are what we’re both best at.”

“There’s hardly ever guns at the Arena, and if there are they’ll be at the Cornucopia, which you should both get the hell away from at the start.”

The Cornucopia was literally an enormous horn filled with useful (and not-so-useful) tools that the Tributes could take at the start of the Games. Unfortunately there tended to be a lot of takers and the initial bloodbath was usually over the possession of said tools, which was why it made good sense to steer clear of it.

“So we’re avoiding the shooting range at the Training Center?” Dean clarified.

“Yup, and the wrestling mats and the archery range and the knife-throwing station,” Bobby said. “Try and practice stuff you’re not good at, learn things. You never know, it might help you survive.”

“Okay. Well, thanks Bobby.” It came out so natural that it took Dean a second to realize he’d just called this man he barely knew by a familiar nickname. “I mean, Mr Singer, sir—“

With a very strange look on his face, Singer shook his head. “Nah,” he said gruffly. “Bobby’s alright.”

“Oh. Okay, well, thanks.”

They left the room and the second the door had shut behind them Sam rounded on Dean.

“I’m not stupid.”

“Huh?”

“I know what you’re doing, Dean.”

Dean blinked, hoping to convey his total innocence. “The hell are you talking about, Sammy?”

“‘I trust you to take care of yourself’?” Sam quoted disbelievingly. “Since when?”

Dean started walking to the elevator, heart pounding. This was gonna take a bit more convincing than he’d first thought. Goddamn Sammy and his huge everything, which apparently included a giant brain.

“You’re being totally paranoid, Sam.”

“No I’m not.”

“Yeah, you are. We’re both adults now, right? I’ll get fishing-net girl to see the light and since you clearly love Jake so much you can team up with him—“

“What’s Jake got to do with—“

"Come on, Sammy, that kid is only gonna stab you in the back first chance he gets."

"I know that."

Distraction accomplished.

"Then why are you even hangin' out with him?"

"He could be useful! And he's been really nice to me, which is more than I can say for anyone else..."

"Dude, last time I checked you were into chicks." Dean grinned, still basking in his victory over Sam’s brain, but then--

“So?” Sam snarled angrily. “Maybe I like guys too, you ever think of that?”

… Dean had not thought of that.

Dean hadn’t even considered that. Not ever, for all his jokes about Sam’s hair and tendency towards chick flick moments. Almost as though it had been deliberate (even though it hadn’t, dammit), the actual ‘liking guys’ part of being gay had never been included, or even implied, when Dean mocked his little brother for wanting to talk about their feelings.

But he was thinking about it now.

And… yeah, upon reflection, he was very much not cool with his little brother being molested by other guys. Girls were fine, girls were great; Sam was always taller than them anyway, stronger, capable of picking them up, manhandling them (not that he actually did much of that back home; kid was still a virgin, for God's sake. But he could if he wanted to). It made Dean happy to think of Sammy with chicks; kissing them and touching them with those big hands of his... Guys were—no. A guy like Jake, who was nearly Sam’s height, was a threat.

Even as these thoughts raced through his mind, Dean was disappointed in a mild, distant sort of way to discover that he had, in fact, secretly been a homophobe all this time (Sam used to reproach him for it but Dean had never honestly believed him). And okay, kind of a sexist douche, too, like Bela had said. The problem was that he knew plenty of chicks who could totally kick ass, and several of them were in the Games. Danger wasn’t all about brute force. But something about the visual of a guy...

This brief inkling of rationality faded further into the background when Dean actually conjured up the mental image of some random dude macking on his baby brother. A dude who was as large as Sam, as strong as Sam, able to push Sam around. Fuck. No. Just... no. That was so not gonna happen. Not if Dean had a say in it.

“Dean.”

They’d both stopped walking and just stood there, in the middle of the corridor of the twelfth floor, staring at each other with looks of shock (Dean) and mild panic (Sam).

“You... you serious, Sammy?” Dean croaked finally.

“Uh...” Sam was blushing a very unattractive shade of red. “I... I’m not sure.”

“He was checking you out, you know. I saw him,” Dean blurted out. He felt a tendril of guilt at the admission, then wondered what the hell he had to feel guilty about. He’d only been watching out for Sammy’s virtue, which had seemed in serious peril last night, what with Meg and Pamela and Madison and everybody deciding Sam was on the menu.

“What?”

“Yeah. Last night, when he came over to talk to you and you were all... lathered up and shit. He totally checked you out.”

Sam blinked. “Really?”

It was then that realization hit Dean like a ton of bricks. “So you do love him,” he breathed.

What?” Sam laughed. “That is the most ridiculous thing you have ever said to me in our entire lives.”

Untrue, but Dean was busy being overwhelmed by utter horror. “I can’t believe you.”

“Dean—“

“You’ve got a crush on another Hunter?”

“Dean—“

“Are you crazy?!”

“I don’t have a crush on him, Jesus!”

“But you just said—“

“I know what I said!”

There was a long, very tense pause.

“Jesus Christ, Sam, you’re not supposed to...” Dean floundered for words strong enough to convey his total dismay at his idiot little brother. “That would literally be the worst thing that could happen at this point.”

“Actually, it really wouldn’t,” Sam said, with this bitter chuckle like he’d just made a joke that flew right over Dean’s head. “Look, we should go, we’ll be late for training.”

And he just started walking, as though nothing earth-shattering had just happened.

It took Dean a solid minute to get his shit together and follow him.

 

Sam

Okay, all right, so the... the thing with Dean? It wasn’t going away.

Sam put down the set of weights he’d been lifting and wiped his sweaty forehead, taking care to keep his gaze fixed forward and not let it stray to the side.

He was a freak. A freak with a crush on his brother.

Not only did he have weird psychic visions in his dreams, not only was there something legitimately, demonstrably fucked up about him, but also, he couldn’t 'unsee' what he’d realized yesterday. He’d always known he loved Dean very differently from how Jess loved her little sister, for example, but this... he’d never expected this. And looking back with this new knowledge, having had a sleepless night to thoroughly overthink his reaction to Dean’s body, it was hitting Sam just how many signs he’d missed in the past. Because now that he thought about it, there had been some pretty weird dreams during a time in his early teens, before the visions began, and Sam... maybe Sam forgot about them, maybe he just blocked them out with the new development. Regardless, this was happening to him right now, and so far trying to ignore it hadn’t worked.

He grabbed the weights again and cursed the fact that the repetitive movements left him with too much headspace to think.

The thing was that... back at Bobby Singer’s room? With Bobby Singer only a flimsy door and few feet away? He’d thought about doing some pretty insane stuff. Stuff like... grabbing Dean by the shoulders and just smothering him, maybe by hugging him, maybe by kissing him, Christ, Sam didn’t even know. He’d felt a crackling heat in his belly when they stood close enough that their height difference was marked, and having to look down at Dean (who was still every bit as perfectly proportioned and crazily attractive as he’d been last night) had been... fuck. Sam had been so out of it for a moment, so caught up in that electric tension that buzzed whenever they fought, the feel of Dean’s breath mixing with his own. Stupid stupid stupid. It was already disastrously dumb to contemplate hugging Dean without some sort of cataclysmic event having happened beforehand (the last time they’d hugged, Dad had just died, and Sam had been thirteen), the rest was... unthinkable.

“Impressive.”

Sam whirled to see Jake standing behind him.

“Hey.”

Jake gave him a serious nod. “I said ‘impressive’.”

“Yeah, we heard you the first time, pal,” Dean said. He was doing push-ups, and being incredibly distracting while doing so. Sam tried to avoid looking down at Dean’s sweat-shiny skin and powerful shoulders or at his strong arms, moving and bunching in a hypnotic rhythm (Dean’s firm, round ass was completely off-limits, even in his mind).

“I wasn’t talking about you,” Jake said. And then, to Sam. “Mind if I join?”

He and Dean hadn’t talked about the whole teaming up thing again (they hadn’t really spoken at all, actually) but Sam figured it didn’t hurt to have Jake on their side. Better than against them, at least, the way the guy was built.

“Sure.”

The Training Center was basically a giant, amazingly well-equipped gymnasium. There were also a few stations with instructors that taught you how to do snares, or camouflage yourself, but Dean had scoffed at the camouflage guy and he and Sam were both pretty good at the snares already, so apparently today was for getting in even better shape and buffing up a little. Sam had decided to just go with it. There were still ten days left until the Games, after all.

He pushed that morbid thought away and concentrated on the weights. Or tried to, at least, for about five minutes. Ignoring Dean’s body and occasional grunt of effort (that Sam’s mind kept trying to misinterpret or remove from context) drove him to glancing at Jake, and what he saw made him pause.

Jake was lifting the exact same weight Sam was, but the way his arm moved... it wasn’t faster than normal, but it looked... odd. As though he was putting absolutely no effort into it. It was a pretty heavy set, if Sam did say so himself, and should look a bit more strenuous than this, surely? Sam kept sneaking surreptitious looks and soon decided that Jake was definitely hiding something. It didn’t seem right.

“Hey Sammy.” Dean’s hand landed heavy and proprietary on Sam’s shoulder for the second time that day. It felt hot and yet managed to raise goosebumps all over Sam’s skin. “Wanna go learn rock-climbing? You never know.”

Sam turned to Jake. “What do you think?”

Dean huffed audibly but Jake gave him a curt smile. “Sounds fun.”

“Great.”

They spent the entire day at the Training Center, pausing only for lunch, which Sam and Dean ate with Jake, Lily, Andy, and another girl called Ava, all of whom later joined them at the gym.

It was still early stages, but the Hunters were already starting to segregate into groups. Some preferred solitude, but others were pretty obviously forming tentative alliances. The Tributes from District Seven, Isaac and Tamara, were clearly in it together (and Sam was about ninety-percent convinced they were together together). Madison, the girl who’d spoken to Dean yesterday after the procession, could be seen hanging out with gorgeous fishing-net girl. And, to Sam’s unspeakable relief, tiny little Jo seemed to have made a friend as well; a guy from the electronic district, like Jake, particularly distinguishable because of his mohawk.

The largest group, though, was probably the one led by Gordon Walker. Gordon was the oldest amongst the Tributes (he would have escaped his fate in a month), and a clearly well-trained Hunter from District Two. He gathered an instant following in a group comprised entirely of guys Sam’s age or older, who all hung on to his every word. They made Sam very nervous and had taken over the archery and shooting ranges without question.

After dinner, Sam and Dean said their goodbyes to their new acquaintances and went back to Bobby’s quarters for their separate counseling sessions, where Dean spent a whole hour alone before Sam was allowed inside.

“G’night Sammy,” Dean said to him in passing. It hadn’t been the most comfortable of days between them, but the small tired smile Dean sent Sam’s way was entirely genuine. Sam’s heart leapt and something inside of him tore a little bit at the same time, because even a gesture as innocent as that smile meant too much to him now. His love for Dean combined with his attraction to Dean seemed to have ended Sam’s capacity to think of Dean on a uniquely platonic level. He couldn’t dissect the two emotions, couldn’t separate them; it was all tangled together, despite the fact that he’d maybe remained unaware of the existence of one in favor of the other for a long time. Dean’s eyes were heavy-lidded and he looked a little sleepy, but also somehow like he was unknowingly inviting Sam to mess him up before putting him to bed.

Sam knew that Dean loved him, knew this like he knew how to breathe, but it was so different from the way he loved Dean, so good and so pure.

Unlike Sam, apparently.

Nope. Sam was fucked. 

*

Not only was Sam fucked, he was royally, unbelievably screwed.

Which... meant the same thing, but still. Right now, standing under the coldest shower Sam had ever had (and District Twelve’s warmest setting was tepid, so that was saying something), it felt important to reiterate.

Holy hell. He’d thought he had it bad yesterday.

Well, that was before he actually fell asleep.

He felt worse than sick, he felt wrong. Like maybe a mistake had been made when he was put together. Like something inside of him was tainted, and twisted, and the cruel whispers of inhuman, depraved, monstrous, disgusting wouldn’t leave him alone. It couldn't be normal, the things he’d dreamt of doing to Dean. Of begging Dean to do to him. Even within the incredibly fucked up parameters created by him lusting after his own brother, his thoughts in the night had been (were, still, even right at this moment if he wasn't careful) so dirty that the feeling in the pit of his belly was a mix of incendiary arousal and self-disgust; every new image a sharp shock of perverted pleasure.

Admittedly Sam didn’t know much about how two guys got it on beyond the basics (this not really being a widely accepted topic of conversation on the smallest, most conservative District), but his brain had come up with some seriously hardcore suggestions.

And so, in the midst of his third panic attack induced by this topic in as many days, Sam shuddered under the freezing spray and felt his teeth clatter together and endured it all for the sake of his brother.

He thought that there should be something preventing him from thinking about Dean that way: a biological barrier, something like an internal STOP! sign, because it wasn't right... but there wasn’t. There wasn’t anything preventing him from imagining Dean here in the shower with him, wet and wanting Sam back, eyes still ringed by that dark shadow from his leftover mascara. He was smaller than Sam nowadays, small enough that Sam might be able to pin him against the wall, but he was also firm and strong enough to hold his own if he wanted, Christ, all that lightly freckled skin for Sam to—

His head made a dull thunk against the tiles.

*

There followed a few days during which they developed a sort of routine.

Every morning Sam and Dean would eat with the group and talk about things that took them far, far away from the present, which meant they got to know the other Hunters relatively well on a superficial, we’re-all-going-to-try-and-kill-each-other-at-some-point-in-the-near-future level.

Jake talked about his family, his girlfriend (and Dean had made a very embarrassing noise at that), and growing up in District Three. Andy was still rather nervous around them, but he had a way of speaking that made you want to do as he asked (Dean was especially susceptible to it amongst their group). Lily was mostly quiet, and she had a weird thing about touching people skin-to-skin, like she had to concentrate before she could allow the contact. Then again, Sam was crushing on his brother, so he couldn’t really afford to judge.

Ava was quirky and funny, but very much overwhelmed by the Games. She trembled at the thought of holding a knife, burst into tears during a particularly grueling training session, and refused point blank to learn how to shoot. She had a fiancé back in District Six but didn’t like to talk about her suddenly aborted wedding-plans. “She’ll be amongst the first to go,” Dean had whispered once, resigned and sad, and Sam had nodded in agreement.

Occasionally Madison would join them, and Sam was dismayed to discover that if these were any other circumstances he’d probably have fallen for her. She had a dry sense of humor and a sort of brave façade that he liked instantly, except of course inevitably Dean would be in the vicinity, and Sam would be forced to compare the two. And there really was no comparison. It was unfair to anyone to even try, because Dean had had a lifetime to worm his way into Sam’s heart.

Fishing-net girl was called Bela Talbot, and she had a pretty serious hate-on for Dean, which for some reason made the idiot put extra effort into making her like him. Thankfully it seemed as though every attempt made things considerably worse, and Sam enjoyed watching them backfire spectacularly but tried not to dwell too much on why.

After breakfast they all went to the Training Center, and then, exhausted and sweaty, they had lunch together as well. Evenings were a bit more flexible, and often Sam or Dean would spend one with Bobby, being scolded or more often lectured in a slightly paternal manner that became familiar with frightening speed.

They didn't see Meg all week, but you wouldn't hear either Winchester complain about that.

As of day two, Dean snuck into Sam’s room for dinner every night.

They could ask for almost anything they wanted, so they tried something new every day, with pie being the only fixture for dessert. Fortunately for Sam, Dean remained entirely oblivious to his effect on his little brother, but unfortunately for Sam, this often meant Dean came over dressed comfortably in loose gray sweats and a black wife-beater.

Sam had developed an intense dislike for the outfit.

The sweats were too big on Dean and clung to his hips so precariously that Sam was convinced all it would take for them to fall was the smallest tug. The wife-beater, while at least the proper size, still left a tempting belt of skin above Dean’s waistband, and overall the whole thing kept Sam on a state of constant vigilance and never-ending tension, which combined unpleasantly with the hot sludgy guilt rolling around his gut. He still refused to take matters into his own hand, so to speak, but the cold morning showers could only go so far in calming him down, and on the fourth day he'd woken up mindlessly rubbing himself against the mattress and couldn't stop his hips from rutting desperately—thinking of shooting all over his brother’s face, Dean’s head tipped back and pearly white liquid dripping from his lashes and between his obscenely full lips—until Sam came panting for breath and for reason. He couldn't look Dean in the eye the whole morning.

So yeah. The crush didn’t go away.

The day before the demonstration in front of the Gamemakers, two days before the interviews, and four days before the Games began, Sam sat on his bed and came to a decision.

He couldn’t make it go away. Maybe it had been triggered by stress, fear, panic, this batshit situation they were in, maybe by the power of Dean’s gleaming golden chest, he’d never know. But this thing was here to stay and felt oddly like it had been here for a while. So. He had two options.

Option one was doing the mental equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting “LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU” at the top of his lungs. Possibly not the most psychologically healthy, but potentially effective in the short term (and the short term was really the only way he could afford to think right now).

Option two was gritting his teeth and accepting this as fact, then trying to deal with it accordingly. He might be seriously disturbed. This didn’t mean he could allow his relationship with Dean to change, and especially not to worsen. He still loved Dean more than anybody else in this world. Okay, so he also wanted to sign Dean's body in bite-marks and suck a tattoo of bruises all over his brother's skin. It wasn’t Dean’s fault. Sam just had to swallow down his pride, his desire, and his doubts about his sanity. Who knew; maybe in the future this would just be something else about him that he could ignore, like the fact that he was six foot five or had indecisive-colored eyes.

It wasn’t like he’d have a lot of time to lust after his brother during the Games, anyway. His primary concern would soon be solely in keeping Dean alive and also hopefully from doing something incredibly stupid like sacrificing himself to save Sam.

So he could do this. He had to.

He’d just have to deal.

“Bela Talbot!”

Bela stood from the bench and went into the Training Center, alone. Inside, a panel consisting of the twelve Gamemakers would rate her skills with a number that went from one to twelve, and that number, too, would determine her ability to draw sponsors.

The remaining twenty-three Hunters were alternately sitting or standing in the slightly cramped corridor, with guards situated at intervals to prevent any pre-Games fighting, (which was strictly forbidden, but had happened several times over the past few years anyway).

“Hey Sammy, wanna bet on what score she gets?”

“No.”

“You’re no fun.” After a short pause, Dean grinned. "Think I could score with her if—“

“God, shut up, Dean.”

Dean flicked his ear and Sam flinched away. “Jerk.”

“Bitch.”

Bela was the first, and one by one the rest of the Hunters were called in after her. They probably left through the other exit on the Complex, since no one came back (ominous sense of foreboding aside). They had five minutes each, and the order was by District, so it was slow going, and nearly two hours later Sam, Dean, and both District Eleven Tributes were still waiting.

Jo was looking intently at the floor.

"You got an idea of what you wanna show those bastards, kid?" Dean asked her very seriously.

"Yeah." She gave a firm nod. "Yeah, I'm good thanks."

"Great. In the end, it's just a number, but it'll do you good to do your damnedest."

"I know. My mom won the Games, remember? Stop trying to help me, I've gotta kill you." But her mouth was tugging up in a reluctantly pleased smile, and she was blushing a little. Dean didn't seem to have noticed, but it occurred to Sam that she might have taken a shine to his brother, which was such a desperately sad notion that he couldn't even handle it.

"Steve Wendell."

Jo's fellow District Eleven tribute stood up.

"Good luck," Sam wished him impulsively. Dean turned an incredulous "Dude" stare at him, but Wendell smiled, startled.

"Thanks, Sam."

And then there were three.

Two of which were gaping at Sam open-mouthed.

"What the hell was that?" Jo asked. "He never talks to anyone! He's never spoken to you before, right?"

"Yeah, what the hell, Sam?"

Sam let out a shaky laugh. "We can still be civilized, right?"

Dean and Jo exchanged a look and then replied at the same time: "... No!" 

*

Dean was called first, so Sam waited out those last, agonizing five minutes alone. Then came a polite: "Samuel Winchester?"

He thought about answering "Nope, not me", just to see what would happen, but sadly remembered it would probably only get him into trouble for being cheeky or something.

"Welcome, Samuel," a deep voice said when he walked into the Complex.

Someone had added a large rectangular table that looked exactly how Sam had always imagined a judge's panel would look. The twelve Gamemakers sat lining one side, facing the majority of the structures and stations, which had all been set up like a normal training day. Sam couldn't see any writing pads or scoring cards, but then again none of that would have really been in place with the eerie feel the group emanated. The table was blank, and so were the Gamemakers' expressions.

They all had an ageless air about them, no matter how old they really looked. Anna Milton, for example, was young and strikingly beautiful, but then again she had been since Sam was five, so who knew her real age. Ruby, a fan-favorite with an attitude (who Sam reluctantly had to admit was kind of hot), looked only slightly older than him and always had. Then there were sharply dressed Crowley and creepy-eyed Lilith, who John had spoken of as though they'd been this way when he was born.

"You may proceed, Samuel," Uriel said. Sam recognized his voice as the one to greet him, as well.

"Uh, okay. It's Sam, actually."

This seemed to elicit a frisson of reaction.

"You have our deepest apologies, Sam," yellow-eyed Azazel said, and he sounded mocking, as though he found this hilarious for some reason. He reminded Sam of Meg.

But then the Gamemaker Castiel leaned forward, something almost heartfelt in his eyes.

"Our sincere apologies, Sam," he declared in his low, scratchy voice and sounded much more honest than his companion.

"It's--no, it's fine."

He realized his minutes would run out quickly and went to the archery range. It was his first time there, but the weapons felt familiar in his grip. He held the bow steady and nocked an arrow, feeling fluid, graceful. It had taken Sam a while to relearn this move since his growth spurt, but there was a reason Dean freely admitted Sam's superiority at the bow and arrows.

His mind went comfortably empty of thought and he hit the bull’s-eye on his first attempt.

"Not bad there, Sammy."

Sam's calm shattered and he whirled. Azazel was grinning widely, but he hadn't been the one to say it; it had been Gabriel, the joker of the bunch, who people referred to as the Trickster for the macabre tests he liked to inflict on the meanest, strongest tributes.

"Please don't call me that," Sam said breathlessly. He didn't know why he said it, because it was probably suicidal to talk back to these immensely powerful beings, but it was an instinctive reaction. Only Dean got to call him that.

"Our apologies again," Castiel said, with a pained glance at Gabriel. "Please continue, Sam."

Sam shot a couple more bull’s-eyes, then moved back several paces and did it again. He didn't miss a single one, but it still felt a hollow victory. The Gamemakers unnerved him, and Gabriel's comment had dispelled any illusion of tranquility.

He fired the guns at the shooting range and hit the best scores again.

"That's great, Sam," Anna said with a smile. "You have a minute left."

Sam didn't know what else to do. He'd figured shooting would be enough, since he couldn't wrestle, but now felt doubtful.

"Fifty seconds," Azazel said gleefully. "Say, Sam, any other abilities you wanna share with the class?"

Sam froze. Something about the way he'd asked... "What do you mean?"

"Oh, I don't know. Any hidden superpowers you wanna reveal, aside from the habit of never missing a target? Now would really be the time."

"N-no. No superpowers."

His heart was pounding. Azazel sounded mocking, like he knew, like he could somehow tell that Sam sometimes saw the future.

"The previous Tribute was your brother, correct?" an older Gamemaker asked. He was dressed in a sharp suit and Sam couldn't remember his name.

"How many Winchesters do you know, Zachariah?" Ruby said with a snort.

"Dean was ssscrumptious," the Gamemaker closest to Sam hissed softly. The others ignored him and he spoke low enough that Sam wouldn't have heard if it hadn't been for Alistair's seating choice; but Sam did hear, and it made the hairs on the nape of his neck stand on end.

"Yeah, Dean's my brother," he said, firmly. "And you'd better go easy on him, okay?"

That actually made them laugh. The red-eyed woman started to clap delightedly, and Gabriel wiped fake tears from his eyes. Even Raphael cracked a smile. The only one who remained stone-faced was Castiel.

"Or what?" Ruby asked, chortling.

"You're adorable, you are," Lilith commented with a venomous smile.

Sam curled his hands into fists as searing hot anger bubbled up in his chest, fueled by the ease with which these people dismissed the value of Dean’s life. In a second, Sam’s fear and awe of them faded before the fury he was feeling, and a reckless desire to do something about it seized his mind. They may not understand this, but he wasn't going to waver, and he wasn't going to back down. They might laugh now, but he was going to win, with Dean. He'd show them; he'd beat them all. Screw the rules. He could protect Dean, he was strong enough, he would—

"Fancy that, he said the same thing to us about you," Crowley said.

The table cracked in two.

*

Sam didn't know how he'd done it, but he knew it had been him.

The stunned silence that followed told him the Gamemakers knew too. And before anyone could comment on it, Sam fled.

He sprinted to the far door and shoved it open, then ran and ran until he found an elevator to take him to the twelfth floor, where he burst into his quarters and slammed the door behind him.

What. The fuck.

He panted for air, leaning against the solid wood for support, aware as every second passed that he'd promised Dean and Bobby to meet them at Bobby's room to watch the televised scores, but he couldn't--couldn't--because he had... What had he...? How had he...? What the fuck!

He slid to the floor, right there with the door at his back, his elbow hitting the knob painfully on the way down. His head was pounding, as though his brain had swollen too big for his skull and the pressure was about to split it in two.

He'd felt something. A sort of energy, like a pulse, fueled by his rage and determination and set alight at the thought of Dean. And he'd broken... he'd broken the table. With his mind.

Oh, god.

"Sam?"

Someone was knocking insistently, every reverb a stab of agony at the base of Sam's neck.

"Sammy, was that you?"

Sam realized he'd probably made a bang loud enough that Dean had heard it from Bobby's room.

"Sammy!"

"Yeah, it's me. I'm okay."

He stood up, knees weak, thighs cramping.

"Open up, dammit," Dean ordered, and even though his voice was muffled there was obvious panic there. Sam clicked the lock and let him in, still feeling shaky, out of control, kind of drunk.

"Dean."

"Sammy?" Dean scanned his face, clearly worried by what he found there. "What happened."

"I. Dean, I...”

The sudden urge to bury his face into the comforting curve of Dean's neck and crush their bodies together made Sam sway where he stood, dizzy. There were spots dancing before his vision.

"Sam, hey, hey..." Dean grabbed his forearm and led him to the bed. "What happened in there?"

"I... I broke the table."

Dean stared at him. Then he seemed to relax and almost grinned. "Dude, you what? How the hell did you do that? Were they pissed? I bet they were pissed."

Sam stared down at his hands. They weren't shaking. He curled them into fists on his lap. "I don't... know."

"You don't know what?" Dean asked, confused, a hint of a smile still crinkling the corners of his eyes.

"I don't know how I did it."

The smile vanished. "What... what do you mean, you don't know how you did it?"

"I mean I don't know, Dean! I was angry and then the table split in two! On its own, except it was me, I made it do that!"

After a long, silent minute staring fixedly at his sneakers, Sam felt a light touch at the top of his head. He kept still, hardly daring to breathe, and then Dean's fingers carded through his hair, soothing and wonderful... and the little choked noise that Sam's throat made would forever haunt him as the most pathetic sound to ever come out of his mouth.

"It's okay, Sam," Dean said, low and rough, but gentle for all that. "We'll figure this out."

"I'm a freak."

"No, you're not. You're... special."

Sam laughed shakily, but careful not to move in case Dean decided to stop what he was doing. God, it felt so achingly good. "That's crap."

"God's honest truth, buddy. You're... not like most people, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Just different."

"Doesn't it scare you?"

Dean's hand slid away and Sam mourned its loss.

"Scares the crap outta me, Sam." Sam tensed. "But that's just 'cause I worry about you, and I want you to be okay. We don't know why it started and we don't know where it came from, but that doesn't mean it's gonna change how I treat you. You're still a dork, and you'll always be my pain-in-the-ass little brother."

Chest tight, Sam let out a long breath. He felt so relieved and so sad at the same time. It was messing with his head. Dean had no clue that these 'abilities' weren't the only way in which Sam was fucked up.

"Thanks."

"Yeah, well. Bobby's waiting for us to go watch the scores."

Sam stood up. "Right."

"Look, anything above a five is good, but even if you score lower, it doesn't mean much. The Arena is where it all goes down, right? Who cares about some sponsor sending you shaving cream?"

Sam laughed weakly and Dean's eyes lit up, like he was proud to have accomplished that much.

"I don't know about shaving cream but I'm pretty sure we could do with some sponsored food."

"Screw it. It's probably a gross energy bar that tastes like ass."

"How the hell would you know what that tastes like?"

Dean's grin could have powered an entire District, and he wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. "You really wanna know why I speak from experience there, Sammy?"

"I meant the energy bar."

"Hey, don't knock it 'till you've tried it. As a certain Rhonda Hurley would tell you--"

"I don't wanna know, Dean."

“Well I sure as hell didn’t either when she first offered to do it to me.” This conversation should have ended several minutes ago, Sam thought pitifully. “But it was a religious experience Sammy, honest.”

“Please stop.”

“Tell you what; when we go back home, I’ll introduce you to her, how’s that sound? She could teach you a thing or ten.”

To do to you? Sam found himself wondering, and then the image of Dean spread out under him while Sam licked inside

“We’re gonna miss the scores,” he grunted and strode to the door without another glance at his happily oblivious brother.

*

Ten minutes later, Dean got an eleven.

And Sam... Sam got a twelve.

*

"Well, I got no idea how you did it, but that was unprecedented. And good. Real good, boys."

It was the highest score in the history of the Hunter Games. No one had ever gotten maximum points before.

But that wasn't all. Jake had a twelve as well.

"There's something weird about that kid," Dean declared firmly. "He's creepy."

"No he's not," Sam countered automatically. He was still a bit dazed about his score, finding it hard to sink in. And more than that, finding it hard to understand what the number meant. "He's just... intense."

"He doesn't smile. Ever."

"Which is totally understandable, given our current circumstances."

"Nah. I don't like him."

"Name one Hunter that you like that isn't female and hot."

"I don't like Bela!"

"Funny, I never said you did, but interesting jump there—“

"All right, that's enough you two," Bobby cut in, before they could really get into it. Sam rolled his eyes, fighting the irritation he always felt at his brother's instant loss of a hundred IQ points around Bela. Dean was such an idiot. "The interviews are tomorrow and Pam wants you available all day, so we ain't got that much time. Sam, go entertain yourself for an hour, then get back here for the briefing."

"Is it because I'm the youngest that I always go last?" Sam said drily, standing up to leave.

"Nah, it's 'cause you're the ugliest," Dean threw at him casually.

"We should really do this by height, then."

"Sasquatch."

"Midget."

"Focus, you two."

"Sorry, sorry, I'm going."

Sam decided to work out in his room while he waited, so he was surprised, and half-naked, when Dean came through the door only fifteen minutes later.

"Uh... watcha doin', Sammy?"

"What's it look like?"

Sam tried not to feel self-conscious and sat up on the floor, where he'd been doing sit-ups wearing only a pair of black boxer-shorts.

Dean averted his eyes, looking kind of nervous, and Sam was instantly on edge by proxy. "What is it? What's happened?"

"Huh?" Dean coughed. "I--nothing. Just, Bobby says we should really talk about the whole splitting up thing before we can continue. You know. In the Arena."

"You told him?"

Sam stood, but it only seemed to make Dean more flustered.

"Yeah, well, you were being such a damn girl about it--"

"I wasn't being... Dean, if I knew you were telling me the truth when you said you trusted me of course I'd consider the damn plan, but you don't trust me, so--"

"Whoa whoa, hang on a second," Dean raised his palms defensively, eyes wide. It distracted Sam for a moment, the way they were so green. Freshly-mown-grass and recently-polished-emeralds green, not that Sam had ever seen either of those things outside television. "I trust you, Sam, you gotta believe that. I just..."

"You just what?"

"I just... dammit." He sighed and rubbed a palm over his face, exhaustion in every line of his body. "I can't just watch you go off with Jake and hope that you'll probably, maybe be at some future rendezvous point, okay? That's not in my DNA. I can't."

Finally, the truth. Sam knew it. He'd known it all along.

"I broke a table with my mind today, Dean. I can take care of myself."

"He got a twelve, Sammy. Who knows what that kid is capable of?"

He was perfectly aware of the fact that now it sounded like they'd reversed their positions on this, but after training with the others for the past week Sam was more than considering the plan, he was actually on board with it. He didn’t like the idea any more than Dean did, but it was their only option.

Bobby was right. They needed to convince everyone of their independence, or the sponsors wouldn't bother with either of them. Jokes about shaving-cream aside, sometimes a sponsored gift could mean the difference between life and death.

So they needed to start out separately.

The initial chaos at the Cornucopia meant they couldn’t know which of the Hunters they might run into inside the Arena, nor which ones would survive the first bloodbath, but at least they could each trust in having a temporary ally in Jake, Andy, Ava or Lily, maybe even Madison or Bela.

Well, probably not Bela in Dean’s case, but. The others, yes.

And so, much as Sam hated it, he knew he’d have to trust that Dean would be okay and persuade him that Sam would be fine by himself as well. Which, upon reflection... might actually be harder than single-handedly winning the Games.

 

Dean

Sam took another step forward, so that they stood close enough that Dean had to look up a little to meet his gaze. It was an unnerving and totally unfair move on Sam’s part; emphasizing his height because he wanted to prove a point, and it made Dean’s pulse race even faster.

Also? Sam stank of musky sweat.

"Dean.” Sam used his most soothing tone, puppy-eyes on full, Captain, as though Dean were a skittish animal about to bolt (which Dean was not, thank you very much). “You know why we have to do it, and you know I can handle myself in a fight."

"Dude, back off, you reek."

He received an exasperated look, are you serious?, but Sam did as Dean asked.

“Better?”

Sam spread his arms wide from nearly across the room. Kid had started to buff up pretty recently, but this past week of training had just made it all the more obvious. In a few years Sam would be gigantic. Even right now his corded muscles seemed to be actively mocking Dean's point and—was that a tantalizing hint of chest hair? But... but no, just because Sammy looked like a million-feet-tall hunk with massive shoulders didn't mean that Jake couldn't knife him in his sleep.

“Not really.”

“Dude, come on. Can we at least talk about this?”

"Thought we were already."

Sam sighed again. “Look. You need to find it in you to believe that I can handle it. This is basically our only option to win, Dean."

“It’s not that simple. We have no idea what the Arena will look like. It could be a freaking wasteland for all we know, and how would I find you then?”

“We come up with a signal, like you said—“

“What kind of signal? Audio? Video?”

“Be serious—“

“When do we decide to meet? When it’s only us two left? What are the odds of that even happening?”

“I don’t know, but we need to work together to figure it out!”

“I like to think I’m asking practical questions."

“We’d have a better chance of staying alive if you helped me answer them instead," Sam snapped.

"You're the one who's suddenly all for picking a different time zone, Sammy."

"That's not what I'm saying at all! I’m saying I want to go with the earlier plan, where we split up until there’s less competition and then team up once we’ve got all the sponsored gifts we need. Don’t play dumb, you know exactly what I’m talking about."

They shared a look. Sam was starting to seem pretty pissed.

Well too bad, because so was Dean. He felt charged with restless energy and the anger was a lovely conduit. "Look, dude, you're saying you want us not to be in the same group? That's fine with me. You wanna skip over rainbows with your dream boy? Great! Just don't expect me to not keep an eye on you while you're at it."

"Will you cut that out? I don't like Jake!"

"But there is someone! I knew it!” Dean crowed, but instead of vindication all he felt was more anger. “Madison, then? Ava? Lily digs chicks, so... oh god, not Andy, please. I’d understand if you were crushing on some dude like Dr Sexy, but—“

Sam snorted. “Right, ‘cause I’m the one crushing on Dr Sexy.”

Dean felt his cheeks heat, because Sam was being fucking ridiculous.

“Hey dude, just ‘cause you’ve suddenly decided you’re into dick doesn’t mean I wanna have anything to do with any but my own.”

Boy, was that the wrong thing to say.

"Jesus Christ, what is wrong with you?" Sam crossed the space Dean had managed to put between them in two easy strides. "I don't like any of the other Hunters, Dean, male or female, but if I did it would be none of your damn business!"

The words were designed to hurt, and they did.

“Ah, but this is why I can't leave you alone out there, Sammy," Dean said, trying for a smirk that felt all wrong on his face. "You don't wanna die a virgin, do ya?”

The level of ‘fail’ was undeniably epic when Sam looked, if possible, even more furious.

“Stop trying to turn this into a fucking joke,” he ground out. Dean's breath choked at the swear word, so unlike his baby brother. And then Sam added, unexpectedly; “And I’m not a virgin, asshole.”

It was a little like being punched in the gut. By Iron Man.

What?” Dean said, shocked and struck-dumb, but feeling like he should be congratulating the kid or patting him on the back. It was too late, though; way too late to grin proudly and ask for lewd details like Dean should have, would have done if not for the totally weird off-kilter feeling threatening to take him over. “You... what?”

Sam looked like he was regretting saying it. He rolled his eyes with forced nonchalance.

“Look, it’s—it's not a big deal."

But it was. It was a huge deal and Dean was damn near trembling with—fury, yes, it was definitely fury and maybe he could admit that he was… disappointed that Sam hadn’t told him, had never wanted to share—Dean had told him when he got rid of his V-card, the same goddamn night. And he could still remember fourteen-year-old Sammy telling him about his first kiss, so wide-eyed and excited, going on and on about that girl Amy Pond and how smart she was and how pretty and funny and blonde, how her green eyes would shine and all that crap—what had changed since then?

“When?” he said. He felt fucking cheated. Not like a chick, okay, but Sam hiding this from him was pure betrayal. Dean had told him everything.

Sam blanched a little at his tone which served him right, Jesus.

“When, Sammy.”

“Last summer, with Jess.”

Dean had never liked that girl.

Several moments passed. Then Sam let out a long sigh. "We kind of strayed from the point, there."

Dean rolled his eyes. "Yeah. And I'm the one with trust issues."

"I didn't wanna make a big deal out of--"

"Forget it, dude." Dean looked up at his apparently not-so-kid brother. "Remind me again how I'd be so wrong to insist on watching out for you?"

"I'm only asking you to trust me. Don't you trust me?"

Damn those eyes. Just... damn them.

Dean sighed. "I just said I did, Sam, but--"

"Then believe me. When I tell you that I can do this, that I know you can too and that's why we've both gotta be in it for real if we want to win. And we are gonna win. Believe me."

Something strange happened to Dean then. He'd been angry, and hurt and confused and pretty fucking terrified for his brother’s life, and then Sam said 'And we are gonna win' like it was simply fact. Like it was a given. And, for the first time since they'd gotten into this mess... Dean believed the kid.

"Okay."

Sam blinked.

"Okay?"

"Yeah."

"You're serious. No more virgin jokes? Just... okay?"

"What more do you want from me, Sammy?" he smiled a little, and Sam's entire face lit up in one of his rare megawatt grins. It was blinding.

"Thank you. We can do this, Dean, I know we can, you’ll see—“

"Yeah yeah, okay, let's not get all mushy-eyed about it now. We’ve got a few minutes to work this out before I get back to Bobby. Better make ‘em count.”

*

"Come on Sam, admit it!" Pamela exclaimed. "You missed me!"

"I really didn't," Sam replied, ducking his head, but he was smiling sheepishly and using his dimples to their fullest, Dean couldn't help noticing. Well well. Apparently Sammy had game, who would’ve thought?

"Liar. You were counting down the seconds until we'd see each other again."

"Was not!"

They were both dressed and minutes away from their grand interview, an event that happened at the studio on the ground floor of the Training Center (the existence of which Dean had discovered earlier today). Game organizers had set up a temporary waiting area for the Hunters, but plenty of stylists and ex-Champions were milling about as well.

“It’s okay baby, I missed you too!”

Every Tribute would be greeted by the host of the main City TV network (commonly known as the CTN, and the only channel available to District denizens) in front of an audience of hundreds, to be interviewed for two minutes that would be broadcasted across the United Districts under the City, and therefore seen by millions of civilians and denizens alike.

This was their last chance to impress sponsors, and after tonight they'd have to seriously cut back on the time he and Sam spent together.

Needless to say, Dean wasn't exactly looking forward to any of it.

"Are you sure this isn't a bit small on me, though?" Sam muttered to Pamela softly, biting his lower lip. Man, he was really amping up the charm there, and judging by Pamela's increasingly appraising smiles, it was totally working.

"It's perfect, Sam. Stop fretting, you'll rumple it."

It was way too small on Sam’s bulk, Dean thought, and too tight, but. Whatever. Thankfully, this time their outfits were quite tame; a fancy black tux each, of different cut, without any shining or glowing involved whatsoever, for which Dean was incredibly grateful. Once again, Missouri had let him keep his amulet, and just for that he was content.

"I agree with your stylist, Sam. You look hot as hell," a female voice declared silkily.

"Oh great. You."

"Hello, Dean."

Bela looked... smoking. She was wearing a very low-cut flowy green dress that matched her eyes, and enough jewels to bring a hot-air balloon back down to earth. The whole thing reeked of riches and suited her amazingly well.

In spite of himself, Dean eyed her up and down. Then sideways.

"I see your brother remains charming as ever," Bela said to Sam. Sam's focus hadn't fared much better than Dean's, but with some effort he seemed to pull himself together and meet Bela's gaze.

"Dean was raised by wolves," he said lightly.

"Wolves? Wow." And Madison made four. Fantastic. "Well, they did a bang-up job. You look hot as hell too, Dean, by the way."

"Thank you, Madison. That wouldn't be fur you're wearing, by any chance?"

It was. Madison rolled her eyes. "I'm afraid my stylist has a thing."

They all laughed, and it occurred to Dean that it was incredibly surreal, this thing that was happening between them right now.

"Miss Talbot! You're up next!"

They'd switched the order of the Tributes again; this time Dean would be last, so Bela was second now.

"Good luck," Madison wished her. Bela managed a weak smile and was whisked away by two men with headsets, through the door and out onto the stage.

On the temporary screen, they all watched Balthazar, the host, greet her warmly.

The man had played interviewer for the Hunter Games tributes for as long as Dean could remember, and he was very popular, but there was something about him that reminded Dean of the Gamemakers; a sort of timelessness, beyond the fact that Dean knew the dude hadn't aged a day since the first time Dad let Dean watch the Hunter Games on TV.

To his credit, though, Balthazar was very adaptable to each Hunter, and seemed to be trying to help them sell themselves as best as he could. Everybody had an angle that they must have discussed with their consultants, and he just played along.

Gordon was mostly silent and brooding. Jake was serious and concise. Ash, Jo's mohawked friend, was crazy-smart and hilarious. Ava was adorable and Andy was compelling. Madison was bold but relatable. Lily was tough, the uber-religious Kubrick was full of faith, and Jo herself was absolutely heartbreaking, the camera cutting to shots of her mother, Ellen Harvelle, stading with the other District Eleven ex-Champions.

As the Tributes went in, the members of their team would leave the waiting area, probably to greet them on the other side. By the end it was just Sam, Dean, Bobby and Pamela in the large room. Meg Masters had looked in briefly to say a snarky goodbye and wish them both good luck and good hunting, because she wouldn’t see them again ‘unless one of you two yahoos actually win this thing!’. Possibly that would turn out to be the highlight of the day, Dean reflected.

And then it was Sam's turn.

"Look alive, Sammy," Dean said. Sam just nodded.

He left through the door and appeared on the screen seconds later. It was surreal.

"Whoa!" Balthazar's tinny voice came clearly through the speakers. "This one is huge!"

On the screen, Sam laughed a little, quiet and embarrassed. Dean could practically hear the audience melt before the dreamy, tall-dark-and-handsome Hunter.

"Seriously though, you are gigantic, my friend! Tell us how you managed to grow this tall, please!"

Balthazar made Sam sit on the couch opposite him and Sam shrugged.

"I think it's genetic. Not really my fault."

Dean felt a presence at his side and realized Bobby stood next to him, silently watching as well.

"Interesting choice of words there, Sam. Genetic?"

Sam looked away and did that nervous thing where he chewed the inside of his cheek. "Call it Freudian," he said finally. Balthazar chuckled.

