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Prologue

“Mr. Winchester? You can see her now."

Even though this was what he’d been waiting to hear all night, Dean’s limbs felt leaden as he unfolded himself from the cramped waiting room chair. “How- how is she?”

It was a stupid question, and he regretted it the second he said it, but the nurse only looked sympathetic. “About as well as can be expected. Physically, she’ll definitely live, although you might not think it to look at her- be careful how you react; she looks like hell right now, but she doesn’t need to know that. Mentally…” She shrugged, making a sad, practiced face. “I can’t tell you what’s going through her head. She hasn’t said why she tried to kill herself. She won’t answer any of our questions, but maybe you’ll have better luck.”

His insides shriveled at the thought of what was going through her head, but he just nodded, unwilling to open his mouth and let anything else asinine fall out. As he followed the nurse down the hall to room 342, he had to ball his hands into fists to keep them from trembling.

She knocked perfunctorily on the door and then pushed it open without waiting for an answer. “Your friend’s here to see you!”

Dean cringed, waiting for the inevitable retort that he wasn’t her friend.

He didn’t hear anything. Somehow, that was worse.

The nurse beckoned him inside, smiling encouragingly, no doubt under the impression that his presence could only help.

(If she knew what he’d done…)

He shuffled into the room and halted almost immediately, his breath catching in his throat.

Even since they’d cured her, she’d seemed fragile, but now she looked downright skeletal. Her profile was so small the blue hospital blanket might have been covering bunched up sheets rather than a person. Her arms were so thin he could probably snap them as easily as twigs (bile rose in his throat), so thin that it seemed that the IV sticking into her shouldn’t be allowed. He probably should have been used to the splintering feeling in his chest by now, but it was still all he could do not to sink to his knees.

“Bela?” the nurse prompted.

She didn’t look at them. Her face was turned toward the far wall, and Dean couldn’t help being glad of it; it was cowardly of him, but he didn’t want to see her eyes. He had a feeling they would scorch him.

“Is there anything I can get you?” the nurse pressed.

Again, Bela didn’t answer.

The nurse- Kathy, according to her nametag- looked disappointed but not surprised. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she told him kindly. “There’s a button on the wall if she needs anything.”

He nodded, still not trusting himself to speak, and she left, closing the door behind her.

He felt paralyzed, unable to move closer to the skeleton on the bed; it was inconceivable that this could be the same cunning, resourceful (beautiful) woman who had once played him and Sam for fools, dragged them around the country in search of her. In his head he said her name, tried to coax some life into her like a good person would, but he didn’t actually speak; he had no idea what to say. Sam would be better at this (anyone would be), but he was still at least five hours away; thank god he’d already dealt with the vamp last night and was on his way back at all.

(Sam would say ‘I told you so.’ Sam hadn’t wanted to cure her. He’d said she might be too far gone to help.)

"Why didn’t you kill me?”

For a moment he thought he’d imagined the question; the quiet rasp sounded nothing like her, even after they’d first cured her and her throat was raw from screaming at him. Then her head turned- just a little, still not enough for him to see her eyes- and he knew she’d really spoken.

It took another moment to find his own voice. “You called me.”

(“Dean! Dean!”)

“I thought…I thought you wanted to live.”

And I would never have killed you. Again, he felt close to throwing up.

“No.” It came out louder, even rougher. “Not why didn’t you let me die. Why didn’t you kill me?

The bottom dropped out of his stomach. He finally staggered over to the chair next to her bed, not because he wanted to get closer but because he really thought his legs would buckle. “You mean…” He paused, but she didn’t help; she made him say it: “You mean when we cured you?”

Again, she moved her head a fraction.

His eyes started to itch. He took a deep, shaky breath so that his next words wouldn’t come out as a sob. “You know why.”

She didn’t answer.

“That’s a good thing,” he said desperately. “You don’t want to die. Right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have called me…”

You would have bled out. Her hands were under the blanket, her wrists hidden, but he could still see them in his mind’s eye, slashed and bloody.

“I can’t die now,” she said flatly. Even in profile, he could see her chin tremble. “I don’t know where I’ll go.”

“What do you…” Horror filled him as he understood. “You’re not going- you wouldn’t go back to Hell.”

“You don’t know that.”

Yes, I do, he wanted to say, but the words stuck in his throat; he couldn’t lie to her. He could lie to anybody else, the doctors, cops, even Sam, but not to her.

“You should have just killed me.”

No.

“Then I’d just be dead.”

No no no

“Instead of this.”

“You're alive! That’s a good thing!”

“This isn’t living!” She turned her head finally, and he couldn’t keep from jerking back. Her eyes were just as hollow as he’d feared, but unlike the rest of her, they were anything but dead. They burned into him, leaving a mark that felt indelible.

“I never wanted this! I didn’t ask for this! You should have killed me!”

Her charge demanded an answer, even though this was the last thing in the world he ever wanted to discuss. “I couldn’t,” he choked, dropping his gaze to the blanket covering her, unable to take her eyes boring into him. “It’ll get better, I promise!”

He’d thought it was getting better. She’d finally started getting out of bed a few days ago.

“Someday you’ll be glad-”

“Why?”

“Wh-why what?”

“Why couldn’t you?”

“You know why.”

(“You really think I killed them for their money?”)

“You hate me! You’ve always hated me, that was the point!”

He swallowed, and his voice dropped. “I don’t hate you.”

“You used to!”

He winced. “I know. But I don’t anymore.”

He waited for her to ask ‘why not,’ even though it was the same question, even though they both knew the answer.

“Did you think I would forgive you?”

His head jerked up involuntarily. She was still staring at him. Her lip curled in a gruesome travesty of a smile.

“You think you’re making it right?”

She’d said that when he was injecting her with his blood. Did she remember? It had only been two weeks, but that might not mean anything. He’d remembered his own cure in sharp relief afterward (too sharp), but it might not be the same for everyone (he hoped it wasn’t; he hoped she didn’t).

“I’m trying,” he whispered, and knew the second he said it that it was a mistake.

Stupid.

She let out a strangled sound that he was pretty sure would have been a laugh if she weren’t half-dead. “You think you can make up for what you did to me? You tortured me. And you enjoyed it. You can’t make that kind of thing right.”

He couldn’t speak.

“I will never forgive you.”

He flinched. Her voice had turned hard, strong- certain. She sounded, for the first time, like she had before he’d cured her, when she mocked them after stealing Men of Letters artifacts for Crowley; when she mocked him with the truth.

(“Newsflash, hero: You got your rocks off torturing a rape victim with a pedo father.”)

“Look at me!”

He did; he had to.

“I will never forgive you,” she repeated, green eyes burning into his. “Not for what you did to me in Hell, and not for curing me. Do you understand? Do you understand?

A tear slipped down his cheek. “Y-yes,” he whispered, because her eyes demanded an answer.

She stared at him a while longer before saying hoarsely, like she’d used up all her energy, “Get out.” She turned her face back toward the far wall.

It took him a moment to obey, not because he wanted to stay but because his legs wouldn’t work. When he finally made it to the door he couldn’t keep from looking back, but she was still turned away.

He didn’t know if she intended to come back to the bunker when she was released or if she’d change her mind and decide to kill herself after all, but he couldn’t ask. He couldn’t say anything. He could only shut the door behind him, stumble to the nearest men’s room, and lock himself in a stall to cry.

 

 

I

“You know, wearing a hole in the floor isn’t going to make her get here any faster.”

Dean didn’t pause in his pacing as he shot Sam a glare. “I don’t care when she gets here.”

Sam didn’t even try to hide his snort. “Right, and that’s why you haven’t left the bunker all day. Not even to go grocery shopping.”