"He's good," Pamela whispered absently, almost to herself.

"Indeed, indeed. What a tragic Reaping yours was, Sam. I bet getting picked not just once, but twice, must have really shocked you."

"Yeah, I guess."

Balthazar frowned. "You guess? Don't you know? Weren't you devastated, when they announced your name for the second time?"

"No."

"No?"

The crowd's silence became expectant.

"No, I was... relieved."

Dean's stomach clenched. He knew they'd previously decided this, but he also knew Sam's tells when he lied to other people, and he wasn't lying now. Which meant... what?

"Relieved? Sam, this is a most unusual reaction! Participating in the Games is an honor, of course, but wasn't that your brother up there, who'd volunteered in your place?"

"Yeah, yeah, of course. But back then I was so mad at Dean for taking my place..." Sam ducked his head down, so the fringe of his bangs obscured his eyes, and smiled wryly. "I went a little crazy, if you've seen--"

"Yes, yes, I think we even have some footage..."

They played a video of Sam being restrained by not one, not two, but three City guards, gagged and still fighting. Dean had to look away, overwhelmed.

"Right, well. I just figured..." Sam paused and Dean glanced back at the monitor just in time to catch Sammy's knuckles flexing. His tell. "I figured he had no right, his name wasn't even entered all that many times, and they'd chosen me, y'know? Anyway, I didn't want him to get hurt, but after he volunteered, I didn't want him to be alone either. It... there were a lot of feelings involved." Cue another rueful little smile. "I just wanted to be there with him. And now here we are."

"How sad. And you don't have any other family back home? Anyone to win the Games for?"

"Well, my parents are dead, but I don't think family ends with blood."

"How romantic! “ Balthazar turned pensive. “It must help to focus on nice things, beautiful things. Not that your brother isn't, forgive me, truly, spectacularly gorgeous."

Dean snorted and on the screen Sam made an odd, high-pitched sound before forcing a smile. "Believe me, you're not the only one who thinks so."

"I'm sure! Now Sam, some would say you're practically destined to fight your brother. Do you agree?"

"Maybe." Sam glanced at the camera, and pitched his voice low. They zoomed in on his face when he answered, and in that suit and with the light make up he looked way more adult than he really was. He looked kind of hot, actually. "Probably. But you can't beat this kind of fate, and Dean and I... we've come to terms with it. We've talked and made our peace. It's all done now. We know what our roles are."

"Well, that record-breaking score must be for a reason! And you got one more point than Dean, your marks were perfect!"

Once again, Sam was modest and replied with downcast eyes. "Yeah. I... can't say much about that, unfortunately."

"Oh well, we'll live." Balthazar winked at him. "Maybe I can get Dean to reveal some secrets when he comes in now. I wish you the best of luck, and good hunting, Sam Winchester."

"Thank you very much."

The two guys from before motioned at Dean frantically, and he walked over to stand right behind the door.

"Good luck, son," Bobby called.

Before he could turn to acknowledge those words in any way, somebody pushed him forwards and Dean was blinded by the focus lights, and engulfed by the unexpectedly stifling temperature in the studio.

"Dean!" Balthazar went over to greet him and shook his hand. "You're a vision!"

"Gee, thanks."

The spectators lined rows upon rows of increasingly high seats, set in a half-circle around the stage. Much closer to Dean and Balthazar, however, was the filming crew; four cameras and two sound techs holding their mics high up in the air, showing no signs of growing tired, amongst other people whose jobs weren’t instantly apparent. There were tons of cables involved, though.

"I was just talking to your brother!"

Up close, Balthazar’s blue eyes were far sharper that Dean had first thought. The guy might act rather goofy, but he looked like he missed little.

"I saw. Sam's a charmer, eh?"

Bobby had been brutally clear. "You call that kid Sammy on national television? It's over, Dean. So for Pete’s sake don't."

"Oh yes. All those dimples!"

Dean smiled tightly at that. Sammy's dimples had become a frequent source of trouble for him lately.

"Does pretty run in the family, then?"

"Our parents are dead, dude. Kind of an insensitive question there."

Balthazar's eyes widened almost comically. "Goodness you're right, I am so sorry."

"Don't worry about it."

"Well, moving on then. My buddy Castiel tells me you did, and I quote, someting 'rather impressive' at the examination. There are very few cases of scores above ten in Hunter Games history, so can you reveal anything about that?"

"I... don't think I can, no. Sam and Jake clearly went one step beyond, though, you should ask them what they did."

"Eh, yes, well, eleven is still an incredible score!"

The host winked at him, and Dean conceded with a sly grin that was all show. He just wanted this over.

“Thanks.”

The remaining minute passed quickly and Balthazar wrapped it up to loud and annoyingly enthusiastic applause. Dean looked at the huge crowd of mostly happy, excited faces, and right at that moment, it felt impossible to think that people were revolting against the Hunter Games. Was Cancellation even an option? Was it true, about the disputes within the Gamemakers? The tradition had been going on for decades... who were Sam and Dean to suddenly decide they didn’t like the rules?

“And that concludes our round of interviews to this year’s Tributes! Tune in tomorrow for the last day of training and speculation on the examination scores! A repeat of tonight’s interviews will air at nine, and on Friday...” Balthazar stood from his chair with a flourish. “The Games begin!” 

*

“We should’ve totally gone with four courses of pie like I said. This is our last meal, Sammy.”

After making sure he wasn’t seen, Dean had sneaked into Sam’s room to have dinner for the final time. Breakfast tomorrow would be eaten on their way to the Arena.

“Right. ‘Cause indigestion is the way to go hours before a life-or-death competition, Dean.”

It had been a tough, long day for Dean. Training alone, watching Sam from a distance... having to bite back a nasty comment whenever Jake got too close to his baby brother (which was ridiculously often over the course of a single freakin’ day), being unable to march up there and wrench Sam away from prying eyes. Gordon Walker had even come up to him, deceptively friendly, and offered an alliance, which Dean had politely given a non-answer to because who knew what would happen in the Arena, right?

One thing was sure though; they’d made it clear to everyone that it was over between the Winchester brothers. That, as of this moment, Sam and Dean were going their separate ways.

“Indigestion? From pie? I could never.”

And now here they were. Finishing a blueberry pie between the two of them and avoiding the serious talk they both knew needed to happen.

“Well, you’re gonna have to go without pie for a few days soon,” Sam commented, subtle as a brick. “What do you think we’ll have to eat, in there?”

“Depends, doesn’t it?” Dean settled more comfortably in his chair. “If we get lucky, and when does that ever happen, it’ll be a forest, something that’s a little familiar. Maybe rabbit, squirrels... I don’t think they let any birds fly overhead, or they’ll get fried by the force-field around the Arena.”

“Right.”

“Then there was that year with the goddamn bears, were you old enough for that?”

“Oh yeah, that was crazy!”

They went off into a tangent about the creatures the Gamemakers threw into the Arena to kill off a few hunters if things were moving too slow or getting boring for the public. The bears were definitely the most memorable of late (some sort of bloodthirsty breed undoubtedly engineered and trained for the very purpose of killing humans), but there had been others; wolves five years ago, and poisonous snakes a couple of years before that. Genetic manipulation had become huge during the war; and many animals had been turned monstrous and used to fight.

“Well, if they do the bears again this year we’d have food for ages—“

“Dean.” The change in Sam’s tone halted Dean instantly. It was time, then.

“Yeah?”

“You... you have to promise me that you’ll take care of yourself.”

Dean reluctantly discarded the idea of making that into an ice-breaking masturbation joke. “Dude, I said I would—“

“Yes, but promise me.”

Sam’s eyes gleamed threateningly from behind the stupid strands of hair that insisted on falling over them. In this light they looked darker than usual.

“I said I would,” Dean repeated sternly. “And I will.”

He stood up from his chair because it was late and sleep was important today, perhaps more than ever, even though right now there was nothing Dean wanted more than to stay up all night with Sam.

“You will too, right Sammy? Remember the signal, remember everything we talked about?”

“Of course.” Sam stood as well. “You’re leaving?”

Something about his voice made heat surge in Dean’s chest; a shameful flare of hope that Sam felt the same he was feeling. That it was a waste to sleep tonight, that they should just stay here, awake and aware, not missing a moment, silent or talking didn’t matter, as long as they were together.

But Sammy needed to rest; the Gamemaker Guards would come for them first thing in the morning. They wouldn’t see each other again until the Arena.

“Gotta get that beauty sleep,” Dean said, faking a yawn and stretching lazily (his stupid sweats nearly fell off in the process, but he hadn’t been able to find smaller ones).

Sam took a couple of hesitant steps toward him.

“I... uh. Dean?”

“Yeah.”

They were kind of close, now. Just a little over ‘acceptable’ in personal-space-bubble etiquette, not that Dean thought of space in those terms with Sam. But. It was worth noting this time, for some reason.

“You...” Sam inhaled roughly. “Don’t you dare die on me, okay? Just—don’t. Please.”

His mouth was set defiantly and a muscle ticked in his jaw, indicating it was clenched tight, daring Dean to turn his feelings into a joke again. But Dean wouldn’t, couldn’t do that.

“I’ll try, I pr—“

“Not good enough.” Sam shook his head, hair swishing with the movement. “No. You... you have to live. For me. Or I won’t—look, you just have to, all right? I will never forgive you if you let yourself get hurt. If anything happened to you I’d...” the intense set of Sam’s features crumpled, just for a second, as he seemed to contemplate his own words. “I’d lose it, okay? I would..." he cut himself off again and shook his head. "You’re my brother. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”

Dean stared at him, heart pounding, throat constricted at the vehemence in Sam’s tone. Sammy’s voice had changed ages ago—from sweet and childish to deep and masculine, with a hilarious awkward period in between—but it seemed to Dean that the fact had only become apparent right now.

“I won’t die if you don’t, Sammy."

Maybe it was the wrong answer, because something dangerous flashed in the darkness of Sam’s eyes at the words. His body moved like he was about to step even closer, palms flexing, lips parted to draw in a harsh breath and for one fleeting, insane moment Dean thought Sam was gonna.

Something.

But then it was gone, and Sam blew his hair out of his eyes and shrugged and shuffled his feet at the same time, unnecessary all of it to declare just how very exasperated he was.

“Fine. You’ve got yourself a deal.”

They didn’t hug or anything sappy like that. They were grown-ass men. Well, Dean was anyway. Sammy was... actually Sam was getting there, too. But still, a hug right then would have been too much. Too much contact and—no. So Dean gave Sam a meaningful pat on the shoulder and let himself out of the room. Because he was not a chick, and neither was Sam, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, and tearful goodbyes were exclusively for chicks. Common knowledge and all that.

Except for how, after the door had shut, he stayed staring at it for a whole five minutes before he could force his feet to move.

*

Dean was alone.

His arm itched from where they’d stuck the needle in with the tracker, and the Arena uniform Missouri had given him (black cargo pants and sturdy boots, with a black undershirt and a forest-green hooded jacket; the same for every Tribute) scratched uncomfortably at his skin. The only familiar thing about his ensemble was the comfortable weight of the amulet against his chest; a small token that Tributes were allowed to bring with them if it couldn't be used as a weapon.

He'd been blindfolded since he left the Training Center, so he had no idea where this place was in relation to the City, but it had been a two-hour voyage by hover-car (Dean had not enjoyed being in the air, he discovered after up-chucking his breakfast. Twice).

He was in a small, completely bare room except for the very ominous circular platform at the center, with D12 emblazoned on it in red. Officially, these rooms were known as the Catacombs of the Arena because they were right underneath, but in the Districts they were more commonly referred to as the Twenty-three Stockyards. For twenty-three Hunters, this was the last room they'd be in before they died.

When the guard had shown him inside she’d only said “Stand in the circle and wait,” so naturally Dean looked around every corner of the room, but found no way to open the locked door from the inside and no other obvious escape route, like say a conveniently breakable window. The only way out was up, through a circular hole in the ceiling right over the platform. Which would bring him onto the Arena.

God, he hoped it wasn't a desert again. He and Sam knew next to nothing of surviving in the desert, and the fact that this year’s Tribute uniforms were clearly adequate for forest camouflage didn’t really mean anything, because it wouldn’t be the first time the Gamemakers messed with their heads before it even started.

Dean tried to take a deep breath because that was supposed to help or whatever, but before he could calm down even a little the door made a grinding metal sound and opened.

Bobby stepped inside, in his usual completely-opposite-of-glamorous clothing and old ball-cap.

“How you holding up, kid?”

The truth was that he’d barely slept, his blood was roaring with adrenalin and the keen pang of missing Sam (of just knowing how much he was going to miss Sam in the very immediate future) was making his chest feel tight. Plus he could still taste the vomit at the back of his throat, bitter and gross.

“I’m good.”

Bobby snorted. “Sure you are.”

“You seen Sam?”

The man gave Dean an uncomfortably shrewd look. “Yeah. Went to him first. Kid asked about you, too.”

Dean nodded. “He seem okay to you?”

“In a few minutes twenty-four platforms like that one will lift all of you kids up onto the Arena to battle to the death. How was he supposed to seem?” The question was rhetorical, but Bobby barely paused anyway. "Look, from what I could tell, you two are at nearly opposite ends of the Circle."

The Hunters were lifted up in a circular formation, where they had to wait for one minute before the Games began. At the center of the Circle was the Cornucopia.

Bobby gave Dean a hard stare. "Don't run to him, Dean. Don't even look at him. Just turn around and forget the Cornucopia. Just run away."

Dean took another deep, shaky breath. For God's sake he was Dean Winchester, running away went against everything he knew. And running away from Sam?

"Hey," Bobby said, almost gentle. "Can I ask you something?"

"Shoot."

"It's not just that you could never hurt him... you'll be fighting to keep that kid alive, won't you?

Dean's head snapped up to meet Bobby's steady, understanding gaze. "I--"

"It's okay. I'll admit this is sorta last minute to confront you about it, but I suspected from day one. Hell, all I've been trying to do these days is convince both of you idjits to listen to reason, but I could tell it fell on deaf ears. I ain't stupid."

"I... Bobby... he's my brother." A buzzer went off in the room, indicating they had two minutes left. Dean's shoulders sagged. "I ain't gonna let him die."

"Yeah, all right. But you know he's the same about you, right?"

"I... he said that?"

The notion shouldn't have made his pulse pick up and his chest warm with incredulous gratitude.

"Yep. So the plan's to only be apart at the start?" Bobby said, businesslike now.

"For as long as we can, yeah."

"Okay. I'll get as many of the sponsored gifts to you before then, but son, if you make it to the final two... it'll get ugly. I'm sorry to say I can guarantee that."

"There's nothing they can throw at us, Bobby," Dean replied, unapologetically. "Nothing that would make us turn."

"... I believe you."

Another buzzer went off, and the door opened. Two City guards came inside.

One of them pushed Bobby aside. "On the platform, kid," he said to Dean. "If you don't do as we say, we have ways of forcing--"

"Relax, cupcake. I'm going."

Dean raised his palms and stepped inside the circle.

"In one minute this platform will raise you onto the Arena. You are to wait another minute before you step onto the terrain. If you attempt to step outside before then, you will be killed. If you attempt to disable the platform mechanism before then, you will be killed. If one of the Gamemakers decides you're looking mighty twitchy for his or her taste, you will be killed. Got it?"

"Got it."

There was a whirring noise and then the ground beneath Dean's feet started to vibrate. He turned to Bobby.

"Watch out for Sam, okay?"

"I'll watch out for both of you, Dean. Good luck, and good hunting."

The ceiling above his head opened in order to allow the platform to lift him through, and Dean blinked as the morning sunlight blinded him.

As his eyes adjusted to the brightness the mechanism whirred to a stop, in time for him to hear the infamous commentator's amplified voice ring across the terrain:

"Hi, hello. I-I'm Chuck Shurley and welcome, to the sixty-seventh annual Hunter Games. So without, er, without further ado... I present to you the twenty-four Tributes from Districts One to Twelve.

"Let the Games begin!"

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Sam

 

Sam blinked furiously against the sunlight, trying to see past his watery eyes, impatient for his vision to adjust; he needed to find Dean before he could let himself care about the Arena or try to locate a weapon.

Once he could distinguish shapes and outlines he realized that at either side of him stood Madison and Andy, each in their own concrete circle with a District number, but he didn’t do more than spare them a glance.

They were in a wide plain, too large to be really called a clearing, with ankle-high grass and dense trees ranging the far sides. It was perfectly circular, clearly artificial, and undoubtedly created for the Games. Since so much hydraulics and technology was involved inside the Arena (including the dozens of hidden cameras), the terrain itself was often specifically designed to accommodate it.

This year was obviously set in the woods. Sam might have felt relieved or triumphant if he had the time, but what he wanted right now was to find--

Dean. Finally.

He was looking straight at Sam, from nearly the other end of the Circle. If he'd been further to the right, exactly opposite Sam, the Cornucopia would have blocked him from view. As it was, Sam couldn’t really distinguish Dean’s expression, he was so far away, but his brother’s stance was obviously one of preparation to run.

In fact, the Hunters were all readying themselves to either sprint forward or take off towards the trees, shifting into position out of the corner of Sam’s eye. Not far from Dean’s spot, Gordon Walker was looking straight at the Cornucopia, and it was clear what his intent was.

The horn was gigantic, gleaming and sparkling in the morning rays of sun, and inside it Sam could see food packs, weapons, survival kits...

Ten,” Chuck’s voice said startlingly.

Sam's eyes snapped back to Dean.

Nine.”

Dean half-turned, but didn’t break their gaze. Even from this distance, Sam thought he saw his brother’s eyes widen.

Eight.”

Dean was mouthing something at him. Sam strained his sight to understand, but he couldn’t—“Seven”—couldn’t tell...

Six.”

Sam shook his head, desperate, and Dean stopped trying to make himself understood (“Five”). Instead he gave Sam what appeared to be an attempt at a reassuring smile.

Four.”

Shaky with adrenalin and fear, Sam smiled back, body tensing to run as well.

Three.”

“Sam!”

At the sharp call of his name Sam turned. It was Madison, gesturing frantically to the woods behind them.

Two. One.”

There was an earsplitting blast of sound, and then... all hell broke loose.

Sam whirled around, new boots squeaking in the concrete, but Dean wasn’t in his place anymore and everything around him was chaos. Shouts and yelps of pain were already audible over the vestigial ringing in Sam's head, and then he heard a horrible gurgling cry that meant one thing and one thing only; it was time to run.

“Sam!”

The instant’s hesitation his worry for Dean cost him meant Madison was nearly at the tree line by the time Sam started to run.

“Wait, wait for me!” someone cried desperately.

He suspected it was Andy who followed, but didn’t check to make sure. Behind him, Sam knew people were dying; Christ, he knew even Andy might be in danger unless he could outpace his pursuer, but for Dean, for Dean, he had to force himself to keep moving, to not look back, to not care--

Until a loud scream of pure terror rent the air seconds later and Sam thought; Jo! and his body twisted around without his consent... just in time to see Olivia from District Two crush a boy from District One’s (Richie? Reggie?) windpipe. The girl who’d screamed was impossible to distinguish; individual scuffles had broken out and everything was chaos back there, and maybe it hadn't even been Jo in the first place, what the hell was he thinking...?

Dean was gone.

“Sam!”

Andy had reached him and gave him a passing shove. Sam got his head together and turned away again, this time determined.

Madison was already well into the trees, jumping over bushes with graceful leaps by the time Sam and Andy sprinted into the forest. The leaves filtered the light in here, made it a little bit eerie, a little bit dark, and tinged green.

“Ava was next to me...” Andy panted. “She was right there...”

Sam scanned the surrounding area. “She could have gone anywhere, Andy—“

But even as he said the words, there was the sound of crunching footsteps to their left, and both boys stared as Ava crashed through the undergrowth and hurtled towards them on surprisingly fast feet.

“Guys!” she gasped, tears already streaming down her face even though she didn’t stop running, and they hadn’t either. “Oh my god, oh my god...”

“Hang in there, Ava,” Sam said. “We have to keep going for a while, just hang on—“

“I know, I know,” she sobbed, hiccupping for breath.

After a short minute Madison became visible again as a dark slender shape up ahead, but just as Sam opened his mouth to call out to her there was an unexpected noise to their right, and the four of them stumbled to a halt.

“What—who was that?” Andy whispered, too loud. Ava shushed him, but the damage had been done. The noise stopped abruptly.

“Dammit,” they heard Madison breathe, but she didn’t take off alone and abandon them, even though she probably could have.

Sam could distinguish two figures. Two Hunters. As they drew closer he realized it was a guy and a girl.

“Jake?”

“Lily!”

They greeted each other warmly, but the relief everybody felt was going to be short-lived, and Sam could sense that they all knew it. Now that they were actually in the Games, the pseudo-camaraderie that had tentatively united the group was more fragile than ever.

The thing was, see, that they'd never actually said it; not during training and not now, either. They had just happened to sit together and sometimes train together and, well, it seemed destiny had seen fit to keep them together during the Games as well. How delightfully coincidental. The alliance was implied, because if they tried to put this into words it would break, instantly turned brittle.

“Man, I’m real glad none of you’s dead yet,” Jake said drily.

There was an extremely awkward attempt at hysterical giggling. As it died down the sounds from the plain were still dimly in the background; very faint screams, and then a gunshot.

So there were guns in the Cornucopia.

“Which way?” Lily asked Sam.

They were all looking at him.

“Further in for now,” he said, more decisively than he felt. “We’ll need to find water soon. Did anyone get a pack?”

Everyone shook their heads.

“Okay. Then water first. After that...” he couldn’t think of anything to say that could shed a positive light on the current situation. “Uh, we’ll see,” he finished lamely.

“All right,” Ava said. She’d stopped crying and was wiping her nose with the dark sleeve of her jacket.

“Then let’s go.”

They jogged steadily deeper into the woods, and as they ran Sam heard Ava ask Lily if she’d seen anyone die yet.

“Both Hunters from Five,” Lily replied, panting a little with exertion.

“The guy from One,” Sam added.

“Right, and Isaac, from Seven. Tamara managed to get a machete, though, and she's alive and kicking.”

“Did Gordon make it?” Andy said.

“Oh yeah, last I saw him he and his group had surrounded the Cornucopia and were arguing over the gun.”

Sam picked up on her phrasing. “One gun?”

“Yeah,” Jake put in. “Just the one, but I saw several bows, I think at least one crossbow, and knives and shit. Tons of food—“

“We should pick a direction,” Madison called back. She’d taken lead and didn’t even sound a little bit tired. Sam had known she was in shape, of course, but he was starting to think he’d underestimated her.

She was right, too; simply moving forward wouldn’t guarantee they’d come across a body of water.

“How?” Andy asked. They all ground to a stop again between two tall oaks.

“We head downhill,” Sam said. “There’s bound to be a stream or something nearby, to supply all this vegetation. The soil is soft. Plus watching us die from dehydration has to be boring.”

It occurred to him as he spoke that there was every chance a hidden camera was filming him right at this second. What a weird thought.

“I agree. This way seems to be downhill, right?” Madison said, pointing.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go.”

At first the terrain only slanted very slightly, but after a long hour of walking in total silence, the angle started to become more pronounced.

“That’s a good sign, right?” Andy ventured, breaking the tense quiet.

“Yeah,” Sam replied vaguely. It was hard to focus on anything other that the fact that he didn’t know for sure if Dean was alive.

“So any ideas for lunch?” Andy asked.

“Somehow I doubt lunch is on the menu,” Ava said, voice thready. “Right, Sam?”

“Our walking has just scared every animal within a mile radius, but there might be some roots we can eat,” Sam said, trying to sound encouraging.

“Roots. Yay,” Andy deadpanned.

“It’s been, like, an hour, Andy,” Lily muttered. “How are you even hungry right now?”

“I’m planning ahead, okay? Be nice.”

“Bite me.”

Andy looked stunned by Lily’s refusal to do as he’d said, which Sam thought was a bit much, seeing as how Lily rarely did as she was told anyway.

Shh.”

Madison raised a hand and everyone froze.

“Hear that?” she mouthed. Sam strained to listen.

Out of nowhere, an arrow struck Madison’s shoulder and she fell to the floor, spinning with the force of the blow.

“Madison!” Ava shouted, eyes wide with terror.

Jake and Sam turned to face the direction from which the arrow had come, but before anyone could really react Andy screamed; “Stop shooting!”

To Sam’s amazement, there were no more arrows. For a moment there reigned a tense, expectant silence, and then Andy added: “Show yourself. Don’t shoot.”

A sort rustle, and then Olivia Lowry emerged from behind a tree. She had an arrow cocked and ready to fly, but although her arms were shaking with tension she didn’t release it.

“How are you doing that?” Lily whispered, gaping at Andy.

From the ground came an ugly, wet cough, and Sam remembered Madison. Keeping an eye on Olivia and her trembling limbs, he slowly made his way to where the bleeding girl lay.

“Give us your weapon and stay still,” Andy’s voice ordered. He sounded shaken and terrified, but Olivia instantly threw down the bow. Ava, who stood the closest to her, picked it up after a second’s hesitation.

Madison coughed again just as Sam dropped to his knees beside her. Once he took in the damage, he realized that she wasn’t going to make it. The arrow hadn't struck her shoulder as he'd first thought; it was lodged high up on the right side of her chest and had almost definitely pierced a lung. In the Arena that equaled a death sentence.

“We can’t let her go,” Lily said into the silence. Olivia remained frozen in place, seemingly docile. “We have to kill her. It’s... we have to. Right?”

“Yes,” Jake said firmly.

“W-what?” Ava stuttered. “Just like that? B-but Andy, why is she just standing there? How did you get her to drop the bow? What’s going on?”

“I think we can discuss this later,” Sam said. He saw the future in his dreams sometimes; maybe Andy had secrets of his own. “I’m sorry Ava, but we have to do it.”

Sam made himself look at Olivia. She was still standing there like a statue, but her eyes were wide and wild. Killing her like this wouldn’t feel like self-defense, he thought, a chill going down his spine. This felt cold-blooded. This felt like murder.

But then Sam thought of Dean.

Olivia was strong, clearly trained, independent and smart. If she was out of the picture she was no longer a threat to Dean. Everyone around him would need to die eventually, Sam reminded himself. Cold-blooded as it may feel, Olivia had shot at them, and while that didn’t make it right, Sam knew it to be necessary. Necessary for Dean. It was the means to an end. The means to winning the Games with his brother. A way of protecting Dean, really.

It must be done.

“I’ll do it,” he heard himself volunteer.

“That’s okay, Sam,” Jake said. “You stay with Madison.” The Hunter turned to Andy wearily. “You can make her do anything you want?”

Andy gulped, never looking away from the older girl. “I think so.”

“Can you make her kill herself?”

Andy’s eyes widened, even though he should have seen that coming. “N-no! I can’t... please don’t ask me to do that. Please.”

Jake’s jaw clenched. “Can you make her walk, then.”

“Yes. I... yes. Her name’s Olivia, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Okay. Uh, Olivia?” Andy’s voice shook noticeably.

“Yes?” Her voice sounded so weirdly... polite.

“Walk twenty paces away.”

“Sure," Olivia said softly and left. Jake went after her.

Madison was starting to tremble in Sam’s arms, and her mouth was glistening red.

“Sssam...” she hissed and tugged at his jacket collar. Sam lowered his head.

“Yes?”

“Will you do something for me?”

Sam swallowed. “Anything.”

Watery eyes fixed on his with bright intensity. “You’re gonna win, Sam,” she whispered. “I know it. So. I’d rather go as the girl who was killed by the Champion than the girl who choked on her own blood.” She spat out a glob of scarlet spit, some of it dribbling into her chin. Her voice was so weak. “I heard... it’s supposed to be awful. Choking to death. Hurts... hurts already. I don’t want to go like that.”

Sam felt his own eyes start to prick with unshed tears. He knew what came next. God dammit he was certain.

“So... will you help me?”

Sam let out the breath he’d been holding in a hiccuping gasp. “Madison...”

“Please?” she breathed. “Don’t let me go like that. Please help me.”

It would be selfish to say no. He couldn’t. But out of everyone he’d met at the Training Center, Madison had been one of the last people he’d expected to be his first kill. Hell, hadn't it been just minutes ago that he'd been considering her a serious contender to win?

“I..." he didn't want to cry, didn't want to appear weak before the others and least of all he didn't want millions of viewers to see him like this--because this was being filmed, right now, he was certain; a dramatic death scene would make the cut for sure--but she was so brave, so kind, even now looking up at him with enormous eyes full of pity and asking him to kill her.

"I want it to be you," she said, so soft he barely understood her. Except he did.

"Okay." He was nodding almost mechanically. "Okay, yes, I'll... okay."

“Thank you,” she mouthed, forcing a painful, watery smile.

"Arrow to the heart ought to do it." Jake’s voice was low and upset, but Sam startled at the sound anyway. If Jake was back then Olivia was already dead.

"I know."

Sam stood up from his crouch and turned to Ava, who still clutched the bow, white-knuckled.

She was chalk-pale and didn’t say a word when Sam held out a hand for the weapon, just thrust it at him and closed her eyes, as though this wouldn’t be happening if she didn’t see it.

From the ground, Madison gave another horrible, gurgling cough. It wouldn't be long before she passed out from either the pain or the blood-loss.

"G-get on with it, will you?" she said in a thready wisp of a voice. Sam flinched, full-body.

The bow was well-crafted but old-fashioned; wooden and solid, and it had probably been too heavy for Olivia's size, despite her level of physical fitness. It was perfect for Sam’s build. He lifted it slowly and nocked the arrow, stretching the cord taut, letting himself test the tension and power contained in his arms, held back by three carefully-placed fingers. The angle was terrible from his current position. Madison lay on the ground, which meant that he'd have to go back pretty far to manage a good shot, but the forest was too dense to provide a clear path through the trees from such a distance. He risked not doing it right and causing Madison even more pain.

He found himself hesitating and wishing for a gun.

"Sam?" Ava asked, frowning. "What is it?"

Sam shook his head and forced his arm to relax so he could walk away, try to find a place where he might do this. Because Madison had asked him to. He had to.

"Sam?" Andy called. Still, Sam didn't answer.

"Sam, wait," Lily blurted out unexpectedly. "I... I can do it."

"What?"

They all turned to stare at her. She was agitated, hands balled into fists at her sides and posture rigid, but there was also a hard determination in her eyes. "As long as we're... admitting weird stuff." She glanced at Andy, who was still clearly upset about Olivia. "I... I also have a freaky ability."

Sam's jaw dropped. What the hell was going on here?

"You what?"

Lily's eyes were red and bright, like she, too, was seconds away from crying. "I... I have a curse," she said. "For... for some years now--since I became a teenager, I--" she gulped, shuddered. "When I touch people... I can make their hearts stop."

"... How?" Jake asked in his deep voice.

"I don't know." A single tear made its way down her cheek. "I d-don't know, I just know that I have to concentrate really hard for it not to happen, and--" a cough from Madison made her falter. "I... it would be quick. It's always... it would be quick, if she wanted."

But even though he was still reeling from this new revelation, Sam had promised.

"Lily, I understand it must have been difficult for you to offer," he began, tone soothing. "But I said I'd do this, and I have to. I... I promised."

Lily looked relieved. "Okay." She nodded. "Okay, I just... I thought--"

"Thank you."

Sam started to walk away again, his mind racing and his thoughts in turmoil. Something strange was happening in these Hunter Games, something that had never happened before. Some Tributes were... what, supernatural? Andy could tell people what to do and they did it; Lily could apparently stop somebody's heart with just a touch, and Sam had suspected something was suspicious about Jake as well, since their training sessions.

He pushed it all to the back of his head, trying to focus on one problem at a time.

The arrow would have to enter through Madison's stomach, below her sternum because there was a better chance of it piercing her heart if he didn't have to worry about it lodging on bone. There wouldn't be much resistance from Madison's intestines; the sharp metal tip would tear right through, bursting blood vessels and ripping organs apart, sinking underneath the protective cage of her ribs.

He felt a twinge of nausea as he determined he'd moved far enough. The other four Hunters were staring at him.

Sam knew he couldn't be sure, but he thought Madison lifted her head a little, looked him straight in the eye, blood-spattered and crying and so brave, right before he let the arrow fly.

He didn't miss.

 

Dean

 

"Dean," Bela hissed. "Focus."

"I'm focused," Dean snapped at her, gun gripped in hand. He may be worried about Sammy but he could fucking multitask. Sadly, he voiced this reply a bit more loudly than he'd intended, and the rabbit they'd been attempting to hunt scurried away and was immediately lost to the underbrush.

Bela snorted and straightened her posture, no longer bothering to move quietly. "Sure you are. You’re also aware of the fact that your thigh holster is currently residing around your ankle, then?”

She was right. Dean swore and stopped walking long enough to hitch the holster up his leg and tighten it more firmly around the meat of his thigh; not constricting enough to threaten his circulation but definitely so that it didn’t fall down again.

“There. You look so much prettier now, darling.”

“Shut up.”

Bela eyed him pityingly for a moment and then shrugged. “We really should have had angry sex when we had the chance.”

Dean quirked an eyebrow at her, but was mildly surprised to discover that the notion didn’t even register as interest the way it might have a week ago. How could he think of sex right now when his mind was full of Sam? How could he, when all he could think about was the ridiculous promise Sam had managed to extract for him, and how much Dean regretted making it?

There had been sex scenes in the Games before; very rare but amazingly popular. Apparently the feeling that you might die any second lent this desperate edge to people’s libidos? Dean wasn’t really feeling it. He just wanted Sam with him, safe. And if he was honest with himself, he also wanted to go back to last night, in Sam's room, and ignore the unspoken rule about Winchesters not hugging unless it was a life-or-death situation (which, in any case, this was). Now that it was no longer a possibility, he wanted to wrap his arms around Sammy, feel the warm, live body strong and powerful against his, breathe in Sam’s scent and know Sam was okay. They hadn’t really embraced in a long time, but Dean could remember Sam’s habit of burying his face in the juncture of Dean’s neck and shoulder. Sam was taller now, broader, but he’d probably still... he might still do it, if Dean ever summoned the courage to let himself sound so damn needy, asking for something like that.

God, he was pathetic.

“Are you seriously still angsting about your brother? It’s been a few hours, honey. Let it go.” When he didn’t answer (or, indeed, react much at all), Bela added: “You realize there’s a chance he’s de—“

“Don’t,” Dean snapped immediately. “I...” but even now he might be on camera, so he reeled in his fury. “I’d rather wait ‘till tonight to think about it. When they announce the deaths. He... he’s still my brother.”

Bela’s large clear eyes told him she knew his words were an act.

“Sure thing,” she said, skeptical, and Dean glared at her.

They walked on in silence. Bela had fastened a ponytail for her auburn locks out of a reed from the little stream they were following, and it swung hypnotically side to side as she strode on in front of Dean. Her steps were sure and thankfully quiet, despite the bed of dried leaves littering the forest that would give a lesser Hunter away.

Dean wondered whether she’d still be so composed in a week, if they lived that long, with no showers and no eyeliner and no clean clothes. He thought she might, actually.

Together, they had managed to steal a pack off of the only other Tribute they’d run into so far; Creedy, from District Ten. The guy had been part of Gordon’s retinue during training but he must have chickened out of the Cornucopia fight at the last minute and run off into the woods instead. Dean was used to seeing Kubrick with him back at the Training Center but Creedy had been alone, so they could only assume the religious nut had stayed behind with the rest of the band.

Bela had been the one to kill Creedy but Dean had disarmed him and taken the pack first, so they’d split its contents between them. Bela kept a butterfly knife and Dean took the gun (holster included), even though upon inspection it was revealed to shoot tranq darts and not bullets. Still, it came with ten rounds and could be very useful, since the only food inside the bag was a loaf of stale bread and some strips of dried meat.

They'd been left alone for the entire morning and most of the evening, which Dean figured was because there was some more exciting drama going on with the other Hunters. Cornucopia scenes always provided loads of gore and action, or maybe another group of Tributes had already turned on each other; something nerve-wracking to keep the viewers interested.

He wasn’t thinking about Sam.

Amazingly, night fell and still nothing came after them. They didn't run into any more Hunters and there were no freaky fires or unexpected hail raining from the sky, no killer bees or convenient earthquakes sent by the Gamemakers. Once they found an acceptable place to camp that was near the stream, Bela suggested they set up their meager possessions and sleep by alternating watches, then threatened to disembowel Dean if he so much as thought about attacking her while she rested.

"Man, you weren't held much as a baby, were you?"

Something ugly flashed in Bela's expression. "Do you really want to go into family issues right now? Because I have made a few interesting observations regarding you on that subject—“

"Whoa, hey, just trying to lighten the mood."

"Well don't. This is merely an alliance of convenience for now, correct? There's absolutely no need for small talk."

Dean raised his palms in surrender. "Fine. Whatever." He tried to make himself comfortable by bunching up Creedy's backpack into some sort of pillow, since it would surely get too cold in the night to take off his jacket, but he knew he wouldn't sleep for a while yet.

At midnight, Chuck Shurley would announce the dead.

They both waited out the minutes in alert, tense silence, having agreed not to light a fire since Bela had pointed out that that would be roughly equivalent to yelling: Hi, here camp two morons, please come kill us! And Dean hadn’t disabused her of the notion. He’d wait to signal Sammy later in the Games, once he knew Sam was all right. When it was closer to the end.

"Goodnight, Hunters!"

Dean knew Chuck's voice must be coming from speakers set up somewhere in the vicinity, but he had no idea where they were, and to his recollection no Tribute had ever found them. Once, and only once, a District Three Tribute had found one of the hidden cameras. She'd died about an hour later: freak lightning-storm, spectacularly fried where she'd stood.

"The daily tally is... seven."

Seven. That left fifteen Hunters besides Dean and Bela.

Dean wasn't religious, but suddenly he found himself praying one of those fifteen alive was Sam, please, God. Sammy must have lived, he must, or Dean was going to ask Bela to stab him in the gut and die the most agonizing, messy, slow and tortuous of deaths.

"From District One: Richie Jameson. From District Two: Olivia Lowry. From District Five: Steve Bose and Nancy Fitzgerald. From District Seven: Isaac Allen. From District Eight: Madison Peters--" Bela drew in a sharp breath but Dean's stomach flipped and for one sickening moment all that he was was happy, because six down and one to go meant Sam was alive, Creedy was dead so Sammy was alive and still fighting. "--from District Nine: Creedence McCoy. To the remaining contestants: good luck, and good hunting."

Yes. Thank you, yes, yes.

He felt bad, after. Once the crazed rush of euphoria and adrenalin passed and he remembered Madison's eyeroll at her stupid stylist and the way she always checked out Sam when Sammy was too distracted training to notice. Madison had been strong and smart and hot and she'd had a charmingly wry smile, and she hadn't deserved to die, just as none of the other Tributes had.

Bela didn't cry or anything, but Dean offered to take first watch anyway.

*

They devoted the second day to hunting for food. The meat strips would still keep because they'd been salted, so Dean reasoned they ought to hold out from eating them as long as they could, even if his stomach had been rumbling since yesterday. The bread, on the other hand, they finished for breakfast.

They kept near the riverbank because there was no easy way of carrying water and so far the stream had proven to be potable (not a given with the Gamemakers, and not an assurance that it would remain that way either, but it was the best they could do).

Bela never suggested actively searching out potential Tribute victims, and neither did Dean. It was a relatively companionable silence as they worked together. Sam was a way better tracker than Bela but she did all right for a rich chick who'd never had to hunt her lunch before.

In retrospect, Dean should have expected what happened next.

He should have remembered how the Games worked, how the Gamemakers loved to mess with Hunters' heads and how if something seemed too easy or too simple then it was definitely a trap, the deceptive lull before thunder. He should have recalled all those times cursing a Tribute’s lack of awareness, snarling ‘Open your eyes, sucker, can’t you see they want to lure you into a false sense of security?’. Sam would always turn off the TV then, or gently remind Dean that they couldn’t really know what one went through in that kind of situation.

Sometimes, see, the Hunters became the hunted. And Dean should have known.

It came in the form of a soft, thin sound, a twig breaking not far from where Dean and Bela had concealed themselves behind some bushes. Unfortunately the squirrel Dean had been aiming at with his tranq gun scurried away, and beside him Bela swore.

Then he heard the sound again, and the back of his neck prickled. They were in danger. He was aware of this instantly and terribly, with a sixth-sense sort of certainty that he couldn't have explained if asked to justify it.

“What—“ Bela started to say, and he clamped a hand over her indignant mouth, motioning for her to be silent.

There. There it was again; the soft sound of a twig breaking, followed by leaves crunching under the weight of a foot.

And then a growl.

So... maybe not a foot.

Bela's eyes widened; she'd heard it too. Dean removed his hand and turned around, gun ready.

"It wouldn't be the first time there's been animals in the Arena," Bela breathed. "You think there's more in these woods than just us?"

"Remember that year in the desert? With the scorpions?" he whispered back, straining to listen, to see. "That year sucked."

"The champion died from poisoning a week after the Games ended." Bela gave a delicate little snort. "'Sucked' is a bit of an understatement, don't you think?"

There was another rustle and they both went quiet.

And then, out of nowhere, the bushes right behind Bela exploded, and an enormous creature leapt out of them.

The thing moved so fast it registered only as a blur of dark fur that careened into the girl. Dean scrambled to his feet, shooting at it without a thought, but although the dart flew true and struck its side, there seemed to be no effect. He recharged the gun anyway, on automatic, and tried to aim for its head.

Its massive claws ripped right through the arm of Bela's jacket and she tried to get away, but it had her pinned. The creature was vaguely wolf-shaped, only it was much too large to be any ordinary wolf; some Gamemaker mutation maybe. Dean fired again but missed because it moved its head in the last second to close a slobbering, sharp-toothed mouth over Bela's shoulder. Bela cried out in pain as blood welled up around the muzzle, and Dean aimed for one large red eye and let loose yet another dart. This time he hit it spot-on and the wolf yowled, then snarled deep in its throat and shook its head, stopping its attack on Bela to try and dislodge the dart.

"Come on!" Dean shouted. "Pick on someone... still nowhere near your size!" Bela let out a whimper of pain as the wolf stepped away from her and stalked towards Dean, who started stumbling backwards to get away. The thing was so freaking huge that its head was level with his chest and holy shit, was it fast.

"Dean--"

"Can you run?" he yelled over the rumble of the wolf's angry growl. When he got no answer he sneaked a glance Bela's way. She was struggling to lift herself up without putting any weight on her mangled arm, and when the wolf had walked over her it'd dug a hind leg into her stomach. "Bela! Can you run?"

"I think so," she called back, strained but firm. "Yes!"

The wolf barked at Dean, as though it was offended it didn't have his full attention, and that was when he realized it didn't really look like a wolf so much as a gigantic dog. And he had a sneaking suspicion he knew exactly what kind of dog this was.

"Then go!"

Bela gasped, although whether in pain or at his order Dean had no idea. He was a little busy turning to break into a run for his life. "What...? No!"

"Are we really gonna do the noble thing?" Dean shouted, throwing himself to the side as the hound lunged. Luckily, the thing's massive bulk didn't lend it much agility in these dense woods, but as Dean scrambled to his feet again and sprinted in the opposite direction he heard crashing behind him so loud he was sure at least a couple of trees had been uprooted in the creature's wake.

"You just did the noble thing, you idiot! I can't leave you now!"

Dean let out a slightly hysterical laugh because Bela sounded genuinely regretful that she couldn't abandon him to die. It occurred to him then that he'd had a perfect opportunity to escape an ugly death by dismemberment and get rid of a fellow competitor in one go, but it hadn't even crossed his mind to let Bela die.

So much for the noble thing.

"I thought this was just a convenient alliance for you!" Dean ducked under a branch and turned sharply to go back in Bela's direction yet again, and he heard rather than saw the hound stumble to chase after him. "Never knew you cared!"

"God, just run, Dean!"

An idea occurred to Dean as he abruptly veered to the left and nearly tripped over a gnarled root.

"Bobby?" He hollered up at the sky. Exciting killer hound chase was definitely worth some airtime, right? "A rifle right now would be pretty helpful! Just saying!"

He wasn't sure how long he could keep this up, aside from the fact that the answer was in the realm of 'not very'.

At his back an earsplitting crash signaled yet another fallen tree.

Dean sprinted by the place where he was sure Bela had been moments ago and found it empty. He stumbled to a halt and looked around wildly for—ah.

"Smart girl," he muttered with a wry grin and broke into a run again.

Bela was climbing the largest tree with the thickest trunk.

Dean had no time to attempt to do the same, though, because seconds later there was a crash in front of him and he though God, please, not another one--but then he realized it wasn't a threat at all. It was his salvation.

Hanging from a small parachute caught in a low branch was a gun. Dean ran past it at a speed that didn't allow for careful removal, so he grabbed and tugged until it was basically ripped from its convenient placing.

Sponsored weapons were incredibly expensive and after a quick glance Dean noted that what he held in his hand was, in fact, a sort of flare gun, already loaded with a single shot. It was still way more than he'd dared to hope for.

Looked like his and Sam's plan was working.

He only had one shot, but the sound of the hound's growls behind him was suddenly close enough that Dean had no choice; without stopping to think about it he twisted his body around mid-leap through the air and fired.

The target was impossible to miss; enormous shaggy head of the thing mere inches behind him. The spitting fiery missile hit it right between the eyes.

Dean didn't stop to check that it was dead; he kept the gun and went straight to Bela's tree.

"You okay up there?" he called.

She'd seen everything and was already making her way down, moving gingerly and wincing every few seconds.

"I'll live," she replied tremulously. "For now." An injury at this stage was almost surely lethal, no matter that it wasn't fatally immobilizing, and her words were heavy with this knowledge.

When she reached the lowest branches (still a good few feet above the ground, and Dean had no clue how she'd gotten up in the first place) there was a loud howl of pain from somewhere not nearly far enough.

Not dead, then. Holy crap, the hound's skull must be made of freaking iron.

"Jump," Dean said.

"Excuse me?"

Dean tucked the gun into the back of his pants and extended his arms.

"Do the damsel-saves-herself thing later, okay? There's no time, just jump."

Bela glared down at him, panting. Now that he could see her face clearly Dean realized that she was chalk-pale and sweating, not to mention she had a mangled scarlet shoulder and a bleeding stomach. Adrenalin had gotten her up there but unless she jumped Bela would not be getting back down.

“Come on,” he hissed. “Gotta give your sponsors a chance to send medical supplies and shit, right? I’ll catch you, I promise.”

A high bark decided for her, and Bela gave a jerky nod. With a small whimper of pain she swung herself down, one-armed, and let go. Dean caught her with a grunt of effort (light or no, fully-grown twenty-year-old woman dropping from several feet above; he was lucky not to have fallen over).

“I can walk—“ Bela started to say, but she sounded incredibly weak, and her gaze was unfocused.

“Well, we gotta run,” Dean replied and took off without looking back.

*

Bela’s sponsors didn’t send help.

Dean made camp for the night in a spot on the other side of the small river, hoping that the running water might do something to deter the hound if it came back. The creature must have been in too much pain to follow them immediately, or maybe it had died soon after they left. Dean desperately hoped it was the latter but knew it was the most unlikely.

By the time he’d managed to find the stream again, Bela was passed out, and Dean couldn’t feel his arms. He set her limp body down with as much care as he could while his muscles cramped and screamed in protest and knew he wouldn’t leave her there to die.

He then removed her shredded jacket and tore it into strips, even though it went against everything the Games were about and Bobby was probably screaming with rage at his screen right now. Ignoring the imagined protests in his mind, Dean fastened a bandage for Bela’s shoulder as best as he could and lifted up her shirt to examine her stomach.

The gash didn’t look very deep and it had stopped bleeding already, so the primary danger was definitely infection from the bite instead—

“Dean?”

Dean snapped his gaze up to Bela’s face and was relieved to note her eyes were sharp and alert.

“What in hell’s name are you doing?” she asked wearily.

“Wasn’t feeling you up, that’s for sure,” Dean joked, covering her stomach with the shirt once more.

Dean. What the hell—“

“Do you know what that thing was?” He interrupted. “Giant dog with a taste for human flesh? Bet they don’t teach about those on your shiny District.”

“They do, actually. Hellhounds, right?”

Hellhounds. That wasn’t the technical term for them but Dean had forgotten the proper name and everyone called them hellhounds anyway. They were mutations bred for the war against the Districts long ago and survived to this day to guard District fences and fuel the nightmares of little District children. Sam and Dean had grown up hearing about them from John and Pastor Jim, along with the cautionary tales about Thirteen, the obscure Hell District. As far as Dean knew, there was no relation between the monstruous dogs and the abandoned land, despite the hellish theme.

"Canis Cerberus. The hounds of hell." Bela exhaled slowly. “What are you doing, Dean?” she asked again.

Being glorified guard dogs wasn’t the only thing these creatures could do, however.

Once a hellhound got a taste of your blood, it was over. They were brilliant trackers. It would track you until you died or it did, and unless the one back there had succumbed to its injuries, it would hunt Bela forever. It had scented Dean, too, which was bad enough, but Bela was--

“I’m a dead girl,” she said with surprising steadiness. “Dead girl talking. There’s the noble thing and then there’s the stupid thing, and believe you me, you bypassed ‘noble’ a couple of hours ago.”

Dean knew that Bela had become a liability. Aside from having become a hellhound beacon, she’d be difficult to move, couldn’t hunt, and most importantly she needed medical care that they didn’t have. Her sponsors had already given up, probably moved on to another Tribute, were desperately trying to place last-minute bets and change their assets.

But she expected—what? That he’d shrug, say ‘Sure, you’re totally right’ and walk away?

“I never claimed to be all that smart, sweetheart,” he quipped, distractedly tightening the knot around Bela’s arm.

“This is beyond dumb,” Bela said. “Every second you spend with me is a second the people watching us question your sanity. Why are you doing this?”

Dean didn’t have a good answer to that, except for ‘How can I not?’. He was fully aware of the level of idiocy it represented; didn’t mean he could bring himself to do anything about it.

And then, unexpectedly, Bela smiled; dawning understanding making her features soften. “Oh, I see. You act all tough, but deep down you’re just squishy and vulnerable, aren’t you?”

Dean quirked an eyebrow at her. “Excuse me?”

“You know I’m not gonna make it.” He didn’t contradict her. “And you know it won’t be long now. So... this is just you making me comfortable, isn’t it? Keeping me company, making sure I don’t die cold and alone?”

“Uh...”

“You’re really something, Dean Winchester,” she said with a little sigh. “But this wound isn’t going to finish me off in time, and we both know it. When I die—“ her voice shook only a little. “—it’ll be because of that hellhound. And you don’t want to be there when that happens.”

“Who says I—“

“Oh shut up. Your best bet would be to kill me, but I’m not going to ask you to do it and you’re not going to volunteer, so why don’t we skip that unpleasantness altogether?” Dean rolled his eyes and Bela’s smile returned. “I’ll tell you what, cowboy. You let me keep this pretty knife—“ she motioned to the butterfly blade tucked into her waistband. “—so I can go down fighting, and I let you keep the pack and everything in it. Sound fair?”

Dean pretended to consider it.

Or,” he said pointedly. “We stick together ‘till death do us part, how's that sound?"

"Dean--"

"Come on, I ain't gonna leave you here," he said, starting to feel annoyed. "Let's just sleep for now and if you’re feeling up to it, you can ditch me in the middle of the night.”

In the end, he managed to get Bela to agree to sleep (alternating shifts again, of course) and only woke for a brief moment to Chuck Shurley's voice announcing one death for the day: Steve Wendell of District Eleven, the guy Sam had wished 'good luck' that one time.

Dean felt his muscles relax in relief that Sam was still okay, and as he closed his eyes once more a small voice inside of him whispered; eight down, fourteen to go.

Bela was pale and drawn the next morning, but she hadn’t left during her shift and she ate the strip of salted meat Dean gave her without protest. The wound on her shoulder had swollen and soaked through the bandage, but she refused to make a big deal out of it and simply dipped the rags in the water to clean them and let them dry before re-tying the whole thing herself.

Dean managed to kill a rabbit and Bela collected a decent amount of edible roots that day (one-armed and everything), and around dusk Dean’s sponsors sent an empty water bottle via parachute, which in a way told him he’d done well not to abandon Bela cold-heartedly. At least some people seemed to value that as halfway decent.

“We should get away from the river now that we can carry water,” Bela said. “If it’s the only one in the Arena we risk a confrontation with others.”

Dean agreed, so further into the woods it was. The layout of the Arena in his head told him they were walking further away from the Cornucopia but that was a good thing. He was almost sure that was where Gordon and his boy band had camped, which meant those guys had most of the weapons, limitless food and who knew what else.

Hopefully he and Bela were also walking away from the hellhound.

Two more days passed and they remained undisturbed. Every night Dean listened for the daily tally and every night he unclenched his fists when Chuck didn’t say Sam’s name. There were no deaths, in fact, during that time. Dean knew this wouldn’t last long, that something was going to force a confrontation between two teams soon, but he wasn’t even going to glance at the gift horse because Bela was actually recovering a little and their food supplies were starting to make the pack comfortably heavy.

Naturally, that night everything went wrong.

 

Sam

They'd found a very small stream on the second day thanks to one of Jake’s sponsors, right when dehydration was threatening to become a very serious possibility. A parachute had come down with a conveniently vague map that had indications to the nearest source of potable water, which they’d followed successfully.

By the third day, Sam suggested they set up base, at least temporarily, rather than keep moving in a vulnerable, non-specific direction. The others had readily agreed and, after discovering a convenient bend in the river next to an outcrop of large boulders, they made themselves as comfortable as they could. It was a nice area: the tree-line receded to allow for a small grassy plain and the sunlight lit everything up in bright colors.

Lily's sponsors sent a very generous amount of camouflage tarp via parachute (that Sam was sure had a lot to do with her confession about what she could do to someone just by touch) and Andy's sponsors sent rope, which the Hunters used to create an almost tent-like structure. Working together, building as much of a shelter as they could together, it felt a little like they were a team... but since that terrible first day, Sam was determined to periodically remind himself that it was all an illusion.

His sponsors had sent him arrows. The others let him keep the bow.

As the nights got progressively colder, it became almost a tradition to debate whether or not to start a fire. On the fifth day, Sam joined in the discussion.

“Like I said, it's not worth it,” Jake was saying, shaking his head. “It’s too dangerous, we’ll just have to go without.”

“But think about it,” Sam urged. He’d also rather go without a fire, but an intermittent smoke signal was one of the methods of communication he and Dean had agreed on. It was a little earlier than they’d discussed, but it would just be so that his brother had an approximate idea of where Sam was in the Arena, some form of contact between them. He missed Dean more with every passing hour. Was Dean alone? Had he found someone to trust—temporarily? Had he been hurt at all? Was he thinking about Sam? Did he miss Sam with the same gnawing ache in his chest...?

“I’m freezing, but Jake’s right, Sam,” Lily said reasonably. “A fire is too risky.”

“Look, there’s five of us here and eight dead so far, so we’re talking about eleven Hunters left out there. Gordon and those guys are a larger group, but if they want to keep the Cornucopia they can’t leave it unguarded, which means they’re not a threat to us in number. That leaves Bela Talbot, Jo Harvelle, Ash from District Three, and my brother.”

“And Tamara,” Andy added.

“Right, and Tamara. Even if they all teamed up, that’s still five people, and they don’t have the abilities some of us do.”

Ava made a pointed hiccup.

The first night had been spent hesitantly confessing their powers, and she was the only one who didn’t have any. She’d scored a four in the examination, and that was wonder enough.

Jake, it turned out, was stronger than the average human. Hell, stronger than the average bear, by the sound of it. If you added Lily’s terrifying curse and Andy’s unsettling ability, Sam figured that his was the less practically useful ‘power’, if you could even call it that. Migraines and occasional glimpses into the future that sometimes didn’t even happen the way he’d seen them? He’d dreamt about Jess’ little sister having an accident, once, and managed to save her life, but he hadn’t dreamt about getting picked for the Games, and he certainly hadn’t dreamt about Dean volunteering, or he’d have done something about it first.

He didn’t mention the fact that he might be telekinetic as well.

They all had one thing in common, though; the abilities had manifested around the same time, when they came into their teens. Andy had a theory about that that revolved around the changes in hormone production and metabolic chemistry that accompanied adolescence triggering these dormant powers, but what Sam wanted to know was why they had them in the first place. Why them? Why were they all exactly the same age, but from different Districts? Was it a coincidence that they’d all been picked for the Games? They had nothing in common aside from their ages and the fact that Andy’s dad, like Sam’s mom, had died in an accidental house fire when he was a baby, but how could that be relevant? No one else’s parents were dead.

He didn’t even care that the fact that they talked about it out in the open like that meant it was being filmed for sure; something told Sam that it wouldn’t be amongst the footage aired. An event that deviated from the plan was surely the last thing Gamemakers wanted. Everything was carefully preordained during the Games, there was no breaking the mold. And this? Talk of suspicion and unnatural abilities...? It was disruptive. Beyond their control.

"We don't know that."

"Know what?"

Lily bit her lip. "We don't know who has abilities and who doesn't, Sam. Jo Harvelle got an eight in the examination and she's, what? Fourteen? How did she get that score unless there was something else going on? And I'm sorry, but your brother got an eleven."

"Dean doesn't--"

"As far as you know, he doesn't."

Sam didn't argue the point further, even though he knew Dean would never have kept something like that from him. Dean didn't really understand the concept of keeping secrets, Sam was pretty sure. He'd tried once or twice and they ate him up inside, like it physically pained him not to share things with his brother. Sam had always found it both irritating and endearing, in a slightly unhealthy, codependent sort of way.

"I don't know, guys, I think Sam has a point about the fire," Ava piped up. "We'll freeze our asses off here otherwise."

Lily rolled her eyes, but Andy was nodding. "Votes in favor?" he said.

Sam, Ava and Andy himself raised their hands. Jake shook his head. "Well, it's your funeral. They come after us? I'm outta here."

"They come after us, we stand together and beat them back," Lily corrected him sourly. "But we're blaming you afterwards," she added with an annoyed look at Sam, before amending; "Unless you're dead."

"Sounds fair," Sam said, hoping his elation wasn't noticeable.

"Should we gather firewood, then?" Ava asked.

"I'll do it," Andy said. He seemed surprised at his own offer but didn't back down or add anything else. He'd been rather quiet since Olivia and Madison's deaths.

"Not alone, you won't," Lily sighed and grabbed his arm by the sleeve. They both took off into the woods without another word.

Jake stood up. "Bathroom break," he muttered and left as well.

Sam glanced at Ava.

She was crying. Again.

"Hey," Sam said softly. He didn't fault her for the silent tears running down her face. "Ava, hey."

"I'm s-sorry," Ava said, screwing her eyes shut with a wince. Her hands went up to her temples, pressing as though she had a headache. "I don't mean to--God, I'm such a crybaby."

Sam lifted himself up from the rock he'd been sitting on and went over to her, stopping to kneel in front of her slight form.

“You got a headache?”

“Y-yeah. I get really bad migraines sometimes.”

Sam nodded. “I do too.” Probably for a different reason, though, he added mentally. “Hang in there, okay?"

Ava made a little jerky motion with her head and continued to massage her temples, wincing slightly. It was the exact same gesture Sam used when the pain got too bad to think straight, and there was something oddly unnerving about that.

After a time the tears seemed to stop, and for a very long moment Sam just looked at her and Ava said nothing, eyes still closed. Finally, she whispered: "Thank you, Sam.”

"I... wish I could say it'll be okay," Sam confessed.

"It might," Ava offered, with this cute little shrug. "We could... if it's just us left in the end, we could all just refuse to hunt each other, you know? Maybe we could even save your brother. We could all just stop."

Sam nodded, even though they both knew it was just a dream; had heard it a million times from their TV screens only to later witness the lethal outcome of those sorts of promises. "Yeah. That would be... we should do that."

"We should do what?" Jake asked, reappearing suddenly around the corner.

Ava went quiet and Sam didn't feel like explaining right now. Jake was a practical guy and would probably disapprove of this sort of talk.

"We should make sure we have enough food for dinner," Sam said. "The rabbit is almost finished, last I saw."

"What about the--"

Jake's question was cut off by a blood-curdling scream.

Sam leapt to his feet, instantly on alert, and snagged his bow from its perch without taking his eyes off the tree-line.

"Was that...?" Jake began.

"Lily," Ava finished, looking horrified. "That was Lily. Oh my God, you don't think Andy...?"

"No, Andy would never do that." Sam nodded at Jake pointedly. "I'm gonna check it out."

"Be careful," Ava warned.

Sam took off for the trees at a light jog, his heart thundering. He might be running straight into danger, or he might be about to run towards two corpses, or—and he knew what it said about him, that he was even considering this, not just because of how damn unlikely it was—he might be running towards Dean.

He wasn't sure which direction Andy and Lily had picked, but they couldn't have gone far, and even as he slowed his pace to try and see them in the darkening woods, there was another yell nearby. It tapered off to a choked coughing sound that made Sam’s gut clench in dread, and once he was sure where it was coming from he ran over to help as silently as he could.

His first instinct was to call Andy’s name, because he was sure that that was the person who'd shouted, but giving away his position would be stupid right now, when the killer might be hidden in the bushes.

He saw their shadowed outlines through the trees before truly understanding what had happened.

Lily’s body was strung up high above, some of Andy's rope tied around her neck. Andy himself was on the floor, a thick wooden branch thrust through his chest, which was bleeding profusely in crimson blurts.

"No..."

But they were both gone. Sam blinked tears out of his eyes and tried not to see the way Andy's mouth gurgled red, spasms still jerking his legs even though his lids were wide open and unseeing. He wondered whether he should bury them, like they’d buried Madison, or leave the bodies there until the Games were over as was expected. Lily would be impossible to cut down, though; too high up even for Sam to reach, and as he stared up at her he thought... how?

How would someone lift her all the way up there to hang her? And why? Wouldn’t it be easier to hold the rope around her neck until they cut off her air supply? Why go to all that trouble?

Sam made himself look at Andy again. The branch in his chest looked large and heavy, and it seemed to go all the way through. The strength it would take to do something like that was barely human.

His suspicions immediately went to Jake and his alleged bathroom break, but the cries had come after, when Jake was already back with Sam and Ava, so that couldn’t be right. And then Sam remembered Ava and her wobbly bottom lip and the way she’d kept flinching in pain. Touching her temples the way Sam did when he got his special brand of migraines.

He thought: migraines. Visions.

And telekinesis.

*

Sam ran, and as he ran, he cursed himself. His stupidity, his utter naiveté, had nearly cost him his own life and worse, Dean's life by extension.

It wasn't even the first time a Tribute had played the scared puppy only to later turn out to be a complete psycho with ten kills to his or her name. God, why hadn't he seen it?

The scene that greeted him back at their makeshift camp made him stumble to a halt.

Ava was sitting on a rock by the river, massaging her temples, and Jake... Jake was holding his own head underwater. His body was bucking violently but the river flowed calmly on and he was going to drown.

Sam sprinted forward with an arrow ready to fly before his brain registered much consideration as to the wisdom of that idea. By the time Ava seemed to sense his presence and look up Sam had let the arrow loose.

It stopped a few feet away from Ava’s body and fell to the floor limply.

“Aw, Sam,” she tutted. “I was hoping it would take you longer to figure out.”

She stood up to walk towards him and in Sam’s peripheral vision he saw Jake manage to lift his head above the water and draw a few gasping breaths.

“Samuel Winchester.” Ava smiled, and it was a cruel, deranged thing. “Wanna know something funny? I’m almost ninety-nine percent sure my abilities are just version two point oh of yours. Not quite up to the telekinesis though, are you?”

Sam’s bow was wrenched from his grip and flung far, far away.

“I thought we were a team...” Sam began, hoping to keep Ava talking. Behind her, Jake was struggling to get up.

“Grow up, Sam, there are no real teams in the Hunter Games.” Ava rolled her eyes. “And don’t give me that look, okay, you are way too adorable for your size.”

“Why now?”

“Why not now?” Ava shrugged. “Gotta start killing people some time. I don’t need sponsors, Sam, I just need to know where people are. You said it yourself, there’s only eleven other Hunters out there, and I’m pretty sure I can take ‘em.”

Something slithering and invisible snaked around Sam’s wrists. He tried to move his arms and couldn’t.

“What—“

“Wait for it...” Ava lifted a hand, palm flat and Sam’s whole body started to lift off the ground. Tears were streaming down her face but she was smirking slightly. “This is the fun part.”

Sam stared down at her, paralyzed and hovering a couple of feet in the air.

“What are you gonna do to me?” he choked.

“Creative kills get more viewers,” Ava said with difficulty. Her voice had gone nasal and harsh, fingers pressing at her forehead in pain. “I’m going to... tie your trachea into a knot, how’s that for creative?”

Sam opened his mouth to reply and found that he couldn’t breathe. His throat had closed up, and there was a horrible, twisting pain right between his collarbones. A weak, wheezing sound was coming from his chest, and all he could do was splutter and choke and try desperately to fill his lungs with oxygen.

“For the record,” Ava said loudly. “I really do wish we could all just... get along.”

“I sincerely doubt that,” Jake grunted, right before breaking her neck.

Sam crumpled to the earth in a heap, hitting it feet-first.

“Sam!”

Sam desperately gulped in lungfuls of air, coughing and wheezing as Jake’s footsteps came towards him. “Sam, hey, you okay man?”

Still too out of it to speak, he nodded, and Jake let out a relieved sigh.

“Shit. Ava. Who’d’ve thought, right?”

Her body was just laying there, small and fragile only a few feet away.

“Right,” Sam grunted. His voice sounded low and rough; more like Dean’s than it ever had before.

“Are Lily and Andy...?”

“Dead.”

Jake nodded heavily, like he’d already known. The sky was pitch black by now, and the night felt like it would soon prove to be the coldest yet.

“Do you... we should move?”

Sam was still trying to even his breathing, so he looked up incredulously at Jake. “Now?”

“Tomorrow, then.”

“This is a good spot, Jake.”

“There’s no longer five of us, Sam.”

He was right.

“Right. You’re right.”

“I’ll tell you what; we take tomorrow to recuperate and gather supplies, and leave the day after. That sound fair?”

“Yeah,” Sam sighed, grateful. Speaking hurt like hell and his throat felt delicate and raw. He’d probably have a dark bruise there for a while. “I’ll take first watch.”

It was an order, not a request, and Jake didn’t object.

They moved Ava’s body so that it was further from the camp and returned to attempt some rest. Sam felt wired and wide awake, adrenalin still pumping through him and heart thundering as though it was trying to make up for almost sputtering out before. He was also very conscious of the fact that Ava’s body wasn’t anywhere near far enough for him to attempt to relax. Jake’s breathing evened out surprisingly quickly, however, and he looked sound asleep after only a few minutes of what, to Sam, was tense, restless silence.

When he was sure that Jake wouldn’t wake up Sam started a fire, a little way away so the heat didn’t alert the other Hunter, and did his best with some of the tarp to let the smoke blow out at intervals, praying Dean would see it even though it was night.

It was probably crazy, with only two of them left, to make such an obvious signal. It was probably just asking for trouble in the form of someone coming to investigate... but maybe not. Sam clung to the hope that with eleven Hunters still left there was a chance Gordon’s group wouldn’t dare venture this far into the woods—and at any rate, he and Jake would leave camp in a couple of days. He just needed to get some signal to Dean, some kind of acknowledgement that he wasn’t alone in here.

He put the fire out immediately afterwards and destroyed the evidence as best as he could. Once it was gone and any meager residual heat had dissipated, though, Sam began to shiver. The air was so cold that every puff steamed as it billowed out of his mouth, and it felt like needles going in past his Adam’s apple.

Sam covered himself with some more tarp and tucked his freezing hands into his jacket sleeves to try and avoid a humiliating death by hypothermia, or possibly a pathetic nail injury that would surely happen any second now since he couldn’t feel his fingers.

After about a half hour Chuck's voice blasted around them, and Jake startled awake.

The commentator's odd intonations only served to heighten Sam's already overdeveloped sense of unease. "Goodnight, Hunters!"

No one knew how the guy had landed the job; he was terrible at it, always sounding either hesitant or totally fake, as though he didn't even want to say what they were making him say.

"The daily tally is... four.” Sam could account for three of those, so he wondered who the fourth was. Hopefully Gordon, although that seemed unlikely. Not Jo, please.

“From District Six: Ava Wilson and Andy Gallager. From District Nine: Lily Baker."

Every name was like a punch. He could see their bodies in his mind’s eye; Lily high up in that tree, Andy with blood still gushing out of his chest, Ava’s impossibly twisted neck.

"From District Twelve..."

What? No

"Samuel Winchester."

Wait.

To the remaining contestants: good luck, and good hunting.”

Wait, what?

 

Dean

 

When Cassie had come to say goodbye to Dean, back in that room inside the District Twelve Justice Building, she’d told him two things: one, that he was a self-sacrificing idiot, and two, that he’d better stop acting like one before the Games began.

It wasn’t really the same thing at all, but Dean knew that she still wouldn't approve of what he was doing now, if she was watching the Games.

"Dean, stop," Bela snapped. "It's a suicide mission."

Exaclty, Dean wanted to yell at her.

He knew it had been Jake. He just knew it, down to the marrow of his bones. The guy had only been three spaces down from Sam in the Circle and all the other kids from their little group were gone. So. Once Jake was dead Dean could die too. One last thing to take care of and then he could ask... hell, anyone, he'd do it himself if he had to, he didn't care. He didn't—God. Sammy.

As he cut a swift path through the trees, Bela keeping pace behind him, Dean thought that he should have felt it, the moment it happened. He should have sensed... something, the center of his world suddenly winking out, the thing he loved most in the universe being ripped out of his reach, he should have felt that. He shouldn't be able to breathe with Sam dead. He shouldn't be able to live without Sam.

He wasn't, though. Not really.

This...? This wasn't living. This was a temporary state Dean planned on taking care of as soon as he found his brother's killer.

Night turned into day and Dean didn't stop. He was vaguely aware of the fact that Bela didn't ask him to, either, but feeling grateful was beyond his current emotional range. He couldn't feel anything other than—he couldn't feel anything.

He wasn't crying, hadn't cried since he found out, probably because if he started crying he'd never stop until the wracking sobs had drained him of the will even to extract revenge and leave him as a mere carcass of endless, boundless, infinite grief.

When the sun set Bela asked him how he planned to find Jake. He was alone and smart, she said, and he'd probably be hiding from this exact attack. Surprisingly, she didn't mention that they'd had to cross the river again to get to the side of the Arena where Sam had been, neither did she point out that their current path would bring them dangerously close to the Cornucopia.

At any rate, Dean didn't answer her. He'd start at the place where Sam had signaled a camp and if his body... if Sammy was still there, then Dean would have to—he’d... bury... fucking hell.

Chuck announced no further additions to the tally and Dean didn't care. He just ran.

"Dean..."

Bela had started falling further back as the hours passed, her breaths loud and ragged. Finally, she called out: "Dean.”

Dean figured it was pretty close to dawn. If she wanted to stop and eat again he'd leave her the backpack, take the weapons and keep going.

"What."

"I can't... I can't go on."

He heard her stumble to a stop, and it cost him but he slowed to a halt as well. "Fine. Then good luck and good hunting, I'll see you—“

"Wait." Bela was hunched over where she stood, and Dean registered her heaving chest and sweaty pale skin as bad signs. Her shoulder must be infected after all, or maybe it was just the blood loss; either way, it wouldn't be long now. That was probably why she hadn't simply let him run off alone, rather than because of any selfless impulse.

"You want food? Have it." He tossed her the pack and she caught it instinctively but threw it back at Dean's feet a few moments later. It was lighter when Dean picked it up, and he realized she’d taken half of their supplies already.

"I want my share of the food,” she corrected. “Not all of it. Just, tell me... just tell me one thing."

"What," Dean snapped, impatient.

Bela's eyes were very wide when she spoke next, as though she was trying to get a point across. "Are you going to kill yourself after you finish Jake," she asked.

Dean was about to leave because this was a waste of precious time, but understanding dawned as Bela pointedly glared at him. She was helping him. Even now, she was tossing him one last bone. Her way of saying thank you, maybe.

"No," he replied curtly. "I'm gonna win the Games for my brother." The words came out mechanic, rehearsed, lifeless. It was as much as Dean could let himself feel right then.

Bela nodded. "Okay. Okay, well. Good luck."

"You too."

Dean broke into a sprint and didn't dwell on the fact that Bela had just bought him the sponsored gift he would need in order to murder the son of a bitch who had hurt—who had—Maybe later, when Jake was dead and bleeding on the floor, he’d find it in himself to regret not thanking her.

That night, as Dean crashed through the moonlit forest hell-bent on avenging his brother, Chuck Shurley announced Bela Talbot's death.

*

There was something strange in the middle of the clearing. Dean could see it through the trees; a large shape, human, but it glowed, so he hesitated to refer to it as a someone.

Humans don't glow, he thought, unimpressed. The hell is this?

But once he stepped beyond the tree-line, into the little sunlit circle, he realized why the man shone brighter than any star.

"Sammy!" Dean choked, and dropped to his knees in front of his brother's body. Oh God, Sam, Sam, Sammy, no, Sam, please no--

Except... Sam opened his eyes, bleary and confused and alive.

"Dean?" he said and rubbed at his face like he always did when he was still half-asleep and trying to wake up.

Dean felt a wrenching sob tear from his chest and there was joy like helium in his lungs, so overwhelming it felt like it was going to kill him.

"Sammy." There was too much distance between them, Sam, Sammy's alive, alive and beautiful and breathing--and he tackled Sam to the floor, so that Sam's back was cushioned by the earth and Sam's front was smothered by Dean.

"Dean! Ow!" Sam protested, but he was near laughing, Dean could hear it in his voice. That alone made his fingers tighten on Sam's flesh, dig in as though he was trying to mark it, or maybe just trying to make completely sure that underneath the skin lay Sam's muscles and blood vessels and bones and nerves.

Sam's glow had dimmed now that he was pinned under his brother, and it was then that Dean realized Sammy was naked.

It was good, though. Or--well, not good, good was wrong, good was forbidden, but it was... it was all right, Dean wanted--Dean wanted Sam's skin, all of Sam's skin, right? He didn't discriminate, wasn't content just with palms and forearms and rosy cheeks, wouldn’t settle for the things everyone else got to see, too. Oh no, that wasn't enough, there was also the soft inside of Sam's thighs and the dusky ring around his nipples and the taut stretch of Sam's stomach and the gorgeous dip of his spine.

Thoughts a dizzying whirl, Dean pushed his face into Sam's neck and felt Sam hum, content and happy and alive.

And then Sam’s glow faded entirely, and the light in the clearing wasn't so bright anymore.

Dean sat up, Sammy still lying sprawled under him like some fallen angel, and watched the clouds shift and the sun hide. The change was subtle but impossible to miss.

Sam made a little hiss of pain.

"What?" Dean whispered. Something dangerous was happening. "What is it?"

There was blood on Sam's left hand, an ugly deep gash streaked in scarlet, glistening in the low light.

"Shit," Sam swore, voice hushed just like Dean's because he, too, must have sensed the wrongness in the air. When Sam instinctually wiped the blood on his chest he winced again, a whole-body flinch, and blood started to trickle down from there as well. “Ow.”

“No...” Dean breathed, and put his lips to Sam’s palm, even though it was useless because everyone knew you couldn’t really kiss it better, except that he did, because suddenly Sam’s skin was unblemished and faintly glowing again, bronze and copper, shining like Sam had swallowed the sun.

“Oh,” Sam said, but instead of smiling like Dean had hoped (dimples and teeth, the prettiest thing) his eyes became dark, intent, like they had done only very recently, the times they’d fought and on the day they’d said goodbye.

The wound on Sam’s chest was ugly and bleeding, so Dean leaned in and kissed it too, mouth open wide because it was a large cut and he didn’t want to miss a drop, needed to make Sammy better—and it worked, Sam groaning appreciatively under him as the pain disappeared.

“Dean...”

“Where else?” Dean asked, his relief that Sam was all right shot through with worry. “You hurt anywhere else, Sammy?”

Before Sam could answer Dean saw the blood on his jaw, dripping down his neck.

He lunged forward, lips closing over the wound, and suckled and lapped at it with his tongue until the skin felt soft and smooth once more. Sam moaned again, and cradled Dean’s head in one large hand, pressing down. Cuts sliced Sam’s skin and bloomed in frightening patterns; on Sam’s cheekbone, his ribs, his wrists, and where there was blood there was Dean, kissing and licking and healing.

Sam made a distressed little whimper when Dean’s tongue was done tracing the inside of his knee and Dean immediately slid up Sam’s body.

“You need more?” Dean panted, his heartbeat thundering in his ears. “Where, Sammy? Tell me, what do you need?”

“Don’t need,” Sam murmured, and the sky had gotten so dark that it was night, a starless, moonless expanse of black, and the only source of light was Sam’s body. Dean drew away so he was looking his brother in the eye, though they remained so close their noses brushed together.

“Then what...?” he whispered, confused.

“Don’t need,” Sam repeated, blood trickling out from between his lips. “Want.”

Dean woke up with a lurch and barely had time to turn over before he threw up the meager contents of his stomach.

*

He hadn't meant to fall asleep, but after going all those hours without a stop to rest, let alone eat, he must have collapsed. He wasn't sure he remembered how it had happened, or even whether it had been night or day at the time. The first rays of morning sunlight were barely permeating the green canopy above Dean's head.

His tongue was sandpaper rough and his head was ringing unpleasantly but the thought that kept him going was not long now, I'll join you soon, Sammy, not long now. He had the vague memory of hearing Chuck announce another death... Ash, he thought. Mohawk dude, who'd teamed with Jo. Poor kid was all alone now; unless they had announced her name when Dean was out.

He staggered to his feet and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He tasted disgusting.

Sammy, he thought. Thinking anything else was difficult. If he stopped he’d collapse again—dream again—and the memory of that fucked up vision his subconscious had conjured up was enough to have him bent over, dry-heaving with bitter tears threatening to fall after all. But he shoved it away and started running soon after, because misery would paralyze him like a drug; he knew it, knew he’d crumble and wouldn’t get back up. He also knew that his body was hours away from a total shut-down, would have already if not for the second river he’d found yesterday and taken a hasty gulp out of.

Having crossed the more dangerous area near the Cornucopia undisturbed, however, Dean’s steps began to falter.

He should be very close to the place where Sam had sent the smoke signal, but he had no way of being certain of the exact location unless he stumbled on the remains of the fire by chance. Thanks to Bela, his sponsors had sent him a decently sharp knife yesterday, but he wouldn’t be able to use it unless he figured out where to go next.

Finally Dean wandered back to the stream, deciding to follow it for a while in case Jake had camped nearby. It must be the only source of water for a rather large area.

He was starting to feel beyond sick; numbed. The word 'dehydration' zinged through his skull, meaningless. Being within a half-mile radius of Sam’s—of Sammy, and not knowing how to get to him was pure torture; a slide deeper into the pit when Dean had thought nothing could possibly feel worse. His muscles kept cramping and his vision swam and the once steady pace he'd been keeping was not quite so steady now.

He didn't know how much time had passed before he heard the sound.

It was distant; a shout of pain, and it was—that voice.

Dean’s heart gave a mighty leap and for a moment he was frozen, shocked and reeling from the brutal kick of adrenalin that flooded his veins. And then he was sprinting faster than he had before, legs aching and every step sending stabs of agony from the blistered soles of his feet up to his thighs. The weight of his heavy amulet beat against his chest with the movement of his body, and it was a welcome, sharp sort of pain. Grounding.

It might be some other Hunters or it might be Jake or maybe, just maybe that voice, that voice that he knew better than—that voice

A bend in the river revealed a sight that stopped Dean cold.

Sammy.

Sammy.

Sam was on the other side of the river, standing in the middle of a green field facing Jake and Sam was--he was... he was right there, he was alive, Sam was alive--

They were fighting. Even as Dean watched Jake struck Sam with an uppercut that sent Sam flying through the air an impossible distance. He crashed hard and with a little punched-out cry but was moving again fast. Instead of rushing at Jake, Sam scrambled to his feet and tried to reach for something on the ground.

Sam Sam Sam Sam Sammy—

Dean’s tranq gun was out of its thigh-holster and in his hand without conscious thought; and he fired at Jake’s broad back, no hesitation.

Neither Hunter had seen him yet, but the dart struck Jake right between the shoulder blades.

And then, “Dean!”

Dean splashed through the river and he nearly went under (twice), but he didn’t care, God, he couldn’t fucking breathe he was so—Sam, Sammy, Sammy—Sam was sprinting towards him alive and disheveled and covered in dirt and with a terrible mottled bruise around his neck and the most beautiful thing Dean had ever seen—Sam was half-laughing and half-sobbing and Dean was crying too—

Of course seeing was not believing and this Dean had learnt the hardest way over the past couple of days so he’d have to touch Sam, touch him all over, hold him close, make sure—and the need was like a claw of hunger deep in his gut that was barely satisfied when Sam crashed into him, both of them tumbling to the ground, Sam a solid heavy weight on top of Dean, Dean feeling like his skin had been set ablaze, blood fizzing—Sam, Sam Sam Sam—

They clung to each other and rolled around in the grass and Dean was going to pass out from the sheer joy of it, hadn’t known until now that it could happen, one person could be too happy, it was physically possible. Sam smelled rank and the closest Dean had come to washing in the past few days was splashing into the (knee-high) river just now but it was still perfect, intense and raw in a way nothing else had been since they'd last seen each other.

“Dean, Dean...” Sam murmured, something half-soothing and half-desperate in his voice as he shook in Dean’s arms or maybe it was the other way around, Dean wasn’t sure, Dean wasn’t sure of anything right now except that Sam was alive.

“Sammy,” he whimpered. He felt Sam’s nose behind his hear and Sam’s moist breath on his neck and in a shocking jolt the dream was back—“Want,”—and Dean made a pained little sound, wishing the memories away with a mind too weak and addled to do more than chant Sammy Sam Sam on repeat, a useless mantra.

His fingers tugged at Sam’s hair and it was a moment before Dean realized he was pulling the wrong way; tugging Sam closer to him (as if that were actually conceivable) instead of away, but Sam just went with it, rocking into Dean’s body and this was—something was happening, Dean might be drunk or high on Sam’s life but this wasn’t—allowed, it wasn’t—legs fallen open to more easily press their bodies together and he shouldn’t be—Sam was sobbing in his ear...

“Sam,” Dean said and finally pulled back, gasping for breath.

Sam was breathing harshly too, a low whistling sound every time he inhaled. "Dean, I..."

"They said you were dead," Dean blurted. "They--Sammy, they said--"

"I know."

Sam levered himself up and rolled away from Dean, to sit next to where his brother was sprawled and winded on the grass. They were both silent for a long moment, just staring at each other and panting hard.

“The rumors of my demise were greatly exaggerated?” Sam offered weakly after a while.

Dean so didn’t feel like laughing.

“Dean, I’m sorry. I wanted to light another fire, let you know I was okay, but Jake wouldn't let me; he tied me up."

Dean's eyes went to Sam's wrists, where a sliver of rope burn was visible beneath his jacket sleeves.

"I couldn't make my abilities work. He said he wouldn't kill me in cold blood like that, that we could still be a team if I agreed to cooperate. Yesterday I convinced him that I would, and last night I tried again, but... he woke up, and let's just say we moved on from verbal sparring about an hour ago."

Dean leaned up on his elbows and looked over at Jake's body.

“You didn’t kill him, did you?” Sam asked.

"He's only knocked out," Dean told him. "My gun shoots tranqs, not bullets."

"I figured. Get this; apparently there's only one gun in the whole Arena."

"Shit."

"Yeah."

Dean’s train of thought got (even more) scrambled when he glanced back at his brother. Sam looked like hell; bruised and sweaty and grimy, and he’d lost some weight; become leaner somehow, although from this lower angle it hit Dean all over again how big Sammy was still. Surely he hadn’t been this tall before? His shoulders were massive. It had been... had it been a week?

Regardless, Sam had lost whatever suggestion of youth or softness he’d still possessed before the Games began; his cheekbones cut slanted and sharp, jawline marked and ruggedly masculine. He had stubble, too; which combined with his wild hair to make him look a little threatening, an almost feral sleekness about him, like a dangerous man.

And all Dean could think was... when had Sammy become a man?

"Dammit Sammy, it's good to see you,” burst out of him, breathy and without his consent.

After a startled second Sam smiled back, dimples and all, and for a moment things were normal again, nothing incredibly weird had just happened when their bodies collided and they held each other.

"You too, Dean. I..." Sam ducked his head, embarrassed. "... missed you, jerk," he mumbled.

Dean would start to cry if they didn't roll credits on this chick flick. So he forced himself to smirk and said, smug: "You went to sleep every night missing my musk, didn't you."

Sam rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah, totally."

He was about to reply with something like ‘always knew you had to have a hidden kinky side’ when he realized... he was about to reply with something like ‘always knew you had to have a hidden kinky side’. That was kind of a weird thing to say to your brother, right?

Man, his head freaking hurt, okay.

"So what weapons have you got?"

"Just the one."

Sam stood up and Dean managed not to cling to his sleeve like a toddler and pull the guy back down. He watched, instead, as Sam walked over to the spot he’d been trying to reach before Dean shot Jake.

Dean wolf-whistled at the bow presented in Sam’s grip. “Hot damn, Sammy! That is one good-looking weapon!”

“Works great, but it’s all I got, besides the tarp and rope left behind.”

Before Dean was forced to give in and beg, Sam was walking back to him and sitting down again. “No offense, dude, but you look like crap.”

Dean snorted. “Yeah well, right back at you baby.”

Sam pulled a face at the nickname but didn’t comment on it. Dean made a mental note never to call Sam ‘baby’ ever again. Bobby might actually ask the Gamemakers to send a freak meteorite at him, he’d be so pissed.

Thinking of Bobby made Dean abruptly remember that there were cameras trained on him and Sam right at this very second.

Holy crap. They'd just lost every last sponsor they had.

“Dean?”

Sam did that thing where his head made a little jerky motion to get his hair out of his eyes and Dean couldn’t regret a thing.

“Sorry. Right, so I’ve got a knife in my pack, this gun with four tranq darts left, some salted meat strips that probably taste like the sole of my shoe by now, a few berries..." his head gave a particularly painful throb and Dean couldn't hide a wince. "... half a squirrel that I... I’m not gonna lie, is prob... probably passed its expiration date...” there was a dull pounding in his temples and he felt pretty dizzy, actually, the world spinning. “...an empty... water bottle...”

“Dean.” Sam edged a little closer to him, speaking gently. “You been making your way here since they announced my name?”

“’Course.” It was probably because Dean’s breathing had finally evened out that the adrenalin rush seemed to be abruptly wearing off. There were spots dancing before his eyes.

“How long’s it been since you slept?”

“Uh... I dunno, S’mmy. Not sure.” The last time he slept he’d... Nausea made him press a palm to his forehead, trying to will the headache away along with the poisonous echo of his dream.

Sam leaned even closer, eyes roving over Dean’s face. “How long since you ate?” he murmured.

“Got...” Wow, talking was hard. This comedown thing hit pretty fast, apparently. “Got food’n my pack, Sammy. Told ya.”

“You touch any of it in three days?” Sammy was way too smart for his own good.

“Er...”

“Dammit, Dean.” But it was spoken softly, full of affection. Sam sighed. “We need to get out of here and you need to rest.”

Dean couldn't disagree, suddenly too tired to hold himself up, and slumped back down to the ground. His eyelids drooped with exhaustion.

“Jake...?” he asked, and it was slurred.

“Leave him to me. Leave everything to me, Dean.”

Sammy was totally missing the point. That was Dean’s job. Taking care of the both of them, protecting them, being in charge... always Dean’s job, always. Sammy was supposed to be baby-brother Sammy, not... not large-strong-comforting-capable-brother Sammy of the earnest cat-eyes and self-assured little smile.