“It doesn’t take two people to go grocery shopping! I gave you a list.”

Sam tried to go back to his book but only got through one more page before he couldn’t resist needling him some more. “Ever heard the saying a watched pot never boils?”

“Feel free to leave! You can read in your room just as easily as here.”

“And miss this? Never.”

Dean glowered at him.

When Sam finished his chapter a few minutes later, Dean was still prowling the room like a caged animal. Sam’s levity faded as he watched him. “You know she might not come, right?” he said, gently now.

Dean stopped and swung to face him. “She’ll come,” he growled, same as he had every other time Sam had broached the possibility. “It’s January 31st.”

His hand jerked at his side in an aborted movement, and Sam knew he’d been about to pull her note from his pocket. It was a miracle it was still in one piece, given Dean’s obsession with it. Sam didn’t have it memorized the way he was sure his brother did, but Dean had quoted it enough times that he knew the line, “I’ll come back to the bunker six months from today, on January 31st.”

“I know,” he said, still gently, fully aware that he was courting a snarl. “But she might have changed her mind. She might not want anything to do with us anymore.”

“We helped her!”

Sam didn’t even dignify that with a response, just gave his brother an arch look. Dean flushed and looked away.

Sam knew better than to add that it might be better if she didn’t come. The one time he’d suggested as much, Dean had stormed off and hadn’t spoken to him for the rest of the night. And yet Sam couldn’t help thinking that it might be better if Bela Talbot really did disappear for good, the way she’d promised in her note to do if they didn’t answer the door tonight (“I won’t bother you again”). She’d wreaked enough havoc in their lives even before she’d had reason to hate Dean’s guts, and he wasn’t convinced that her returning now wouldn’t be to take revenge. True, the last time they’d seen her she’d seemed about as dangerous as a kitten (except- shuddering, he remembered the Circe-wannabe who had managed to capture him and Dean, and the bullets Bela had put into the witch’s head when she ventured out of the bunker and rescued them), but looks could be deceiving, especially when it came to Bela Talbot. Besides, even if she’d been harmless then, a lot could change in six months. He just couldn’t escape the feeling that having anything more to do with her would end badly.

He knew there was no point in sharing his worries with Dean, though, so he just gave an inaudible sigh, checked his watch (if Bela was coming, he hoped she’d do it sooner rather than later, or else he had seven more hours of this to look forward to), and went back to his book.

The chime of the doorbell at 6:12 sent Dean bolting up the stairs before Sam had even gotten out of his chair. He reached the top just as Dean flung open the door. Sam almost gasped.

It was like they’d traveled back in time to before the apocalypse, before she and Dean had ever gone to Hell. The woman on the other side of the door was sleek and polished, manicured and made up, expensively dressed and perfectly coiffed. She looked nothing like the wan waif of a girl they’d taken care of for two and a half months and everything like the femme fatale they’d tangled with a lifetime ago. She was beautiful.

And she definitely looked dangerous now.

But she didn’t sound it when she said softly, “Hi.”

For a moment they could still only stare at her. Then-

“You look back to normal,” said Dean. It didn’t sound like a compliment.

Sam elbowed him, hard. “Which is good,” he said quickly. “You look good.”

That was an understatement. With an uncomfortable jolt, he remembered his aborted wet dream about her before she’d stolen the Colt, an embarrassment he had entirely forgotten until they’d combed through her scenes in the Supernatural books before curing her, when they were trying to verify the truth about her parents.

He cleared his throat, hoping none of his thoughts showed on his face. “Hi. Come in.” He shuffled backward to give her room, and after a grudging pause, Dean followed suit.

Bela hesitated before stepping over the threshold. “I didn’t know if you’d be here,” she said, not quite looking at them.

“Why wouldn’t we be here?” said Dean. “You said January 31st. It’s January 31st.”

“I know, but…”

“Oh.” Understanding dawned on Dean’s face, and with it, a sneer. “You mean you thought we’d avoid you because of how you left in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye?”

“I- I did say goodbye! I left the note…” The protest was a little feeble, though; if it hadn’t been such a foreign expression on her, Sam would have sworn she looked guilty.

“Yeah, thanks for that, by the way! I almost had a heart attack!”

“What?”

“I thought it was a suicide note!”

“Wh- why would you think-”

“You started with, ‘If you’re reading this, it means I’m gone’!”

“I- okay, yes, I realize how that sounds, but obviously it wasn’t a suicide note! That was just the first sentence!”

“Yeah, well!” But though he scowled at her, Dean didn’t actually seem to have anywhere to go with that.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said after a pause, and to Sam’s amazement, she actually sounded conciliatory.

“I wasn’t scared!”

Sam and Bela both stared at him.

Dean reddened. “I need to go start dinner! I wasn’t gonna bother until we knew if you were actually gonna show. Unless you want to go out, if you don’t want me to cook-”

“No, that’s- that’s fine, I liked your cooking.”

Dean’s eyes bugged. For a second Sam thought he was going to demand she elaborate, but then with an indecipherable sputter, he turned and stomped back down the stairs.

Sam and Bela looked at each other.

“This was probably a mistake,” she said, once Dean was out of earshot.

“No! It’s fine. It’ll be fine. Just ignore Dean. It’s just bluster.” Sam really hoped it was. “He’ll get over it.”

Bela looked doubtful but just gave a small shrug and reached into her purse. “Here. This I the money I took when I left. I told you I’d return it.”

This really was the Bela Talbot of old; straight to business as usual. Sam took the neatly clipped wad of cash, feeling even more awkward. “Um, thanks. You didn’t have to- thanks.”

There was another stilted pause before he remembered hosting etiquette 101. “Do you have any bags? I can get stuff from your car. If you have a car…I mean if you didn’t taxi…” He didn’t know where she would have taxied from since the closest airport was 90 miles away, but she answered before he could feel too stupid.

“I drove. My bags are in the car. I didn’t know if, ah…I can get a hotel. I looked some up in town.”

“Of course you can stay here,” he said automatically. “That’s what we were planning. Your bed’s not actually made, but that’s only because Dean didn’t know if you’d want your old room or if that would have, uh-” With a cough, he stopped himself from saying, “bad memories,” and continued hastily, “We have a different room, too, if you want that.” He couldn’t see her face as he followed her outside to her car (a gleaming dark blue Prius as sleek as she was), which might have been why he added, “We kept your room the way it was for two months after you left. Dean wouldn’t let me touch it. Just in case…”

He didn’t know why he was rambling about this- just that it felt important that she know that Dean’s current knee-jerk antagonism was just that- a reflex; a defense mechanism.

“What changed?”

Oops.

He couldn’t think of a diplomatic answer, but he didn’t need to.

“He became more angry than scared,” she guessed, and it wasn’t the kind of guess that required confirmation.

Sam still vividly recalled that afternoon. They’d seen a breaking news story online about a massive jewel heist in New York City that had confounded police. Within the hour, and without a word, Dean had hidden every shred of evidence that Bela had ever been there.

“Hey, random question, you weren’t responsible for that huge diamond heist in Manhattan back in October, were you?”

“No. Why?”

He couldn’t tell whether she was offended or not. “No reason.”

He thought he’d screwed things up with his story, but instead it seemed to have worked- at least, Bela looked thoughtful now instead of like she was regretting ever setting another foot in the bunker.

He hoisted her duffel (it was definitely on the larger side, he noted, like she might be planning to stay a while; he couldn’t decide whether that was good or bad) and led the way back into the bunker and down the stairs.

“Do you want a different room?”

After the briefest pause, she said, “The old one’s fine,” and followed him to the room closest to theirs, which Sam had still thought of as Kevin’s until she’d started using it.