“It's okay Sam, I-I can—“

“Trust me.”

Sam’s face was, like, super close. He looked like he had no idea that Dean was here to rescue Sam, not the other way around.

And yet Dean heard himself breathe; “’Kay.”

“Good. Now you just stay here and I’ll pack up, okay? Find us a temporary shelter for today and we can figure out the rest once you’ve slept and stuff.”

“’Kay,” Dean repeated. It was pretty humiliating.

Sam left and Dean had to trust him, had to believe he’d be back. Still, it was kind of scary for a while, lying there too exhausted to even lift his head, waiting for Sam to reappear. Sam, who’d been dead and gone an hour ago but was alive now.

“Sammy?” Dean called after a few minutes, when he couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t really rest if Sam wasn’t there.

“Yeah, Dean! Almost done!” Sam’s voice replied, and Dean relaxed a fraction.

Moments later Sam was back to kneeling next to him. “Gimme...” His hands slid up Dean’s chest to his shoulders.

Dean raised his eyebrows. “A kiss?”

Sam’s eyes widened and his mouth opened in an inviting ‘o’. It occurred to Dean that kissing him would be really easy to do from this position. There was a very awkward pause where Dean was thinking these totally fucked up things and Sam just sort of gaped at him and then time seemed to un-freeze, and Sam made the bitchy face like always and said, longsuffering; “Your pack, Dean."

Well, in for a penny... “You're such a tease.”

Sam laughed. “God, just—shut up.”

Dean grinned widely and lifted himself up again to remove the backpack he and Sam had flattened in their embrace. Sam took it and reorganized its (very squished) contents to fit most of the carefully folded tarp and the coiled rope inside. Sam’s bow and quiver were slung across his chest.

"Jake. Did you... d'you kill him?" Dean asked.

Sam made a pained face. "No. But I... I tied him up. I figure by the time he breaks out of those knots maybe someone else will have found him, y'know? He could’ve killed me plenty of times these past few days, but he chose to try help me. At least, he thought he was helping me. I figure we’re even, now."

Dean was silently relieved. He didn't want Sammy carrying that burden, not if they could help it, and especially not like this; with Jake unconscious and defenseless. Dean should be the one to do it, not Sam. He would later, he decided, once he'd rested. "Good thinking."

"Not really, though. I know it’s stupid. I know he has to die eventually." Sam swallowed and the motion drew Dean's eyes to that large splotchy bruise below his Adam's apple; black and purple and yellowing around the edges.

"Hey, what happened to you?" his fingers ghosted over the spot and Sam flinched back.

"Ava." Dean's jaw dropped. Sam smiled bitterly. "Yeah, that was about my reaction as well. Look, it's a long story. I'll explain later, okay?"

He grabbed Dean under his armpits and yanked. “Up you go."

“Where are we going?” Dean was... possibly swaying a little where he stood.

“Not far, promise.”

Sam was true to his word. They followed the river for a short while and then stopped under the shadow of the largest tree Dean had seen in the forest so far: it had a trunk with a diameter as big as Sam’s wingspan and gnarled roots thick as Dean’s thighs that created a semi-comfortable feeling of shelter. Dean drank some water and he and Sam finished all but one of the salted meat strips (it turned out they did taste remarkably like ass), which made some of the dizziness go away but also made Dean about a million times more exhausted.

After asking for the tranq gun Sam covered them both in tarp and draped an arm over Dean's shoulders. His raspy cheek brushed Dean's forehead and even though it was morning and relatively warm Dean snuffled a little closer. He couldn't remember feeling this good in his entire life, not even before the Games. Sam was so hot and firm and alive next to him; Dean could feel the steady beat of his heart against his side. It was perfect.

"Know what we should do tomorrow?" Dean mumbled, eyes firmly shut.

"What?" Sam whispered back.

"Wash."

Sam chuckled warmly. "But what about your musk?"

“My musk'll still be there. You just gotta..." nope, no, he was not finishing that sentence. "Whatever dude, I wanna sleep."

"Right, sorry."

He was lulled into unconsciousness by the wonderful rhythm of Sam's (slightly wheezing) breaths.

 

Sam

Sam was pretty tired too, but he wouldn't have been able to sleep if he'd tried. Dean was in his arms, with awful bags under his eyes and chapped-dry lips, not to mention an unhealthy grey tinge to his skin. Dean, more vulnerable than he'd ever been before, was there and he needed Sam. It felt so good to take care of him. Watch over him.

Sam looked at the shadow cast by the fan of Dean's eyelashes and the bow of Dean's slightly open mouth... and hated himself for the lurch of want the image still elicited.

God, that first contact though. The way it had felt to press himself against Dean, to have Dean clutch him right back, the way every layer of cloth had become a barrier, the involuntary little hungry sounds coming from Dean's throat, as though... as if...

Dean slept the whole day and Sam couldn't bring himself to leave his side. He'd have probably been able to manage it without Dean noticing; his brother was totally out of it, drooling slightly and for all intents and purposes completely dead to the world... but Sam just couldn't. Dean woke briefly around midday to relieve himself behind some bushes and drink more water, and Sam gave him the last juicy salsify roots and lied about already having eaten.

Shortly after that there was a distant burst of sound suspiciously like an explosion, and Sam thought; the Gamemakers must be bored with us, and are going after some other hunter. And then, in spite of himself; good.

Dean didn’t wake up, but he did turn so that he was lying practically on top of the right side of Sam’s body, covering him.

Around dusk, the rumbling of Sam’s stomach was so loud that it roused Dean for good.

“Whoa.” Dean pushed himself up on shaky arms and had the gall to only look embarrassed for a split second before he grinned widely. “Did you cuddle me while I slept?” his voice was gravel-rough, but managed to sound cheeky.

No,” Sam said immediately. “You’re the one who—“

“Sammy, it’s okay. I’ve been aware of the fact that I’m irresistible for a while now—“

“It was you. I was just really nice about it.”

Dean sighed. “If that’s what you tell yourself to feel better, who am I to judge—“

Sam tried to hide the grin tugging at the corner of his mouth and was sure he failed despite his ducked head. “I hate you,” he muttered from behind his fringe.

“You cuddled me,” Dean corrected with relish.

“Believe me, it was mutual.”

That finally got Dean to stop it with the cuddling thing, and Sam grabbed Dean’s bag to search for more food. The first things he found were a few berries wrapped in a strip of cloth, but they'd been squished so thoroughly that they now formed more of a blueish pulp.

"Whose shirt was this?" Sam asked as he split the fruits in two little handfuls. He tried not to see the grime under his nails as he licked his fingers clean, chasing the sweet droplets between the webbing of his index and thumb.

Dean didn’t answer, so Sam looked up questioningly. “Dean? Your clothes aren’t intact but I don’t see a tear large enough. Who did you partner with?”

“I... huh?”

Dean’s gaze was fixed on Sam’s mouth in apparent horrified fascination. Sam figured he should have probably washed his hands before knawing at his own palm like a starved man (even though he really was).

“Who’d you partner with?” he repeated.

“Oh. Right, I mean yeah, no, partner. Bela. It was Bela.”

Bela?” For a few moments Sam couldn’t believe it. Then he felt an irrational tug of anger. “Jesus, don’t tell me you guys...”

“Of course not, come on.” Dean sounded almost insulted, and Sam relented.

“Oh. Okay. I’m... sorry she died. Was she with you when it happened?”

Dean gave him a strange look. “What makes you think I wasn’t the one who did it?”

“You didn’t.” The ‘duh’ was unspoken.

“... Fair enough.” There was a meaningful pause. “There’s hellhounds in the Arena.”

Sam’s stomach dropped. “You’re kidding.”

“Wish I was, Sammy.”

“Did they bite you? Scent you?”

“There was only one but... yeah, I’m pretty sure it scented me. Bela’s the one it bit. Obviously.”

“Shit.”

Dean recounted his whole side of the story while Sam ate the last strip of meat, effectively finishing their entire food supply.

“... and then I heard you. Your voice.” Dean went quiet, and Sam tried his best not to remember what had happened next. “What about you, Sammy?”

“Well, initially there was... there were six... six of us...” Sam paused for a jaw-cracking yawn and Dean chuckled.

“Tell you what, you fill me in tomorrow, okay?”

“No, it’s fine, I—“

Dean shook his head. “It's my turn to keep watch, Sammy," he said firmly. “You need to rest. Sleep.”

Sam did.

He woke up in a dream. It was a strange sensation he hadn't gotten used to yet, no matter how many times it happened: that of being alert but knowing this couldn't be real, he couldn't really be in a wide City street, empty but for two figures under a streetlight.

In the dream he saw Castiel, the Gamemaker. Castiel was standing under the dim glow of the lamp with Anna Milton, leaning so close towards her that for a moment Sam thought they might kiss. But it appeared not to be some romantic rendezvous, for Anna looked somber and Castiel spoke in a hushed, flat voice that somehow managed to transmit an urgent sort of anguish.

"This contest was meant to be a sacrifice for the sake of keeping the peace. It was meant to give some measure of hope to the Districts, of honor to the victor. Instead I hear Alistair tell Uriel how prettily Dean bruises and bleeds, I see Azazel, Ruby and Lilth sending Sam test after test to see how long it takes him to break. They watch as his heart hardens and laugh at his suffering, Anna. Zachariah made Chuck lie. We have done terrible things before, but what I saw Dean go through these past days is one of the worst. It was wrong. Everything is wrong. Things are getting out of control, and they have been for a long time now." He paused, clearly troubled. "Perhaps they never were in control to begin with. Not since the President left."

"You sound blasphemous," Anna replied, but she looked like the words made her proud. "And you are right; it can't go on, not like this. If you are with me then we can finally do something about it. Rebel." The word made Castiel's expression flicker, but Anna was adamant. "Fall with me, Castiel, and let us take others with us. For all his tricks, I believe Gabriel can be made to see sense, maybe even Crowley, too, if he understands it as something that will benefit him."

"You have spoken with them in this manner?"

"There have been hints. Gabriel only ever punishes the most wicked, have you not noticed? He hasn't even looked at young Miss Harvelle or the Winchesters once. Crowley admires the boys in his own way, I think. Not their intelligence, perhaps, but certainly their spirit." She smiled a little. "And their love for each other, although I suspect he'd rather burn in hell than admit that."

"What of Balthazar?"

"Balthazar dislikes putting his neck in line, but you might be able to persuade him."

"Perhaps." Castiel frowned again. "Sam Winchester's powers, though, and Ava Wilson's, Lily Baker's, Andy Gallager's, Jake Talley's. Those children could do things... inhuman things. How did we miss that?"

"I am not so sure all of us did. I suspect Azazel was less surprised than we were."

"You suggest he intended it?"

"His daughter reaped Sam Winchester's District, and Sam Winchester's name was chosen twice. I don't believe in coincidences."

"And the source of the boy's supposed visions? His budding telekinesis?"

"I could not say. But I have my suspicions. There are ways of altering a child's development, Castiel. You know how Azazel likes to... experiment."

Castiel took a step to the side so he was no longer lit by the streetlamp, and Anna followed him into the shadows. "If that is the case, we need more than our conscience to beat the others, Anna. It cannot come to an open war; too many lives will be lost. We need public support. A new form of Government."

"And new politicians." Anna gave him a pointed look.

"You speak of the murder of our brothers and sisters?"

"Murder, imprisonment..." Anna sighed. "Whatever it takes for them to stop this madness. I do not much care whether they die, Castiel, to be honest. I will not cry for their tragic losses. What we need is a fair ruler, or council of rulers that has been chosen by the people."

"You would leave them to their own devices? The same people who sit down in front of their television every year to watch twenty-three young adults kill each other? Place bets on the handsomest Tributes? Urge the stronger Hunters to murder the weaker ones?"

"Don't be a hypocrite, and don't forget the latest protests, the calls for Cancellation. These people have known nothing else; they have grown up being told that it is a worthy cause, a necessary evil. We used to believe that too, Castiel, and it has taken us a shamefully long time to figure out that it isn't true."

"I know that. I blame no one but myself for following the President's last orders without a question until now."

Anna cocked her head to the side. "Good, just as you should. Just as we all should. Although I have to ask ... I've been protesting this for years. Why now?"

"This has not been a sudden whim for me and you know it."

"I do, but it has certainly been the trigger for a definitive change in your attitude, Castiel, you cannot deny that that is the truth. What is so special about these two boys?"

Castiel's blue eyes shuttered. "They are brothers." He offered no other explanation.

Anna smiled an ancient, very sad smile. "That is not all that they are."

Sam was wrenched away from the vision before he could find out what she meant by that, and he woke up to cruel sunlight stabbing the backs of his eyelids, in a makeshift bed of crackling tarp, sweaty and with a splitting headache.

Dean was no longer by his side, and he panicked instantly.

“Dean? Dean!”

“Hey, hey, I’m right here.”

Dean was smiling kindly when he came around their large tree, a dead rabbit in one hand and a handful of salsify roots on the other. He looked freshly scrubbed even though there was no way he’d managed to get soap, and his clothes were suspiciously clean. If the state of his chin and jaw was anything to go by, Dean had also attempted to shave with his knife, and moderately succeeded.

"Bad dream?" Behind the inane question lay a deeper meaning.

Sam nodded and then regretted the gesture bitterly as his pounding skull felt like it was seconds away from exploding into a goopy bloody mess of white and grey matter. He tried to hide a wince but Dean was already rushing to kneel beside him.

"So we on for this year's lottery numbers or what?" Dean said, lightly taking Sam's pulse and then squinting to check his pupil dilation.

Sam was used to this routine, so he smiled tightly. "Sure."

"Finally." Dean grinned back, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "So what'd you dream about, Sam?"

But Sam knew he couldn't explain. He'd witnessed a secret meeting, something that most likely hadn't transpired yet, and the other Gamemakers mustn't know that it would happen. He remembered every word, though, with the kind of sharp clarity that made this vision something that wasn't a dream. Azazel had... experimented on him. On all of them. How, though? When? And what did that even mean? In spite of himself, and despite the troubling things he'd just learned, Sam felt hope kindle in his chest, hope that it was real, that Castiel and Anna had meant what they'd said. Would mean it when they said it. Maybe tonight. And maybe there was an end in sight after all.

So he said; "Midget clowns. It was terrifying."

Dean snorted, and thankfully the look in his eyes said that he understood why Sam was keeping quiet.

“How long was I out?” Sam asked.

“Dunno. I had time to wash and air-dry my clothes, though.” Dean’s smile turned into a self-satisfied smirk.

“Good for you."

“Plus I gathered provisions and was generally pretty awesome at hunting this poor guy.” He looked at the dead rabbit mournfully. “Sorry, buddy. Sammy’s lazy ass’ gotta eat.”

“Talking to a dead rabbit. That’s... sane.” Sam got to his feet gingerly and stretched. Besides his splitting headache he felt sore everywhere, and his clothes were stuck to his skin by cold sweat and dirt. It was pretty gross, to be honest.

Dean sighed dreamily. “Your hair is beautiful in this light.”

“Bite me.”

He knew perfectly well that his hair had probably gone back to that inverted bird’s-nest look Pamela had so despaired at.

“No additions to the tally, in case you were wondering,” Dean added, tone abruptly serious.

“Oh.” Sam was torn between disappointment and disgust at himself for being disappointed. “That’s... that means there’s us, Gordon, his fan club, Jake, Tamara and Jo left, right?”

“Yup.” Dean tossed him a root. “Enjoy your breakfast, Sammy, growing boy’s gotta eat.”

Sam bit into the earthy taste and noted Dean must have cleaned the root in the stream. “I’m pretty sure six feet five constitutes grown up, Dean,” he commented, peeling off his green jacket. He’d been a bit reluctant to take his clothes off the first time he’d washed, very conscious of the cameras, but by now he figured what the hell. Unless it was a ridiculously slow day showers and bathroom breaks were edited out, anyway.

Dean pretended to think about it. “I guess. You wanna wash up?”

“Definitely.”

“Here." Dean tossed him the knife and Sam caught it on instinct. One side was serrated and the other sharp and smooth. "If you wanna shave, go ahead. Ask me if you need help, though. I’ll be here, skinning our lunch.”

He left Dean sitting on a large root and doing just that. The purple bags under his brother’s eyes had faded and his skin was no longer covered in a sheen of feverish sweat, but Dean’s face was still too gaunt for Sam’s liking. He looked thin in the worst way; fragile wrists and bony shoulders, as though he was something delicate.

In short, Dean looked like he hadn’t eaten in days, and Sam hated that that must definitely be the case. Dean was going to have to take proper care of himself from this point on because if he didn’t, Sam would damn well do it for him.

*

It was heavenly to dunk his head in the freezing water, and to wash the mud off his pants and socks. To prevent his boots from squelching Sam ran a wet sleeve over them and left them to dry. It was a very hot sunny day; clearly the Gamemakers were having fun messing with the temperatures in the Arena.

The river wasn’t deep and if he splashed around too much the water would get instantly murky, but Sam took care to lay out his clothes on a rock on the bank and then just let the current do its thing. His stiff limbs and aching muscles felt relaxed after the initial shock of cold, and it also helped soothe his throbbing migraine. Everything sort of melted away as he floated there, skin still prickly with goosebumps in a pleasant, half-awake state of blissful (if only momentary) peace...

“Are you going for a Guiness in World's Longest Shower? Dude!”

Sam was so startled that he accidentally swallowed a gulp of water and choked on it.

“You’ve been in there for ages! I thought you must've drowned!”

Dean was leaning over the riverbank, staring down at him exasperatedly.

“D-Dammit D-Dean—“ his throat still hurt like hell, and coughing wasn’t helping. Sam steadied himself by burying a hand on some reeds and sat up, ass resting on the slippery mossy rocks at the bottom. He hoped the water wasn't too clear. "Give me a minute."

“Aw man, please don’t tell me you were jerking it for national telev—“

“Oh my god, no!”

Dean left with a mutter of "prude" and Sam glanced down at his lap. His folded legs and current position meant that the water cut off visibility around mid-thigh and up to his bellybutton; knees seeming to emerge from within a rippling mirror and groin hidden underwater. Thank God.

The armpits of his jacket and crotch of his pants were still humid when Sam put them back on, but he didn't care. It felt amazing to be clean. Ish.

"Dude, have you been doing sit-ups in your spare time?" Dean asked, not meeting Sam's eyes once he returned to their little camp. It was... kind of a random question.

“Huh?” Sam slung the quiver and bow over his shoulder distractedly. "What spare time?"

"I just..." Dean made an odd little huffing sound. "Forget it."

"O-kay."

They traded banter the rest of the evening, a familiar pastime in an unfamiliar setting. Things were far from back to normal, of course, but it felt right, down to Sam's marrow. Hunting together again, just like old times, whispering encouragement or ribbing each other in the silent woods... it really drove the point home, that they were a team again, that from this moment on they were in it together until the very end, whatever happened.

Sam caught Dean up on his end of the story while they tracked, and Dean was a terrible listener because he kept interjecting with inappropriate comments or rude observations, as well as voicing his (often offensive) opinions without seeming to possess a brain-to-mouth filter, but Sam knew that was just his brother’s way of making light of an apparently insurmountable situation. Dean kept looking at him and smiling his breathtakingly sincere smile, crinkles at the corners of his eyes and irises such a bright green they matched the forest. Almost as if he couldn’t help it, and Sam found himself occasionally doing the same, returning the grin just because they were together again.

As the hours wore on Dean worked hard not to show how quickly he tired, but Sam knew his brother better than that; he caught the signs. Sam did most of the legwork and subtly took over the hunt, surprised by the ease with which Dean allowed him to lead. Obviously Sam was sore too, and his neck and wrists still throbbed unpleasantly from Ava and Jake’s efforts, but he knew that must be nothing to Dean’s level of exhaustion.

Night brought with it a sudden and gelid temperature drop and Sam's fingers were numb way before Chuck made his announcements.

"What the hell is wrong with those sicko's?" Dean grunted, wrapping the crackling tarp around himself. "My ass is numb. I can't feel my ass, Sam."

Sam's lips were pretty numb too, so he refrained from commenting on the situation regarding Dean's ass. "We're living out a messed up version of ancient gladiator fights and you're bitching about the weather?"

"Hell yes," Dean said firmly. "It's the least they could do, y'know? During the day I feel like Alistair is just sitting somewhere waiting for me to take my shirt off, and during the night it's like, man I don't know, Zach and Ruby both gave me the stink-eye so it might be one of them getting off on my suffering—“

"They're watching us right now, you know this right?" All but two, maybe.

"I don't care if they hear me. Perverts, the lot of ya," Dean said grumpily to the sky.

Sam smiled, even though everything was incredibly, apocalyptically messed up. "Shut up and sleep. I'll take first watch."

He was surprised when Dean only gave him a long, considering look and nodded. Before the Games Dean would have refused point blank, insisted on not sleeping and simply taken all the watches himself. Sam would have argued, they'd have gotten into a fight and eventually neither of them would have slept at all.

Maybe the changes today went a little beyond Dean’s temporary physical weakness. Every passing hour only served to cement the suspicion growing in Sam's mind that there had been a bit of a... shift in their dynamic. Back home, Sam had to struggle to get Dean to acknowledge him as an equal, always being coddled or sheltered, being forced to assert his independence by lashing out, declaring it loudly to Dean's face and hurting his brother in the process. This time, Dean had let him take point during the hunt, and he hadn't automatically shot down Sam's differences of opinion. Instead of Dean going completely overboard with caution or becoming even more protective because of the pseudo-death experience, it felt like they were... even. Maybe for the first time.

There were no additions to the tally, but a few minutes after Chuck's "Good luck and good hunting," Dean began to shuffle and squirm in his sleep.

Sam frowned and scooted over to him. Dean's jaw was clenched tight and his face was pinched and upset.

"Dean?" Sam whispered.

Dean made a sound like a sob and shook his head, fists clenching. Worried, Sam gently touched a hand to Dean’s and jumped as it shackled his wrist, lightning-fast and strong as any real cuff. It soon became clear that his brother was still asleep, though, and in the throes of a terrible nightmare.

"Dean," Sam tried again, a little more firmly. Dean whimpered and tightened his hold, pulling until Sam tipped over and practically fell into him. His other hand found the juncture of Sam's neck and shoulder and grabbed it like a vice, nails digging in. "Ow, Dean--"

The fingers around his still-tender neck really hurt, but it was the expression on Dean's face that fuelled Sam's voice. "Dean, hey, hey! Wake up!"

Dean stilled immediately, but his grip remained firm. The moonlight filtering through the canopy above barely allowed Sam to see the shine of his brother’s wide eyes, maybe a little brighter than sleep alone could account for.

“Dean, it's me, it's okay. It's just me.”

Sammy.” Sam’s chest clenched at the way that word was spoken. “Sam, you okay? You hurt?”

“What? No, I’m fine, I—are you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah... m’good.” Finally, Dean let Sam go, breath steaming in front of him (of both of them) in short, shallow bursts. “Sorry about that.”

There really was no way of pretending it hadn’t happened, or for Dean to rely on humor to salvage his dignity and talk his way out of the situation.

Sam heard himself say the words before he could stop them coming out of his mouth.

“Actually I’m glad you’re awake.” Sam, no, come on, don’t do this to yourself. “I’m freezing my ass off out here.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. Do you think…? Would you mind if I… if we…?” Dean’s gonna make you say it, too. Why would any sane human being put themselves through voluntary torture, Sam? Are you really that masochistic? “Could we maybe... share?”

Dean was quiet for a moment and Sam couldn’t tell if he’d just ruined their relationship forever or not.

Then; “Really? Ye olde sharing-body-heat trick, Sammy?” His smirk was positively audible. “You tryin’ to take advantage of me in my weakened state? Gonna feel me up when I least expect it?”

“Come on, Dean, gross.” Liar liar, pants on

“’Cause I ain’t that kind of girl, mister.”

“… Okay, got that out of your system? Will you help me keep all my fingers or what?”

“Where are you planning on puttin’ those fingers is the real quest—“

“Oh my God, shut up!”

But even as he spoke Dean had been shuffling under the tarp and suddenly a large opening in the fabric seemed to envelop Sam from head to toe, and the next thing he knew he and Dean were huddled together. Inside it was heaven and hell, the unexpectedly warm, concentrated scent of Dean’s body overwhelming at this distance (this non-distance, this complete lack of any actual distance whatsoever).

“Better?” Dean asked quietly, apparently done teasing for the moment and all concerned older brother again.

“Yeah,” Sam croaked, even as Dean pressed them closer. It was done with a clinical sort of intent, deliberately blasé; this is how best to preserve heat while sacrificing a minimum of macho points, for we are Winchesters and therefore allergic to displays of affection.

He could feel Dean’s breath on his cheek. Dean’s whole body was touching Sam’s side, one leg casually thrown over Sam’s, half-resting on Sam’s thigh so he could feel the press of the holster.

Why, Sam? Why would you do this to yourself?

And then, quietly, so soft it was more of a breath than a word, Dean whispered in Sam’s ear; “Thanks.”

Sam shivered, pretended it was the cold, and thought; You know why.

*

He managed to stay awake until dawn, aided by the complete agony of having Dean’s pliant body relax into his when he went back to sleep. Sam’s libido didn’t care about the difference between what was right and what was illegal, and Dean’s hot breath against his neck and Dean’s warm palm splayed possessively on his chest were both very much conductive to an alert state. It was even worse when Dean’s hand slowly slid downward, over Sam’s sternum, his abs, until (thank God Jesus fucking Christ shit fucking fuck) it stopped just below Sam’s belly-button.

They switched shifts some time later (around when Sam was regretting his choice of token for the Arena, because a watch would have been much more useful than his leather band) and Sam forced himself to turn away, with his back to Dean in case his sleeping self tried to do anything life-altering like say hump his brother’s leg.

If he did hump Dean in his sleep, however, Dean gave no such indication of it by morning. Sam was woken by the heat, this time; his clothes were plastered to his body and he felt suffocated, like he’d been shut inside an oven for the past hour.

Dean had moved the tarp away but, to Sam’s surprise, was still lying beside him, limbs tangled in a lazy sprawl (which went a long way to explaining why Sam felt so flushed and feverish). The instant he opened his eyes, though, Dean drew away and neither of them commented on it.

They each did a short hike to the stream again to wash at separate intervals, because Sam may be a masochist, a mutant, a freak and a sicko lusting after his brother, but he was not an idiot. He also managed to shave himself with the sharp knife and emerge victorious without a single bleeding cut.

It was so hot that they stuffed Sam’s larger jacket into Dean’s bag (now packed fit to burst) and Dean wore his with the sleeves tied around his waist. Sam was already sweating again by the time they were done.

“We’re pretty good on hunting supplies, Sammy. Watcha wanna do today?”

Sam considered the question carefully. He'd glimpsed what might be the beginnings of a momentous reform of the system, yes, but they couldn't rely on Castiel and Anna's mercy during the Games; something the Gamemakers had already demonstrated (no matter how much regret it apparently made the two rebels feel). There hadn’t been any Tribute deaths for two days and there was (at least) one mutated killing machine in the Arena, prowling around with Dean’s scent. Bela was dead, so the thing would be searching for his brother at this very second.

“How would you feel about tracking a hellhound?”

*

It wasn’t easy. First they had to go to the last place they knew the creature had been, and Dean claimed it was nearly two days away, although it might be less if they ran and didn’t stop for meals. Crashing loudly around the forest wasn’t an option, though, because the whole point of hunting the hound was to avoid it from hunting them, so by nightfall Dean was already re-evaluating their timing.

Nothing found them that day, not a thing, and Sam was nervous as they made a hasty camp between two oak trees, on edge at every little sound of the forest. If Chuck announced no deaths tonight they would have to be extra careful during their respective watches.

“Are you gonna ask for a cuddle again tonight?” Dean said teasingly, laying out the tarp and not meeting Sam’s eyes.

“No,” Sam snapped. “But you’ve got first watch, so you get to stand over me with a gun. Sound fun?”

“Wow, someone’s bitchy.”

“I’m not—I just... I don’t like this. It’s been too safe, too quiet. We’ve had two entire days without a single incident, Dean.” It might be Anna or Castiel's way of trying to help, but Sam doubted it could last. The consequences would strike, and soon, and hard.

“Maybe Jo’s been giving Gordon trouble.”

But thinking of Jo did nothing to improve Sam’s mood. She was still alive, sure, but the key word here was still.

“Don’t say that. For all we know it’s true and they are minutes away from announcing her death, Dean.”

“Hey,” Dean said, voice rough. “I ain’t gonna complain about the respite, okay? I just spent the worst three days of my life runnin’ towards what I thought was your corpse. Let's enjoy this while we can.”

Sam stared at him, annoyance evaporated by Dean's words. "I... man, I’m sorry.”

Dean met his gaze questioningly, but there was something guarded about the way he held himself. “Why? Not your fault.”

“Maybe not, but if I’d managed to somehow... I don’t know, these stupid powers seem to be completely useless. If I really were psychic I could have gotten through to you somehow. Let you know I was alive.”

Dean shrugged with deliberate nonchalance and looked away. “I would’ve thought I was hallucinating,” he muttered.

Sam didn’t really know how to respond to that except with a bone-crushing hug, and the amount of mocking he’d have to withstand for even offering made him think twice.

“Dean...” he started to say nonetheless.

“Sam. It’s okay. You’re okay, and that’s all that matters.”

This time, Dean’s face was open, sincere and all the more beautiful for it. His eyes were a little bright, raw, and the way he looked at Sam was... it was...

“Sorry to interrupt, guys!”

Sam whirled around, but the voice had come from—

“Try up!”

They both craned their necks skywards and there she was, Joanna-Beth Harvelle with one gun in each hand and both legs wrapped around a tree-branch, perched at least ten feet above them.

“Howdy!”

“Jo!” Dean’s shout was somewhere between pissed and relieved. Sam was having a hard time dissecting his own emotions; joy and fear and anxiety all roiling in his gut. “How you been?”

She laughed, but it was bitter, exhausted, and so sad. “I’ve been better. I gotta say, Sam, you don’t look very dead to me.”

“I made a deal with the devil. What’s your excuse?”

“I’m a badass lady.”

A badass fourteen-year-old kid was what she was, and Sam knew then and there that he couldn’t hurt her, he just couldn’t.

“Why don’t you lower those guns and get down here so we can talk?” Dean called.

“Nah, I don’t think so. Not until Sam throws his bow far away and you get that gun out of its flattering thigh-holster and on the ground.”

Sam and Dean exchanged a glance, and then they both moved to do as they were told.

“Great. Now I want you both on your knees, hands behind your head, and don’t think I can’t shoot you while I climb. I totally can.”

“Sweetheart, we believe you.”

She kept at least one gun on one Winchester the whole way down.

“So is the current tally accurate or what?” she asked once she was on the ground. She was so tiny that Sam didn’t have to look up at her from his current position. “Are there more fake deaths?”

“We’re pretty sure Sam’s the only one,” Dean said. “I was becoming boring, apparently?”

Jo raised an eyebrow. It was then that Sam realized how not-good she looked; illuminated by the pale moonlight, her pretty dark eyes were ringed by blue bruises, she had two fresh cuts on her face and she appeared to have lost the hooded uniform jacket. When she shifted her stance (both arms still extended with one gun on each brother) Sam also noted that she was favoring her left leg.

“Dean Winchester, boring? Unfathomable,” she said, full of bravado.

“Exactly.” Dean gave her a strained smile. “Look, Jo, why don’t you lower those guns, huh?”

“No way.” She glared at him, all traces of humor disappearing. “I’m not stupid.”

“They shoot tranqs, and I’m pretty sure one of ‘em ain’t even loaded,” Dean replied, not unkindly. “We’re not gonna hurt you, okay?”

Jo flinched, and her right arm (the one that held the gun which Sam, too, had suspected was empty of darts) dropped.

“I was sorry to hear about Ash,” Sam offered after a pause. “You been alone these past few days, yeah?”

“... Yeah.” Her voice wavered only a little.

“What happened to him? Gordon find you guys?”

Jo shook her head, ponytail bobbing. “Gordon’s got his hands full with Tamara. She blew up their food supply two days ago.”

“She what?”

“You heard me. She stole a freaking grenade and went to town. Didn't you guys feel the blast?" Sam remembered the distant bang a couple of nights ago and nodded. "Tamara is hardcore. When Isaac died in the bloodbath, man, she got really angry. I think she liked him, you know, beyond the PR bullshit. Also Walt and Roy aren't very good at taking orders and keep wanting to go hunting into the woods, but Gordon wants to wait until the tally is down to ten.”

Sam considered making a lunge for Jo’s left arm but out of the corner of his eye he saw Dean give a minute shake of his head.

“You been spying on them?”

“I’ve been keeping tabs on the situation at the Cornucopia, yeah.”

“So was it Tamara that got Ash?”

Jo hesitated for a moment longer, then lowered the remaining gun with a little sigh. “It wasn’t a Hunter,” she said.

“What was it?”

Her eyes darted from Dean to Sam and back. Finally she drew a deep breath and said; “Hellhound.”

Dean nodded heavily and Jo seemed surprised by his lack of abject terror.

"One got Bela Talbot," Dean explained. "It nearly got me, too."

"Which one was Bela Talbot?"

"Chick from District One. Posh, but pretty hardcore herself?"

"Right, with the accent! She was great in training." Jo went quiet.

Sam's joints were beginning to protest the kneeling position. "Hey, Jo? You mind if we stand up now?" He tried to make it clear from his tone that he was genuinely offering her the choice.

"Oh, yeah. Okay."

They both did, Dean stretching theatrically and Sam fighting a frisson of annoyance at himself for still finding that attractive, even now.

"So are you two, like... a team now? What happens at the end?"

Sam sighed. "We'll see when we get there, won't we?"

Jo narrowed her eyes. "I guess."

"Wanna join?"

Both Sam and Jo turned to Dean, who shrugged. "What? You don't look like being alone is doing you wonders, and I ain't about to let you run off into the woods like that. What happened to your jacket? You're gonna get hypothermia if you're not careful."

Jo looked flustered. "I... the hellhound ripped it to shreds. I was running, I didn't... I stayed up in the trees and it was too late by the time Ash had... distracted it, I—“

"It's okay, kid,” Dean interrupted gently. “It scented me too."

She bit her lower lip. "... Two hellhound targets are double the trouble."

Sam tilted his head, considering. "Maybe, but not if it's the same hound. And we could definitely use another Hunter to help us fight it if it comes to that."

"What if it's not the same one, though?"

"Then we’ll figure it out. We're not going to hurt you, Jo," Sam said. "I promise."

"Promises don't mean anything in this place," Jo fired back automatically. But after eyeing each of them carefully, she stuffed one of the guns in the back of her pants and stuck out her hand. "Still, I guess we might as well shake on it."

Sam smiled and felt like a giant when his palm engulfed hers. Then Jo went to Dean, who also shook her hand soberly.

“So... what are you guys doing? Besides sharing your deep manly feelings, I mean.”

Dean glared at her. “We're not—“ he stopped, then his expression shifted to smugly challenging. “Wanna know what we’re doing?” Jo nodded. “We’re hunting. Dog.”

Jo gaped at him. “... You what?”

“You heard me.”

“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever--" She looked to Sam, as though waiting for him to be the voice of reason. Sam raised his eyebrows and Jo huffed, disappointed. "This isn’t a creature you can just walk up to and kill, guys; it’ll scent you before you get within a hundred feet of it! You should be focusing on Gordon and the Cornu—“

“We can’t focus on Gordon with a hellhound breathing down our necks,” Sam said. “After we get rid of it we'll plan accordingly."

Jo crossed her arms over her chest and stepped towards him. “You two are really confident in your abilities, aren’t you?"

"We have no other choice."

"It'll rip you to shreds!

“We can’t just sit and wait for it to come to us," Sam said. "And it will, whether we're prepared for it or not. Hell, it's probably heading our way right now, so we might as well meet it—“

He was cut off by Dean hissing: “Quiet.”

Sam stilled instantly and Jo did the same.

"What--"

"Look," Dean whispered.

There was a shadow lurking far into the trees behind Jo, massive and alive and darker than the night.

“What is it?” she breathed.

Shh. Don't move."

Her eyes widened with fear but she stayed stock still. Sam slowly crept forward until he was right in front of her. "There's something behind you," he breathed, because this wasn't the time to sugarcoat things.

Jo was trembling. "Hellhound?" she asked, and never had her age been more apparent.

"Looks like."

"How far behind?"

"'Bout fifty feet."

Sam heard Dean bend to pick up his gun and wondered what good it would do, with three darts left. They had no chance of a sponsored gift anymore.

"Sam? If it comes our way I want you up in that tree with the little spider-monkey, okay? If not, we stay still and hope it goes away."

"But it's already scented us," Jo said. "That's why it's here, right? Must have followed you, or me. Must have been tracking us all this time."

"Maybe. I shot mine, though; flare gun exploded right in its face. Coulda busted its nose."

"Then why is it here? Coincidence?"

Her tone conveyed exactly what she thought about that explanation.

"Maybe Alistair can't take constructive criticism?" Dean offered. "Decided to sick it on us 'cause he was feeling scor--"

"Not the time, Dean," Sam snapped.

The dark hulking shape of the hound was still distant, seemingly moving neither further away nor closer to them, just prowling restlessly.

"Both Crowley and the red-eyed woman own hellhounds," Jo said, voice thready. "My mom told me. They have armies of them. Keep them as pets, rumor has it."

"Then they must have wanted to add some action to this lovely moonlit night. Probably not enough conflict for the viewers--"

"It doesn't matter why it found us," Sam interrupted. "It's here now, and we have to get rid of it."

He wasn't going to lose Dean so soon after having found him. He wasn't going to let the hound get him.

Suddenly Jo tensed, and Sam knew what she was going to say before she spoke.

"Dean," she mouthed. "Behind you."

Shit. Hounds, plural.

This was not good.

"How far?" Dean breathed.

"Fifty feet, maybe?"

Sam turned and Jo was right, the second shape even larger than the first, the occasional gleam of moonlight giving it away. But why was it just... waiting there?

"Are we being herded?"

"They aren't attacking."

"Yet," Jo snapped.

"I don't get it," Dean muttered, almost to himself. "We know they're there and if there're two of them this isn't a coincidence. What are they waiting for? These things aren't exactly supposed to be smart."

"The Gamemakers control them, Dean."

Dean exhaled loudly. "So all this is just to ratchet the tension? Seriously? Buildup for the mid-season finale, is that it?"

Sam wondered whether it was something completely different, like Castiel or Anna giving them time to come up with a plan. Time that they were wasting.

"We need to figure out a plan," Sam hissed. "Now."

"The trees," Jo said. "We can climb before they reach us."

"We'd be trapped with no way down."

"I can jump from one to the other."

"No. They'd follow you and wait until you passed out from exhaustion or dehydration or whatever. Not to mention that between two of those things they can probably bring the tree down. We have to try and lose them first."

"I thought we'd already established that they can smell us from here," Sam said, near the end of his rope. "We can't lose them now, we have to fight."

"They can smell Jo and me," Dean corrected him. "You've still got a shot at running."

Sam turned to glare at his brother. "Like hell I will."

"Sammy--"

"Don't. Don't waste time with stupid arguments, come on. I've got time to grab my bow and take a shot at the one behind Jo. You should try to hit the one behind you, and go for the eye or I have a feeling the tranqs won't be enough."

"What about me?"

As Jo spoke, the figure in the distance howled.

"You climb the tree and stay there. Now."

"I can fight too! I can try to shoot, I've got two darts left and--"

Suddenly the hellhound’s enormous shadow started to grow bigger, trees rustling and branches snapping in its wake.

"Do as Sam said, Jo!" Dean yelled, turning to face his own monster, and Sam sprinted to his bow on the ground, nearly tripping over his feet in the dark as he did so, and he could hear it now; the hound's thundering progress through the trees.

He let the arrow fly and knew it was too high; the creature wouldn't even have to duck. Sam nocked and released another one immediately and this time he heard a yelp, but even as he squinted to try and see, the moonlight vanished, as though it had been turned off; he couldn't even make out his own hands on the bow, couldn't distinguish a thing in the pitch blackness.

"Sam?" Jo said, voice coming from up above in the canopy. "What the hell just--?"

"I don't know! Dean?"

"Sa—“

Sam's world dropped away as Dean's shout was cut off by a terrible ripping sound. He forgot about Jo's frightened little voice and he forgot that there were two tons of hellhound uprooting trees on their way towards him.

"Dean!"

He scrambled backwards even though everything was a confusing chaos of movement and sound, and then lunged to the left on pure instinct and felt the massive bulk of the creature tear through the space he'd been occupying seconds ago.

"Dean!"

"Dean!" Jo added her cries to Sam's. "Dean, say something!" her voice sounded thick, as though she was choking back tears.

And then there was an almighty ripping, groaning sound, like old wood forcefully bending until it splintered, and Jo's voice died out mid-sentence.

Sam's heart stopped. Of course the hound had ignored him. It had gone straight for the girl.

He was completely blind, but he would have preferred not to hear. The snarling, satisfied grunts from the hellhoundweren't loud enough to drown out Jo's voice. But Sam hadn't forgotten his brother.

Eyes wet with grief and frustration, he leapt to his feet and kept going in the direction where he'd last heard Dean's cut-off yell, flinching with every cry of pain torn from Jo's lungs.

He ran until he tripped over something and fell on top of it in an inelegant sprawl--the pack. Dean's backpack. Sam slung it over his shoulder and stood up, stilling. The cacophony of sounds coming from all around him made it hard to distinguish his brother's voice, if Dean was even still alive at this point--"Dean?" he choked, desperate.

"Sa--Sammy? Run!"

Dean's voice was close and edged with panic, and Sam forgot everything. Dean was alive. He could be saved, Sam would save him.

"Dean!"

"No!"

Sam turned towards the voice, confused now, and abruptly felt a warm, moist puff of air blow right in his face.

He understood what must have happened. The hound attacking Dean had sensed him too close, stopped to eliminate the threat, and Dean had been trying to--what, keep it on him so it didn't attack Sam?

It growled, a warning, and in the instant before it ripped into him Sam thought no.

Fury enveloped him, flooded his body in a wave, energy shooting through him when Sam stretched out a hand, as though ordering the hound to a halt.

This creature, this mutated, genetically engineered thing was not going to stop him from saving Dean. No way, not now, not after everything, was he going to let it take Dean away from him.

It was like the examination with the Gamemakers, and at the same time it wasn't like that at all. He had time to feel the power surge inside of him, gather in his chest until he thought it might crack open. Instead of a single uncontrollable burst, this buildup was slower, and the hound didn't attack, as though it had already sensed that that would be a terrible idea.

It didn't flee either, though. And it should have.

Sam felt it, this time, when the energy channeled through his arm and blasted out. If he weren't out of his mind with pain he would have been able to see the explosion happen inside the enormous creature in front of him, bones of its skull and ribs outlined by the shock of light. If Sam's vision hadn't been completely whitened out he would have seen, in the glow tinged red by the creature's blood and intestines, the remaining beast whimper and flee, and Dean scramble to his feet. If the high-pitched blaring in his ears hadn't rendered him temporarily deaf he would have heard his brother shouting his name.

Time slowed, or maybe it sped up.

Sam hit the ground hard just as the dead hellhound did, and his head cracked against a rock, the pain spiking to such an intense, overwhelming high that he expected to pass out. But he couldn't, he thought dazedly; it wasn't allowed, not yet.

Dean was beside him, saying things in a tone that wanted to be sharp and commanding but soon became desperate and pleading. Sam couldn't understand a word. Everything was exhaustion and he was drained, empty, hollowed-out, used up; instead of blood his heart must be pumping poison, he must be dying, the pain was so great; he must be moments away from succumbing to blissful oblivion, but he needed to hang on for a few seconds more, just to make sure...

By sheer effort of Sam's will, the world trickled back piece by piece. First was Dean's grip on his chest, fingers tugging violently at the fabric of Sam's shirt. Second was Dean's voice morphing into words Sam could finally comprehend; "C'mon Sammy, c'mon, it's okay, I'mma take care of you, it's not that bad, it's not that bad, c'mon..."

Sam whimpered. The noise was too much; even a whisper would have been deafening. No. His whole brain felt swollen, pressing against his skull, something thick dripping from his nose and leaving a metallic taste in his mouth, and he couldn't breathe, and the pain was too much, and Dean was alive. He must be allowed to pass out now. He must.

"Sorry," he whispered at Dean, knowing his brother would worry. But he couldn't take it anymore.

He let go, and the world went dark.

 

Dean

Dean was crying and it wasn't pretty. There was snot involved, and rocking sobs and his whole body kept on shuddering. He could barely see through the blurring stream of tears, even though the moonlight had returned shortly after Sam collapsed, brighter than before.

"Please, God, please—Sammy. Sammy."

He was so fucked up that it took a solid minute for him to realize he should check Sam's pulse, his breathing.

His entire fucking hand was shaking (and it had nothing to do with the freezing cold) when he pressed index and middle fingers to Sam's neck and leaned in, ear to Sam's parted lips. The nosebleed had painted them glossy red and the sight made Dean's stomach turn.

Sam had a pulse, but he wasn't breathing.

"No. Sam, Sam..."

He shifted forward and didn't hesitate; Dad had taught them CPR, Dean knew how this went. If Sammy had a pulse then his heart was beating and he didn't need chest compressions, but Sam's lungs weren't working right and that weak pulse would die out without oxygen soon.

So Dean pressed their mouths together and breathed for his brother.

After the third strong exhalation Sam gave a little gargled cough and a low moan, and more blood trickled between his lips.

Dean's breath left his chest in another sob, loud and choked, and he was still crying in a way he couldn't remember doing ever, not even as a kid. "Sam." He couldn't stop himself from leaning in again even though Sam didn't need help inhaling anymore; it was thoughtless, necessary, just to make sure, touching their mouths together for the comforting, warm feeling pooling low in his gut, the relief banishing all his fears away. Sam was still out cold but the evidence that he lived felt unmistakable when Dean was tasting it for himself.

Blood mixed with the tears and there was too much spit involved and it was, all in all, pretty disgusting, but Dean couldn't feel anything other than Sam's slick wet lips brushing his, tender and sweet, releasing hot puffs of air that Dean swallowed down like benediction.

"D-Dean...?"

Jo's whimper was a shard of ice thrust into his chest.

Oh God. What was he... what the hell was he doing?

Dean was disoriented for a long moment. Then he leapt away from Sam's still-unconscious form, feeling like he might throw up. He'd been... that wasn't... that had been--

He stood and sprinted to the fallen splintered tree, wiping his mouth with his jacket sleeve and forcefully shoving the nausea and bile down his throat. Jo was among the tangled upper branches, blonde hair almost white in the moonlight.

"Jo, hey, hey..."

He'd grieved her death from the moment he'd seen her; told himself she was already gone way before they even entered the Arena. She couldn't live because Sam had to, it was that simple.

But when he dropped to his knees beside her and saw the blood, nothing felt simple.

"Jo..."

"Dean."

Her stomach was a mangled mess, her right leg limp and completely destroyed. She had minutes left.

Dean cradled her head in his hands and it was tiny, she was tiny. "My mom," she croaked. "My mom is gonna flip."

"You were fucking incredible, kid. You were amazing. She's gonna be so proud."

Jo grimaced and managed a small, one-shouldered shrug. "Eh."

Man, even now... "Just--hang in there, okay? You'll be fine. This looks bad, I get that, but you'll be--"

"Stop." She touched his face, tentative and weak. "Don't cry."

Dean chuckled. "Don't tell me what to do, midget. I'll damn well sob like a little girl if I want."

She grinned a little. "S'really cold. Is it just me or s'it really cold?"

"It's the freaking ice age, is what it is," Dean said immediately. "Those Gamemakers man, bunch of crazies, am I right?"

"I... you'll show them, yeah? You'll--" she stopped to cough and whimpered when the movement made her stomach cramp. "Y-you'll win for me, right? You and Sam." She frowned, eyes starting to grow unfocused. "Is he okay?"

"He's fine. And you bet we'll win."

Her hand dropped down, eyelids fluttering. "I'll haunt your ass if you don't, Winchester," she whispered.

"I promise. For you, okay? I promise we'll win and it'll be for you."

"Good." She wasn't seeing him anymore, but her mouth was still curved in a small smile.

He pressed a kiss to her forehead, shaky and overwhelmed. "For you, kid, for you..." he murmured, and he kept on saying it as she went limp in his arms.

*

Sam was pretty freaking heavy, and Dean had a rough time of dragging him anywhere, let alone somewhere safe. They needed to rest, but it had to be someplace close to the river, and at the same time not easily accessible by other Hunters. Also, Sam may have killed one hellhound, but if the one that had gotten away came back with five more they wouldn’t stand a chance.

How to find this magically convenient place was the real problem.

Dean staggered and stumbled all the way to the closest point where he estimated the river lay, Sam draped over his shoulders with his legs dragging along the forest floor because the dude was gigantic. It made for slow and loud progress, inelegant and leaving a ridiculously easy trail, but it was progress nonetheless and after a couple of hours he heard the sound of rushing water.

"Made it, Sammy," he panted. "We made it."

Sam hadn't so much as stirred the entire way.

The heavy pack on Dean's back (still full of yesterday’s gathered supplies) slid to the ground and was followed by Sam's body soon after when Dean finally came to a stop. He was careful with his brother's lolling head, though, because Sam had already hit it once and a concussion on top of everything else was so not what they needed right now.

Without the immediate cover of a canopy above, moonlight made the area around the river brighter than the woods. It was deceptively inviting: silvery and sleek, the gentle current of blue-black water padding merrily along. He’d heard the sound of rushing water so clearly because there was a waterfall a few yards upstream. One could almost forget the icy cold permeating the night air in this place.

While he drank, Dean’s gaze snagged on the torrent of foaming water twice his height, and an idea tentatively drifted through his mind. He looked back at Sam; there seemed to be no change.

Dean stood and walked the short way to the waterfall. The sound of it would help drown out conversation, and without audio any footage would be difficult to use. Plus, the risk of cameras malfunctioning because of the water meant it was far less likely there were any situated close enough for a proper angle anyway. He gave Sam a final lingering once-over and then gingerly made his way toward the middle, gripping mossy rocks when he could and relying on luck and balance when he couldn’t. It was only a hunch; he might be wrong, it might just be a stupid idea—

He was right.

Behind the fall, hidden by the curtain of water, was a small crawlspace.

After a rather stressful minute of testing his flexibility (not that great, it turned out) and also getting soaked, Dean determined not only that both he and Sam would fit through, but that the hole led to a decently sized pocket of air which seemed structurally sound and would provide a perfect (if slightly damp) shelter.

It was such an epically brilliant finding that he was smiling by the time he ran back to Sam, despite the events of the past few hours.

“Sammy...?”

Sam was blinking his eyes open when Dean rushed to kneel beside him. Good thing he hadn’t woken a while earlier, Dean thought with relief, or he wouldn’t have found his brother by his side.

“Rise and shine, Sammy,” he said with forced jauntiness.

“Dean.”

Sam peeked at him and then shut his eyes again, like it hurt too much to keep them open even though it was still nighttime.

“Ow.”

“How are you feeling?”

Ow.” Sam’s voice was soft and slurred.

“I’ll take that as ‘could be worse’.”

“Wha’... Jo. Is she—d’she make it?”

Dean flinched. He’d rather not... he hadn’t let himself think about Jo very much. Or anything that had happened after Sam killed the hellhound. “No. They... called her name at midnight, Sammy.”

Sam’s face crumpled, even though his eyes remained closed. “Christ.”

“I know. But there wasn’t anything we could do. I... I covered her body. With some of the tarp we'd laid out. Let’s just... we can’t think about her now, okay? I’ve found us a place to stay.”

Sam tried to open his eyes again, but gave up with another wince. “I... don’t think I can move right now.”

“You gotta, Sam. It's too cold to stay out, you gotta move just a bit. Then you can eat and sleep and get your strength back, okay?”

“My head...”

“I know, I know Sammy, but you gotta hang on for just a bit longer, please...”

Sam sighed, shuddery and pained. “’Kay. M’sorry Dean. Okay.”

“Don’t apologize, asshat.” Dean slid an arm around Sam’s shoulders and propped him up, hating the way Sam whimpered, a soft sound of pain his brother would have concealed if it had been within his faculties. Sam’s hand immediately curled around the neck of Dean’s shirt, like a comfort thing, and Dean let it.

They made their way to the waterfall at a pace that would have lost them the snail Olympics, and Dean had to help Sam climb into the entrance by basically sweet-talking him through it, gentle and cajoling reassurances to get Sammy's trembling limbs to safety.

After a very long half hour they were both inside, but Sam passed out again the moment he landed on the moist rocky earth. It was freezing and they were wet and Dean sat next to Sam and covered them both in a tarp blanket, to try and provide some warmth, but he didn’t dare strip their clothes off.

That settled, Dean wasn't sure what to do.

They had easy access to water and enough food for a day, two if they rationed it properly, but he didn't know what was wrong with Sam. What kind of remedy existed for when your psychic brother overdosed on his powers to save your life? Would sleep be enough? Sam had suffered from bad migraines before; back home, after a vision he'd take half a day to rest (mostly at Dean's insistence) and lay low... but they were in the middle of the Hunter Games. How was that laying low in any way?

Dean kept watch and tried to come up with a short-term plan, but his thoughts kept straying back to Sam. It was pitch black in the cave, would be until dawn (although that couldn't be far now), and sitting in the darkness was like an invitation for reflection.

He found Sam's wrist in the dark and kept a loose hold on it. It was thicker than his own, belonged to an arm longer than his own, was attached to a body larger than his own. All grown up, Sammy was, in every sense of the word. Oh, he may be at Dean's mercy now, may need Dean's help because of this temporary injury, but Dean could tell things weren't the same between them. Sam didn't need Dean to take care of him. Wasn't 'little brother' anymore, and hadn't been for a while.

It had just taken a post-apocalyptic fight to the death for Dean to realize.

He felt like someone with a steady job who'd just been fired. He didn't know what to do with himself. If the Prime Directive was no longer 'take care of Sammy' because Sammy could take care of himself... then what? What was left for Dean to do? How was he supposed to act around Sam? Sam, this man who claimed he wanted to take care of Dean, too, who still looked at him like he eclipsed the sun but also, sometimes, like he wanted to hold Dean in his arms and protect him from harm, in the style of the guys found on cheesy covers of trashy romance novels, stupid wavy hair and all.

Then there was the way Sam looked lately, which was so goddamn adult Dean wasn't sure he knew what to do with it. Wolfish grin and dimples, hard muscle under smooth gold-copper skin, innocence but not, and so very, dangerously attractive. It would get him in trouble. Madison, Meg, Pamela, even Jake (girlfriend or no) had all stared, and with reason, God. People didn't act like that back at Twelve. They were less... blatant about it. Certainly no dudes had ever expressed interest, although come to think of it Brady had always been very attached to Sammy. Regardless, the swell in Dean's chest used to be pride. He used to shove Sam at every girl who so much as gave him a second glance. Laurie, Becky, Sarah, and of course Jess; Sam always came back to loud, funny, blonde Jess.

Jess had leapt into Sam's strong arms in the Justice Building and she would do it again, when Sam returned. She would welcome him home good and proper, kiss him senseless, help him forget the desperate, hunted feeling one never really shook off in these woods. She would be warm and gorgeous and inviting; Dean hadn't forgotten her version of 'goodbye', that full-body shudder she'd made when Sam gripped her tight. She'd also be tough when needed, though, because that chick had a backbone. She would know the right things to say, or when it was better not to say anything at all. Smart girl, that Jessica Moore. Dean liked her. They shared the same birthday, and every year she used to sneak Sam precious, expensive sugar from the bakery to give to Dean.

Or Sam might have been submitting his name more times into the Hunter Games to get it for all Dean knew, actually. There was a sobering thought. Sam had kept that secret for four years, after all (hell, he hadn't even deigned to tell Dean when he'd lost his virginity). See? Grown up. Sam liked to have separate things from Dean.

Was it wrong that Dean didn't understand how that worked?

What did it mean?

His brother regained consciousness around dawn, and Dean snapped out of his musings with the realization that his plan hadn't managed to get past anything other than: when Sammy wakes up...

"Dean?"

"Hey. How are you doing, buddy?"

Sam's face was barely distinguishable in the flickering, dim sunlight that filtered through the curtain of water covering their only window.

"Loads better, actually. How... are you okay? Did the hellhound hurt you?"

Suddenly there was a large hand on Dean's chest; an unfortunate placement choice, because Dean had, indeed, bled there.

"Dean, is that--?" Sam sat up, voice harsh with worry. "Jesus, are you--"

"I'm fine, I swear," Dean said quickly. He tried to grab Sam's hand and push it away but it was sticky and slippery with his blood. "It looks bad but it's really not, just a couple of cuts. Already clotted, see?"

"Fuck that."

Dean's whole body jolted at the anger in Sam's voice. Whoa.

"Er—“

"Of course you haven't even cleaned the damn wound. Do we still have the cloth from Bela's jacket? Go wash it."

His tone left no room for argument, and Dean heard himself say: "Yes, sir," with only about two-thirds mockery.

He did as Sam told him to, washing the purple berry juice off at the waterfall without even having to climb outside of their little hidey-hole. The window was about waist-high, and wide enough that he could lean out and stretch his arms to touch the water. It worked, although some drops splashed back in and the already damp and humid atmosphere became even more humid.

Dean slid back down to sit beside his brother, arms dripping, and thrust the wet rag at him. "Happy?"

Sam tried for a weak smile, eyes strained. "I will be when you take off your shirt."

"Wow, that didn't sound pervy at all." Dean managed a light chuckle and shucked off his jacket, then his undershirt.

Sam hissed in sympathy when the wounds were revealed, but Dean didn't think it looked that bad. There was a slash across his pecs that was maybe the worst one, but it wasn't even all that deep.

Sam still insisted on cleaning it, of course, and did a thorough job of it; even making Dean sit with his back against the opposite wall to get as much sunlight as they could. The amulet was temporarily removed, too, and that, more than the loss of shirts, made Dean feel weirdly naked; what with Sammy leaning in close and breathing on his skin.

With the sun rising, the shimmering brightness inside the cave actually provided rather decent lighting. Dean looked around, wondering if it was natural for a space like this to just happen or whether the Gamemakers had designed it this way. If that meant there were waterproof cameras in here after all.

"That hurt?" Sam murmured, eyes obscured by the shadow of his wild hair. His cheekbones looked ridiculous from this angle, and those pink lips were lightly parted in concentration.

"Dean. Does it hurt?"

"Huh? No," Dean said. "Er, not--no. I told you it was fine, dude."

"Without antiseptic or iodine we can't be sure it'll stay fine, man." Sam sounded a little bitchy and a lot worried, so Dean tilted his brother's chin up impatiently, unnerved by the lack of eye-contract.

For some reason that didn't really work, though. Sam's eyes were green-blue in this light, and so wide, and so beautiful. He had a shadow of stubble again and his face was streaked with dirt.

"Wh..." Sam stared at him, a little dazed. After a long pause he asked hoarsely; "Sorry, what?"

Dean frowned. "I didn't say anything."

"Oh." Sam shifted back, away so Dean's hand had to let go of his chin. For a confusing moment Dean was sure Sam took a fortifying breath before meeting his gaze again, like it required effort. "We should still dress the cut properly, and--"

"For the last time, Sam, I said I was fine--"

"Yes, probably, yes," Sam snapped. "You are probably fine, but we can't be sure. Some sponsored immunity boosters would be a godsend right now."

Dean shrugged, even though it pulled at his chest. "No sponsors, remember?"

"I know, I was just... look. Just. Stay still for like ten minutes so I can do this? Please?"

Dean raised his palms in surrender, and Sam shuffled closer again, wary. "It didn't bite you, did it?" he asked, starting on a light nick on Dean's ribs from the hellhound’s claw.

"No. Scratched me up but good, is all."

The cloth was already getting dirty.

"How's your head?" Dean asked, to fill the silence.

"I told you, better. Still hurts, but not as much as before."

"Right, right. So... any idea what happened back there?"

Sam shook his head. "None. I... I don't know any more than you do, Dean. I got mad, and then..."

"Ka-boom," Dean offered with a slight smirk.

Sam snorted. "Ka-boom," he echoed, smiling in spite of himself. "Stay still, okay?"

"What? It's done," Dean said, confused. His chest looked raw and red, but clean.

"No it's not. Your face--"

"Bah, screw my face."

Sam made a weird choking sound. Dean realized what he'd just said, and laughed. "Whoa, that came out wrong."

"You think?"

After another strange pause to take a fortifying breath, Sam leaned in close. Dean wondered whether Sam really found his face so gross he had to brace himself or something before he could move near—

And then it hit him.

When Sam exhaled in a little frustrated huff, the warm air went directly into Dean's mouth, sense-memory bringing back the unwanted image from earlier, yesterday, whenever. He'd... there was a word for what he'd done, in that moment of fear and desperation. A pretty word, a short word, a sweet word for what he'd stolen from Sam when his brother had been brought back to life. A word that shouldn't be associated with slippery blood and tears and snot and dirt and Sam is not little brother anymore, right; not little anymore, but still brother, Dean—

... Kiss.

Fuck, what if Sam remembered...? What if Sam hadn't been as out of it as Dean imagined, and he thought it was weird? Well, it was weird, it was pretty fucking messed up, actually, but Dean had had no control over his reactions back then, and it didn't mean anything, Christ. It was just adrenalin, relief, possibly a touch of hysteria. It wasn't anything... it wasn't...

"Stop making that face, Dean, I need to get the blood out of your eyebrows."

Well, if Mr Let-Us-Talk-About-Our-Emotions wasn't going to bring it up, Dean wouldn't either. He relaxed his features and stayed stock still as Sam meticulously wiped around his right eye, his left cheekbone, his nose and his lower lip.

A few minutes later Sam sat back to admire his handiwork. "That's as neat as it'll get for now, I'm afraid."

"I'm sure it's great."

"Not really." Sam sighed, and Dean noted the way he moved back to put as much space between them as was possible. "You should sleep, Dean."

"I'm good."

"No, you should rest while you can. I'll keep watch, but I don't think anyone's gonna find us in here."

A yawn chose that moment to crack Dean's jaw, and he had to admit Sam was right. "You sure you don't need more sleep, Sammy?"

"I'm sure. Your turn to rest, now."

Dean laid down right there on the coarse wet ground. "Don't forget breakfast, okay? There's food in my pack. Hopefully most of it isn't drenched."

"Thanks." Sam busied himself opening the dirty backpack. "Aren't you going to put your shirt on?" he tossed casually over his shoulder.

"Dude, it's only gonna get hotter in here during the day. Why would I do that?"

Sam shrugged. "No reason, I guess. Just take care to stay on your back, yeah? Don't undo my good work."

"Relax, Sammy." He winked at his brother. "So. You gonna just sit there or do you wanna cuddle again?" He was mostly joking, hoping to lighten the mood (maybe even see Sam smile again), but if Sam said yes, then... Dean would like that. Sad sap that he was, it would at least feel like he was doing something to protect his brother.

But Sam looked horrified at the mere notion. "No," he said firmly.

Dean thought he did a good job of hiding his wounded flinch, but to be honest he was kind of hurt. 'Cause man, okay, fine, no cuddling, but there was no need to sound so disgusted by it. Sam had been the one to ask for it in the first place.

Except for how the treacherous voice in Dean's ear whispered: Sam only said that because you’d been having a nightmare, you whiny little princess; it was an offer of comfort, selfishly taken.

"Was jus' kiddin', Sammy," he said quietly.

"Oh." Sam chuckled softly, and it sounded strange. "Of course you were. Sorry. I'm an idiot."

"Uh. That's okay."

The whole exchange felt... weird. Dean mentally shrugged and closed his eyes. It took him longer than he'd have thought to fall asleep, though. He kept hearing Sam's vehement "No," and wincing.

It had been a stupid joke.

*

When Dean woke up, he wasted precious seconds on disorientation in the sweltering heat before realizing Sam was gone.

"Sam!"

He leapt out of the opening of the cave so fast the rocks scratched up his chest and the largest cut ripped open and started to bleed again, but Dean didn't care. "Sammy?" He was instantly soaked by the spray from the waterfall, "Sa--"

The word died in his throat once he located his brother.

Sam was swimming in the river below, naked. His body was... man. It was a sight to see, all right. Sleek lines in the water, reassuringly steady movements, and clearly Sam was okay, had just gone out for some fresh air and fresher water.

Still.

"Fuckin' asshole!" Dean bellowed.

"Dean!" Sam flailed and splashed so hilariously that Dean’s anger evaporated instantly, but he kept his furious expression on because the kid deserved it.

"I wake up with you gone and you figured, what, I'd just deal?"

"Dean, I'm so sorry--"

"Oh he's sorry--!"

"I am, I'm...! I was still keeping watch, I just...! I didn't think you’d...!" Sam looked so guilty and stressed out that Dean had to relent.

He let a hint of a smirk curve the corners of his mouth. "No note, you don’t write, you don't call...!"

Sam's face broke into a relieved grin. "Man, it was freaking hot in there, okay?" The river was deep enough around the waterfall that Sam was submerged up to his torso. "I thought I was melting."

"Bo-freakin'-hoo." Dean climbed down more carefully and then prepared to jump in, pants, shoes and all, right as he heard Sam say: "Dean, don't--!”

Too late.

The water had retained some of the cool from nighttime and it felt fucking amazing on Dean's bruised and overheated skin, despite the sharp sting from his cuts. He groaned happily and broke the surface with a gasp for air.

"You'll reopen the wounds, idiot!" Sam was shouting, although he hadn't come closer to actually take a proper look.

He was too late again, anyway. The gash in Dean's chest throbbed angrily as wisps of blood mixed with the water in front of him.

"We should make less noise," Dean chastised, running a hand through his spiked-wet hair and over his face. "Tally's down to ten now. Gordon and his guys might be about, we're not that far from the Cornucopia."

"You're the one who—“ Sam cut himself off, exasperated. "Fine," he hissed, much quieter. "Then go eat your breakfast and leave me alone."

"Aw Sammy, we shy?"

Dean started to slink toward Sam but the look on his brother's face stopped him midway. It was the same, horrified expression from earlier, and Dean felt his grin slide right off.

Well then.

"Uh. Okay, guess I will go eat something."

"I made a small coal-fire," Sam blurted. "No smoke, I promise. I cooked the squirrel so it would still be good to eat. It's probably cold by now but I left it inside the cave for you, in case you wanted breakfast when you woke up."

Dean forced a smile and started to tread carefully towards the shore feeling his shirt and pants adhere uncomfortably to his skin. "I'll bring it outside, then? Have ourselves a little picnic lunch?"

"Sounds great." Sam's smile was forced too. His hair was dripping into his eyes and the water made him shine, muscles gleaming so that the aforementioned romance-novel-hero look was more apparent than ever. Dean had seen Sam in various stages of undress nearly every day of his life, but it kept on shocking him how Sam was ripped nowadays. Even the line of his hipbone was clearly defined, arrowing down—

Dean thought dizzily: It's freaking scorching today. Hottest day yet, for sure.

He left without another word, suddenly and inexplicably glad for the space.

*

"God, you're such an idiot."

Sam had already been dressed by the time Dean got back, although his clothes obviously weren’t finished drying. Dean didn’t comment on it. The heat of the sun outside had finished the job five minutes later as they ate lunch, even though climbing back into the cave had dampened them both again.

After having carefully cleaned the cut on Dean's chest for the second time, Sam was trying to create a bandage for it by tying some of the rags diagonally over his shoulder and under his armpit.

"Y'know Sammy, for a hot nurse you're really bitchy."

Sam snorted. "You do realize you just called me 'hot', right?" he informed Dean's sternum in an amused, quiet tone.

Dean was taken aback for about half a second. Then he smirked. "Dude, whatever, the words 'hot' and 'nurse' were designed to go together."

"How would you know? Saint Adam's had five nurses, all of them older than Pastor Jim. And two are guys, I thought you didn't swing that way."

"Dr Sexy is surrounded by all the hot female nurses a man could ever want."

"Right, 'cause it's the nurses you stare at when you watch Dr Sexy," Sam muttered, and Dean felt his hackles rise instantly.

"For the last time, I thought we'd established that this dick thing is exclusive to you."

Sam flinched a little at Dean’s words but didn’t answer.

“I don’t swing that way, Sammy,” he felt the need to reiterate.

"Sorry, of course." But the way Sam said it sounded like he was just humoring Dean, like he knew better.

"Hey. I mean it," Dean snapped, glowering at Sam’s bent forehead. He couldn't see Sam's expression but he was ninety-percent sure Sam was making the face right this second. "And where did your sudden interest even come from, anyway? You never got around to tellin' me." Best defense was a good offense sometimes.

Sam stilled mid-swipe, one end of the semi-clean rag wrapped around his deft long fingers. "Why do you care?" he said finally, not meeting Dean's eyes.

"Call me curious."

"You wanna know what made me think I like guys as well as girls."

"Sure. Was it Brady? ‘Cause I was thinking, the way that kid looked at you sometimes, man—“

"Brady?" Sam actually managed a small laugh at that. "No!"

“Becky’s brother, then. Josh, right? He was kind of—I mean, for a dude, I guess he was sorta—“

“Zach, which you know because he was in your year, Dean. I barely knew him.”

"Then who?" When Sam didn't answer immediately Dean huffed. "Look, just admit it was Jake, okay, it's no big deal. I sort of get it, I guess?” Sam bit his lower lip. “Just say it, Sammy. It was him, right?"

Finally Sam just nodded.

"I knew it." The sinking, compressed feeling in Dean’s chest was anything but triumph. "Man, one look at those cable suspenders and you were gone, huh?"

He wanted to ask more, wanted—needed to know what exactly got Sam all hot and bothered—but the questions caught in his throat. He wanted to know, but he also really didn't.

"Oh yeah. That and the bondage, man, being tied up for twenty-four hours was awesome."

Dean laughed, but his head was swimming a little with the heat in here. It felt worse than a sauna. Not that Dean had ever been in a sauna, but he imagined it had to be nicer than this. He'd already sweated through the cloth Sam was—finally—done tying.

"Try to move your arm," Sam said, obviously leaving the topic for dead.

Dean lifted his arm and the makeshift bandage moved with it without coming off. "This is actually not a terrible job, Sammy." Sam smirked at him, all warm eyes again from under the dark fringe, and even through the dizzy heat Dean's heart soared. He smiled back, a bit giddy. "Thanks."

"You’re welcome, man."

Sam’s skin was lit by iridescent midday sunlight and fluid shadows, and it hit Dean out of nowhere, like a punch—that right now Sam looked eerily like he had in Dean’s fevered dream. All that was missing was the blood... and Sam was wearing clothes this time, and Dean wasn’t licking his wounds until they magically disappeared, and Sam wasn’t panting for breath and pleading for more, and... last night Dean had done it for real, hadn’t he? When Sam started to breathe again Dean had crushed Sam’s warm, wet lips against his own, tasted—

Christ. Enough, enough now.

The heat in the cave was oppressive; seriously crazy. Dean felt flushed, almost feverish with it. They needed to like, get outside or something, breathe some fresh air, because inside the air felt too thin, and Sam was sweating too, beads of moisture rolling down his neck to pool at the hollow of his throat—

Dean's stomach flipped and he stifled a low groan. Fucking hell, had he managed to somehow catch a cold last night or something?

"Listen, I’ll, uh, keep watch outside, okay? You stay in here.”

Sam frowned. “You think that’s wise? I’m pretty sure staying inside is our best bet for now.”

“I...” Sam was absolutely right. Even if they took their weapons outside, it was way smarter to just lay low. But Dean felt—like he needed to leave. “I know, Sammy, but I’ll just canvas the area...”

“I just finished fixing that bandage for you, Dean, come on. If you get it wet now I’ll just have to redo it.” Sam edged close again, making a soft distressed noise at the untucked corner of cloth sticking out of Dean’s shoulder—

He needed to leave now.

Dean batted Sam’s arm away and shoved him off to lurch unceremoniously to his feet. “Be back soon,” he bit out, and then he fled without another explanation.

*

Dean paced, and he didn’t think about dreaming those fucked up things, certainly didn’t think about actually doing them to his little brother when the kid was passed out.

Nope, Dean did none of that. Instead, he kept watch. He walked around, tranq gun in his right hand, two darts remaining but he had the knife in his left. Then after a while the eerie silence seemed to be inviting him to recall the vision of Sam dirtied up with fake coal and lit by those blindingly sparking wings, a breathtaking, beautiful demon—so Dean searched for some more edible roots and found an improbable patch of wild leeks (which he hated, but Sam had complained they had to eat more plants, so whatever).

He was startled a few minutes later by a rustling sound, and immediately tensed—but it wasn’t a threat, human or... not-human.

It was a parachute.

Dean stared. It was a sponsored parachute, no doubt about it. And tied to it, dangling from a low branch, was a blue tub of antiseptic cream.

He looked up at the sky, speechless.

“Uh...” what the hell? How had Bobby managed it? “Thanks.”

He took the tub gingerly, expecting the repercussions of such a gift to strike immediately and without mercy—but nothing came. So Dean went straight back to the cave, cylinder clutched firmly in his hand. It was already starting to grow dark and cool; either the day had passed really quickly because he’d slept through most of it or the Gamemakers were getting impatient to develop things. Possibly both.

He splashed inside a minute later, soaked but elated once more. “Sammy! Man, you’re not gonna believe what happened.”

Sam seemed so stupidly glad to see him return that it made Dean feel even worse about his abrupt departure. But. He wasn’t thinking about that anymore. There were new things to focus on.

Dean tossed the heavy container at his brother and Sam caught it, eyes wide once he realized what he held in his hand. “You’re kidding me.”

“Landed a foot away from my face.”

“Dean, this is awesome!”

“I know!”

Sam made a little fist-bump into the air that was possibly the dorkiest thing that Dean had ever seen and then turned the full force of his joyous grin on Dean. “You know what this means, right?”

Dean nodded and clapped his hands once, feeling more like himself than he had in ages. “No one’s counting us out yet, Sammy.”

Sam opened the cream with a deft twist of his fingers and made yet another crowing happy noise at its full contents... then quieted disconcertingly fast.

“What?”

Sam was staring intently at the back of the lid. “Dean...”

“What is it?”

Dean crouched down to look at it too. There was writing on it. A note.

“What’s it say?”

“I—Dean, I think I recognize Bobby’s handwriting. ‘

Communication from the outside was strictly forbidden unless via sponsored gifts, and even those were carefully monitored; planes weren't even allowed to fly over the Arena because in the past sponsors and gamblers (often one and the same) had tried to send illegal gifts to the Tributes they'd bet on. So the fact that Bobby had taken such a huge risk to pass them a note like this could only mean it was vitally important.

“Read it,” Dean ordered, the shadows and smudged bits of cream making the note unintelligible from his angle.

Sam cleared his throat and squinted to read. “It says... ‘No cameras or mics behind the waterfall, you have a day max. to get your strength back before they draw you out of there. D—they skipped from hh death to Jo, but note GMs saw. S—be very careful using your abilities, re; exhaustion. Don’t die’.”

Dean’s brief flare of hope and happiness vanished instantly.

Sam was frowning, confused. “What does he mean, ‘skipped from hh—‘ I’m assuming that’s hellhound, but ‘skipped from hellhound’s death to Jo...’?”

Dean felt sick. Again. He was going to upchuck his brunch any second now.

“Dean. What happened between the hellhound’s death and Jo?”

Great. Sam didn’t remember after all.

Dean.”

“I—I dunno, dude, I had to do CPR to get you breathing again but other than that, I don’t really know what he’s talking about.” He played it cool, didn’t let his voice shake, but the flickering light in the cave wasn’t helping with the not-feeling-sick thing. Christ, he’d been so messed up about what he’d done that he’d forgotten other people had seen it too.

Sam’s eyes were narrowed and disbelieving. They were also a really pretty purplish blue color now that the sun was setting. “You have no idea what could have made Bobby waste—“ he paused to count. “—eleven words of important space to let you know the Gamemakers saw something that they chose not to air, which happened after I passed out.”

“Nope.”

“Why are you lying?”

“I...” If he’d started out telling the truth it wouldn’t have sounded so bad. But it was too late for that now. “Sam, let it go man, I honestly don’t kn—“

“Stop.” Sam shifted closer, eyes roving Dean’s face. “Why are you lying to me, Dean? What happened?”

It was this big thing now, this big secret when it had been nothing—nothing, no more than a temporary insanity, he’d been so afraid for Sam’s life, so shaken, it could have happened to anyone, it wasn’t some great event... although Bobby had seen, every ex-Champion had, and the Gamemakers had... the Gamemakers would, what, use it against him? How?

“Look Sammy, for once we have a night of undisturbed sleep ahead of us, why not make the most of it?”

Sam looked pissed, and what was worse, under that he looked genuinely hurt.

“If you think I’m letting this go you’re seriously deluded, Dean.”

“Wow, well, feel free to keep yappin’ away. I’m going to bed.” And by ‘going to bed’ he meant he was putting his jacket back on over his tee because it was starting to grow really cold again, and lying down in the damp, uncomfortable ground.

“Just tell me,” Sam snapped.

“Sleeping now,” Dean called, firmly shutting his eyes.

He was not prepared for the painful yank at the front of his jacket. “Did they hurt you?”

Sam’s face was close, worry etched in every slender line. “Dean.” Their noses were almost touching. “Did you get injured somehow? Did... are you... did you do something stupid?”

Dean’s brain was buzzing and he couldn’t think of anything stupider than kissing Sam right now.

“I’m fine, Sam.” His voice cracked. “Let it go.”

Never,” Sam snarled. Dean flinched, because there was a time not that long ago when Sam looking like that would have irritated the hell out of him; an uncomplicatedly pure feeling. “Talk to me, Dean.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake. I don’t know what Bobby meant, I’m tired, I’m going to sleep.” Dean disentangled Sam’s hand and turned his back on his brother, feigning an ease he was far away from feeling.

Sam’s silent, stunned fury was practically radiating against his shoulder blades, but Dean did his best to ignore it. After a long minute Sam laid down next to Dean and shoved some tarp at him, even though there was a very noticeable couple of feet of space between their bodies.

“Dean.”

Dean didn’t answer.

“Are you... have you been poisoned or something.”

A surprised laugh burst out of Dean. “What?” he rolled over to stare at Sam. “What the hell, Sammy?”

But Sam’s eyes were shining with unshed tears, eyebrows drawn with worry, and it was making him look more doe-eyed and puppy-ish than ever. “I just—I don’t understand...”

“Sam.” Dean shifted a little closer to his brother and reached out to put a soothing hand on Sam’s shoulder. “I’m fine. I promise. There’s nothing for you to worry about, okay?”

“Then why won’t you just say it?”

The reddish light of sunset was almost completely gone.

Looking into those eyes, Dean found himself thinking; would it really be so terrible if Sam knew? It’s not a big deal. His resolve to deny Sam anything when he looked at Dean like that always started out shaky to begin with, and it was almost funny when one thought about it, really. So he’d... so he’d kissed Sam. So what. Sam’s voice was tight with pain and fear right now, and it was in Dean’s power to change that. He just needed to say it right, so that it wasn’t weird; he just needed to word it properly.

“You’ll laugh,” he muttered.

“I’ll laugh?”

Dean nodded. “It’s totally ridiculous and you’ll laugh and...” his decision felt stupider by the second. No. He couldn’t say this now.

“I kissed you.”

Oh.

Oops.

“... I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I kissed you, Sammy. I did the CPR thing and you started breathing again and I was relieved and whatnot and I gave you a kiss—“ liar, that was more than one... “—and that’s the God’s honest truth. Laugh away.”

Sam didn’t answer for a very long time. Dean shifted uncomfortably.

“You’re serious,” Sam said finally.

“As a heart attack.”

“You kissed me, and the Gamemakers edited out that bit, and Bobby went to all this trouble to let—“

“Bobby went to all that trouble to tell us we’ll have to get outta here tomorrow or the Gamemakers are sending a surprise tornado our way. The rest was just bonus survival tips.”

Again, Sam went silent.

“On the mouth?”

“Dude, why would you even ask me that?” Dean infused his voice with as much disgust as he could muster and pretended to shudder violently.

Sam blanched. “Right, no, of course not, I mean... I don’t know, I-I just—you said, you said kiss and—“

“Can we never mention it again?”

“Sure.”

Dean felt Sam shiver a little. “You cold?”

“’Course. Aren’t you?”

“Wanna do the body heat thing?” It slipped out without his permission, but once it had been said Dean thought; of course. It was logical, natural. If anything, it would prove just how not-weird the kiss thing had been. They were brothers. It was fine.

Sam still hesitated before saying. “Why not,” in a slightly high-pitched voice.

They’d be fine.

 

Sam

Sam remembered the existence of the cream right when Dean was settling against his side, and he wriggled out from under his brother with an ill-concealed cry of relief.

“The cream! You need... the cut on your chest, Dean, and the one on your cheek looks bad too, we should—before it becomes infected—“

He felt around the shadows until he found the smooth-plastic cover of the round tub, aware that he was speaking really loudly.

“Wouldn’t it be dumb if after all that we forgot? Bobby would kill us. Here, can you—“ they collided in the dark because it was practically impossible to see anything at this point and Sam’s fingers scrabbled with Dean’s to transfer the cream from one grip to the other. “Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah, but how the hell am I supposed to see anything?”

Sam tried to force himself to calm down. “You won’t, Dean, just try and go by touch.”

“Awesome.” Sarcasm dripped from every syllable.

After a few minutes of quiet hisses and wincing breaths Sam realized his eyesight was growing accustomed to the dark. He could see Dean clearly outlined in the faint pearly moonlight, and his surroundings began to take shape too.

Dean was shivering, and the air he blew out steamed in front of his face.

“S’it very cold?” Sam asked.

“Yeah,” Dean grunted.

If Sam focused he could see the glistening shine of the white paste smeared on Dean’s chest, his cheek. The direction his thoughts chose to take was despicable.

“This is gonna be so gross to sleep in, dude.”

“Some discomfort is worth you not dying, I think.”

“Whatever.”

Finally Dean was done, and he gingerly put his shirt and jacket back on, body rocking with unstoppable shudders as he lay down again with his arms wrapped around his chest. The cold was moist and icy inside the cave, seeping in and settling inside one’s bones. Sam hesitated only a second before pressing his weight snugly against his brother’s.

Dean huffed out a little surprised breath and then slowly relaxed, his face smushed into Sam’s neck. His jaw felt sandpapery, reminding Sam of the excessively attractive five-o'clock shadow Dean was rocking nowadays. They were lying on their sides facing each other, touching chest-to-chest, thigh-to-thigh, and after a moment Dean hooked an ankle around Sam’s shin.

The past couple of days had restored a much more healthy complexion to Dean's skin and he seemed stronger, felt more solid than before, more like his usual self. Sam was unspeakable glad of that, he really was, but the oily creamy smell was overlaid by the smell of Dean’s cold sweat, and Sam was going to be in very serious trouble soon... and Dean had kissed him, Dean had kissed him and Sam had been unconscious and missed it.

“Fr’k’n ‘rness, ‘mmeh,” Dean mumbled.

“What?”

Dean leaned his head back to look up at Sam and that was not good. Their noses brushed. “I said, you’re a freakin’ furnace, Sammy.”

I kissed you, Sammy.

“Sorry.” He could taste Dean’s breath. Hear the moist sounds Dean’s mouth made right in front of him.

“Don’t be, right now I mean that as a compliment.” Dean lowered his head again and Sam sighed with relief.

... On the mouth?

“Goodnight, Dean.”

Where, if not on the mouth? His forehead? His cheek? He should know, there should be some sort of phantom ache in the place Dean’s lips had touched. It had been long years since he and Dean had been affectionate with each other on a level like that. And this... no, this affection had overflowed for Sam, had become more powerful than it should be. He wanted to ask, but he mustn’t.

It took him longer than it should have to realize Dean’s plush lips were pressing against his collarbone.

It was accidental, of course, but when Sam became aware of the fact he tried to move away anyway. There must be a limit to the things he was expected to handle in a situation like this.

He tried shifting their position so Dean’s mouth would be elsewhere and jumped at the hard wet drag of teeth it got him for his troubles.

“Dude, your shoulder is so not as comfortable as a pillow,” Dean grumbled. “But s’only thing I got, so quit fidgeting.”

He looked so innocent with his eyes closed, face scrunched in annoyance like that. And innocence was something Sam never thought he’d associate with his brother, but Dean really did look completely... unaware. Oblivious to the way Sam’s heart was fluttering so fast it was almost a thrum rather than a distinguishable beat.

Sam stayed as still as a statue. Dean seemed pretty relaxed (almost determinedly so, but that was probably Sam over-analyzing) and after a while his breathing went slower, deeper, gentler... which was good, because at least one of them would rest tonight. But then sleepy-Dean pressed himself even more firmly into his brother.

Sam hissed sharply when one of Dean’s legs fitted itself between his, thigh pressed right over his crotch. They were locked so tightly together it was ridiculous; there was literally no way for them to be closer.

Sam wasn’t cold anymore. Not by a long shot.

He tried to think about terrible things, recent horrors like blood and death and danger and violence but they all felt too difficult to recall, or maybe too easy to dismiss when Dean was there. Still Sam prayed Dean miraculously wouldn’t move another inch, hoped desperately that this was the end of it, that he might somehow fall asleep tonight even with the torture of Dean’s hard, muscled body wrapped around him—

But then Dean exhaled and shifted, a gust of damp air to Sam’s neck and a gentle brush to his cock and Sam couldn’t help the warm shock that made him harden against Dean’s leg.

He shoved his brother away instinctively, gut lurching.

“Sammy?” Dean was awake instantly, and sitting up the next second. “What’s going on?”

It was turning out to be a bright night, silvery moonlight making it easy for Sam to see Dean’s utterly confused expression when his eyes landed on his brother, hunched in the furthest corner of the little cave. “Sammy?”

Sam could still feel the surge of blood throbbing hot and incriminating in his groin, every pulse fueling the terror that Dean would find out what he wanted (and it didn’t frighten him anymore, wanting Dean; what scared him was that Dean would know and hate him for it, call him a monster for it).

“Hey... what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

Dean raised an eyebrow, yeah right, and started crawling wearily toward Sam on all fours. “Now who’s lying?” he grumbled.

His legs... his goddamn legs. “Go back to sleep, Dean.”

“Come on, man, talk to me. You’ve been acting all... weirder than usual. For a while now, to be honest.”

Of course he’d noticed.

This couldn’t be happening.

“Sam, is it... have I done something?”

Dean was staring at the ground so he didn’t see Sam’s jaw drop, but he must have heard the small gasp of indrawn breath. Still, he didn’t look up, just kept shuffling closer. Sam was pressing his shoulders so frantically against the rocky wall he’d have bruises tomorrow.

“N-no, Dean, what’re you—“

“Don’t act dumb, man, it don’t suit you.” The words were both light and cutting, filled to the brim with bitterness.

Sam’s blood had thickened to the consistency of oil, or maybe glue. He was still hard, still panting for breath, a muddle of heat and confusion and fear.

“W-wh—“

Dean was right in front of him now, wide eyes lit by moonlight, mossy green and silver.

“You’d tell me if I’d done something wrong, right, Sammy?”

He couldn’t think with Dean so near, couldn’t focus, felt stupid and sluggish. The small space and the loud noise of rushing water outside created this cramped, too-close atmosphere that Sam couldn’t--that Sam didn’t—

He leapt up and staggered to the opposite wall. He felt caged in, and he couldn’t deal with Dean following him.

“Please don’t,” he gasped before he could stop himself, hand outstretched as if to ward Dean off.

His brother was staring up at him mid-crouch, gaping. “Don’t what?”

“Nothing. Just—fuck...”

He buried his fingers in his hair and tugged, hard. The air pricked cold needles into his lungs.

“What the fuck, Sam?” Dean was getting to his feet anyway. “You wake me up in the middle of the night, have a panic attack and refuse to tell me what’s wrong? Let me help you!”