“I’ll get you some sheets,” he said. “And towels…” He wasn’t sure if he should offer to make the bed for her (what was the protocol for hosting formerly homicidal guests who might still actually want to kill you?), but when he came back, she reached for the linens before he could make up his mind.

“Thank you.”

“No problem,” he said automatically, noting how self-conscious she sounded thanking him for something so simple. He remembered when she’d paid them after they’d saved her from the ghost ship, rather than say thank you.

Awkwardness paralyzed him as she began making the bed. Could he just leave, or was he supposed to make small talk now? Entertain her somehow while Dean made dinner? As sorry as he felt for what had happened to her, he couldn’t repress a twinge of resentment; Dean should be dealing with her, not him; Dean was the one who wanted her here in the first place, even if he wouldn’t admit to it.

Not that Sam wasn’t curious about what she’d been doing the last six months, but he’d feel a lot more comfortable talking with her if he knew she hadn’t spent them plotting revenge.

The alarm on his phone went off, sparing him from deciding on the least offensive way to ask, Are you here to kill my brother?

“That’s my laundry,” he said. “I’m just gonna, um, I’ll let you settle in…”

“Okay.” She didn’t look upset to be left alone, so with a feeling of relief, he hurried from the room.

After he’d hung up his clothes from the dryer (Dean would leave his in the machine for hours after the cycle was done, but Sam liked to hang them up right away if he could, not because he cared about wrinkles but because Jess had, when he’d lived with her), he headed back toward the kitchen, intending to ask Dean how long it’d be before dinner. He stopped short at the sound of voices before creeping as close to the door as he dared, barely breathing lest they heard him.

“I know you’re angry with me.” Bela’s voice sounded firm now, much less nervous than she’d been at the door. “So if there’s something you want to say, how about you just say it. We can clear the air and be done with it.”

Sam’s mouth fell open in a silent gasp. Did she actually expect Dean to talk about his feelings? He couldn’t even get Dean to open up.

It took Dean a moment to respond, and it took all of Sam’s not inconsiderable willpower not to peek past the door.

“Seriously? You just got here, and you wanna fight?”

No. That’s my point. I don’t want to fight.”

“Well, neither do I.”

“You have a funny way of showing it.”

“You’re the one picking a fight right now!”

“Because you’re being passive aggressive!”

“I am not!”

For a moment there was only silence. Sam pictured Bela blithely rolling her eyes until she said far too tightly, “I know you’re upset that I left-”

“I’m not upset! I don’t care that you left!”

Sam winced.

There was an even longer, much more ominous pause.

“Should I just leave again then? Do you also not care that I came back?”

“No! I mean, yes, I mean- don’t- I- that’s not fair!”

“You’re the one not being fair!”

“You’re the one that ran off without a word!”

Dean’s voice had risen to almost a shout. There was the briefest pause, just long enough for Sam to experience a wave of offended disbelief (he was going to talk about his feelings?), before Bela’s voice rose just as sharply.

“I told you I needed to figure stuff out! You knew what I was doing!”

“I didn’t even know if you were alive!”

His voice didn’t crack, but there was a tearing quality to it just the same, the kind that made Sam want- need- to rush to his brother’s side. He resisted the urge, a lump rising fast in his throat, and leaned his head closer to the doorframe, straining to hear.

“Dean,” she said, very quietly.

There was another pause.

“I didn’t know. One of Crowley’s goons might have found you. Or something else. You could’ve-”

He broke off, but Sam would have bet good money he’d been about to say that she could have killed herself.

There was another long pause before she said, “I didn’t mean to worry you. I just…I needed to be on my own.”

Sam braced himself for Dean’s incendiary reply.

“I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t’ve- you don’t owe us anything. You had every right to leave.”

Again, Sam’s jaw dropped.

“You didn’t even have to come back. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I’m not uncomfortable!”

He made an incredulous, bitter sound. “Obviously we weren’t helping you.”

“Yes, you were. I said that in my note.”

“You were just being nice.”

“Since when am I nice just for the sake of it?”

Dean didn’t say anything, but Sam could picture his pucker of surprise, turning to realization and acknowledgment.

“I meant what I said. You were helping me.”

She sounded as sincere as Sam had ever heard her. Which, granted, wasn’t saying much, but had to mean something.

It was a moment before Dean spoke: “Then why did you leave?”

His voice had grown very small, again making Sam want to go to him.

“Because it was too much. I was depending on you too much. I needed to learn how to be on my own and figure out what I was going to do with my life. I needed to be able to sleep through the night without you being there. I needed…I needed to not need you.”

“You needed me to sleep?”

“I don’t need you to sleep!”

“Okay! I get it. You don’t need me.”

His customary brusqueness was back. Even without seeing his face, Sam knew Dean was throwing his walls back up.

“I don’t,” she said, a little more forcefully than necessary, in Sam’s biased opinion. “But I would like to…stay in touch.”

What felt like the longest pause yet passed. Not until Dean cleared his throat did Sam realize he’d been holding his breath.

“I’d like that, too.”

Several seconds ticked by, and then a timer went off. Sam heard the oven door open. Dean clattered around for a minute before he spoke again, a little stiffly but with none of his earlier aggression, “So, uh, did you figure it out?”

“What?”

“What you’re going to do?”

“Not exactly. But I got my money back. Most of it. I bought a house. I got a cat…”

As she talked, Sam leaned his back against the wall, trying to get as comfortable as possible. He didn’t go into the kitchen until Dean called him for dinner.

* * *

“That was delicious. I think you’ve gotten even better at that.” Bela eyed the remaining pecan pie like she might cut another slice.

“It’s not hard,” Dean dismissed, but Sam could tell from the blotchy flush creeping up his neck that he was pleased.

Silence fell, but it was only a little awkward. They had managed enough casual conversation during dinner that this felt more like a natural pause than anything (she owned a house in Westchester now, near the Hudson River; at least twice a week she volunteered at the animal shelter where she’d gotten her cat, a tuxedo named Blackadder; her neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter was taking care of him while she was in Kansas).

“I have something for you,” she said suddenly. “Be right back.”

She disappeared into the hallway before either of them could react. Sam looked at Dean questioningly, but Dean could only shrug.

It’s going well, Sam wanted to say, while they were alone, but he refrained, in case it made Dean self-conscious.

Bela returned a minute later and sat back down next to Dean. There was a large wooden box in her hands, and a noticeable flush in her cheeks.

“What’s that?” Dean straightened, his curiosity almost palpable.

“It’s a surprise.”

She was really blushing now. She looked excited and nervous and not-Bela-like at all. Instead of being charmed, Sam felt a flash of misgiving, which her next words did nothing to belay.

“Close your eyes.”

Dean hesitated, but only for a second. Sam shot him an incredulous look that, of course, he didn’t see. As friendly and not-sociopathic as Bela had been acting, that didn’t mean Sam was about to let down his guard so easily. The box could have a curse in it.

Bela didn’t look offended as he defiantly met her gaze. Her eyes just flicked back to his brother. “Hold out your hands,” she told Dean.

He did, after another too-brief pause. Sam almost bit his tongue to keep from saying, “Don’t.” Since when was his brother so trusting? He shifted weight, ready to launch himself at her if there was something dangerous in the box.

She opened it. Sam gasped, because the plush red lining held a gun, he’d been right, she was here for revenge-

And then he gasped again, because it wasn’t just any gun-

Bela put the Colt in Dean’s outstretched hands.

The Colt.

Dean’s brow knit at the feel of it before he opened his eyes. They popped cartoonishly wide.