“You can’t,” Sam snapped. Sometimes he got so angry.

“No one can hear us here. You can tell me. Is it about your... abilities? Did you have a vision?”

“No I didn’t have a fucking vision. Just... please, give me a moment alone. Please.”

He couldn’t go outside, but he needed space, he needed...

Dean stood in front of him like Sam’s refusal to explain himself was a cruel, personal offense. “Sammy...”

“One damn minute for myself, Dean! Is that so much to ask?”

He caught the moment when Dean’s hurt bled into anger. “You selfish little jerk. I’m worried about you, okay? Deal with it!”

“I just want some room. It shouldn’t be that hard to understand.”

“How could I possibly understand, Sam? Fuck! What the hell is going on with you?”

“I need a goddamn minute!” He knew he was barely making sense, but it was so fucking claustrophobic in here, Jesus. He was near hyperventilating.

“Sam—“ Dean’s palm landed warm on his shoulder.

Sam shook it away violently. “Stop it!”

“But—“

Dean was reaching out again and Sam couldn’t.

He knocked his brother’s hand away, hard, and the next thing he knew Dean was shoving him, righteous fury burning in his expression. Sam steadied himself against the damp cave wall and swung back, and then it was on.

They crashed to the ground within seconds, rolling around in the small space, tearing at each other without technique. It was dirty scuffling, like children, and how had they even gotten to this, what flimsy excuse had led to this situation...?

Sam’s back slammed against a sharp rock and he groaned. Dean stilled for a millisecond, something like worry in his eyes but it vanished the instant Sam flipped them over and slammed him against it, punching a satisfying grunt of pain from his brother’s throat.

Dean’s fingers scrabbled for purchase on Sam’s jacket and he tugged, nearly tore the fabric before digging a painful thumb under Sam’s ribs, forcing him to twist away and then Dean had leverage once more, was pinning Sam down with shaking arms and firm hips.

Their clothes were askew and the air was freezing and scorching all at once. It hurt to breathe. Sam was leaking into his underwear, cock straining towards Dean, and if Dean moved back even a little he was going to rub himself all over—

It felt like an accident, when it happened; Dean shifted his seating and Sam couldn’t help the ‘unh’ sound that punched out of his chest as the friction he’d been craving bore down on him. It probably was accidental.

And then Dean did it again.

His legs were splayed wide and his perfect ass rocked against the length of Sam’s dick, making Sam’s breath hitch and his head loll uncontrollably. The world blurred—what was Dean doing, was this just his way of fighting dirty—and Sam couldn’t help making a confused, turned-on sound that might have resembled a whine.

Which was when Dean fell forward and buried his face in Sam’s neck, echoing Sam’s distress with a hot wet groan in return, right into Sam’s ear. And then he fucking did it again, grinding back onto Sam’s hard-on like he couldn’t help himself, only this time it was at an angle that let Sam feel the answering hardness from Dean’s...

Dean was...

The thought was so shocking and blindingly arousing at once that Sam humped up without meaning to, dizzy with lust and the impossible realization. Dean let out the start of another cut-off groan and then whimpered right in Sam’s ear, his fingers still clamped around Sam’s wrists now digging sharp nails into the flesh.

There was never a moment of realization. If they stopped to think about it, they wouldn’t.

So they didn’t stop.

Sam surged upwards like a wave and took Dean with him, so that he was sitting up with his brother on his lap. Dean let go of his wrists to grab at the softer hairs at the back of his neck and Sam used his freed hands to lift Dean’s hips and bring them down again, sweet painful weight and rough friction. They were breathing the same steamy air, gasping and panting into each other’s mouths and soon Dean was rolling his pelvis in time with Sam’s direction and making more of those desperate noises like the ones when he’d realized Sam was alive only better, and Sam was just—Sam could barely process what was happening, he was too—it was all too much, Dean was there and perfect and wanting him.

Their lips brushed during a particularly rough grind and Dean inhaled sharply, and then he was kissing Sam like he was starved for it, like it was the only thing keeping him alive; deep, tonguing kisses with barely a gasp of breath between them, delving deep and desperate into Sam’s mouth. His fingers had sunk into Sam’s hair and were holding Sam’s head where Dean wanted it, and Dean was a master at this, he was a goddamn expert—and the thought made Sam double his efforts to kiss back, because he wanted to erase all the girls Dean had learned this from, wanted them gone until it was just him, just him and Dean alone together with nobody else for ages.

They thudded back to the ground when Dean gave a particularly strong yank and let his weight pull them down, Sam on top this time, still rubbing their cocks together through restricting layers of fabric.

“D-De—fuck—“

One of Dean’s hands was on his ass, thumb digging into the cleft and using the grip for leverage, so he could rut up at a better angle and Sam was moments away from losing it in his underwear.

“Sam,” Dean panted. “Sam.”

He tugged Sam down again and fused their mouths together, arm wound around Sam’s neck to keep him in place, not that Sam was about to pull away. It was kissing with abandon; a reckless, wholehearted thing, kissing hot and urgent until it wasn’t enough, with their clothes on, it wasn’t enough.

Sam grabbed Dean’s waistband, tugged impatiently and Dean made a noise like he’d been shot, more air than anything. “Fuck.” They were still rocking together at an insane rhythm, the rustling sound of their bodies rolling against each other obscene in the silver darkness.

“I gotta... Dean, I—please, please—“

Dean canted his hips to allow Sam to wrench the pants down, taking his underwear with them. Sam wanted to touch Dean more than anything, but Dean retaliated by doing the same to him and then, instead of going for Sam’s dick like Sam expected, sliding one long index finger between Sam’s cheeks.

“Wh—oh God—“

Sam’s elbows buckled and he couldn’t hold himself up anymore, mouth latching onto the curve of Dean’s exposed shoulder and biting down just to hang on, muscles spasming with arousal. “Dean, Dean, please, fuck, please—“

Sam didn’t know what he was asking for, but Dean did.

He managed to get his other hand between them and wrap his fingers around Sam’s length, causing a low pull at Sam’s gut and a rush of blood to harden him even further when he hadn’t thought it was possible. Fuck. He couldn’t even think anymore, he was going to come, he was going to lose it all over Dean...

When the tip of Dean’s finger pressed inside of him, Sam was gone.

He came with a wounded cry, shuddering and shaking and moaning Dean’s name over and over because he’d forgotten how to say anything else. Dean was panting out things like: “C’mon, that’s it, yes Sammy, yes, that’s it—“ and it felt like it went on forever, pulse after pulse of come painting the inside of Dean’s thighs, slicking his rock-hard dick and toned stomach exposed by the rucked-up shirts.

Sam went a little crazy—crazier—after. Still gasping to catch his breath, he was overwhelmed by the need to shove backwards and taste himself on Dean’s skin. Without giving Dean a chance to do more than breathe in, Sam rested his weight on his ankles and curled his body in an arch to lap up the cooling come pooled in Dean’s bellybutton. The sound Dean made then was glorious; a choked, incredulous groan before he was fisting fingers in Sam’s hair again and holding on to him, not pushing, just using him as an anchor.

Sam followed the faint trail of hair leading to Dean’s pubes but he ignored Dean’s leaking dick in order to mouth at the jizz wetting the crease of Dean’s thigh, tugging the pants down lower until one leg was below Dean’s calf and the other around his shin, giving Sam space to fit between Dean’s legs. He lowered his head and found that his dreams didn’t seem quite so sick and fucked up right now, as his tongue flicked out to lick over Dean’s hole.

“Sammy? Wh—what—“

Dean’s dick released another pulse of precome when Sam looked up and, in doing so, brushed his bangs along Dean’s balls in a feather-light caress. He was glistening wet, dripping, much wetter than Sam got, and it made for a freaking gorgeous view. Sam could feel his own dick throb already, trying to fill again just at the sight of his brother wide-eyed and looking at him like the shimmering moonlight came from within Sam himself, and not some external source.

Sam kissed the head of Dean’s cock, too soft to be anything more than a tease, and smiled a little when Dean’s hips involuntarily shoved into the gentle touch. Then he nosed his way back down, making sure to tease Dean’s balls before he went lower, licking and nipping until he felt the texture of Dean’s hole against his lips again.

Fuck, Sam—“

He started thrusting in with his tongue, carefully at first, not so carefully after he heard Dean choke his violent approval and felt the muscle clench and flutter vulnerably. He couldn’t really tell in this light, but he knew Dean’s freckles would be dotting this forbidden skin, too, even if Sam had never seen them. He thought; I’m eating him out—I’m eating Dean out like I did to Jess and it’s so different and Dean is—Dean is Dean

Dean was trembling, his invitingly bowed legs thrashing restlessly. He was incredibly tight and Sam could barely get the tip of his tongue inside but Dean kept trying, pelvis twitching to meet Sam’s mouth and it was so hot to reduce him to this that Sam groaned, muffled into his brother’s ass. His brother, Dean. He was as intimately close to Dean as it was possible to be. He was licking into Dean. Inside Dean’s body. Grunting, Sam used his wide shoulders to lift and spread Dean’s thighs further, spearing and sucking alternately until Dean sounded like he was sobbing, whimpering and strung-out.

Sam didn’t see it but he sensed Dean reaching to fist his own cock when he couldn’t take it anymore. And that just wouldn’t do.

“No,” Sam growled and left Dean’s ass to wrap his lips around the swollen head.

Dean came instantly, pulsing hotly into Sam’s mouth until Sam was forced to either swallow or choke on it. He still spluttered a little and had to use his hand to jerk Dean through the final aftershocks, until Dean was spent and winded, gulping in steamy air through spit-wet lips. His blown pupils and heaving chest made him look like a drug addict.

“... Sam,” he whispered.

Sam was also breathing roughly, and somehow his cock was already feeling full and heavy between his legs, if not quite hard yet, but he kept carefully, cautiously still, as though he might spook Dean if he moved too fast. His own pulse was racing with terror and uncertainty and left-over adrenalin. He thought; I’m in love with you, Dean, and it didn’t feel like a surprise, when he realized the words had been true for a very long while.

“Wh... what the hell, Sammy.”

Dean sounded so lost. Sam couldn’t believe Dean was expecting some sort of answer from him.

“I... I don’t kn—“

“Christ.” Dean quickly leaned forward and wiped the corner of Sam’s mouth with his sleeve. “Sorry, you had...”

They stared at each other.

“Sam, I. I am so sorry.”

Sam... should have probably expected that. He was still taken aback by Dean’s horrified expression. “What?”

“I... Jesus Christ.” Dean tugged his pants up and sat, not backing away from Sam (not yet) but looking like he wanted to. “I can’t even... I’m sorry. You... what’re you... why did you let me do this?”

“What?” Sam’s brain cells were having some trouble reawakening. He also tucked himself into his underwear and pulled his pants up over his ass, mechanically. “Wait, let you?”

“I just... I can’t believe I just did that. I can’t believe... I...”

“Dean. Let you?”

“I...” Dean looked so freaking confused it would have been endearing if Sam wasn’t feeling so fucked up himself. “I...”

“Dean.” I love you, he thought. He couldn’t unthink it, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it either.

“Let’s... oh God let’s just forget about it, okay? We’ll just have to forget this happened. Fuck. Just... let’s just... it’s understandable—“

Oh no. “Don’t—“

“It was a fluke adrenalin thing. Life or death situation—“

Please no. “Dean, don’t—“

“Could’ve been anyone—“

“Dean!” Sam punched Dean on the shoulder, hard. He wanted to yell at him: No! Don’t you dare say that, don’t you say that! And then he realized... maybe for Dean it could.

Maybe Dean would have vented out his frustration and anger with anyone; Bela, Madison, hell, Jake if he was the only warm body available. Sam had been hard, Dean had felt that, had understood what Sam wanted, and God, when had Dean ever failed to give Sam what he wanted? Maybe Dean had just instinctively responded to Sam’s need and his own current stressed state.

Sam felt sick. “Sorry,” he said hastily before Dead could do more than gape at him. “Of course, you’re right.”

“I... I am?” Dean blinked owlishly in the darkness. Then he took a deep, steadying breath. “Right. Okay. Of course, I am. Sammy—“

“I know. It’s okay.” It was anything but okay. It was so far from okay he wanted to kick and scream and sob uncontrollably into Dean’s shoulder. Dean was already bitterly regretting it and meanwhile Sam... Sam was in love with his brother. This was no crazy crush, no temporary situation. This was forever. The certainty settled deep and immovable in him as he sat there, staring at Dean’s sweaty countenance and overbright eyes.

He would never get to kiss Dean again.

“You—“

Goodnight, Hunters!”

They both jumped. Sam had forgotten where they were.

The daily tally is... one.” Chuck’s voice was oddly distant and muffled through the curtain of water. “From District Ten: Kubrick Massee. To the remaining contestants: good luck, and good hunting."

“How much do you wanna bet that was Tamara’s work?” Dean muttered. It was a rhetorical question and Sam kept quiet.

After a short pause Dean looked up at him, eyes all shiny and serious again. “Sammy?”

“Yeah.”

“Are we... we gonna be okay, dude?”

No, you idiot, we’re not going to be okay because I want you, I love you, I’m in love with you, I need you so badly it feels like nothing will ever be enough unless you’re inside of me—

“I think so.”

“Are you... did you...”

“Spit it out, Dean.”

Dean flinched. “Sammy I just... I need to know, did you...?”

“Did I what.”

“Did you want it.”

Sam very nearly laughed. It was a close thing.

Instead, he said; “Dude,” and Dean managed a huff and a “Yeah I know, but—“

“I... that’s the reason I was... upset, actually...” Sam tried to make his tone lighter. It was difficult. “You’re clingy in your sleep and I couldn’t help the, er. I didn’t want to freak you out.”

Dean’s eyes went wide. “That’s why you were so bitchy?” Something passed over his features too quickly for Sam to identify it and then Dean was shaking his head, incredulous. “Dude. It’s okay. It’s a totally normal reaction.”

Yeah. Normal.

“Still...”

“No man, it’s fine. Er... I... uh, obviously I was...” but Sam never found out what Dean obviously was, because his brother trailed off uncertainly and then coughed.

“It’s okay.” Sam lied, nodding. “We’re cool. We let off some steam, it’s okay.”

They were both silent for a very long time.

Sam could smell the sex in the air and he could still taste Dean, strong and bitter and somehow deliciously thick in his mouth.

“... Awkward,” Dean said under his breath.

This time, Sam burst out laughing.

*

He never went back to sleep, of course. Dean probably didn’t either, but at least he didn’t complain or say anything when Sam crawled out of the cave a few silent hours later, bow in hand and quiver slung over his back.

He just needed to clear his head a little. Breathe in air that wasn’t saturated with the things they’d done.

It had felt so crazily intense when it was happening, and that wasn’t diminished by time passing; Sam’s breath still hitched at the memory of Dean’s body writhing because of him. But no matter how Dean had sounded, no matter what sounds Dean had made or managed to wring out of Sam himself, there had to be a reason Dean was known for his prowess back home, right? This... making the other person feel like this (so wanted), had to be the ultimate trick.

No wonder girls went crazy over Dean. No wonder he only had to snap his fingers for most of them to come running (Sam groaned internally his own pun). No wonder most of them came back for more, or slipped Dean their number with the obligatory ‘call me’ scribbled on the side. Sam had always either pitied them or scoffed at them, wondering how anyone could delude herself into thinking Dean would actually use it. But he understood, now. Of course those girls weren’t dumb. They weren’t even all that naive, either. They just knew what they wanted.

And Sam couldn’t blame them one bit. He knew too, now; he had all this brand new... knowledge. He felt part of the club, in on the secret, the addiction that was sex with Dean and fuck, that had been sex, hadn’t it, he’d had sex with Dean and he’d never get to do it again.

He wondered how Dean would have reacted if Sam had said; It wasn’t a freak adrenalin thing. Not for me. Poor Dean. He would have probably tried to help. Tried to soothe Sam, tell him it was all right, maybe even convince Sam that he didn’t know what he wanted.

Either way, it would have been useless.

Well, Sam had never considered something like this a possibility; he’d already gotten so much more than he’d dared to imagine in his most improbable fantasies. So it shouldn’t feel like such a crushing burden, surely. It was just... he was stuck with the thought that if he’d known it was a one time thing (hadn’t he, though? Hadn’t it been doomed from the start? How had he not thought ahead, savored it more, made it last...?) he would have mentally recorded every kiss. Counted them. He’d lost track in between Dean tongue-fucking his mouth and nipping at his lower lip, and now he regretted that more than anything.

He was such a messed up, sad—

Movement.

There was movement on the opposite bank, a figure edging towards their waterfall.

For a split-second Sam thought Dean had come outside to look for him, but the shadow in the darkness was too tall and lean, and not his brother’s. The intent with which it moved, however, seemed perfectly clear to Sam. Maybe Jake had happened to be drinking by the river nearby and seen Sam leave, decided to attack while Dean was alone and therefore an easier target.

Decided to kill Dean when Sam wasn’t there.

He saw red.

An arrow was thwacking into Jake’s shoulder before Sam could even process it, and then a second one went through the back of Jake’s thigh, even though Sam was far away and on the opposite bank and shooting in terrible light. A third struck under the man’s left shoulder blade, and Jake was crumpling to the ground.

Sam’s heart thundered as Jake’s died out, ripped apart by the arrow shaft.

 

Dean

 

Could have been anybody. Sam had agreed. A fluke. You’re right, he’d said. We let off some steam, it’s okay. Didn’t matter that Dean’s stomach was full of sharp debris or that he felt so turned around and unbalanced he was teetering on the edge of a total breakdown.

Sammy. He’d... they’d... with Sammy.

How could he have... what the hell had possessed Dean to throw himself at his kid brother? Sam had responded, of course; well, he was eighteen and they were living a textbook example of extreme circumstances, plus apparently Dean was so shameless when he was unconscious he’d managed to give Sam a boner in his sleep.

But what in God’s name had he been thinking?

The answer was actually simple though, wasn’t it. Thinking had flown out the window when the hot line of Sam’s arousal had combined with that sound, that vulnerable little ‘unh’ sound that had driven Dean quite literally insane. Even though it wasn’t unheard of for a guy to get wood sparring. Even though it had actually happened to Dean a couple of times before.

Sam had swallowed Dean’s come like a pro and it should be making bile rise in Dean’s throat instead of making his cock twitch. Sam had gone down on him. Eaten his ass. Sammy had buried his face between Dean’s legs and... and... fuck. All this time Dean had imagined Sam to be the most perfectly vanilla, straight-laced gentleman, and it turned out his brother had been the complete opposite of that. Maybe not the most experienced eighteen-year-old out there, but in the space of a couple of weeks Dean had gone from thinking little Sammy a virgin to realizing his brother had all the makings to end up being a monster in the sack. It had been so fucking hot he’d been near tears.

He could still feel the scritch-scratch sensation of Sam’s dried release in the places where his brother hadn’t licked it up. Dean was horrified at himself but it was a distant horror, a dread from afar when close-up all he could think about was the way Sam’s whole body had jerked when Dean pressed that first knuckle inside of him, dry drag into his hole; like he’d never felt that before, like he hadn’t even done it to himself and why was Dean imagining himself fingering Sam open, teaching an eager Sam to slip two of those long digits into his own hole and letting Dean watch—

For God’s sake Dean wasn’t even into guys. Dick. He was all about tits and pussy. Totally. And yet... fuck, the weight of Sam on his fingers, heavy and silky and hot and hard for him, hard because of him, not only that but freaking bigger than him, still sent pulses of blood down to his groin. Sam was fucking hot. Everyone knew it, everyone had seen it, and now Dean did too. Whoop-dee-fucking-do. He could have lived his whole life without figuring that one out.

He wasn’t supposed to be able to see it, he wasn’t supposed to be able to want it. But God help him, did he.

He was sick. He was a sick sick sicko pervert freak–

Dean’s self-flagellating litany was interrupted by the sound of a loud bird-whistle over the steady crash of the waterfall.

No birds were allowed in the Arena, of course, so that had to be Sam, employing another of the signals they’d agreed on. But... it was strange that he chose to start now.

“Sammy?”

His slightly damp brother landed on the cave floor moments later, blinking disorientedly at what, to him, must be a sudden change in lighting.

“Hey.”

“Dean. I...”

Dean realized immediately that something was wrong. “What is it?”

“Jake...” Sam staggered a little and for a heart-stopping moment Dean was convinced that that was it, Jake had injured Sam and it was over, everything, life was over. He ran forward before Sam could say anything more and reached out to steady him—

“No, I’m fine. I... Jake’s dead. I killed him.”

Dean froze. Then he stepped back and stared at his brother.

“You killed him?”

“He was coming this way. He must have seen me leave, and he was coming to hurt you.”

Sam didn’t look shocked or scared or even like he regretted it much. He spoke in hard, flat sentences and a resolute tone, describing what he’d seen to Dean on his short walk.

“—retrieved the arrows, and here I am.”

“... Oh.”

Part of Dean wished he’d gotten to be the one to murder that son of a bitch... but most of him knew his anger at Jake was misdirected, and the fact that he’d been convinced Jake had killed Sam for nearly three days didn’t really justify the way he felt, especially since it hadn’t even been true.

“Okay, Sam. You did good. You okay?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“I’m sorry you had to do that.”

“He wasn’t a bad... he was just in the same place we are. I know that. He could have killed me ten times over and he chose to try and help me instead. I just... he was going to hurt you.”

“Yeah, well. Thanks for saving my life, dude.”

Sam grimaced. “Any time.”

They stood facing each other for a moment, and then Dean had to look away or grab Sam and kiss the hell out of him for still being alive, which was not an option.

“So... where to next, d’you think?”

“I... Dean listen, I think we should go to the Cornucopia.”

Dean sighed. “... I think so too.”

“The only Hunters left are Gordon’s group and Tamara—wait. You agree?”

“Yeah. Even if we didn’t go I’m pretty sure the Gamemakers would find a way to get us there, so.”

“Oh. Great. Then, we both... agree.”

There was another ridiculously intense pause.

Sam’s hair was curling softly at the ends because of the humidity, and it made him look really fucking good. Really fucking fuckable, to be honest. Dean tried not to have a panic attack.

“We should just pack up and go,” he said finally.

“Okay.”

Between them they had the tarp folded and stuffed into the bag within minutes. They didn’t exchange another word.

*

Dawn brought light and warmth with it, and Dean was grateful for the change for about ten minutes before the scorching temperature became far too much.

“Cryin’ out loud,” he grumbled, tying his jacket around his waist. He was slick with sweat already, and his skin felt like it was sizzling. If it weren’t for the leafy filter up above he was sure he’d have bypassed the ridiculously freckled stage and started to burn by now.

“Want some water?” Sam offered, gesturing at the pack. He’d been adamant about carrying it since they left the cave, arguing that otherwise Dean would have borne the burden most of the time.

“Yes, but we should save it for later. Lunch.”

“We’ll be at the Cornucopia by lunch, Dean.”

Dean wiped his sweaty brow with a forearm and cursed the fact that he already reeked despite his quick freezing dip in the river before they left (probably something to do with the lack of soap for days). Also, the reapplied cream itched like a motherfucker. “Well I ain’t planning on just running up there to get picked off by an arrow. Once we’ve assessed the situation we’re gonna need to plan this stuff.”

When Sam didn’t answer Dean risked a glance at his brother.

Sam looked flushed, his cheeks pink and eyes too-bright. “Sammy, you feeling okay?”

“I—yeah. Yeah. Just, the heat, is... distracting.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Tell me about it.” He didn’t think about the beads of sweat trickling down Sam’s stupidly broad shoulders.

After another hour of walking through the baking, crackling heat Dean had to pause to roll up his pant legs, using the thigh-holster to keep the left one in place. He had the suspicion that they were the only ones in the Arena suffering such extreme conditions. A light punishment for their hidden day of ‘rest’, maybe.

Ha. If the Gamemakers only knew.

... D—they skipped from hh death to Jo, but note GMs saw...

Oh, right.

Crap.

“Dean.” Sam’s voice sounded thick and clumsy, throat dry. His black tee was completely plastered to his torso and soaked through with sweat. “We need water. Dehydration is too big a risk in this heat.”

“We’re almost there, Sammy. Just hold on a little longer, ‘kay?”

There were probably another couple of hours left, in truth, but Dean clung to the hope that the Gamemakers would leave off by the time they were in place for the grand finale. As far as methods of torture went, he was pretty sure things could be way worse than really hot weather.

Sam nodded, and after a while the terrain slanted slightly upwards, and the trees began to thin a little. A few minutes after that there finally came a slight breeze that made them both sigh in relief. Dean wondered how much of that pointless little exercise had been purely to get them sweaty and grimy for the cameras, and cursed Alistair’s creepy-ass grin once again. He’d never forget the way that dude had licked his lips during Dean’s examination. Ugh.

He could tell the thermostat had been completely set back to normal when his aching feet stopped feeling like every step was equivalent to wading ankle-deep in molten lava.

He shot Sam an encouraging smile and his brother managed an actual, dimpled grin in return. It made Dean’s stomach flip, like always. Only now he knew what that meant.

“Almost there,” Sam murmured, still smiling a little.

“Yeah.” Dean let none of his trepidation at the impending battle show on his face and realized Sam was doing the same.

They slowed their pace by the time the tree-line was clearly distinguishable. Dean unfolded his pant legs again and took out his knife, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Sam draw an arrow from the quiver and ready his bow, testing the tensile strength of the string.

Dean could see the Cornucopia if he squinted through the trees. It was still smack in the middle of the suspiciously circular clearing, but there was a large black crater right in front of it where Tamara must have tossed the grenade. A few supplies had survived and formed a pathetically small pile inside it. He could also spot two guys keeping guard, but they were too far to identify.

“Can we please have some water now?” Sam said, even as he lowered the pack and began rifling through it.

“Hell yeah.”

Dean watched Sam drink avidly for about two seconds before deciding that was a bad idea, and then tried to casually lean against a tree and scan their surroundings, just in case Gordon had the other two guys scouting.

“Here you go.” Sam tossed him the bottle and Dean took a long, grateful swig, groaning appreciatively.

Sam was also pointedly looking around the forest by the time Dean was done. Dean... didn’t stop to analyze if that meant anything. It was beyond wrong to hope that it did.

And then...

Finally,” a female voice said.

Dean whirled.

Behind them stood Tamara, armed with a freaking crossbow and looking... kind of exasperated, in truth.

“I’ve been waiting for you to show up for ages! Where the hell have you been?”

Dean was so stunned he couldn’t answer for a long moment.

Tamara’s black tee was torn, exposing a toned flat stomach, and she was streaked with dirt and leaves in a calculated pattern that made for a pretty impressive camouflage job. She also had a pack like theirs bulging full with supplies. Oh, and a lethal-looking machete hanging from a belt at her hip.

She seemed to be in way better shape than either of them; alert and composed, and not half as exhausted as Sam and Dean were, thus confirming Dean’s theory that the heat-wave of the day had been exclusively for the Winchesters’ benefit.

“You... what?”

“I’ve been waiting,” she repeated, like he was slow. Well, he felt pretty slow at that moment. “For you. Not you,” she added, nodding at Sam. “I thought you were dead.”

Sam shrugged, almost apologetic. “It’s a common misconception.”

For some reason, looking between them, all Dean could think to say was a stupid crack at Sam for having longer hair than Tamara. So he kept his mouth shut. Sam being threatened by a crossbow may have been a factor as well

“So they lied. Hm,” Tamara was saying thoughtfully. “I thought that was against the rules. Not that people realize there are actual rules to the Games, but they do exist. Guidelines, even.” She shot Dean an odd look. “That must have been pretty rough for you.”

The memory of those days focused Dean to the situation at hand like nothing else could have. He snorted dismissively, not wanting to dwell on the topic. “Yeah, it was a roller-coaster of emotion. So, what’s with the pep talk before you kill us?”

“Have you not been listening? I wasn’t waiting for you to kill you. I want to offer an alliance.”

Dean had been expecting that, but it was still a relief to hear. Crossbow and all.

“I’m good, but taking down the five dudes who control the Cornucopia by myself is not gonna happen anytime soon,” Tamara continued. “They have the gun, I need your help and you could do with my intel and skills too. It’s a win-win-win. And after they’re dead, it’s a free-for-all on Winchesters. Sound fair?”

Dean exchanged a look with his brother. Sam seemed to be saying ‘what other choice do we have?’ so he took it as a yes.

“Sure does, sweetheart.”

Tamara rolled her eyes and lowered her crossbow. “Call me that again, dude.”

To Dean’s disappointment, Sam was clearly annoyed and refused to return his smirk.

“What weapons have you got?” She asked. “We should wait until dark to attack, so it’ll be good to do inventory while we kill time—“

“Nice try, kid, but what you see’s what you get, for now,” Dean interrupted, gesturing to his knife and Sam’s arrows. The only other weapon they had was the tranq gun in his holster with its sad two darts left, but she didn’t need to know that.

“Kid? I’m a year older than you, stud,” she shot back. Dean decided he’d be really fucking upset when she died, because he already liked her.

“Whatever. Better tell us about the Famous Five over there first, we need to figure out strategy.”

Tamara shrugged. “Fair enough.” She cocked her bulky weapon against her hip. “Well, there’s Gordon, Walt, Roy, Reggie and Tim. Originally Steve, Kubrick and Creedy were also part of the gang, but Creedy chickened out during the bloodbath—“

“Yeah, I know. Bela and I got him.”

“That was you? I wondered who took him out. Anyway, I took care of Steve, and Kubrick wandered a little too far into the woods last night...” she raised her eyebrows. “But the others are still there. For such a large, well-provisioned group they haven’t managed a lot of kills, and I’ll take some of the credit for that, but most of it’s Gordon. He’s a psycho, but he’s a smart psycho; preferred waiting until everyone had finished each other off. And it’s worked, too, obviously. Look at us.” She seemed to hesitate for a moment before adding. “I’d ask that you leave Reggie and Tim to me, if you can.”

Dean didn’t ask why and neither did Sam, but he could hear Jo’s voice, clear as day, saying: Tamara is hardcore. When Isaac died in the bloodbath, man, she got really angry. I think she liked him, you know, beyond the PR bullshit.

“So this gun we’ve heard so much about. Is it a shotgun, a handgun, a—“

As it turned out, however, stopping to form a plan wasn’t in the Gamemaker’s schedule.

There was a dull, distant roar behind them, and then crashing sounds from deep in the forest that started to grow louder at a frightening speed. Sam scrambled to his feet, bow ready.

Tamara loaded her crossbow with practiced ease and stepped back; “What the hell is—“

Dean realized what was coming at them a second before he spotted the creatures through the trees. “Fuck, run!”

Sam and Dean turned to sprint towards the clearing and Tamara followed them instantly.

“Are those fucking hellhounds?” She yelled.

“Yeah!” Dean replied, and by that time they were out into the plain and they’d been spotted by the two Hunters next to the Cornucopia.

“Run!” Sam called at them, dropping the pack as he did so, but the first dart whizzed past Dean’s face seconds later. “Don’t shoot at us! Run!”

Dean spared a glance back just as the group of hellhounds burst from the trees, red eyes gleaming in the sunlight and hungry yowls reaching their little group loud and clear. There were four—no, five, six...? One crunched Sam’s abandoned bow under its paw as it leapt towards them.

“Holy fuck!” One of the guards yelped (Dean thought it might be Tim) and startled climbing up the giant horn, followed by his partner (possibly Reggie) moments later.

“What is it?”

The three remaining Hunters appeared from around the Cornucopia, probably coming to see what the commotion was.

Gordon swore when he caught sight of the hounds and met Dean’s eyes for a second before turning to follow Tim and Reggie up. By that time Sam, Dean and Tamara had also reached the giant horn.

Enmity momentarily forgotten in the face of such a formidable common foe, the eight remaining contestants of the Hunter Games hastened to climb their only means of safety, using its intricate ornamental pattern as hand- and foot-holds. It soon became apparent, however, that they wouldn’t all fit; the gleaming surface wasn’t exactly steady, and space was limited.

There were scuffles and jostling for space, and then a panicked cry as Tamara pushed Tim down, right as the hounds reached them. He was dead within seconds, screams drowned out after a hound with a healing would on its forehead clamped its teeth around his neck. Dean recognized his work with the flare immediately and focused on that instead of the gore spattering the ground.

Tamara went after Reggie next, aiming a sharp kick to his knee and then thrusting her machete forward to unbalance him. He scrabbled at the sides but was pulled down by two more of the monsters. Shortly after that, he was pulled apart.

And then there were six.

Sam, Dean, Walt and Gordon were nearest the edge of the Cornucopia’s mouth, each of them precariously balanced, half-sitting and half-crouching, with Dean clinging to the sleeve of Sam’s jacket to keep both of them steady. Tamara and Roy were a little lower, in the slightly flatter but smaller area before the curve of the horn dipped down.

“Gordon...” Walt panted, and Dean could hear every word because they were squished side by side. “Gordon, gimme the gun...”

Dean knew it wasn’t for the hellhounds.

He let go of the metal rim to punch Walt square in the jaw and nearly toppled over, and then he and Walt were fighting, kicking, punching and tearing at each other.

“Dean, no!” Sam shouted as Dean began to slide down, but a moment later there was the soft yet somehow incredibly loud sound of a gun-safety being unlocked. Walt froze and Dean took the opportunity to punch him again, a calculated blow to the temple that combined perfectly with a kick to his stomach and Walt was falling, down down down into the welcoming barks and howls of the hungry hounds of hell.

Idiot,” Sam was hissing, voice tight with worry as he hauled Dean back up using only his upper-body strength. “Dammit, Dean.”

His brother’s arms were half-surrounding him and for a crazed moment Dean thought safe. Then he saw the gun in Gordon’s hand, and where it was aimed.

“Everybody calm down,” Gordon said. The fact that he had to raise his voice over the terrible, fleshy sounds coming from below was pretty indicative of just how insane his request was. Tamara and Roy were already competing for their space, trying to push each other off without falling themselves. Her crossbow hadn’t made it up the climb.

Dean realized that if Gordon hadn’t shot them all by now it was because he must be out of bullets. Or there weren’t enough for the people left. Since there were four Hunters besides him, that meant three or less. Hopefully less.

“Sam,” Gordon said, with this weirdly calm, reasonable voice. “I’m sorry to have to do this, I really am, but. Throw yourself overboard or I shoot your brother.”

It was practically point blank range. The barrel of the Colt–Dean knew guns, this was a recognizable model–nearly kissed his forehead.

Still, Dean grabbed Sam’s thigh behind him and dug his nails in, just in case. “No,” he snarled. “You use that thing on the hounds and we settle this the good old-fashioned, fight-to-the-death way.”

Gordon sighed. “I don’t think so,” he said and fired.

Tamara dropped like a rag doll, sliding down until she was low enough for one of the hellhounds to grab her, and Dean looked away then.

“Okay, let’s do it this way. Dean.” Gordon looked at him intently. “Jump now and I won’t shoot Sam, so he’ll have a fifty-fifty shot at winning.”

“Fifty-fifty?” Roy yelled.

“Sorry, Roy.” Gordon shot him next, and Roy went down to a chorus of satisfied growls and barks.

The gun was back on Sam a second later, and even though Dean was between him and Gordon he wasn’t big enough to cover all of his too-tall little brother.

“Dean? Certain death or a good shot at winning, what will it be?” Gordon asked. “There’s one bullet left. I promise.”

For some reason Dean knew the Hunter wasn’t lying.

“You have ten seconds.”

Terror crashed over Dean. He could’t... Sam was clinging on to him like a lifeline but... but maybe... He’d decided this would happen from the first day, hadn’t he? Maybe it was inevitable; their dream of winning together just that, a dream. Sam could be normal, like he’d always wanted. He could go back home rich and famous, marry Jessica, be happy, forget the fucked up situation they were in. Sam could live.

“Don’t even think about it, Dean,” Sam growled into his ear, fingers painfully tight around Dean’s body. “Don’t.”

“Five. Four. Three. Two...”

Dean shoved his elbow back into Sam’s stomach and twisted away, scrambling for the edge.

“Dean!” Sam gasped, kneeled over coughing. “No!”

Gordon edged back to give him room but Dean turned to get one last glance at his brother before jumping, one final look so that Sam would be the last thing he saw...

No...!” Sam choked, and the next thing Dean knew he was frozen in mid-air.

He was suspended a couple of feet above the lip of the horn’s mouth, body locked in place by some invisible force.

Sammy.

Holy shit.

“What the...” Gordon wasted a second too long gaping at him, and Sam threw himself at the Hunter with a full-body tackle. They crashed and skidded and Dean wanted to shout, ‘Sammy, no!’ but he couldn’t move, not even his eyes or the tips of his fingers.

Gordon was clearly an experienced fighter but the terrain was so slippery and unstable that that didn’t seem to matter against Sam’s sheer ferocity. Dean’s brother had size and strength on his side, and at first it seemed like Sam was seconds from victory, Gordon’s blood gleaming red on his knuckles and...

And then Gordon produced a knife out of nowhere and stabbed Sam’s leg.

Sam! Dean wanted to scream.

Sam went down and so did Dean, for a lurching moment, until Sam flung out an arm toward him and grunted, and Dean halted in mid-air again. The hellhounds were circling below him, like a weirdly inverted version of hawks stalking their prey.

Gordon didn’t make a mistake twice, though; he ignored the now undeniable proof that it was Sam who was keeping Dean aloft and moved to stab again. This time Sam managed to block the blow and he feinted to the side to let Gordon’s own momentum work against him, making him stumble forward. Gordon fell for it but recovered faster than Sam had expected—Sam was good but he lacked the experience and was tiring too fast, and Dean suspected why. When Gordon landed another blow to the back of Sam’s head blood gushed out of Sammy’s nose; not a trickle but a flood, and Dean clenched his fists in distress and realized... he could clench his fists.

He could move. Sam’s power must be weakening and... yes, even as Sam struggled to stand again, leg soaked red and limbs trembling from the strain, Dean could feel himself slowly, oh so slowly start to sink.

Frantically, he tried to think of something; he didn’t have a means to help Sam and the idiot wasn’t going to let Dean die in peace until he’d burst his own brain from the effort of trying to keep him afloat. Dean’s knife had been dropped somewhere, probably in the fight with Walt, and there was no guarantee he could throw it anyway.

And then he remembered his tranq gun.

It was still in its thigh-holster, with its two measly darts, and Dean managed to close his hand around it even as Sam was driven to his knees by a well-aimed kick. It was like moving through thick, syrupy water; Dean’s arm ached as he lifted it with difficulty, tried to aim—he had time for one shot...

That sank into Gordon’s neck.

Sam pushed the Hunter off with a final, breathless heave of effort and Gordon toppled right past Dean, paralyzed by the tranquilizer, unable to move until the hellhounds descended on him. There was a flash of something metallic in the sunlight and Dean’s hand caught it on instinct; the heavy weapon perfectly fitted to his grip.

The gun--the Colt.

“Dean!” Sam cried. He was sitting heavily on the very edge of the Cornucopia, blood-spattered and beaten, but although he looked like even blinking was hurting his head, Dean was jerked towards him through the air. They collided with a thud and then Sam was grasping his jacket and falling backwards again and Dean was tumbling onto the horn and into his brother.

“Dean, Dean...” Sam murmured. “Fucking hell, I can’t believe you—I am so fucking mad at you right now...” but he said it even as his hands clutched at Dean’s arms, his shoulders, his face.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry—“ Dean lied, because he’d never be sorry to die for Sam, he would do it in a heartbeat. “How’s your leg, how...?” he lifted himself off of Sam and made an unhappy sound at the sight of all that blood; Sammy’s blood, God he hated the sight. “Dammit. Here.” He pressed a firm hand onto the wound and Sam flinched but didn’t complain.

“Your head?”

“Hurts like hell,” Sam admitted, resting his forehead against Dean’s for a moment.

“I—“

They both realized at the same time that they were about to kiss.

Dean couldn’t read Sam’s mind. No matter how well he knew his brother, he’d never been able to decipher every thought that went on in that floppy, smart head. But he would have bet serious money on the fact that, for a long moment, the only thing holding them back from pressing their mouths together wasn’t the awareness that everyone in the United Districts Under the City was watching them; it was simply awareness of each other, a more innocent type of hesitancy that had nothing to do with any cameras or microphones or anything else in the universe than wasn’t Sam and Dean.

Attention Hunters.”

They both started, still holding onto each other to stay in place at the top of the horn. The hellhounds below hadn’t left, by any means.

This is a reminder that there can only be one Champion.”

“No,” Dean said, loudly and firmly.

There can only be one Champion,” Chuck repeated.

“We’re brothers!” Sam shouted. “We’re not going to hurt each other!”

There can only be one Champion.”

Hm. Chuck’s voice sounded... odd.

“There’s nothing you can do to us!” Dean yelled. “You have to make an exception!”

There can only be one Champion.”

Listening to it for the fourth time, he realized what was happening. It was the same recording. The exact same inflection on every syllable.

“What’s going on?” Sam whispered. He’d picked up on it, too.

There was a long beat of silence. Then; “I’m sor—“ the transmission cut off abruptly.

Sam and Dean shared a startled look. “What the hell was that?”

“I don’t—“

Attention Sam and Dean Winchester.” That was definitely not Chuck Shurley. That sounded like... Raphael? “You must abide by the rules of the Hunter Games.”

Yeah, that was Raphael’s booming baritone, and there was noise in the background as he spoke. Static and... something else. “’Abide by the rules’? You mean like you guys did?” Dean drawled. Sam shot him a ‘be careful’ look.

There must be a single Champion. If you do not abide by the rules the consequences will be beyond your imagining.

What was going on back there?

Sam

 

Sam knew they were on the brink of something. Something besides a twenty-feet fall from the crest of a gigantic horn.

You cannot both win. There must be a single Champion,” Raphael said.

“Must there?” Dean whispered. Sam understood, instantly.

“We’re not going to hurt each other,” he declared. Dean looked at him like he was thankful, which was stupid. Sam still smiled back, though.

You won’t make it out together, guys,” and that was Ruby’s voice. What the hell?

“Well, it’s both or none,” Dean said, still looking at Sam with that light in his eyes. “We’re kind of a package deal, eh Sammy?”

“Yeah.” Sam nodded. “Both or none.”

What does that even--?”

“Here’s the thing,” Dean said loudly. “Either you let us both win, and get two Champions, or—“ he was interrupted by an earsplitting high-pitched blast, like static. In Sam’s entire life he’d never heard of a technical malfunction during the Hunter Games. Never.

“What the hell?” he whispered. Dean made a shushing motion and stood up, boots firmly planted on the uneven surface. Sam would have stood too, but he was afraid of his leg giving out, and the pounding in his head was getting worse with every passing second.

“Either you let us both win,” Dean repeated defiantly. “Or you don’t get a Champion at all.”

He was breathtaking in that moment; gleaming and golden and sunlit, streaked by dirt and blood and sweat but all the more amazing for it, somehow. Gritty and real and Sam’s... Sam’s. Sam remembered Anna Milton’s words in his vision after Castiel said “They are brothers”; “That is not all that they are,” and knew they’d have to come up with a better word for what he and Dean were, because she was right.

There was silence for what must have been a solid minute before the announcer’s microphone activated again with another blast of static.

Are you threatening us, boy?”

In Raphael’s deep, resonating bass, the question dripped contempt.

Dean swallowed but didn’t back down. “Just stating facts. Sam and I... we don’t wanna cause trouble. We won’t, unless you try tellin’ me I gotta hurt my own flesh and blood. Then I’m afraid you’ll have your hands full, pal.”

Sam knew it was wrong that that made him want to pull Dean down and kiss the hell out of him. He really couldn’t help it, though.

“So what’s it gonna be?” Dean called.

They got no answer for what felt like a century. Sam’s vision was beginning to dance, and he had to reach out and clutch at Dean’s leg to keep himself from collapsing.

We could just kill one of you right now. We’re off the air.” The background noise distorting Ruby’s voice sounded like it was growing louder. “Prettiest Winchester gets to live. We could do that.”

“Before we become dog chow? I think if you could do that, you already would’ve.”

Or maybe we just haven’t decided which of you two would cause more trouble dead. Martyr-wise, I mean.”

“I think I have a few friends down here that would be more than happy to take that decision away from you.”

As though they could understand Dean’s words, the hounds’ barking grew more frantic. The corpses of the fallen had been discarded and the dark creatures were all surrounding any possible way down the Cornucopia. The bright light of day did nothing to take away the terrifying gleam of their red eyes, or the light-sucking blackness of their fur.

You can’t, Dean. The hounds are under our complete control,” Ruby said flatly.

“Are they? You’re sure it’s complete control, is it? ‘Cause I taste mighty fine, sweetheart.”

Sam wanted to roll his eyes, but it was Raphael who answered Dean this time. “Enough. You will follow the rules.”

“I don’t think so,” Dean snapped.

Do as you are bid, or the consequences will be beyond your imagining.

“No!” Sam yelled.

They needed to televise it. They wouldn’t get away with a report on the crucial last seconds of the finale; that had to be why they wanted to record the actual fight, they needed Sam and Dean to play their roles or it would raise too many questions, too much unrest.

Cancellation. It would raise Cancellation.

There was another blast of sound that had Sam clutching at his head in pain, and after that... silence.

For the longest time, the only thing Sam could hear was the growling of the hellhounds, and the breeze in the circular clearing.

“Sammy?” Dean said in a hushed voice. “You okay?”

“Spiffing,” Sam said through tightly gritted teeth.

“Migraine gettin’ bad, huh?”

“Yeah.”

Dean crouched beside him, a soothing hand going to the back of Sam’s head, lightly tracing senseless patterns among the tangled hair at the nape of Sam’s neck. God, it felt amazing.

Sam closed his eyes and focused on not groaning too obviously. “Thanks, Dean,” he breathed.

“S’okay, Sammy. We’ll be okay.”

They waited like that for a very long time, silent and tense, anticipation building with every passing moment.

And then the unmistakable sound of an engine roared up above and the sunlight was blotted out by the largest aircraft Sam had ever seen. It was no hover-car, either; the letters USS AV painted neon-white on its belly.

“Is... is that an AV?” Dean said, eyes wide. “Does this mean we win?”

“I think it does,” Sam croaked, half-disbelieving himself.

The AV’s wing rotors drowned out the hellhound’s frantic barking as it began its descent, and the wind it kicked up was so ferocious that the Winchesters had to secure their grip on the Cornucopia again to avoid being dislodged.

Dean grabbed Sam’s shirt by the collar, his own clothes buffeted by the gale. “We’ve won?” he mouthed.

“We’ve won!” Sam yelled, but the wind snatched his voice away.

The urge to kiss Dean was back, but Sam ignored it and tugged his brother close to hug him instead. They were laughing and Sam might be crying because his head felt about ready to split in half but it was okay, because Dean was shiny-eyed and grinning too, blood and just a touch of hysteria fizzing under their skin.

The USS Angel Vessel slowed to take them away and in those precious seconds the boys felt happy, and safe, and triumphant.

Chapter Text

 

 

Dean

The last person Dean would have expected to see inside the USS AV that was supposed to take them to the Champion's Quarters was the Gamemaker Castiel. But there he was, wearing a grey trench coat and a blue tie, of all things.

“Welcome, Sam and Dean Winchest—“

“No time for that!” A voice called hastily, and then a woman was shutting the Vessel’s trapdoor behind Sam and Dean and yelling: “Go go go!” How she lifted that thing when it was twice as big as she was (not to mention made of metal) Dean would never know. “Door secure!”

Cup! Are we clear?” This voice crackled through the general comm system, tinny and too loud.

“Clear!” The woman yelled. She bolted the door and ran past them without a glance, straight into the throng of people inside the Main Deck. There was a large set of double-blast doors at the very end of the room that Dean suspected lead to the cockpit, but they were nearly blocked out of sight by the activity at the center. At least fifteen television screens of varying sizes had been set up in a circle smack in the middle of the Deck, each one broadcasting different images. The crowd was a mixed bunch; Dean spotted at least two well-known District Spokespersons (Tessa the Reaper from Five and the dude from Nine, thankfully; no Meg), a few Gamemaker Guards, and randomly dressed Citizens manning telephone terminals and shouting over each other to be heard, but before he could try to find out what the hell was going on, Sam swayed on his feet next to him.

“Sam?”

Besides his clearly shitty balance, Sam was shivering a little. Dean realized he was still holding the Colt in one hand and stuck it in his now empty thigh-holster to slide an arm around Sam’s shoulders immediately.

Sam melted into his side as though his bones had turned fluid at Dean’s touch.

“Sammy, hey, hey, it’s okay...”

Castiel took a step forward as if to help, but Dean glared at him and the Gamemaker froze mid-move.

“I only wish to—“

Dean ignored him to lean as close to Sam as he could get away with. “Sammy, hey.” Sam had shut his eyes firmly. “Hey, buddy, how are you holdin’ up?”

“My head,” Sam whispered. “S'gettin’ worse...”

Castiel took another, much more hesitant step forward. His eyes were blue and wide, obviously concerned. Dean didn’t necessarily buy it. “You are to be attended to, both of you, I promise—“

“No one touches my brother,” Dean snarled on instinct. This man was one of the twelve people responsible for Sammy’s state. “Not until I give permission, you hear me?”

Castiel seemed rather stunned by Dean’s lack of cooperation. Well, too bad. “I... but, perhaps you are confused, we are helping...”

“I’m sure you are.” They were drawing not-so-subtle glances from everyone in the room, and Dean was beginning to feel cornered. “Just... back off a sec.”

Sam was pawing at his chest. “Dean, no, s’okay, he’s good, they’re... helping...”

“How do you know?” he whispered furiously. Suddenly he wished everyone else would just disappear, so he could go back to the feeling that him and Sam were the only two people left in the world. He would take care of Sam, he was an expert. He was the best at it and no one else had any goddamn right.

“I know.” Sam opened his eyes (hazel, in this light). “Dean, I know.”

Oh.

Dean looked Castiel over, still suspicious and very reluctant to let go of Sam’s warm, large body. “You got medical supplies, I take it?”

“Yes. This way...” Castiel led them around the center of the Deck and towards a hastily installed medical station. Two beds had been propped up against the slightly curved pearl-gray walls, each with its respective monitor and healing-kit, and an extra fluorescent light hung haphazardly from the low ceiling. It was only then that Dean let himself reflect on the fact that this wasn’t anything like a real Champion’s Vessel; this was last-minute, clandestine. Something big must have happened while he and Sam were in the Arena, a game-changer, and they’d either been rescued or kidnapped.

He was inclined to think the former, but doubted the latter was a complete lie, either.

“If you would...” Castiel began, deep voice laden with authority, and Dean shot him another glare for good measure.

“We’re not doing anything until you tell us what the hell’s going on,” he said, leading Sam to gently sit down on the closest bed.

Castiel stared at him as though he’d never been talked back to before and opened his mouth to reply, looking completely unnerved.

“No one’s doing anything until you two’ve gotten basic medical attention,” a new voice said firmly, and then a woman was pushing Castiel aside none-too-gently. She wore a white coat over a stylish City suit, and Dean couldn’t help bristling at the sight of her.

“My brother—“

“Is in good hands, Dean,” Castiel assured him quickly.

“Right, ‘cause I trust you completely after having met you for five minutes,” Dean snapped. Sam smiled faintly.

“Dean, I told you, it’s okay... I’m fine...”

“Yeah, you sound top-notch, brother.”

The doctor lady tried to get to Sam’s side but Dean stepped pointedly between them.

“Mr Winchester, please,” the woman said. “I’m a licensed healer and I just want to help Sam get better. I need to determine whether his nose is broken, if he has a concussion. The cut on his leg is still bleeding, which is a sign the femoral artery has been nicked, at the very least. If you don’t allow me to treat it, Sam will lose a lot of blood.”

“Too much blood,” a man clad in blue scrubs said, appearing from behind her. He had a round, kind face; the kind of guy who liked to hug people as a form of greeting. Dean decided he didn’t like him on principle.

They were both right about Sam’s injuries though, so Dean had to step away from Sam to let them work. He still refused to let go of his brother’s hand, even after he heard the male nurse whisper something to the doctor that sounded like “Kid’s clearly in shock, could it be PTSD?”, to which she replied; “I think he’s just very intense about his brother, Cher.”

“While you heal, I am needed elsewhere,” Castiel said to no one in particular. He sounded like he didn’t fully understand that he was being ignored.

“Bye.” Dean threw him a cheeky grin.

“Rachel.” The woman looked up briefly at Castiel from her examination of Sam’s nose. “If you need anything, do not hesitate to ask. And remember what I told you regarding the Winchester brothers.”

“We’re right here, buddy.”

“That’s all right. I’ve got it, Cas,” Rachel said with a distracted smile at Castiel, and he nodded at her gravely.

“Thank you. You have been a great asset in these troubling times, and I will therefore entrust the care of the brothers Winchester wholly unto you—“

“Yes, you said that, and that’s great, really, but I’m kind of busy right now...”

She cut Sam’s right pants leg open from mud-stained ankle to upper thigh and the nurse (what kind of a dude’s name was Cher?) had prepared a whole sterilization kit for Sam’s wound. Castiel nodded one last time and left; four different people rushing to his side the moment he’d stepped away from the medical area.

We are flying over the City,” the voice from the comm said. What had it been, fifteen minutes? It had taken them two hours to get here by hover-car. Holy crap. Dean tried not to think of them hurtling through the air at those speeds—tried to forget they were airborne at all, actually.

He focused on Sam, who was wincing as Cher scrubbed a soapy mix onto his leg. They were safe, they’d made it out alive and they might even stay that way.

“Hey, Sammy, remember that time Jess’ sister braided your hair?” It got him a grin and a firm squeeze of his hand, as though Dean was the one who needed reassurance.

The doctor—Rachel—took out a suturing gun. “Update?” she called out to the room at large, barely looking up from her work.

“We’re waiting on—“

“It’s official! Reports confirm Virgil has been robbed!” someone shouted happily, and there were a few cheers and clapping. “Balthazar succeeded!”

Cher smiled brightly. “Yes!” And Rachel exhaled like this was the best news she’d ever gotten. Dean had absolutely no idea what was happening.

“Anything on Crowley yet?” the doctor asked.

“Not yet, but Casey should have something soon!”

“I'm working on it," a sultry female voice called. Dean was unable to locate its source.

"Is Hester--?"

"Here! Where's Enias?"

The doc went back to her work and Sam’s nails dug into Dean’s hand unexpectedly, spasming in pain. Dean wanted nothing more than to snap at her for not giving Sammy any anesthetic but at the same time knew that, with Sam’s latest telekinetic escapade, they really had no way of knowing what the hell was going on in the guy’s system.

“Almost done, Sam,” Rachel said. She was smiling a little as she finished stitching the wound and then quickly injected a hypo into Sam’s jugular before Dean could protest. “You’ll be alright.”

“What did you give him?” Dean demanded.

“It’s a brief kick to get him through the busy day ahead of you both,” she replied, unfazed. “Mostly energetic; sucrose, lactose, iron and vitamins to compensate for the blood loss and an incredibly mild dose of caffeine, with traces of norepinephrine. He needs fluids, though, so drink lots of water. Juice if we can get it for you.”

“Thanks,” Sam said, serious and polite like always, as though he’d understood all of that. Dean had the completely random desire to bite his ear; a fond little nip to chastise him for being so unerringly thoughtful.

He didn’t do that, of course, but he did allow himself to gently card his fingers through Sam’s fringe, chest warming at the soft sound of relief Sam made. “You feel okay, Sammy?”

“Yeah.” Sam smiled. “Loads better.”

“Great. I’ll be around if you need me,” Rachel said and strode away with a final nod.

“We have a change of clothes for both of you, a proper meal, and you can have a shower as well,” Cher told them amicably. “You guys won’t mind—“

“No,” Dean interrupted, without waiting to hear what he and Sam would or wouldn’t mind doing. “Information first, food and showers later.” His stomach chose that very unfortunate moment to rumble loudly, but he stayed firm.

“Dean’s right,” Sam said. His color looked better already, and his eyes had cleared. “We want to know where we’re going.”

Cher chuckled, like something was funny. “Nowhere,” he said. “Look, Castiel is probably the best person to answer your questions; I’ll try to get him back to you when he’s done—“

“We want answers,” Sam interrupted firmly. “Don’t try, just tell him we want to talk to him. Now.”

(It didn’t even cross Dean’s mind that an authoritative Sam was kind of hot. Nope. It did not.)

As though he’d overheard their conversation, however, Castiel appeared at the foot of Sam’s bed immediately.

“What’s going on?” Dean asked him without preamble. “Where are we? What happened while we were in the Arena?”

Castiel regarded him silently then turned his blue gaze to Sam.

“What do you know, Sam?”

Dean turned to stare at Sam as well. “Sammy? What’s he talking about?”

Sam didn’t answer him. He looked up at Castiel steadily. “I saw you,” he said.

“In a vision.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah. You and Anna under that streetlight. You talked about... Cancellation, and rebelling, and about me and Dean. You said it was time to put an end to it. Is this... is this what you’re doing now?”

Dean wanted to be hurt that Sam hadn’t told him about any of that, but the only time when it would have been safe to talk about such dangerous topics without risk of being seen or overheard they’d been... otherwise occupied.

“You heard every word.” Castiel sounded almost impressed. “What a gift.”

“I hate it,” Sam said flatly.

“Kali has confirmed her support!” someone shouted, and the yells of delight and relief were even louder this time. Dean didn’t pay them much attention at first, but after a second’s subconscious reflection, he realized he knew that name. Could the Kali they were referring to possibly be the Indian Chief of War herself? Had this gone international?

Castiel didn’t smile or clap like the others, but something about him suggested triumph all the same.

“Kali...?” Sam gaped. “Do they mean... is that...?”

“Yes.” Castiel nodded. “And Virgil, if you are not familiar with the lower-ranking members of our government, was Weapons Keeper of the City Armory.”

“So it’s happening, then?” Dean asked, hardly able to process what he was hearing. He looked at the screens again and caught a glimpse of himself, of all things, running through the forest at night during a very specific time. On another screen Anna Milton was talking into a microphone on the Main Square of District One, but the general hubbub of the room prevented him from actually being able to hear what she said.

“If by ‘it’ you mean Cancellation...” and the word coming out of a Gamemaker’s mouth was ridiculous, unbelievable. “...yes.”

Sam’s hand shot out and wrapped around Dean’s wrist. “Dean...”

Dean looked down at him and felt a slow grin tug at his mouth. He would have swooped down and planted a kiss on Sam’s unsuspecting innocently parted lips, if it weren’t for Castiel’s voice abruptly reminding him where they were (and who they were. And how he was supposed to feel about that).

“The peaceful takeover we desired has only been marginally successful, I am sorry to say. Districts Five to Twelve instantly embraced the declaration and expressed unanimous support, but One to Four are not only the best funded but the most populated, and that is where conflict brings a more problematic edge. The City civilians are divided on the issue, and as must be obvious, the Gamemakers are too,” he gestured vaguely to himself. “Which means the Gamemaker Guards have chosen sides as well. Fortunately we have managed to establish contact with some international players willing to forgive our past mistakes and aid us in this... rebellion.”

“Okay.” Dean exhaled sharply. “Well, okay, let’s get this straight, then; which Gamemakers are on our side?”

“Myself, Anna and Gabriel. We are awaiting Crowley’s decision; he seems to have vanished for now.”

Sam nodded and gulped. “So it’s... maybe four against eight?”

“Not eight. Three.” Both Winchesters did a double take. “The other side has already sustained severe losses; Uriel, Alistair, Zachariah, Lilith and the Hounds Keeper are dead. However, Azazel has rallied troops in District Two. As I said Crowley has disappeared, as has the Speaker Chuck Shurley, who had sympathized with our cause since the beginning. He may be dead, we are not certain. We do know that Raphael wishes to reinstate the President’s office...”

“But that might actually be a decent idea—“

“...With himself as the maximum authority.”

“Ah.”

“Indeed. I have been tasked with preventing that. He has taken over the Gamemaker’s Center.”

It was a lot to digest.

“Wait, so what happened to the people in the Training Center? Bobby, our coach, he was there getting us sponsors...”

“Robert Singer is with his fellow ex-Champions. They managed to leave the building shortly after the death of young Miss Harvelle...” Castiel’s eyes lowered sadly, and Dean couldn’t sympathize, he just couldn’t. This was all their fault in the first place. “After he had sent you the last sponsored gift. I regret to report that Ellen Harvelle died during the escape. We are told it was thanks to her that they succeeded.”

Sam’s grip on Dean’s hand tightened.

“So... where are you taking us?”

“We are not going to a particular place; we are flying because staying mobile is our best bet in order to remain undetected, and also because this was our only means to ensure your safe extraction from the Arena.”

After an awkward pause Dean reluctantly gave Castiel a nod. “Right. Thanks for that, by the way.”

“You saved our lives,” Sam said, much more diplomatically. “Thank you.”

“I have made many mistakes in the past,” Castiel murmured, gaze somewhere far away. “This is my time to make amends.”

“So... you don’t, like... need us for any reason,” Dean said. Sam shot him a warning look. “We’re just here to look pretty, yeah?”

Castiel turned his eerie blue eyes on him with an intensity that made Dean want to step closer to his brother, and maybe stand in front of him, too. Since he’d seen the Gamemaker dressed so casually it hadn’t really hit him how powerful Castiel was—or had been. When the man looked like that, however, it felt easier to remember.

“What are you asking, Dean?”

“I... I mean you saved us, you’re letting us stay in probably the best shelter in the United Districts right now, you’ve promised us food, showers, clothes... all of it out of the goodness of your heart, is that it?”

“You were the detonator. The trigger. You are the brothers named as the cause. It is thanks to and because of you that this has happened now, this year, at this time. You are to be protected.”

Dean frowned. “We don’t want to become public targets. That’s not... we didn’t want any of this.”

“We will keep you safe.”

But Dean didn’t trust Sam’s safety to anyone but himself.

“For how long?” Sam asked.

“As long as it lasts. As long as it takes.”

*

The AV’s showers were in a small rectangular room on the side, with stark fluorescent illumination and Plexiglas panels separating the stalls. Sam had gotten strict instructions not to get his stitches wet and then, thankfully, a waterproof bandage wrapped around his upper thigh. They were ushered inside by the preternaturally cheerful Cher (or Cherub, as they eventually found out he was called) shortly after which, the male nurse decided to casually break Dean’s brain.

We hope the end is near, and it certainly seems as though things are drawing to a victorious close, but we can’t be certain how much longer we will stay airborne, he had said. Chances of getting to the ground for refuel are scarce. Water supplies are already running low. It’s policy, he added. And then he smiled brightly and said; You won’t mind, right?

Dean was itchy, sweaty and disgusting and he stank. The word ‘soap’ alone was enough to make him whimper lustfully. He would have given his right lung for a shower.

But when Cherub left, he avoided his brother’s gaze and said; “You go ahead, Sammy. I’m good.”

He plopped down onto the bench with the military-green towels and tried to school his expression into total nonchalance.

Sam was leaning against one of the glass panels in the stall, mouth and chin still red from his nosebleed in the Arena, bangs clumped in dirty strings over his eyes. He didn’t answer. He just stared down at Dean, blank, impossible to decipher.

“Go ahead,” Dean repeated finally, unable to stand the tension. “Whatcha waitin’ for?”

Sam took a deep breath, and then he murmured; “Dean I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what.”

“For what happened in the cave—“

Dean leapt to his feet. He couldn’t listen to another fucking word about what happened in the fucking cave.

“It’s done, Sam. I’m sorry too, but it was nothing.” The lie wanted to choke him, came out all strangled. But Sam had to believe him or they’d never be all right again. Sam had agreed, had said You’re right, of course, fluke adrenalin thing, Sam had been horny and fucked up and half-asleep and he’d tried to push Dean away but Dean was never good at that, was he, never could stay away from Sammy. “If anything I should be the one saying sorry. Let’s not over-analyze this shit, okay?”

Sam could never know what Dean really wanted.

“We’re cool.” He took off his shirt and it plopped to the clean tiles in a heap. The amulet was handled with much more care, set down on the bench reverently. “You want me to prove it? I’ll prove it.” I’ll do anything, Sammy. Anything. “It happened, now we’re back to the real world. We’re okay.”

His thigh-holster went next, clattering against the tiles with the weight of the gun, and then Dean toed off his muddy boots. Sam was just staring at him, kind of lost-looking.

“I was just trying to be nice about the shower, Sammy. It wasn’t ‘cause I thought it was weird, al’right? I know you had a perfectly natural reaction, I’m not, like freaked out or anything. We were both... and you don’t have to apologize for it. We’re fine.”

He was down to his underwear by the time Sam started to undress as well.

They didn’t really have to do this, Dean thought distantly, watching Sam toe off his shoes and socks and then his shredded pants. It wouldn’t be all that difficult for them to fake it. They could just... lie. It was one freakin’ shower, the others didn’t need to know they hadn’t ‘shared to optimize water usage’. Cherub had said the showerhead would automatically switch off after six minutes of water; they could just use different ones.

But Dean didn’t say it, and Sam didn’t either.

“Soap?” Sam said, standing there stark naked.

Dean turned to grab the squishy cylinder from the top of the towel pile and handed it to his brother.

“Thanks.”

“You go first,” he said. It came out hoarse and dry, so he coughed a little. “I’ll, eh, I can wait my turn. You’ve got three minutes.”

“’Kay.”

“I can’t time you, so you’d better not take as long as you normally do with that hairdo, Samantha.”

“Right.”

Monosyllabic-Sam didn’t turn on the water immediately, though. He used the soap (an army-issue multi-use kinda deal) to lather himself up first, in order to save time or preserve the environment or what the fuck ever, Dean’s train of thought had stopped making sense when Sam turned his back to face the wall and he’d finally gotten a good look.

Large, long-fingered hands rubbed white foamy slick up rippling biceps, across that wide hard chest and down a broad back that might as well have been designed for anatomical study (or, alternately, just to fuck up Dean’s life).

Dean’s breath hitched when Sam shifted his weight, powerful thighs and calves flexing, all the muscles and tendons involved in the move bunching and clenching under the skin including Sam’s perfect ass, sculpted and tan just like the rest of Sam (which was seriously testing Dean’s resolve, also like the goddamn rest of Sam). He was so beautiful and Dean loved that body so fucking much.

When his brother reached up to his hair and tipped his head back with a small sigh Dean nearly moaned aloud, and the sound was only barely caught in his throat and swallowed down in time. God. Sam. Sammy. Fuck.

Dean was hard. He was barely standing straight, rock-hard and flushed, and his heart was obstructing his breathing. He watched as Sam soaped himself up, back bowed like a goddamn tease, and couldn’t resist speaking when Sam reached his own groin and completely bypassed it to rub his thighs instead.

“Careful with the bandage, Sammy.”

Sam stilled for a moment, then kept on washing. He bent over to scrub his knees and Dean realized he could come like this, from just watching. He could brush a finger under the head of his cock and explode, and the knot at the base of his spine would release wet-hot pleasure right through him, and then everything would be over.

He had no plan for what he’d do when Sam turned and saw the state he was in. He had no idea.

He couldn’t think.

“You want?”

Sam offered him the tube of soap over his shoulder, without looking.

“Thanks.”

But Dean didn’t use it; he didn’t even uncap it. His lungs would bust his ribcage wide open, any second now—

Sam pressed the lever for water. It sluiced down his body, soap gliding down to reveal shiny wet bronze muscle, and Dean’s cock jerked and pulsed and drooled drops of precome as Sam carded fingers through his hair to rinse the lather off.

“Almost done,” Sam muttered, rolling his shoulders. The line of his spine was a sinuous provocation and Dean had to leave. He came to the realization slowly, dumbly and very belatedly because Sam was turning before he could execute it.

“All yours, De—“ he stopped when his gaze fell on Dean’s crotch. Specifically Dean’s dick, which was straining towards Sam under the attention.

Dean shoved him aside blindly and squeezed the tube of soap so tight it burst open and splattered his chest. Fine. Okay.

He collected as much soap as he could on his hands and started rubbing, furious and clinical, praying Sam would just go away, just leave and not mention this, Christ—

Dean.”

It was all the warning he got before Sam’s slippery hands were around his shoulders and Dean was shoved face-first into the tiled wall.

He had a split second of irrational fear that Sam was going to punch him for his sickness and then Sam was plastered behind him, his huge, hard cock slick and fitting perfectly into the curve of Dean’s ass, and Dean couldn’t help groaning and pushing back into it, it was beyond his control.

“You want this?” Sam panted into his ear, hips giving a tentative thrust that made Dean’s vision white out for a moment. “Dean, you want this?”

“I—it’s wrong—“

“That’s not an answer.”

“We shouldn’t—“ Dean choked, even as he twisted around in Sam’s arms to face him.

“But you want it. Want it now.”

Darkened eyes looked down at him from beneath clumped wet lashes. Sam was slippery caramel skin everywhere and they were touching from head to toe; there were more parts of Dean touching Sam than parts that weren’t, and oh fuck if he could live like this Dean would, he so would... he had to close his eyes or come, right there, untouched but for the blistering pressure of Sam’s taut lower belly and equally hard cock.

Sam put a hand on Dean’s soapy chest, right over his wildly thundering heart, to push him until his back was plastered firmly against the wall again. Dean was already breathing with difficulty and Sam’s casual strength was—god. Sam was so grown up. So big.

“Say you want this or I’ll stop,” he threatened.

Dean couldn’t really meet his brother’s eyes, couldn’t look in them and say ‘Yes’, couldn’t or didn’t want to understand what Sam must be thinking right now.

So he lowered his lashes and whispered: “Please.”

Sam moved his palm in a caress, fingers splaying in a smooth frictionless glide, and then flicked his thumb over Dean’s nipple, making Dean jolt and their cocks rub deliciously because of it.

“Sammy.”

His voice was small but Sam said “Thank you,” and ducked through the stream of water to lick messily at Dean’s neck, slowly up to his ear while his fingers continued to rub at Dean’s nipples, making Dean expel harsh, grunting noises in time with the hard thrust of his hips.

He was dirty and he felt it, grime under his fingernails, mud crusted on his skin and the strong smell of sweat and blood (not his own) a horrifying contrast against his clean, beautiful brother. And it was still heartbreakingly better than anything he’d ever felt before. Sam’s cock was so big and so fucking perfect slippery-sliding with his, and Sam was so big and so fucking perfect whispering “You want it you want it you want it” into Dean’s ear over and over as though he had to convince not Dean but himself. Dean’s head was tilted up. Up, for fuck’s sake, because Sam was larger than life, taller than Dean and so hard, so firm to the touch.

Sammy—“

He felt so undone it was like all the other times with other people had never counted, had never even happened; Sam was so goddamn eager, so... so... so Sam, it was like a first time, like an awakening.

“C’mere, wanna—“ Dean breathed, and tugged Sam by the silky-soaked hair until he could finally lick inside his mouth, and the taste was of being home. Sam moaned like relief, a dangerously shameless sound like he’d never wanted anything more than to feel Dean’s lips again.

They kissed as though the world was ending, which it sort of was, and Dean forgot to contain his overpowering love for Sam in those kisses, gentling and incendiary by turns, simultaneously worshiping his brother’s existence and temporarily tearing down the one, final barrier so there was nothing left, absolutely, literally, nothing between them.

The water ran out not long after that.

Sam didn’t seem to notice; his thrusts were becoming more erratic just as his kisses were becoming more desperate, muffling groans and whines into Dean’s mouth. One large hand hitched Dean’s left leg up and around his waist and holy fucking hell Sam was so fucking strong.

“God—Dean, you—you want—“

“You,” Dean grunted, sliding a hand down the curve of Sam’s lower back and into his ass, remembering Sam’s reaction to it last time. “I—I want you Sammy.” His middle finger sank between Sam’s cheeks and found the hot, wet little hole.

Dean,” Sam gasped into his ear.

“Want you so fucking, uh—“ Sam was shoving his hips forward so hard he was lifting his brother off the ground with each thrust, the one foot Dean had on the floor skittering and barely on tiptoe. “So fucking much, Sammy—“

Sam cried out and came and suddenly the shower-head started up again, spraying them both with steaming hot water seemingly on its own accord. Dean startled but Sam just slammed a hand into the wall right next to Dean’s head and shoved back into the not-enough pressure of Dean’s finger until it sank a little ways inside. He actually keened when Dean pushed it into the second knuckle, pumping the last spurts of come between their stomachs.

The flow of water abruptly cut off.

Sam set Dean down after he’d stopped shaking, although his chest was still heaving breathlessly. He looked like he hadn’t even noticed the unusual plumbing behavior.

Dean was so hard he was riding the edge of pain by now, but then Sam whispered, hoarse and desperate; “Dean, can I, please let me suck you again, please—“

Dean’s head thudded back against the tiles and he would have crumpled to the floor if Sam hadn’t bodily held him up.

God.”

“It’s Sam,” Sam said with a flash of a grin, and Dean loved him so much. So much it would be the death of him.

And then Sam was sinking to his knees right there in that shower stall.

 

Sam

I—it’s wrong—

I know you had a perfectly natural reaction, I’m not, like freaked out or anything.

We shouldn’t—

I—I want you Sammy.

Sam was buzzing with adrenalin, wide awake and so sharp since he’d gotten that hypo to the neck; everything alert and bright and narrow and precise, so clearly defined. Dean wanted him. For now, at least, in this very moment, the evidence was incontrovertible. Dean may not love him in the same fucked up way, may care more about this being wrong than about Sam, but Dean’s body was aching for him.

And this, he didn’t feel too bad about taking.

Dean wouldn’t fuck his mouth even though the trembling of his hips suggested he was dying for it, but Sam was content to kiss and lick and suck Dean’s cock at his own pace. The smell was overwhelming, so thick and concentrated here that he could feel nothing else, and it was a little like drowning.

Sam’s head swam with the high, the power he still held even (or especially) in this position. He’d missed the taste of his brother, he realized, crazy as that was. Missed the way that beautiful cock had felt briefly in his mouth and the way it drooled so much more precome than Sam’s did. Thumbs pressing into the lower crest of Dean’s hipbones and fingers digging into the meat of Dean’s perfect ass, Sam encouraged his big brother’s shallow thrusts with hungry drooling wet sounds.

“Sam, Sam, Sam,” Dean gasped in time with the bob of Sam’s head. And, despite his obvious efforts to be quiet, his voice kept getting louder and louder with each syllable, echoing in the empty room, and Sam let himself fantasize about others hearing; all those people outside who thought of them as some sort of symbol for the revolution, who believed they’d helped save the world, hearing Dean crying out Sam’s name in helpless arousal.

He slurped and sucked harder, noting Dean’s little hitching yelps when Sam used a hint of teeth. If this was the last chance he got, he was damn well making the most of it.

Looking up (not missing a thing this time, he wasn’t going to miss a goddamn thing) Sam groaned around his mouthful. The soap on Dean’s chest was dribbling down his flat stomach, making strange patterns around his abs and bellybutton, glittery and white. Dean looked so fucking incredible it was breathtaking. He was past the point of flawless because even his flaws were perfect, and Sam loved every last one. No wonder he’d ended up so damn lost over Dean. Who could possibly resist his brother? It was inhumane to ask so much of Sam, to expect him not to fall under the spell just as everyone else did. He wasn’t stronger. Being exposed to Dean daily hadn’t helped him build up any defenses. If anything he was the weakest of them all, addicted to the point of craving these overdoses like a junkie.

“Sam, I’m gonna—shit, I can’t—can’t believe I’m in—inside...”

Sam pulled off to pant: “Wish you were,” because he couldn’t help himself, needed Dean to know. “Wish you’d fuck me Dean, want you in me, or me in you, just—together—“ he nuzzled his face into Dean’s crotch, inhaling deeply before he licked his way up to the dripping tip, lips parting around the head to take Dean in again.

“N-no, Sam, m’gonna—“ He felt Dean’s fingers sink into his hair to tug him away but Sam loved being contrary sometimes, so he tried to take him in deeper, and with an “Oh fuck,” Dean came in his mouth.

His brother’s knees buckled and he slumped on the tiled wet floor, hips still churning helplessly, eyes moist under thickly clumped lashes.

“Sammy...”

Sam sat down in front of him, wiping his chin with two fingers and sucking them into his mouth, not wanting to let a drop of Dean go to waste.

Fuck,” Dean swore. “Sam. Fuck.”

They were silent for a long time, staring at each other as their breathing evened out. For some reason the freckles on Dean’s nose were more apparent than ever in this light, and he looked so strangely young.

Sam opened his mouth to speak but Dean held up his hands.

“No,” Dean said, shaking his head. “No, Sam. We can’t... we can’t do this now, okay?”

“Do what.”

“The talking thing. The ‘feelings’ thing, we can’t do it now.” Or ever, Sam thought he heard in Dean’s tone. Wow. He’d recovered even faster than last time. “I’m sorry. God, I’m so—“

“Stop apologizing,” Sam snapped, and to his surprise Dean looked up at him with wide eyes and did just that. “I get it.”

“You do?”

“Of course I do.”

Sam could sense the change, the subtle but unmissable shift of balance in their dynamic as Dean looked to him for the answers instead of the other way around. It didn’t unnerve him. He liked it, even though it meant he was completely messed in the head. It was how things should be. Equal. Dean was allowing him to take control this time because, subconsciously, he must be able to sense Sam’s better handle on the situation. Sure, Sam was still terrified that the way he felt would disgust Dean, and every word of want Dean had choked out while it was happening hurt like hell because none of it really counted... but he wasn’t trying to fight what he wanted anymore. He understood what it meant and how wrong it was, he got that, but was also done denying it. He was... sort of at peace.

It made its own sense in his head that he was in love with Dean.

“We’re in the middle of a civil war, Dean. We gotta be back out there in five minutes. I know this isn’t the time and it certainly isn’t the place.”

The relief that flashed over his brother’s face made Sam despair at Dean’s naiveté. Dean  must think this meant he was off the hook; that postponing the necessary conversation would work indefinitely. But they would talk about this and clear the air; Sam needed that much. He needed to hear that everything would change back for Dean when things were normal again and that Dean wouldn’t want him like this anymore, because otherwise he would keep wishing, over-thinking a couple of adrenalin-fueled orgasms to no end, wanting to give Dean’s words meaning his brother hadn’t intended. Hope, like tendrils squeezing his heart for blood until it burst and killed him.

“You want space, right?” he said, aiming for matter-of-fact. It fell short at a little gruff and impatient instead, but Sam just went with it.

Dean blinked. “What? N-no—“

“Dean, it’s okay. I’ll back off.”

“But I—“

“I’ll back off, I promise.” To prove this point he stood up off the floor, trying not to wince as the wound in his leg throbbed angrily, and attempted his best, most nonthreatening stance. Seeing as how Dean’s head was now level with... yeah, it maybe hadn’t been the brightest move.

He turned back to the bench and grabbed a towel, tying it around his waist for a minimum of modesty.

In doing so, he missed the way Dean’s gaze flashed with disappointment, then self-disgust.

“Can I just... I just wanna clear up one thing?” He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the words ‘I meant what I said, Dean. I want you’ and tried to look anywhere but at his completely naked brother sitting propped against the tiles in order to avoid adding ‘Now. Again’ to that sentence. He had to tell the truth now, no point in hiding behind Dean’s earlier assumption when his brother had probably already realized that Sam’s response (both in the cave and here now) was anything but a simple desire to get off.

Once again, though, Dean interrupted before he could get the sentence out. “No, Sam. Don’t.” He pressed his knees together and Sam could see the white slick trickling between his thighs lord have mercy

“What?” he said hoarsely.

“This is a hella confusing time and you... you don’t know what’s what. We—neither of us... fuck it.” Dean stood up in a sudden move and walked decidedly past Sam to grab a towel himself, even though he hadn’t really showered properly and Sam’s release was sliding from his belly down his legs. Christ, from behind Dean looked like he’d just been fucked; made for it, spread by Sam’s cock—

“I said we weren’t doing this now, we’re not doing this now. You’re fucked in the head, I’m fucked in the head, everyone is very tired and undernourished here, let’s not get into something—let’s not say shit we’ll regret and take back later, when things are normal again.”

Sam snapped out of his lust haze. The subtext of Dean’s words was loud as a scream; “When things are normal again everything will magically heal and you won’t want me anymore. And if it doesn’t, we’re gonna damn well act like it did.”

Ignorant of the fact that only half of his assumption was correct, Sam let his brother towel himself clean and leave.

So Dean preferred denial. Fine. Sam wouldn’t insist; wouldn’t burden him with his impossible emotions. He should probably be grateful that Dean had at least given him the chance to pretend everything would be fine. Maybe he should even be glad he hadn’t made a fool of himself by admitting what he really felt, and that Dean was still willing to act like his brother if they survived.

He should, but instead he felt mostly like his heart was breaking all over again with want.

*

Castiel was talking to Dean in a corner of the room when Sam emerged from the showers, freshly clad in an all-black Guard uniform that was a little small on him. He strode over to the pair and made an effort to contain his instinctive irritation at the sight of them huddled together, bristling a little at the ex-Gamemaker’s disregard for personal space around his brother.

“...have not been able to contain the spread of information. Deleted scenes have leaked since the riot at the Gamemaker’s center, we suspect as a result of the involvement of Frank Deveraux, District Three’s—“

“—most reclusive mentor, I know.”

“Well, the footage has been pirated... everywhere. The public is calling them Azazel’s Special Children, and Azazel himself has made no secret of his involvement in their unusual development, nor has he denied the rumors. Sam is, of course, the last known survivor with unique abilities, but he is likely not the only one. There have been incidents before—“

“Hey,” he interrupted.

Dean didn’t go as far as to avoid his gaze, but his expression was too fixedly casual when he looked at Sam.

“Cas here was updating me on what’s been going on the past couple’a days.”

“He was—wait, couple of... two days?” Sam forgot his petty jealousy. “Are you serious? All of this has happened in two days?”

“Three and a half, actually,” Castiel said.

Dean gave him a look like ‘yeah, can you believe it, Sammy?’ but when Sam met it their stare held, and Dean seemed to recall what they’d been doing approximately fifteen minutes ago. He gulped, guilt flashing in his eyes before he turned away.

“What do you know of Azazel, Sam?” Castiel asked, seemingly oblivious to any tension.

Sam shrugged, trying to shake off the lingering pain tightening his throat. “Not much. He visited our District once when we were growing up, but we never actually saw him.”

“He visited before that, actually.” Castiel turned to Dean. “You might not recall, I believe you were four at the time.”

Dean quirked an eyebrow. “Relevance?” But Sam could tell he was paying close attention. They’d lived their whole lives with the consequences of the things that happened when Dean was four and Sam was a baby.

“I am not certain yet, but there are theories. Anna believes... well, it is common knowledge Azazel has rather unconventional interests. Practices.”

“Unconventional how?" Dean snapped. "You all tortured kids for a living and told the population it was a necessary evil to run the country; what does ‘unconventional’ even mean to you dicks?”

Castiel spent a long, stoic moment apparently processing the total lack of cowering terror the brothers exhibited after Dean’s unapologetic insults.

“Well... he was the only one among us who participated in the gambling, for one, and he had an uncanny knack for picking the winning tribute. We all suspected him of cheating, of course, but it was never proven.”

“Cheating... how?”

Sam was beginning to get the picture, but the picture was making him a little sick to his stomach. It was what his vision had already suggested.

“There are... Anna believes...” Castiel met his gaze and under his veneer of apparent blank indifference there was pity. “The experiments with genetic engineering during the war were not limited to animals, Sam.”

Sam felt something icy cold wash over him.

“So I’m a—“

“Castiel!”

There was a general commotion as the activity in the room seemed to stutter... and then increase tenfold.

“Cas!”

Rachel came barging towards them, shoved a concerned-looking Dean aside and gripped Castiel’s arm. “He plans to unleash the demons.”

Castiel’s face turned back to stony cold in a second. “We have confirmation on this?”

She nodded, and they took off towards the center of the Deck where the computer terminals were, quickly becoming surrounded by more and more people.

“Is it true?”

“The Hell District is real?”

“What’s going on—“

Sam and Dean exchanged a shell-shocked look.

“What just happened?” Dean said.

“I... did she say demons?”

“Castiel!” Dean blurted out suddenly, as though his brain had only managed to kick-start a little late. “Oy, Cas, what are the demons?!”

Sam thought crisis, this is probably what a crisis feels like and tried to forget what they’d just been talking about as best as he could. He couldn’t—dammit, he was being selfish. This wasn’t about him anymore.

He and Dean pushed their way bodily through the crowd.

“Castiel!”

He kept catching more snatches of conversation all around them, worried whispers of; “We have to stop him—“ and “It was supposed to be a myth.” He knew some people used to call the abandoned District Thirteen the Hell District, which was slightly random but nevertheless made its own sort of sense. But that was about it. History lessons back at school had always glossed over the subject and he’d never really given it a lot of thought. It was supposed to be uninhabited and in ruins.

Of course, putting two and two together and going by the terror in people’s voices, it made sense that a desolate stretch of land could be put to use. It could, for example, be employed to keep something dangerous in. But... demons? What the hell?

“It’s Azazel,” Castiel said, once Sam and Dean had shouldered their way to either side of him. “Azazel knows the demons are locked down for a reason—“

“We’re the only ship with maximum speed capability right now, you have to order the change of course,” Rachel cut in. “Now, Castiel, before it’s too late—“

“I already have,” Castiel replied, squinting up at one of the screens. It showed Anna Milton again, leading a cheering crowd from District Three. There was no headline, and Sam wondered whether the CTV headquarters were in too much chaos to air anything other than unedited B-reel.

“Alert the Guards, Rachel. Micah, we must work to contain this threat, not let it cause a panic. Hester?”

A blonde woman in Guard-blacks immediately pushed to his side, jaw set. “Yes, sir?”

“We are the only ones who can get there in time. We must be ready to fight.”

She looked like she was about to say something in protest, but bit it back and turned away, yelling out orders to the assembled personnel.

“What the fuck just happened?” Dean shouted above the noise, which was growing with every passing second. “What are the demons?”

“You know hellhounds are not the only beasts that were created for the war,” Castiel said over his shoulder, typing furiously into the touch-screen of a computer in front of him. “You remember your school lessons, do you not? There are other creatures—other demons—that were... modified.” He avoided Sam’s gaze when he spoke. “Some have since then been used in the Hunter Games. Most had to be kept locked away because they could not be controlled. We agreed the safest place would be District Thirteen, although Azazel was always amongst those fond of nicknaming it the ‘Hell District’. An enclosure was created, and secured enough that no human personnel would need to man it.”

“He’s going to set them free?” Sam asked. “On the general population?” Districts Eleven and Nine were closest to the Thirteen ruins.

“No. We are going to stop him.”

The AV chose that moment to make a lurching jolt and Dean closed his eyes, grabbing a computer console for balance. Sam caught Castiel raising a hand towards him and would have none of that, thank you—he side-stepped the Gamemaker to steady Dean himself, with a firm hand around Dean’s waist that may or may not be entirely necessary. The closeness felt good though; centered him in the midst of this newest chaotic shitstorm, and Dean even gave him a grateful smile and leaned into the touch... before his eyes widened and he stepped away from the excessive contact.

Sam wanted to punch himself for his idiocy; of course Dean wouldn’t want to be so close to him right now.

“So what can we do to help?”

“You?” It was Rachel who scoffed at Dean’s question. “You are exhausted, dehydrated, injured and much too valuable to help. We’ll handle this.”

“Really?” Dean raised an eyebrow at her. “’Cause I don’t see that many trained soldiers in this ship. You planning on stopping Azazel with a suturing gun or your computer keyboard?”

He was right. Half the people here looked like pencil pushers and desk clerks, City civilians or haggard volunteers; and aside from the small number of City Guards under Hester’s command, none of them looked like they’d ever handled a weapon.

“You said Azazel has an army,” Sam said. “We need as many people as we can, right? How far are we from Thirteen? If we could rest a little, regroup and form a coherent strategy we’ll  have a better shot at—“

“We’ll arrive at Hell in an hour. Probably less,” Rachel snapped.