“What the-” He gaped at Bela, who looked happier than Sam had ever seen her. “Is this really-?”

“Yes! I found it!”

Where?

“In one of Lucifer’s Crypts. In Carthage, Missouri. Well, under Carthage, to be precise.” She beamed.

“How-” Dean spluttered.

“I looked for it. I knew about the Crypts from-” She flushed again but from embarrassment this time, and Sam knew she was referring to her time as a demon. “I knew about the Crypts, and I knew from those books about you that you’d last had it in Carthage. I thought there might be a Crypt there, too, so I did some research and talked with some contacts, and- and I found it.”

There was a pause before Dean said warily, “And you’re…giving it to us? For free?”

Her smile vanished, her face falling so fast Sam almost felt a matching swoop in his stomach.

“Yes! I don’t want anything for it. And I’m not trying to have one over you, I promise. I’m just…I’m returning it. I know that doesn’t make up for taking it in the first place, back then, but I…I thought I could at least get it back for you.”

Her eyes fell to her lap for a moment before she looked at them again, determined. “It’s also a thank you. For- for helping me.”

She paused before clearing her throat. “So there it is,” she said, much more briskly. “It’s yours, and I promise I’ll never steal it again.”

Thank you, Sam wanted to say, fervently (and maybe, also, I’m sorry), but the words stuck in his throat; they felt like they belonged to Dean.

Dean was staring down at the Colt in his lap. Sam couldn’t be sure from his angle, but he thought his brother’s chin was trembling.

Finally, he raised his head and looked at Bela. “Thank you.”

He sounded hoarse, almost like he might cry, but when she smiled, tentatively but looking happy again, his mouth lifted in return. There was a look of awe, of wonder, on his face that Sam hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

Oh.

It hit Sam then with sudden, brutal clarity: This could still go very badly, just not in the way he had expected.

 

 

II

“This is our floor, we’re almost there. You need to walk. Dean!

“Whazza?” He swayed when Bela dragged him out of the elevator and tried to make him stand upright. Without thinking, she slid her arm back around his waist. Immediately, he leaned against her, so that it was all she could do to remain upright herself. His current female body was shorter than his own, but he was still a little taller than Bela- they were only the same height now because she was in heels.

“I can’t carry you,” she said through gritted teeth. “Even like this. Should I call Sam?”

Dean’s brow furrowed. “Mmrgh,” he said into her shoulder.

“I’m calling Sam.”

No.” Dean peeled away from her, stumbled, and caught himself against the wall. “”M fine. Don’t need Sam. Not drunk…”

He staggered down the hall, in the opposite direction from their rooms.

Bela watched him for a few seconds before taking pity and turning him around. “You’re completely shit-faced.”

You’re shit-faced!” he retorted, and then instantly, “No, you’re not, ‘m sorry, you’re beautiful-face…”

Bela flushed so hard she could feel the heat in her cheeks. Fortunately, he was in no state to notice.

“Let’s go, just a few more doors,” she said, trying to sound casual and not like her heart was racing. It didn’t mean anything; he was pissed out of his mind; he probably wouldn’t even remember this in the morning. “I told you not to drink the Iced Tea. Those are strong.”

“When else can I try girly drinks?”

She rolled her eyes. “Any time. You don’t need to be a woman to drink cocktails.”

His nose scrunched up (adorably), but he didn’t say anything. She guided him to a stop at his and Sam’s door.

“Where’s your keycard?”

“Wha-?”

“The card. To get in the room. Please tell me it’s still in your bra and you haven’t lost it.”

Dean’s cheeks were already rosy from drinking, but she thought he flushed harder at the word ‘bra.’ He patted clumsily at his own breasts. “I don’t…I…”

She blew out a short, frustrated breath, feeling her own face heat again. “I’m going to get it, okay? Don’t…don’t freak out.”

Dean jerked his head in what she assumed was a nod. She made sure there was no one else in sight before slipping her hand into the bodice of the dark blue cocktail dress she’d forced him into in order to infiltrate the party earlier. His breasts were warm beneath her fingers as she felt around for the key card she’d told him to stash there when he refused to carry a purse. His breath- hot on her face, and smelling of alcohol and fruit- hitched when she brushed a nipple.

“Got it,” she said quickly, and opened the door as fast as she could.

When he didn’t move from the wall, she guided him inside and over to a bed. Like a marionette with cut strings, he immediately slumped forward, without even pulling the duvet back.

Bela watched him for a moment, feeling paralyzed. She’d been so focused on getting him back to his room, she hadn’t thought about what would come next.

As though he could read her mind, he rolled onto his side and blinked in her direction. “Don’t leave.”

She swallowed. For some reason, his plaintiveness made her feel a little shaky. “I wasn’t going to. I can’t leave you alone like this.”

His face visibly relaxed, a smile tugging his lips. A second later his eyes closed.

She could really study him then, without feeling self-conscious. He made a beautiful woman: Curvy where it counted, but also long-limbed and clearly toned, and with a supermodel’s delicate features. She couldn’t blame the men in the bar who had hit on him (although she blamed them for the second and third times, when they hadn’t taken no for an answer; she’d wanted to stab her cocktail umbrella into their slimy throats when they wouldn’t stop leering at his breasts (you could take the girl out of Hell...)).

Of course, he was a beautiful man, too. Not that she would ever tell him she thought so, that she always had, even when she’d hated him…

She shivered, even though it was June and the AC wasn’t too high, and sank onto the end of the bed. He stirred, eyes blinking open.

“Lie down?”

She almost said, “What?”, but it would have been pretend; she’d heard him perfectly well.

He stared at her hopefully.

Her heart rate quickened again. She licked her lips. “All right.”

She flipped back the duvet and slid under the sheets (because everyone knew that hotel covers were dirty; not because it would be more cozy). He squirmed underneath as well and immediately curled into her, his head on her shoulder.

Eleven months. That was how long it had been since they’d been in a bed together. She’d left the bunker on July 31st, and now it was June.

Not that they’d ever shared a bed like this before. She’d never been drunk (if she had been, she probably could have slept, and her nightmares might never have woken him in the first place). Most of the time they hadn’t even touched; he’d lain on the far side of the bed, not there to hold her (she wouldn’t have let him; not at first) but to wake her up if her dreams turned ugly. Not like now, when he was pressed up as close as he could be without actually lying on top of her.

“Whaf I’m stuck?” he said suddenly, right in her ear.

“Come again?”

He seemed to make a great effort: “What if I’m stuck? Like this? A girl? For a year?”

That had been Artemis’s curse: To live as a woman for a year. He and Sam had run into the goddess while working a completely unrelated hunt here in Massachusetts, and she’d taken offense at something they’d done years ago. Bela didn’t fully understand the details and truthfully, wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to, because it had something to do with Dean convincing a porn star to break her vow of chastity. Despite the fact that the sex had been consensual, as one of the virgin goddesses (maybe? Bela was also not clear on that; something to do with Prometheus), Artemis had not appreciated him belittling the vow; she’d also been angry with them for helping to kill her aunt Hestia.

Artemis had cursed Dean, and the boys had called Bela to see if she knew any way to break it. She hadn’t, but since they were only a few hours away, she’d offered to come help. They hadn’t learned any useful information tonight at the sorority alumnae party they’d infiltrated (they suspected the sisters were modern day worshippers), but tomorrow morning Bela would try to spy on their breakfast reception.

“You won’t be,” she said, hoping it wouldn’t prove to be a lie. “We’ll fix it. And if we can’t, it’s not like being a woman for a year will kill you.”

He pouted.