Dean blinked. “An hour?”

“Probably less.”

“This is the fastest Vessel in the United Districts. We were all very concerned for your safety,” Castiel put in.

Sam exhaled shakily. “Oh. Okay. Well, an hour, then. C’mon Dean, let’s go suit up.”

*

Dean strapped his thigh-holster back on even though there was only one bullet left in the Colt. The City Guards had taken all the guns and refused to hand them out to “two kids who after all were nothing more than District denizens” (which, nice to know the equality process was going to be a gradual thing). Of course, that was complete and utter bullshit, but neither Winchester put up a fight after they found out the trained soldiers didn’t even have enough weapons for themselves, let alone the exhausted Hunters who had volunteered.

So Sam had to settle for a black-ceramic machete and Dean snagged a silver knife not unlike the one he’d had in the Arena. Thankfully, they were given body-armor plates that stretched enough for even Sam’s size.

Sam’s leg hurt with every step he took, but since the hypo shot he was pretty certain he could make it. His head was still surprisingly clear, and despite everything that had happened in the shower, or maybe because of it, he was bristling with fresh energy.

ETA twelve minutes,” the pilot informed through the comm.

Sam wished there were windows on this Vessel, some way to take a look at what was waiting for them out there. Azazel’s army? The Hell District? They had a handful of fighters and scared people with hope and a prayer that being right, being the good guys might somehow be enough to help them win. What if they got to the Gate and it was too late?

Dean sidled up to him quietly.

“Hey, Sammy.”

Sam wanted to laugh a little hysterically at his brother’s tentative tone, but manfully refrained from doing so. “Hey yourself.”

Dean cleared his throat. “I’d tie you to a chair or something if I thought I could keep you safe in the ship, y’know.”

“Oh I know.”

“Right. So... no point in me asking you not to do something incredibly stupid like go out there even though you’re seriously hindered by a life-threatening injury sustained a couple of hours ago.”

“Absolutely none.”

Dean nodded to himself, jaw working. “Right,” he said again, tone gruff. And then he grabbed Sam’s wrist and dragged him towards the bathroom; a small cubicle next to the showers.

For several moments Sam honestly expected a punch, had even tensed for Dean to try and knock him out so he’d stay in the ship because that wasn’t something he’d put past his brother if Dean thought it would keep Sam alive.

But Dean didn’t punch him. He shoved Sam up against the door, chest-plate armor thunking when they crashed together, and the next thing Sam knew Dean was kissing him.

“Don’t. Die,” he snarled in between nips and licks. Sam could barely keep up, his pulse ratcheting up to a crazy rhythm at the unexpected contact. “You hear me Sammy?” Dean panted. “I’ll watch out for you, take care of you, but you’d better take care of yourself too, yeah?”

“I—Dean, yes, okay, you—uh, I’ll watch out for you too—“

He had no idea what was happening, how Dean felt about them at the moment or where he stood with this thing between them. His brother had see-sawed from one extreme to the other twice in the past few hours and Sam was pretty sure not even Dean knew how to act. Maybe this was Dean’s way of getting through to him, now that he’d realized Sam’s secret...?

His brother pinned one of Sam’s wrists above his head in a locked grip and Sam stopped thinking.

*

The sound the gates made when they were torn open really was like a screech from the deepest pit of Hell.

Sam would never have imagined that what poured out from within could be a thousand times worse.

They’d gotten to the Gate minutes before Azazel’s army. Sam was fighting one of the Gamemaker’s goons back-to-back with Dean, who was hacking and slashing at none other than Meg Masters with an ornate knife and a mad grin. They were outnumbered ten-to-one, and the back-up sent by the other Gamemakers looked like it wouldn’t get here in time. Castiel was nowhere to be seen and the Angel Vessel’s firepower wasn’t large enough to blow up the whole enclosure, but neither was it precise enough to avoid occasionally hitting their own people (which didn’t stop the pilot from trying).

After all was said and done, Sam thought, it was easier to let something out than to keep it in.

The sky above them had grown progressively darker and at first he had feared some otherworldly, supernatural cause... until he realized it was just that the sun had set. And it was nighttime.

The creatures had heard them. Drawn towards the other side of the gates by the sounds of battle, they had soon joined in with yowls, scrabbles and the thump of their bodies against the door of the hellish enclosure. The Gate itself was an enormous, ridiculously wide structure, wrought iron and solid metal at least thirty feet high, and no ordinary person could open it; for some reason it took a Gamemaker to do the job. But Azazel and his men were steadily and surely fighting their way through the meager perimeter the Angel’s crew had set up after landing, and it was only about a half hour before Sam caught a good look at old Yellow-eyes.

Sam never stopped fighting; he still killed the man in front of him and desperately parried the woman who followed, but he got a strange prickling feeling in the back of his neck and, out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Azazel smile.

“Sammy, right—“ Dean grunted, and Sam moved unthinkingly to block another blow. He saw a raised gun and snapped: “Duck!” And both he and Dean avoided the rain of bullets that flew over them towards the back of the force.

The terrain of the abandoned District Thirteen was dry, rough and every move kicked up dust and earth like mist around their feet. Sam was drenched in sweat, tension ratcheted up to a high that didn’t allow for much fear or soreness or exhaustion beyond the ever-present worry for Dean’s life. He was surrounded by skirmishes and fallen bodies. Closest to them was Hester, the Guard leader, holding off four of Azazel’s people by moving from one to the other with brutal precision, striking them with a long silver weapon favored by many of the higher-ranking soldiers. Her Chief Lieutenant Enias was injured but still fighting not far off.

It was still hopeless. He could hear Meg telling Dean so.

“It’s over, boys,” she huffed. Sam couldn’t risk turning to look, but he sensed Dean slipping and righting himself just in time to stop another hard thrust of her knife. “You two should really take advantage of—mph—the last few minutes of your lives—“

“You think those things in there will discriminate between you and me?” Dean snarled. “We’ll all die. Innocent lives—“

“Aw, spare me the righteous speech, please!” There was a pause for the clang and clash of metal on metal, and then she panted; “You, of all people, are standing on shaky moral ground there, big bro.”

Sam felt Dean stumble.

“I mean—hah—it’s not exactly a secret among us, is it? Even if you hadn’t kissed him, I could tell. Probably before you could, too.”

Sam grabbed Dean’s elbow and swung them around, so he was facing Meg instead. He didn’t let her keep talking, he just flung himself at her, abusing his size and strength to draw her away. He hadn’t expected her to grin even brighter, though, nor had he expected the way she moved; elegant and fluid, almost lazy. Like she was playing with him.

“Sammy!” she shouted, a delighted laugh bursting from her chest. “You two are just adorable, ain’t-cha?”

They couldn’t hold the perimeter, even with the best fighters spread thin. The others were just too many, pushing and pushing and stumbling over their fallen to keep moving forward. After another few minutes several of Azazel’s Guards broke through the ranks, and then the ranks dissolved completely.

Sam was so busy trying to ignore Meg’s taunts and keeping her at bay that he only noticed Azazel again when the Gamemaker was practically on him. Meg clapped her hands right before someone grabbed Sam from behind at the same time as Dean was attacked too, arms wrenched around their backs by the four people it took to hold them in place.

The yellow-eyed man practically strode forward at a leisurely pace, past the outer Guards and right by their group.

He stopped in front of Sam and smiled, irises glowing eerily in the blue night. “Sam,” he said, the way one would welcome an old friend. “You’re still in time to switch sides and help me out, here.”

Sam didn’t deign that with an answer. He was still gasping for breath, blood thrumming with the heat of the fight, trying to keep an eye on Meg happily twirling her blade next to him. Dean was on Azazel’s other side, but the Gamemaker had his back to him as though he didn’t even matter.

(Azazel was blind. Dean was the thing that mattered most in the world.)

“One would think you’d want to answer the call of your brethren, Sammy; seeing as how you’re a mutated freak too.” The terrifying cries and howls and screams behind the door rang in Sam’s ears. “You know that, right? You’ve always known. You’re no better than those things in there, clawing over each other to get out.”

“Screw you,” Sam bit out.

“That’s a ‘no’, then? Oh well, I’ll get over it,” Azazel said gamely. He looked completely in his element, relishing every second of drama he could wring out of the situation.

“You open that gate, we all die!” Dean called.

“I don’t think so, sport.” The Gamemaker barely glanced over his shoulder at Dean, his gaze still fixed on Sam’s face. “One more thing before I unleash the hungry hordes. It’s about the house fire that killed your mommy.”

Sam flinched, whole-body, the way he always did at the mention of his mother. He had no memories of Mary, but her presence (the absence of it) had left a gaping hole in the Winchester family so devastating that he’d always been keenly aware of her. She was sacred. The man had no right.

In spite of himself, Sam had to ask; “How the hell do you know about that?”

Azazel’s smile widened. “I know a lot of things about your life, Sam, but in this case it just happens to be because I was actually there. I’ve always handled the most important matters personally. I like getting my hands dirty, see.”

You know how Azazel likes to... experiment.

“Dad. Clock’s ticking,” Meg said, clearly enjoying this.

Azazel leaned closer to Sam and when he spoke his voice was low and teasing, exclusively for Sam’s ears. “Her timing was truly terrible. I was making the finishing touches on your baby formula, Sammy.”

Sam’s stomach dropped.

“A truly inspired serum in your case, if I do say so myself. DNA-targeting-alterations are so difficult to predict, but I was particularly proud of your reaction to it. You didn’t go full-on psycho like some of the others; no, your darkness is of a different kind. More subtle. I like it.”

“Why?” Sam said, cold with horror. “Why did you do this to me? To us?”

“Aw, Sam. Don’t you get it yet? It’s all about the Game.” Azazel winked. “These past few years... things were getting boring, wouldn’t you agree? Always the same. But you kids—my Special Children, did you hear about that?—made everything so much more exciting. Gave my coworkers a hell of a lot of editing work to do, too, but it was worth it. Used to be I’d give someone an extra bit of strength, heightened senses... but then I figured... why stop there? Where’s the fun in moderation, huh? And hell, we blew this edition out of the water! It was the All Star championship!”

He stepped even closer, so that Sam could smell the metallic stink of blood in his breath.

“I was rooting for you, Sam,” he said. “And think of where you could be. Champion and winner! If you’d agreed to help me teach Cas and his self-righteous bigots a lesson, you could have retired to the Champion’s Villa with your brother, alone together forever. Sadly, now I’ll have to kill Dean and make you watch instead.”

And with that, he moved on through the quieting crowd, leaving Sam with tears stinging his eyes.

There was nothing they could do. No way to stop him. The fighting was practically over.

It was all over.

 

Dean

Where the fuck was fucking Castiel?

Dean was waiting for a last-minute triumphant entrance, a rescue, something. But Azazel had left Sammy looking sickly pale and frightened, and he was now walking through the crowd, unhindered, an amused smile on his face.

There were four pairs of hands on Dean, holding him in uncomfortably tight grips. They’d kicked his knife away and he was virtually unarmed now except for an old gun with only one bullet strapped to his thigh that he had no means of getting to.

When Azazel reached the Gate, he didn’t produce a key or any combination. The door had no visible lock, anyway.

“Someone should really bring Cas to the front lines so he doesn’t miss this,” he said over his shoulder. Meg motioned at something behind Dean but his captors had him too firmly captured to turn and look. There were gasps and murmurs among the Angel crew, though.

And then five of Azazel’s Guards were dragging a bloodied, beaten Gamemaker past Dean and Sam, and when they let him go he crumpled to the ground like a puppet. They’d ripped his trench coat and broken his nose.

“Castiel. Red becomes you.” Azazel smirked and raised a hand towards the door in front of him. “This is what happens when you try to change the world without my permission.”

There was a deep, resonating clang and then the ancient screech of rusted metal dragging on rusted metal.

The Gates were, in fact, a pair of double doors, and the earsplitting noise they made as they slowly ground open was rivaled only by the sounds beggining to emerge from within.

Creatures were scrabbling and shoving at the slowly broadening crack, and it didn’t take long for the space to grow wide enough for them to pour out.

Demons... really was the best word for them.

Dean saw rabid hellhounds, red-eyed wolves, and animals that weren’t even recognizable; too many legs or scuttling appendages, one scaly dog-sized thing that took to the air with a roar. There were smoky, ephemeral shadows that seemed barely substantial or solid, vanishing into the air or shimmering out of sight. And the worst, the most frightening of all were the ones that resembled humans because they probably used to be; impossibly sharp teeth or baring fangs, crazed eyes that glowed red in the night, screaming and covered in blood and gore.

Dean’s captors had loosened their hold on him. Most of the people left were starting to retreat. Screams of fear and shock sounded behind their little group as even Azazel’s own people ran away. Soon Sam was only being guarded by two soldiers, and Dean by one. The horde of monsters had parted before the Gamemaker who had released them as though they knew instinctively not to hurt him, but then they didn’t attack Castiel either. The Guards from both sides, on the other hand, had broken formation.

It was his chance and Dean knew it. His inability to accept any outcome other than saving Sam from this seemingly final scenario lent him strength, somehow, and he had the Guard on the floor with a single blow.

“Sammy!” he yelled.

Sam had dispatched his two captors with quick efficiency and ran to Dean’s side, eyes blazing. “I’m going to kill him!” he shouted.

Dean was stunned to see his brother looking so out of it; teeth bared like a feral thing, slanted eyes and wolfish features contorted in rage.

He didn’t give Dean time to do more than stare before he took off, pushing his way towards Azazel, towards the Gate.

“Sammy, no!”

The monsters were breaking off, spreading out in every direction, many choosing to ignore the few assembled people left in order to bound free into the night. None had headed Sam’s way yet, so Dean thanked their luck for once and ran after his brother.

“Sammy!”

He caught up to Sam and yanked at him by the back of the shirt. “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted above the noise. “We need to get out of here! Back to the AV before they leave without us!”

“Dean!” It was only then that Dean realized his brother’s cheeks were wet with tears. “Dean, he was the one—he killed mom!” Sam choked. “He killed mom and he’s the reason I’m so—I’m fucked up, he did this to us—“

Dean felt his throat close up.

“What.”

“I can’t—he has to pay—“

Dean was already walking, the gun—the Colt—gripped tight in his hand. One shot at this; one bullet. One chance.

Azazel stood at the very heart of the darkness. Meg was nowhere to be found, and Castiel had also vanished, but the yellow-eyed man looked smug and triumphant before the gates to hell.

Dean didn’t call out, but Azazel must have sensed him and Sam somehow because the Gamemaker turned, half-frowning, towards them.

The bullet went through his heart, if he had one.

*

The Angel Vessel didn’t really register as airborne, which was good. Dean thought distantly that if he had anything left in him to feel he’d probably be grateful for that right now.

“Dean?”

A tendril of emotion snaked through his blank mind at Sam’s voice. Sam was saying his name. That was always relevant.

They’d all gotten a firm talk from Rachel about what had happened back at the Gates of the Hell District. No one was to spread a panic among the general population. Naturally the new government would be informed and the situation would be handled, she was adamant about that, but causing unnecessary distress to a country already stricken with fear and so much change would do no one any good. Dean thought that was mostly bullshit. Better have people afraid than dead because they couldn’t fight something they didn’t even know existed.

“Dean,” Sam whispered. “It’s over.” He didn’t really sound like he was saying it for Dean’s benefit; his voice low and raspy, past exhaustion and into some nameless weariness that didn’t even allow for sleep. Sam was probably talking in order to stay sane, Dean thought, in order to stay grounded. Dean would have to snap out of this and help him, soon. Sammy needed reassurance. Dean was supposed to... Dean had one job to do, he was supposed to fucking do it. “Casey said that Crowley finally decided to help, and the other Districts have stood down. They captured Ruby. Raphael has surrendered and opted for switching sides last minute.”

They were sitting next to each other, backs to the gently curving wall of the Main Deck of the AV. The difference between now and before was that no one shot them covert glances anymore. There was a tight, contained sort of terror and bleakness around the room, throughout the whole ship, despite the fact that Azazel was dead and the civil war had barely lasted five days.

“Dean.”

Dean took in his brother’s face. Sam’s jaw was working and his eyes shone the way they did when he was making a serious effort not to cry, face tight with restraint. The realization kick-started Dean’s heart like a hypo of pure epinephrine to the chest.

“Sammy, hey, hey.”

He wanted to bury his face in Sam’s neck and let Sam hold on to him, to splay a hand over Sam’s chest and count his heartbeats, feel the rise and fall of it as Sam breathed, tear at the layers between them so the unpleasantly raw feeling he had yet to shake would go away. But he wasn’t allowed to do any of that, so he grabbed Sam’s wrist and tugged. If not now, when?, he thought desperately. Sam’s eyes went a little wide (irises blue-gray in the shadows where they’d huddled) and he actually resisted for a moment, as though Dean was giving him a choice.

No choice.

Dean tugged harder until Sam huffed out a defeated breath and fell sideways against his brother, arms going around Dean’s neck to hug him.

The tip of Sammy’s nose rubbed the soft spot behind Dean’s ear and Dean had quickly sunk both of his hands into Sam’s hair until they were buried to the wrist in soft dark locks. He didn’t care how it must look. It felt too right to question.

Loving or being in love, Dean could no longer tell the difference. Probably never had. It was all for Sam, anyway. Always.

 

 

One week later...

“Pretty sure we could leave right now and no one’d miss us, Dee,” Sam slurred into Dean’s neck. “I think I wanna. Go.”

Dean eyed his brother wearily and smiled. The party was still in full swing but he wanted to leave too. This wasn’t their place. The people in this grand room, congratulating each other and them alternately for the beginnings of change, Cancellation, the new era of government... most of them had no idea what had really happened. The whole thing reeked of politics and glamor, neither of which Dean or Sam much enjoyed. Which was probably why Sam had had a bit more alcohol than he was used to. Maybe. Dean had had to resist overdoing it himself simply in order to settle the fluttering in his stomach (fluttering, as in butterflies, for Pete’s sake) caused by the sight of his brother in a tux.

They weren’t the only ones who stood out, though. Among the foreign dignitaries, famous politicians, stylists and decorated Guards, milled the haunted-looking ex-Games Champions. Dean could spot Bobby not far in the crowd, talking to Rufus Turner, Annie Hawkins and the doctor chick (Vesiak or Vysiack or something) who’d seemed a bit too interested in Sam’s abilities for Dean’s liking. A few paces behind their group, Indian War-Chief Kali was being flirted at by Gabriel (at, not with), and Balthazar looked incredibly amused next to them. Odin of the Northern Europe and Ganesh appeared to be in the midst of a heated argument regarding the éclairs they’d been served for dinner.

The food was to die for, the sparkling champagne sweet and refreshing, and the soft glowing lights cast a sheen of elegance over the proceedings. Everything contributing to making Dean feel awkward and out-of-place, and very much like he wanted to leave. It had been a very long, very exhausting week, what with the days of mourning, functions and funerals to attend... and although he and Sam had been together at all times, they’d never actually been alone. Not even for two minutes. Dean wasn’t sure whether he was suffocated by the company or glad to postpone the inevitable conversation Sam had seemed so intent on having.

Getting a kiss on the cheek from Anna Milton had been kind of cool, though. But she was talking to the newly healed Castiel and a bored-looking Raphael right now, and Pamela and Missouri were surrounded by people as well.

“Dean,” Sam breathed hotly into his ear, and Dean shuddered and hoped no one here was watching him too closely. They’d see how he was dying to kiss Sam; they’d know. And then Sam would find out, and freak, and try to make him talk about it.

“Yeah, okay buddy, let’s get you to bed.”

His brother’s ridiculous, dopey smile lit Dean up inside. “So many potential jokes righ’ there, Dee,” he said through his grin. Flushed cheeks aside, Sam wasn’t actually stumbling or severely impaired, but Dean felt the need to support him anyway as they sneaked out of the grand room and down a hall until they found an elevator to take them to the twelfth floor.

Oh yes, they were still in the Training Center.

They were both quiet at first, the sudden solitude a little overwhelming. After being surrounded every day since the Games the silence was very much... there.

“Here we go,” Dean muttered once they got to Sam’s room and opened the door for his brother. Sam managed the walk well enough on his own, but then stopped to lean against the door-frame.

“So.”

 “... So?”

Sam’s gaze skittered away from Dean’s as though holding it was too much effort in his current state. It led to an incredibly awkward pause during which Sam studiously examined the carpeted floor, looking like he wasn’t sure what the protocol between them was anymore, and Dean wasn’t either. If all those things hadn’t happened (those things Dean dreamt about every night, those things he couldn’t stop thinking about twenty-five hours a day, Sam’s lips and tongue, the way he’d moaned Dean’s name, the slight rasp of his stubble during the Games, his sculpted body and his dick, hard for Dean, needing Dean’s touch so badly... those things) he would have barged inside without even asking for an invite. But he couldn’t do that now. It wasn’t right anymore.

“So, uh... see you tomorrow, yeah?”

Sam nodded, his happy buzz seeming to have abruptly deserted him. “Yeah. Great.”

Dean raised an eyebrow. “You okay, buddy?”

“Me? M’fine,” Sam hurried to say, but he looked a little stricken. “Good. Don’t worry about me. I’m... I...” he took a deep, shuddering breath and then managed a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine. Go get some sleep, Dean.”

Dean was struck by how remarkably healthy Sam looked then. They’d both been eating well since they got back (A literal breakfast of Champions, eh Sammy?) and it was really satisfying to see Sam look so... good. The unnerving part was realizing that good on Sam was actually really fucking hot. His cheeks were a rosy pink and his lips—dammit, it didn’t help that Sam’s newly-styled hair was all rumpled and silky-soft-looking, like a feathery invitation for Dean to sink his hands into.

Sam’s smile became pained when Dean didn’t look away. “Dean. I... please go.”

If Dean were a bit more of a girl he’d have sworn his heart stopped for a beat, it hurt so bad to hear those words come out of Sam’s mouth. “Right. Sorry. I-I wasn’t... I’m sorry, Sammy.”

You’re sorry?” Sam grimaced. “No, it’s not your fault. I jus’... please don’t blame yourself, this is all my fault. All my fault.”

“What? No it’s not, what are you talking about—“

“It is, I’m... no. Stop it.” He sounded like he was telling himself that, not Dean. “Look, I had a bit to drink an’ if you don’t leave soon I’m gonna...” Sam snapped his jaw shut and looked up at Dean from under his fringe, eyes begging. But Dean was having difficulty breathing right.

Going to what.

Going to what, exactly.

“Please go,” Sam said again, bitten out through clenched teeth.

But the way his eyes had darkened held Dean in thrall. “Sammy?” he whispered, desperate to know. They were so close. Was Sam still...? Could he still want...?

“Goddamnit, Dean, jus’ do as you’re told? Please? For me. Please do this for me an’ we can talk once I’m...” Sam’s eyes dropped to Dean’s mouth and back up with a flash of self-disgust. “I’m not, like...”

Dean stepped closer. He couldn’t help it. He was trembling and unsure and so terrified, but Sammy was hurting, and he couldn’t leave with Sammy hurt. If Sam still... he had to know.

“What’re you—“

“I’m gonna do something you really don’t—want—“

With another shuddery exhale Sam finally shook his head and turned, stumbling into the room. “Go!” he said, but he hadn’t closed the door behind him.

“Sammy.”

Dean followed, of course he did.

“Sam. C’mon man, talk to me.”

Sam plopped himself down at the foot of his bed. “Remember the last time you said that?” he said sharply.

Dean did. Sam had been shivering in a corner of the cave, worrying his lower lip between his teeth and looking so freaked out that Dean had been terrified for him. And later he’d found out why...

“What are you saying, Sam?”

“I’m saying you should stay away from me!” Sam burst out, sudden and loud in the large room.

Dean flinched. “Dude...”

“I’m saying you should hate me, Dean.”

“I don’t—“

“You should."

“Ain’t nothin’ you could do that would make me do that, Sam,” Dean said firmly. “Nothing, y’hear me? Now quit whining like a little bitch and tell me—“

“I’m a monster,” Sam growled, still trying for angry, but his eyes shone with tears. “You don’t get it, Dean, you don’t see it, but I’m fucked up. I’ve always been, and now...”

“You... what? Of course you’re not a monster—“

“I am! You don’t know anything, Dean, you don’t—“

“I know enough!” Dean interrupted, unable to stand the way Sam was looking at him, the depth of self-hatred he saw in those eyes. How had this happened? “I know you, Sam.”

That seemed to calm Sam down, and Dean thought he’d finally gotten through to the stubborn bastard. Until Sam said: “You think you do.”

It was quiet, and hopeless, and resigned.

“I know you,” Dean repeated flatly. There was nothing he was more certain of.

“Really?” Sam stood up, fluid and loosened by the alcohol in his system, but his eyes were perfectly clear. “You know me, huh? You know all the things I wanna do to you right now?”

Dean shivered.

Oh.

Oh.

He looked up at Sam—tall big dark menacing broad gorgeous Sam—and gulped. He thought No, it can’t be true, I can’t be wanted like that so that means you can’t know what you want.

“Sammy, you think this now, but we’re goin’ home in two days—“

“I don’t want to go home,” Sam cut in. “District Twelve doesn’t feel like home to me, Dean, never has. I just want to be with you.”

“Y-you... no, you don’t—you have your friends, Jess, a life—“

Sam snorted with disgust. “I don’t want that! Don’t you get it? I thought I did but I can’t... Dean, I love you.”

It came out sharp and lethal. 'I love you', almost like an accusation.

“I’m messed up. You didn’t hear him. Azazel poisoned me when I was a baby. There’s a darkness in me, and it’s not... I’m sick. I’m always gonna be—you let me do all those things because you—I don’t know why, pity or whatever. Sometimes I think you’d let me do anything, and I want to take it.” He bit his lower lip, and it was anything but innocent. “You’re standing in front of me now and I want nothing more than to throw you to the ground and lick you open until I can fuck you. Or beg you to use your fingers again so you can fuck me. I don’t... I don’t care, I just want you, need you, all the time. And I’ve never wanted anyone like this before. Never will.”

And Dean thought of how strange it was that, despite everything they’d been through, despite the way one could argue he and Sam knew each other inside out, they could still completely misunderstand each other sometimes.

He’d thought Sam was just horny and confused. And Sam, the idiot, had thought Dean was taking pity on him.

“Sam...” Dean’s cheeks were flaming hot. He had to take a few steadying, shuddering breaths before he could answer. But his stomach had lurched at Sam’s words and it was a few moments before he realized it was happiness; a flaring, burning kind of joy because Sam needed him. And he shouldn’t... he wasn’t supposed to let this happen, but the idea that even the one part of Sam he wasn’t allowed to claim belonged to him was intoxicating. The only thing everyone else got to have except Dean, the single aspect of Sam open to all but his older brother; against all odds, Dean’s as well.

Sam belonged to him entirely. Even the parts of him that shouldn’t were Dean’s for the taking.

In the end, though, he didn’t do it for himself. Selfish and greedy and wanton as Dean felt in that moment, he would have swallowed it all down, buried it deep within the recesses of his mind until he could breathe without wanting to kiss his brother.

For Sam, he would have done all of that; but Sam was crying. Dean did it because he knew there was only one thing he could say that would make Sam realize he wasn’t inhuman.

For Sam, the truth.

“Sammy, listen to me.”

Sam had closed his eyes, hands shaking as though he was bracing for a blow. “I’m sorry,” he whispered desperately. “Dean, I told you you should have—“

“You’re wrong.”

“What?”

“You’re not a monster.”

Sam’s face crumpled. “Dean, for God’s sa—“

“I want it too.”

“You... what?” Sam’s eyes flew open.

“I want it too. Want you too. Like that. You’re not... you’re not sick. Or we both are. You’re not alone.”

They stared at each other for a very long moment.

“You... Dean. But you’re so... you can’t.”

Dean huffed self-deprecatingly. “Oh yes I can. Believe me, Sammy, I can.”

He felt electrically charged, like if he touched something that wasn’t Sam he’d get shocked.

“Yellow-eyes didn’t touch me, didn’t try to give me abilities like he did you. So it can’t be that. This thing between us... whatever it is, it’s just... we’re just...”

“Just...?” Sam echoed.

“I... I don’t know..."

"Neither do I, but I... God, Dean, I..."

"I only know that you’ve been driving me fucking crazy, Sammy—“

Sam’s momentum carried them all the way to the far wall, and Dean slammed into it with a loud bang. His back exploded with pain but even that was good.

Fuck.”

Sam kissed him, shaking a little, with a low whine in the back of his throat. “Dean, please—“

“Anything,” Dean gasped into Sam’s mouth as Sam’s trembling hands fumbled with his tux jacket, practically ripping it off his shoulders. “Anything you want, I’ll—God, fuck.” Their hips aligned and Sam’s growing hard-on rubbed deliciously against his. “Yeah.”

“Can I—are you sure you—“

“Yes, fuck yes c’mon Sammy, love you so much—“

Sam made a sound between a groan and a whimper, high and rough. “Christ,” he choked.

Dean kissed him again, tongue thrusting deep to taste the sweet-sharp tang of champagne in Sam’s mouth, and tried to shove his clothes away. “Off, off,” he grunted. Sam complied, tearing at his shirt hasty and frantic, eyes still gleaming but with a spark of something like mischief. He looked happy. Dean had done that.

“What do you want?” he panted. “Dean, what—“

“All of it. Fuck, any—wanna watch you take my fingers, my cock, wanna feel your tongue, wanna suck you, want you to fuck me, I don’t care—“

“God,” Sam hissed. “Stop, stop.”

He stumbled back, chest heaving, and finished undressing, underwear and all. Dean wanted to worship every goddamn inch of him.

“Fucking hell, Sammy.”

It felt new, the way Sam smiled. It wasn’t a smile Dean had ever seen before, half-smug and half-aroused, confident, disarming.

He realized there were so many new things to learn about his brother. And he wanted to know it all.

Now.

“Your turn,” Sam said.

Dean went a little slower because Sam’s reaction was a sight to see. His brother’s hungry wolf-eyes tracked every tiny movement, every inch of skin exposed, and Dean had always loved being the center of Sam’s attention so this was the ultimate fix, a high like nothing he’d ever felt before. Sam’s focus was complete, absolute, total, and Dean was the sole recipient.

Showing off for his boy used to mean different things. He didn’t care all that much about how it had changed. He probably should have, but this was stronger. More. Better. He relished this.

Finally,” Sam muttered when Dean stepped out of his boxer-briefs, and yanked him close again.

Dean tilted his head back to kiss his brother and felt small and surrounded at the same time as strong and invincible, on top of the fucking world.

“What do you want, Sammy?” he mumbled against Sam’s lips. Sam kissed him some more, deep and intent, and didn’t answer. It effectively distracted Dean until he managed to regain his wits and push back. “Tell me.”

Guilt flashed over Sam’s gaze, and Dean might not have caught it if he wasn’t watching so closely.

“Hey.”

“Dean.” Sam breathed out shakily. “The things I...”

Dean rolled his eyes and pushed Sam’s shoulders until he fell back, conveniently landing on the bed. Dean kneed his way onto it, straddling Sam’s hips.

“Tell me,” he ordered, biting Sam’s neck at the same time as he rocked their hips together, slow and ruthless.

“I-I had... I had dreams,” Sam ground out. “Dreams of you, Dean. T’was me lickin’ you all over, c-couldn’t stop thinking about... unh, tonguing your ass since you said you liked it.” His voice grew confident and husky as Dean’s movements stuttered at the words, a give-and-take of control. “Dreamt of your mouth, of fucking your face, dreamt of drinking your come, your blood.” They both jerked at that one. “Wanted you to choke me, hands around my neck and your cock down my throat until I couldn’t breathe. You tellin’ me that’s not wrong? That’s normal?”

Oh Dean knew it was wrong, but he didn’t care enough to stop. He couldn’t even answer; just groaned low and helpless into Sam’s shoulder, head rolling.

“You looked so fuckin’ pretty in your costume,” Sam continued. “All that make-up, I couldn’t breathe, Dean. Wanted everything. Want,” he kissed Dean’s neck. “It,” Dean’s jaw. “All.” His lips.

Dean was throbbing with the need to come, but he had to have more.

“Then take it, Sammy,” he snapped. “Fuck me.”

Sam’s hips twitched at Dean`s words and he gasped. “God.”

He lifted Dean bodily off of him and flipped them over, so Dean was sprawled on his stomach and Sam could fit himself between his legs.

“Can I—God, I wanna—“

“Do it,” Dean gasped, lifting his ass into the air and burying his flushed red face into the mattress.

“Jesus, Dean,” Sam groaned, and Dean felt long deft fingers sliding between his cheeks and spreading him open. Sam’s hot breath ghosted over his exposed skin, and it was so fucking embarrassing, almost shameful how badly he wanted this, so much he was shaking again, so overwhelmed. “Fuck,” Sam huffed.

And then Dean felt it, Sam’s hot tongue flicking over his tailbone and sliding down, down, down—

His whole body bucked and he whimpered, wanting to thrust back immediately when Sam pressed into his hole. He no longer had words, just frantic little sounds that the sheets didn’t muffle enough. Sam was loud, too, not even trying to disguise how much he liked it, and the fact that he enjoyed this so much ramped up Dean’s arousal in turn, a spiral shooting up and winding higher, higher...

It went from overwhelming to not enough in short minutes. Dean kept trying to take more, and more, until there was no more for Sam to give and he made a frustrated moan, arching back hungrily. Sam slid one finger inside and that was better, yes, full again... until it wasn’t. “C’mon,” Dean urged, feeling less and less mortified and increasingly ready to demand Sam’s cock if it didn’t get in him soon. He’d never dreamed of bending over for a guy’s dick before but he could think of nothing else he wanted more right now.

Sam slid another wet finger next to the first and it stretched him open. It was too much too fast and the few times Dean had done this to himself he’d taken longer, used lotion to slick the way a little, but Sam was carefully pushing in and out and in and out and he liked the pain, he wanted—

“Sammy c’mon, stop bein’ a tease, c’mon—“

Sam crawled up Dean’s body until he was covering him completely. “Don’t wanna hurt you,” he said firmly, fingers still torturing Dean with the promise of what was to come.

I’ll hurt you if you don’t fuck me right fucking now,” Dean growled. “Do it, Sam, I want you to, want it so fucking much, c’mon—“

When Sam’s fingers drew out Dean couldn’t help a protesting grunt. He lifted his hips to grind back into Sam’s cock and Sam chuckled, dark and breathless. “Want it bad, huh?”

“Fucking yes, I fucking said I did, didn’ I?” Dean snapped. “Please.”

Sam, for once in his life, did as he was told, and carefully—too carefully—aligned himself to slide into Dean’s spit-wet hole. He was really goddamn big, and thick, not just long, and even silky-soft skin caught and dragged and it wasn’t smooth at all, it hurt, but it hurt so perfectly.

Dean was making noises he couldn’t control, and Sam was peppering soothing kisses to his jaw, behind his ears, nosing into his hair.

“I’m in love with you,” Sam whispered, reverent and hot into the back of his neck when he’d finally bottomed out. Dean couldn’t draw breath for how full and stretched he felt, and it was still really really painful, and somehow amazing.

He wanted to stutter out a Me too but he just couldn’t.

“Want nothing else, Dean, nothing in the whole world, just us—“

Tentatively, minutely, Sam’s hips twitched, and Dean could feel the tremble of his tense muscles and strong arms, braced at either side of his shoulders in order to hold himself still, to not pound Dean’s ass like he was probably dying to do.

Fuck. That.

“Move,” Dean said, and then negated the command by doing so himself. Sam gasped and thrust forward uncontrollably, brushed a place inside him that made Dean choke. “Shit!”

“Sorry, sorry! Are you okay?”

“For fuck’s sake,” Dean groaned, and shoved back again to try and find it for himself, needing it more, harder, a current that went from his prostate to his dick to his full balls.

“God, yeah Dean—“

The rhythm was stuttering and desperate as they were, unpracticed, and hot as all hell. With every shove of Sam’s hips Dean wanted to die, and he almost hated it when Sam drew back and he became aware of the spaces inside himself where Sam wasn’t. The guy was a natural; strong and relentless, and the build was dizzyingly fast... and Dean knew neither of them had done this with a guy before but suddenly he still wanted to hear it.

“You never—it’s just me, right Sammy?”

“Yes.” Sam bit the shell of his ear and then lifted up to hold Dean’s slim hips in those enormous paws of his. “You, Dean, only you, always you, I swear—“

Distantly, Dean heard a crash.

The room was a touch darker if he squinted, and when Sam gasped again Dean saw, out of the corner of his eye, the one remaining bedside lamp begin to rattle in its place.

“Oh God, am I—“

“It’s okay, Sam,” Dean bit out. “It’s—fuck, c’mon, it’s okay, you’re so—love you like this, it’s you—“

“I can’t help...” Dean rolled his hips and Sam made a very satisfying noise. The lamp was almost at the edge of the small table and Dean thought: there’s a challenge begging to be met. “Dammit Dean, wait, what if I’m—“

Dean repeated his move and groaned, loudly, and the bulb exploded.

“Shit,” Sam hissed. “Oh God, oh shit Dean you fucking—“

“It’s okay, Sammy,” he grunted. “I—I’m all fucked up too.” Sam needed to get this, right now, needed to believe that Dean felt the same way. “Hated it when they looked at you,” the words spilled directly out of the darkest corners of his mind, flowing out with disturbing ease. “They wouldn’t stop wanting you and I would have cut off their hands for touching you, killed them all, bloodied myself for you Sammy, all for you, always. Fuck, please—yes—everything for my brother. Love—uh—love you so much it’s like I can’t—can’t—“

Sam made a guttural sound and fell forward against Dean again, teeth latching onto his shoulder blade and sliding a hand around Dean’s hip to fist his painfully aching cock. It took two strokes for Dean’s brain to explode, the way his muscles clenched increasing the pressure inside of him, the stretched-wide feeling of his hole, and when Sam moaned his release into Dean's skin the friction became smoother, messy as Sam’s come slicked the way.

His head was actually, literally ringing when he came down, Sam still buried in him to the hilt. The weight of Sam’s whole body was crushing him into the mattress. It felt nice.

“You okay?” Sam murmured into his neck.

“M’good, Sammy.”

“We, uh... we didn’t use a condom.”

Sam may have meant it as a light reproach for them both, but it came out almost filthy.

“I know,” Dean replied anyway. It shouldn’t be making a stupid grin try to tug at his lips.

Sam started to pull out and okay, yeah, that wasn’t the most pleasant sensation ever.

Ow. Those are some serious inches you’re packin’ there, dude.”

“Sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry, and Dean hadn’t sounded like it bothered him, either. A slightly confused part of him was actually feeling really goddamn proud right now, and he nearly offered his brother a congratulatory high-five.

“Dean?”

There was a pause, and Dean didn’t look up but he knew what he’d see if he did: Sam hovering, uncertain, tentatively worried again.

“You wanna sleep or dontcha, Sasquatch? Pretty sure this bed could fit at least five more people.”

Sam thumped down beside him and grinned, shy dimples peeking out. “Just me ‘n you, Dean.”

Dean gave him a shaky grin back. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I like that better.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“So it’s just United Districts now, is it? No ‘Under the City’?”

“No City whatsoever,” Castiel confirmed in his scratchy voice. “We shall elect a new President by... I believe the term is ‘democracy’.”

Dean shot Sam an amused look, which Sam returned.

“The City will be known as District Zero, and our country will be known as the United Districts, so that civilians and denizens alike are equal.” After a pause Castiel shot Dean a strangely... mournful look. Sam was torn between jealous irritation and pity. Mostly pity. “You could remain here, if you wanted.”

He hadn’t expected Castiel to then turn to him with the same wistful expression.

“Both of you. I would—“

“No thanks,” Sam said firmly. He was uncomfortably aware of ‘note GM’s saw’, and suspected Castiel had an idea of what the situation between Sam and Dean really was.

“Then you could go back to your old home in District Twelve as Champions.”

“...Tempting, but that’s just not us,” Dean said, shoving his backpack into the trunk. “Games are cancelled, remember?”

“You would still be famous. Rich.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Yeah, still a no. Those things are out there. Someone has to hunt them down, right?”

“This is our decision,” Sam added. “This is how we choose to contribute. I thought you’d be grateful for volunteers.”

“I... I do not understand,” Castiel said, face scrunched up with genuine confusion. “We will send people to do this work as well. There are already many volunteers amongst the ex-Champions; Robert Singer, Jodie Mills, Rufus Turner, Annie Hawkins... Dr Visyak is setting up a research center to counter as many of the effects as possible, you could have anything else—“

“We know, dude, we’ve got Bobby’s number,” Dean interrupted. “We just don’t want anything else, okay?”

“What will you tell your fellow District Twelve denizens? How will you justify not going back?”

“They’ll understand we need a break after everything that’s happened. Brotherly road trip is a good excuse,” Sam said.

Dean crossed his arms over his chest. “So are you gonna let us take the goddamn car or not?”

Castiel sighed. “Very well.”

Yes.

Dean shot Sam a wide grin and Sam smiled back indulgently.

The gleaming black Impala was still parked in the garage of the Training Center, and although it was completely illegal for them to take one of the Tribute Carriages, without the Hunter Games there wouldn’t be Tributes anymore, so...

“You are very recognizable. As is the car,” Castiel offered, even as Dean opened the trunk again to check out their stack of weapons. “You are already famous whether you wish it or not.”

“We’ll need new identities, then. People will forget us eventually; there are so many new things to focus on right now. ”

“I find that unlikely.”

“We’ll just have to see about that, won’t we," Dean said, exasperated. "So. Anything else you wanna add as to why this is a bad idea?”

But Castiel seemed to have run out of arguments against them.

Finally.

Something in Sam glowed red-hot and happy when he and Dean swung into the car’s comfortable front seats. After a brief fight over who got to drive Dean had declared himself the only one with practical experience, having worked machinery back home, and despite Sam’s arguments that the closest thing Dean had driven to this car was a tractor (and so not the same thing, dude), he himself was forced to admit that that was better than never having driven at all.

Also, Dean’s apologetic blowjob up against a bathroom door had been quite enough to distract Sam once the discussion was over.

Sam still vowed to learn, though.

“Well. You’d better get it together, Cas,” Dean said to the man, leaning out of the window. “This country is hella big and full of important people. No one else deserves to die.”

“We will,” Castiel promised. “We have a new plan. It will involve... free will. I believe it has potential.”

Dean snorted, and Sam had to stifle a laugh that wanted to bubble up from his chest.

“Sounds great, Castiel.”

“Hope it works out, dude.”

The engine purred to life just like it had all those weeks ago, only their destination this time was unknown, and glorious for it.

“Dean?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I ask you something?”

Dean slanted him a look. “’Course.”

Castiel was no longer standing outside, and he appeared to have left already. Or vanished. One of the two.

“What did you wanna say to me at the start of the Games? When we were in the Circle, I couldn’t tell... we were too far and I couldn’t understand you. What were you saying?”

Dean’s eyebrows rose in surprise at the question, but he gave Sam a wry smile. And then, unexpectedly, a slight blush made the freckles on his cheeks stand out more.

“I... was tryin’ to say ‘I’ll find you’.”

“’I’ll find you’?” Sam repeated softly.

“Yup. That’s it. Nothin’ poetic or... just. That.”

Sam smiled too, crooked and embarrassed for some reason.

“You did,” he muttered.

“I did,” Dean agreed, and he wasn’t meeting Sam’s eyes. They were quiet for a moment, and Sam wanted nothing more than to touch Dean, grab his hand, kiss him, grab his hand and then kiss it

He nearly jumped when Dean’s lips brushed his temple. It was soft and quick and only Dean’s flushed smirk when Sam looked at him remained as evidence that it had happened. Well, that and the tingling all through Sam’s body.

“So Sammy,” Dean said, loudly and manfully clearing his throat. “You up for some more hunting?”

“Hell yes.”

Dean grinned at him. “Good. ‘Cause it looks like we got work to do.”

He was so busy staring at Sam instead of looking ahead that they nearly crashed the car before it even left the garage.

The sound of their laughter seemed to ring through the empty parking lot for a long while after they were gone.

 

 

FIN