When he didn’t argue, though, her thoughts drifted again, inexorably back to the last time they’d been this close: On her last full night in the bunker, she hadn’t been able to fall asleep (they’d kept up a pretense; he hadn’t come in until she’d woken from a nightmare, until it was the middle of the night, until she might have had a nightmare), and without meaning to, without fully realizing what she was doing, she’d gone into his room and gotten in his bed. He hadn’t even woken all the way. The next morning she’d opened her eyes to find his arm around her and his breath tickling her neck. She’d realized in that instant that she had to leave if she ever wanted to be her own woman again- and she had, that very night.

In the six months she’d been gone, she’d learned how to sleep by herself again, how to cope when nightmares woke her screaming in the middle of the night. Even so, when she’d returned in January she’d wondered if they might still fall into old habits (hoped). They hadn’t, though; she’d stayed with them for a week, and Dean had never once knocked on her door after she’d said good night.

She’d told herself it was a good thing.

He mumbled something unintelligible into her shoulder.

“Beg pardon?” she said- automatically, not because she thought he’d actually said something worth hearing in this state.

He shifted so his face wasn’t mashed against her and slurred much more loudly, “I missed this.”

There was a sudden springing feeling in her chest.

“Oh,” she breathed. “I-” The answer caught in her throat, but Dean didn’t seem to be expecting one. He wriggled, and before she knew what was happening, he’d snaked his arm across her and hugged her more tightly to him, like he was trying to spoon her even though she wasn’t on her side. Bela held her breath, afraid he’d move if she breathed too hard.

But why should she care if he did? She shouldn’t want him to spoon her. That way led to complications. Besides, the way her right arm was trapped against her side was hardly comfortable.

Still, she exhaled slowly. A moment later he began to snore.

He missed this. Even though-

She hadn’t made it easy for him. She wasn’t sorry, because he hadn’t deserved for it to be easy, but she could acknowledge now, to herself, how hard it must have been. Because she hadn’t just told him about her nightmares; she’d made him tell her about his, about everything-

(“Tell me what you were like. When you were a demon.”

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“Of course there is. I heard about you. The Knight.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I don’t care.”)

She didn’t miss the conversations themselves, per se, at least not the ones that amounted to opening old wounds and throwing salt in them (“Would you still have said yes if they’d offered you someone else?” “Yes.” “Liar. Tell the truth.”), but she missed having the option of having them. They’d helped. He understood, like no one else possibly could, about the rack; about being a monster. Now when she dreamed of knives and blood and black eyes staring back at her from the mirror, she had no one to talk to about it.

A buzzing sounded from the door- the lock mechanism recognizing the keycard. She tensed, but it was just Sam, back from surveilling suspects in the hunt that had brought them here in the first place. He stopped short when he saw them, his jaw dropping slightly. “Uh…”

“He’s drunk,” she said. “We went to a bar after the alumnae party was a bust, and he decided not to listen when I pointed out that his alcohol tolerance might be slightly lower in a female body.”

“Of course he didn’t,” Sam said. He paused. “Do you, uh, want me move him?’

“It’s fine.” She could push him off easily enough if she changed her mind.

There was a little tilt to Sam’s mouth she didn’t like, though, so she summoned a haughty sniff and added, “But just to be clear, if he throws up on me, I will shoot him, and you’ll be cleaning it up.”

Any hint of a smile vanished. “You mean the throw-up or…the body?”

“Both.”

For a moment she thought he was going to come over and move Dean anyway. Then he gave a little shake of the head and said, “Okay, uh, well, I’ll just…be…” He gestured vaguely toward his side of the room, his mouth verging on a grimace now.

“You can sleep in my room,” she offered, without thinking. “I’ll stay here with him.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. The card’s in my purse.” She nudged her toe at her clutch on the end of the bed.

“Okay,” he said, sounding a little dubious, but not displeased. “Call me if you change your mind. Is there anything you want before…?”

“Could you pass the TV remote?”

He handed it to her.

“Thanks.”

She waited for him to leave before slowly, carefully twisting her right arm out from between them. Dean made a discontented snuffling sound and shifted. Before he could roll away, she wrapped her freed arm around him. He subsided, his head falling back her shoulder. When she was sure he was still asleep, she whispered, “I missed this, too.”

 

 

III

“Are you seriously going to make me do this?”

As Dean pouted at her with his hands on his hips, bare-chested and wearing nothing but swim trunks and flip-flops, Bela couldn’t resist raising her phone and taking a photo.

He jerked back like there had been a blinding flash and scowled. “Photographic evidence was not part of the deal!”

“It also wasn’t forbidden.”

“Delete it!”

“In your dreams, Winchester.”

“You’re objectifying me!”

“You bet your tight little arse I am. You wouldn’t have let me off if you’d won. I’d be bent over the Impala in a bikini right now.”

His mouth opened, but nothing came out. His eyes went out of focus, and she knew he was picturing her washing his car- or maybe he even picturing her bent over the hood in a different way…

She flushed, but she didn’t regret her ambiguous phrasing. Not one bit.

“Turn around,” she ordered.

“What?”

“Turn around. I don’t actually know if your arse is tight or little. I need to assess.”

He sputtered angrily but, still, to her delight, obeyed. “My arse is tight and little and- and smoking,” he said over his shoulder.

Bela took another photo, more subtly this time. When he turned back around, she was profoundly glad she was wearing sunglasses and he couldn’t actually see her eyes. They might be a teensy bit glazed, too. He didn’t hone his body the way Sam did, but good lord every part of him was pretty (she was so glad she’d been able to break Artemis’s curse; so glad).

“Feel free to start any time now,” she said, ostentatiously leaning back in her lawn chair. “I’ve got everything I need.” She patted the paperback on her lap and sipped from her tall glass of lemonade.

Dean rolled his eyes and gave a long-suffering sigh. “You cheated,” he grumbled, even as he finally bent and fished the sponge out of the pail of sudsy water beside him.

“I didn’t cheat. I hustled you. There’s a difference.” There was no fire in either of their words; they’d had this conversation several times already since she’d handed him his ass at the pool table last month after helping them out on a case.

“Potato, poe-tah-toe.”

“And you’ve never hustled anyone in your life.”

“I don’t hustle friends.”

Her heart sped up at the word. Fortunately, he was half-heartedly scrubbing a window now, so he didn’t see her face. It’d been almost nine months since she’d come back into their lives, but she still wasn’t used to the idea of having friends- let alone that those friends were Dean and Sam Winchester.

“You were such a good teacher,” she said, trying to play to his vanity. “How could I resist?”

There was more truth to the words than she’d intended; she could still feel his arms wrapping around her to show her how to hold the cue stick properly, his breath tickling her neck as he stood unnecessarily close. She shivered, even though it was over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, unseasonably warm for October in New York. When they’d started playing pool she’d acted like a novice out of habit, keeping her cards close to her chest the way she did everything else, but once she’d realized how eager he was to teach her- in the most physically intimate way possible- she hadn’t been able to resist keeping up the charade.

He gave her a look that said he wasn’t going to fall for her flattery- again, anyway. “You just wanted to get me out of my clothes.”

She blushed; she couldn’t help it. A swimsuit-clad car wash to the victor had indeed been her idea.

“You didn’t take much convincing,” she retorted. “You wanted to see me in my bikini just as much.”

“Can you blame me?” he muttered. It was hard to be certain, but she thought the muscles in his back tensed, like he hadn’t meant to say that out loud. He didn’t look at her as he bent again to soak the sponge in the bucket. When he straightened, the back of his neck was pink.

Bela pretended to read her book for a few minutes but never actually got far enough to turn a page. She couldn’t keep her eyes off Dean, especially when he moved to the boot and she could see the front of him again. For all his whining and moaning at the start, it was obvious from how slowly he was making his way around her car that he was actually making an effort now- his chest was even starting to gleam with sweat. She wanted to commit every part of him to memory: The muscles bunching in his arms as he scrubbed, the anti-possession tattoo rippling above his heart, the comfortable solidity of his pecs giving way to a noticeably softer belly. She kind of loved that his stomach wasn’t rock-hard; he looked like someone who took care of himself but also enjoyed life.

And then there was his equally photogenic face- his look of almost fierce concentration as he cleaned her car, the way his tongue curled behind his teeth. She would have filmed him if it wouldn’t have made her look like a total pervert.

He was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen outside of the cinema. And at least for the next half hour, while he finished, he was all hers. The thought created a tingling sensation in her chest that wound its way downward until her skin felt too hot and stretched tight and she had to cross her thighs. She was glad now that she’d put too much ice in her glass and had the cold cubes to suck on.

“You do this a lot?”

It took her a moment to focus on his face- his words- instead of his chest. He’d progressed to working on the far side of her car. “Do what?”

“Get scantily clad men to wash your car for you?”

For all that he looked nonchalant, she thought she detected a slight edge to the question- was he jealous?

“No,” she said firmly.

“Really.”

His tone made it abundantly clear that he didn’t believe her.

“Why do you think I’ve done this before?”

He shrugged. “You’re rich. This is probably more fun for you than going through a car wash.”

“I won’t deny it’s fun,” she admitted. “But it is my first time.”

“Gonna make it a habit?”

She didn’t let herself think, or she might have lost her nerve. “Depends how often you play me.”

Dean dropped the sponge. His eyes flicked toward her after he picked it up, but he didn’t make actual contact as he attacked her right-hand mirror. Bela rolled another ice cube around her mouth. A flicker of movement in an upstairs window caught her eye. She watched for a few seconds, but if Sam was still there, he stayed out of sight. What did he make of all this? He’d been there that night in the bar but had declined to play her. From the tiny smirk that had hovered on his mouth while he watched Dean ‘teach’ her, she was positive he’d seen through her games. He hadn’t let on to Dean, though, for which she was grateful.

Her chest tightened as Dean finished up the bonnet. As he traded the sponge for the hose to rinse off the remaining suds, she couldn’t resist pointing: “I think you missed a spot.”

He looked at the driver’s car door, which she’d chosen at random. “I think you need your eyes checked. That’s fucking sparkling.”

It kind of was. Bela was seized by a sudden impulse to dash the rest of her lemonade on her car. She resisted, barely.

“All done,” Dean announced, stepping back.

“The tires still look dirty.”

His eyebrows jerked up. “The tires don’t count.”

“They’re part of the car.”

He turned the spray back on for approximately three seconds. “There.”

“That was half-assed.”

“That was fully arsed. You’re delaying.”

“I’m an unsatisfied customer.”

“Is that a good book? Popular?”

“What?” She looked down at her abandoned paperback, confused by the non sequitur.

“Is it popular? You can get it any store?”

“Yes. It’s a bestseller.”

“Good. I’ll get you a new one.”

“What are you-” The question turned into a shriek as he turned the hose on her at full blast.

In seconds she was soaked through. Throwing up her hands to try to shield herself accomplished absolutely nothing except to make him aim the spray at her legs as well. She struggled out of her chair, laughing, shrieking, and cursing him all at once while he chortled gleefully. He danced backward, still spraying her, as she lunged forward, but instead of fighting him for the hose, she grabbed the soapy bucket.

“Don't you dare-”

She upended it over his head.

He reeled backward, spluttering, and she had to grab his arm to keep him from falling into her car.

“That had soap in it! I can’t see!” He tried to sound outraged and failed miserably; his eyes were closed, but he was still grinning.

So was Bela, despite the fact that she was drenched. “You started it!”

You started it! Half-assed my…”

“Ass?’

“Ow, that stings, I’m serious, I can’t see.” He squeezed his eyes shut harder, wincing.

“You big baby…” But she took the hose from him and changed it to its gentlest setting. Tilting his head toward her with one hand, she drizzled water lightly over his eyes. He grew very still. Bela held her breath as she ran the water longer than was probably necessary. His cheek was warm under her palm; her thumb brushed the side of his nose. She was close enough to see his individual freckles.

Finally, she turned the hose off. His eyelids fluttered open.

“Better?” she breathed.

“Yeah.” His answer was just as soft, and his hooded gaze matched. Bela was keenly aware of how see-through her white blouse had become now that it was soaked through and plastered to her skin; when he glanced downward, just for a second, she knew he was looking at her bra.

She didn’t care.

That chest she’d spent so long looking at- practically drooling over- was right in front of her now, close enough to touch. All she had to do was drop the hose, and then she’d be able to trace that tattoo, glide her fingers down his pecs and abs, down the thin trail of hair between his navel and his trunks. He’d let her. She knew he would, as surely as she knew that she’d let him kiss her if he tried.

She wished he would. His lips were parted slightly like he was thinking about it. They were so plump. It would be so easy to lean up and catch one between her teeth-

Cas appeared beside them.

With another yelp, this one far less amused, Bela jumped back. Dean lunged forward and grabbed her arms.

“Thanks,” she murmured, even though she hadn’t actually lost her balance.

With the barest of nods, he released her just as quickly. He didn’t look at her as he turned to Cas, but she could see enough of his face to tell it had gone wooden.

“Dean,” the angel said. He glanced at her. “Bela. Are you busy?”

Yes.

“We were just finishing,” Dean said. “What’s up?’

“We think we have a confirmed chupacabra sighting in New Mexico. I wanted yours and Sam’s advice before the garrison went in to deal with it.”

“Sam’s inside,” Bela said, a little more brusquely than was probably polite.

Cas didn’t take the hint. “Excellent. I can speak with both of you then.’

Dean let out a huff of breath that wasn’t quite a sigh. “’Kay. One minute.” Finally, he turned to her. “Are you, uh…” He glanced at the mess they’d made, the drenched, soapy driveway, the overturned bucket, and the ruined paperback and spilled lemonade on the grass.

His lips twitched, though she was sure she saw a hint of regret as he looked back at her. “Now are you a satisfied customer?”

No.

She smiled at him, though, and hoped it made it all the way to her eyes. “Very.”

 


IV

“Dean, I reheated the chili. Do you want any? Dean?” Sam knocked on his door again and raised his voice, even though knew Dean could already hear him. “You should eat something.”

“I’m not hungry!”

As far as Sam knew, Dean hadn’t eaten anything since lunch, almost nine hours ago by now; he’d already refused the chili two hours ago when Sam had first made it. A knot formed in his stomach, even though he also knew exactly what had put Dean in such a foul mood; no matter the cause, Dean’s lack of appetite always brought back too vivid memories of the Mark. With a final perfunctory knock, he opened the door.

Dean sat on his bed, leaning against his headboard, computer on his lap and a near-empty bottle of Jack Daniels in hand. Sam’s heart sank at the sight. Dean smacked the keyboard to pause whatever he was watching and scowled up at him.

“I said I wasn’t hungry!”

Sam set the bowl of chili on the bed anyway. He really hoped that that bottle hadn’t been full when Dean had holed up in here almost five hours ago. Scratch that; he just hoped it was Dean’s first bottle. He’d been drinking so much less over the past year, since Bela had come back. Sam had even started to hope he might be persuaded to try a dry night one of these days…

“You shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach.”

Dean snorted and took a long, deliberate swig.

“Bela’s going to be pissed if she comes back and you’re drunk.”

Dean raised the bottle in a mockery of a toast. “Then that’ll make two of us.”

“I’m serious! How much have you had?”

Dean drank again before saying sullenly to his computer, “I’m not drunk.”

His eyes were neither red nor glazed, so Sam was inclined to believe him. It took an awful lot to get Dean drunk, though, so that didn’t actually offer much comfort.

“Just try to eat something?” he wheedled, sitting next to Dean's legs. “I’ll make your airplane noises…”

Dean did not look amused. “Just leave me alone. I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine!”

“Then I’m busy! I’m watching stuff.” He waved at the laptop before hitting the space bar. British accents filled the room. It took Sam a minute to recognize Miranda, and when he did his heart sank even further. Bela had shown them the BBC comedy the last time they’d visited her in New York, about a month ago, in late April. He almost had to sit on his hands to keep himself from texting her to ask when she was coming back to the bunker. It wasn’t his business if she wanted to spend the evening with Apollo.

But God he hoped for Dean’s sake that she didn’t spend the night with him…

The episode ended about five minutes later, and Dean drained the last of the whiskey. When he reached down to rummage under the bed and produced another bottle, Sam couldn’t keep quiet anymore.

“Dean, that’s enough, come on!”

“No one’s forcing you to watch.”

“There are better ways to cope. Just- just talk to me!”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I’m thinking I want to get back to my show, and I can’t with you harping at me.”

“I know it sucks that she ditched us, but it doesn’t mean anything! She and Apollo are just- they’re just buds!” Even to his own ears, it sounded stupid.

Dean glowered at him. “I don’t want to talk about it!” He opened the new whiskey.

A sudden, uncontrollable impulse seized Sam. Before he could think better of it, he lunged for the bottle, landing half on top of Dean.

“What the fuck- let go!”

They grappled like eight-year-olds, splashing both of themselves with whiskey in the process, until Sam managed to yank the bottle free from his brother’s grasp. Unfortunately, he pulled too hard and rolled off the bed onto the floor, hitting it with a loud crash.

Alcoholism - zero; Sam Winchester - also zero.

“Jesus, are you all-” The second he saw Sam was conscious, any trace of concern vanished, leaving Dean looking more livid than Sam had seen him in months. “What the hell’s your problem?”

Sam winced as he sat up. His tailbone was going to be black and blue for days. And he’d probably smell like Jack Daniels for just as long; the whole bottle was now on his shirt.

At least it wasn’t in Dean.

“My problem is you trying to drink away your feelings! We’re too old for that shit!”

“I don't have any feelings!” He swore suddenly, and Sam realized they’d also knocked the bowl of chili over onto Dean’s blanket. The beginnings of guilt crept through him, but he tried not to let it show.

“We promised not to lie to each other anymore,” he reminded Dean as he used the bed to climb to his feet.

“That doesn’t count!”

“Aha! Then you do have feelings!”

Dean opened his mouth, hesitated, and scowled at him.

Sam only took a few steps toward the door before stopping. He wanted to get paper towels to clean up the mess he’d made, but he suspected if he left for even a second, Dean would lock the door.

“You can talk to me,” he coaxed, turning back toward the bed. “I’m not going to make fun of you. I know you like her…”

Dean turned so stony-faced that Sam thought he might have finally gone too far, that Dean would just give him the silent treatment for the rest of the night- maybe the rest of the week.

But then, suddenly: “You want to know what I’m feeling?”

Yes!

“And if I tell you, you’ll get out?”

Sam hesitated. “Yes…”

“Fine. I wish I was still a chick.”

Sam stared at him. “Why…oh…”

Dean smiled mirthlessly, and Sam knew he knew that Sam had figured it out. He still continued, “Because then she’d never have met that asshole.”

Given the circumstances, Sam didn’t point out that they had no actual proof that Apollo was an asshole- they only had evidence to the contrary, in fact, since Apollo was the one who had told Bela how to break Artemis’s spell on Dean when the goddess had turned him into a woman, almost a year ago by now. Apollo had caught Bela spying on his sister, but instead of punishing her, he’d invited her to dinner, helped her help Dean, and kept in touch with her ever since.

He’d called out of the blue a few hours ago and asked her to be his date to some fancy dinner function tonight; when she’d protested that she had nothing to wear because all of her eveningwear was back in New York, he’d said they could just pop over there on the way. She’d looked excited to get dressed up and go out on the arm of a god. Dean, in his worn jeans and faded flannel, had smiled, told her to have fun, and shut himself in his room the second she left.

She’d told them not to wait up.

“I’m sure she’ll be back soon,” Sam said quietly, breaking his own rule and lying through his teeth.

“Yeah, and we’ll both live ‘til we’re eighty.” Dean picked up the empty bowl and lifting the sodden blanket, tipped as much of the chili back into it as he could. He didn’t look at Sam. “I told you what I was feeling. Now get out and leave me alone.”

Sam took a deep breath. “No. I don’t want you to be alone right now.”

Sam!” Dean shot up off the bed. Sam stepped back, sure Dean was going to take a swing at him, but instead Dean strode to the door. He jerked it wide open and gestured. “Out!”

“What if you just told her how you feel?” The question spilled from Sam before he could stop himself; he’d already bitten it back more times than he could count in the past year, mostly because Dean had still never explicitly admitted there was even something to tell Bela.

He braced for more yelling, but instead, something worse happened: Dean smiled. It sent a chill all the way down Sam’s spine to join the ache in his tailbone, and not just because it was empty of warmth or mirth or anything else that made a smile actually a smile; it was filled with so much bitterness and self-loathing Sam felt a physical jolt of pain in his chest.

“C’mon, Sammy, you’re supposed to be the smart one. You know I can’t do that.”

He did know. Or rather, he knew what Dean meant. That didn’t mean he agreed with him.

“I think you can,” he said slowly, aware he had to choose every word with the utmost care. “She doesn’t hate you.”

Dean flinched, and Sam knew he was thinking, “anymore.”

“She’s our friend now.”

“And I’m lucky she even wants to be that! I can’t ask for anything more.”

“Just tell her how you feel, and maybe she’ll do the asking!”

“You don’t get it!” Dean stepped closer, abandoning the door. “She would never want me that way! She couldn’t!

Sam steeled himself. He’d come this far; if he gave up now, he might never work up the nerve to confront Dean again. “I think you’re wrong. I know why you think that, but I think- I think she’s over it-”

Over it?

Sam faltered as Dean’s eyes practically popped out of his head.

“You don’t get over torture! I tortured her, Sam! Multiple times! It doesn’t matter how sorry I am or how much I regret it or that I’d give anything to take it back! I can’t ever make it right! Ever! So no, I’m not going to tell her how I feel. She’d just-” His voice broke, along with Sam’s heart. “She’d just be disgusted.”

Sam had to swallow before he could speak. “No. I know what-” He couldn’t bring himself to say “what you did.” “I know what happened was terrible, but it wasn’t really you! You were tortured, too! Anyone would have cracked. Bela knows that! She did! I think she forgives you. Otherwise she wouldn’t- you two are so close, she has to have forgiven you-”

“She hasn’t forgiven me. And she never will.”

“You don’t know that!”

“Yes, I do!”

“How?”

“Because she told me!”

Sam gaped at him, but Dean didn’t offer anything else. “What are you…when did she…”

He couldn’t fathom it, the idea of the Bela they knew now saying such a thing; the Bela who’d invited them to stay with her not only for Christmas but also for Thanksgiving, which she didn’t even celebrate; the Bela who had given them each their own bedroom in her house and had never once referred to them as “guest rooms”; the Bela who sent them leads on cases and texted or called every day to make sure they were all right…

Dean looked away. Sam thought he’d refuse to speak, but after a moment he said in a low, dead tone that was worse than yelling, “In the hospital, after she tried to kill herself. When you were gone working that vamp case. She told me she’d never forgive me.”

“You never told me…”

“Why would I? Not like it’s…” He swallowed, and with a burst of horror, Sam realized he was blinking back tears. “Not like it’s a good memory. But I just told you now, so you happy? You gonna leave me alone?” He didn’t move back toward the door, though. He just stood there with his shoulders slumped, eyes fixed on the floor.

Sam had to fight tears of his own. “I bet she didn’t mean it. And even if she did, that was two years ago…”

“Of course she meant it. It doesn’t matter. Even if she did forgive me, she still wouldn’t want me the way I want her. She has Apollo. He’s a god. Why would she ever want me?”

“I don’t want a god.”

Bela stepped into the open doorway. The bottom dropped out of Sam’s stomach.

With a choking sound, Dean whirled. He reeled, and Sam leapt forward to catch him, positive for a moment that his brother was about to actually keel over from shock.

“Where-” Sam sputtered.

It was like she’d pulled a Cas, literally appearing out of nowhere.

Or like she’d been standing against the wall next to the doorframe, just out of sight, listening this whole time. She must have come home early, but they’d been arguing too loudly to hear the door. And then she’d heard them

Oh god, she’d heard them.

“Dean.” She stepped forward, but Dean jerked back just as quickly, right into Sam, who steadied him and then didn’t let go. It was a bad sign when Dean didn’t shrug him off.

“Wh-what- wh-why-”

Sam took over, trying to keep his own voice as casual as physically possible (which wasn’t much). “Why aren’t you at the party?”

She still wore a dark green evening gown, and jewels glittered on her neck and ears. Her finery was so out of place in the bunker that for a second he couldn’t help hoping she was a hallucination. But a hallucination wouldn’t be gripping a black clutch so tightly her knuckles were white, like it was an anchor.

“I- I wanted to come back. I felt bad for leaving…”

“How long have you-?”

She exhaled shakily. “A while. Dean-”

She took another step toward them. Dean’s arm quivered in Sam’s grasp, and Sam knew he would have retreated again if Sam hadn’t been in the way. Being trapped finally spurred him to speech.

“Can we just pretend this never happened?” he croaked.

Bela’s eyes widened, making it suddenly, blindingly obvious that they were filled with tears. “No.”

For a few seconds Dean’s ragged breathing was the only sound in the room. Then-

“Okay,” he said, so gutturally it was obvious he was one blink away from crying himself. “I’ll leave.” Sam was too surprised to stop him when he pulled away.

What? Dean-” Bela jerked to the side, into his path, and raised her hand as though to physically halt him. He stopped short a few inches from her.

“Why are you leaving?

Sam edged forward, enough to tell that Dean was looking at the floor again as he said woodenly, “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“You’re not making me uncomfortable! Dean.” As she said his name yet again in that imploring tone, a tendril of hope curled in Sam’s chest.

“I don’t want you to leave- please don’t leave. Look at me-” She cupped his cheek with her free hand. Her expression was so tender it almost hurt to look at.

Sam wouldn’t have turned away for the world.

“I do forgive you.”

This time the silence was complete. Dean’s chin trembled, and his Adam’s apple moved, but he didn’t say anything. He might not have heard her, except that he’d done as she’d asked and raised his head, so it was plain to see when tears finally slid down his cheeks.

“I forgave you ages ago,” she whispered. “I thought you knew.”

Dean made several aborted sounds before managing, “You s-said…”

“I know, but I- I didn’t know you then. I changed my mind.” She was crying now, too. “I didn’t know you, Dean-”

A full-body shudder wracked him. The next second she’d flung herself into his arms. His face was buried in her hair, but Sam could still hear his muffled sobs, the same words repeated over and over: “I’m sorry.”

“I know. Shh, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

Her murmurs dropped low enough that Sam couldn’t discern the words. Self-consciousness finally crept over him. They both seemed to have forgotten he was there, which was perfectly all right with him, but he didn’t know how happy they’d be about it after the fact. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to move.

He was glad he hadn’t when Bela pulled back, not out of Dean’s embrace, but enough to look up at him. “I don’t want Apollo. I don’t care that he’s a god.”

Dean blinked down at her, clearly dazed. “You don’t?”

“No. I want you.”

Another, softer shudder rippled through Dean. Wonder filled his face, the same he’d worn when she gave them the Colt.

“You do?”

Yes. Can I kiss you now?”

He nodded only a fraction, like he was afraid he’d misheard, but that was enough.

Sam gathered up the chili-stained blanket as quietly as he could (he’d leave a new one at the door), but when he snuck a peek at them, he realized he needn’t have bothered; a tornado could probably carry the house to Oz without them noticing. She still held her clutch, he saw, and tugged it gently from her grasp as he tip-toed past. It was either a sign of how comfortable she’d grown with him, too, or how handsy she wanted to get with his brother that she relinquished her purse without hesitation. Probably the latter, since her hand immediately swept up Dean’s back to his hair. A second later it was back down, slipping under his shirt-

Sam hurried from the room, grinning harder than he had in months- maybe even years- and already pulling out his phone to call Cas.

 

 

V

“Good thing you’re allowed to take your drinks inside now, or you wouldn’t have a chance to finish what you bought by the time you got it.”

Dean looked toward the voice and found a well-dressed brunette gazing expectantly back at him on his right. From the faint lines around her mouth and eyes, he guessed she was around Sam’s age, in her mid-thirties. Notwithstanding the tightly pressed throng they were in at the bar, she seemed to be standing a little closer than was probably necessary.

“Good thing,” he agreed.

“Now they just need waiters to bring it straight to your seat.”

Clearly, this woman assumed he frequented Broadway enough to have an opinion on its updated concessions protocol. To be fair, he did look the part tonight, in the bespoke suit Bela had had made for him and coaxed him into.

“I wouldn’t say no to that,” he agreed again, though non-committally, and not looking at her; he didn’t want to invite more conversation.

“It’s good so far, isn’t it?” she persisted. “I still get chills during ‘Defying Gravity.’ Even though I still miss Idina. This Elphaba’s good, but no one can hold a candle to Idina.”

He had no idea who ‘Idina’ was, so he just gave a vaguely commiserative grimace. The crowd shifted forward, leaving only one person between him and the bar. Even so, he could still feel the woman’s gaze drilling into him.

“So are you here alone?”

He finally looked at her full on again and found her staring not at his face but downward. After a second it dawned on him that she was trying to see his left hand, blocked from her view at his side.

“No, I’m here with my girlfriend.” He couldn’t keep a note of pride from his voice. He hadn’t had much occasion to use the word in the last three months, since it wasn’t like he went around offering information about his personal life to witnesses and suspects and the rest of the Tom, Dick, and Harry’s they interacted with on cases. It felt foreign, almost forbidden.

Unable to resist showing off, he pointed at Bela, who stood near the stairs leading to the mezzanine. “Over there.”

The brunette craned her neck. “Black dress? With the tall guy?”

“Yeah.”

“She looks a little preoccupied.” There was a smug quality to her tone that instantly wiped away any flattery he might have felt, leaving him bristling instead.

“Yeah, she does. But as that’s my brother, I’m not too worried about it.”

He felt his own burst of smugness at her look of dismay, but before she could say respond, the man in front of Dean received his drinks and squeezed his way past them out of the crowd.

“What can I get for you, sir?”

Dean placed his order and paid. As he turned to leave with his drinks, he flashed the woman a smile. “Enjoy the rest of the show.”

“You’re not drinking?” Bela said when he finally reached her and Sam and handed her her vodka. She raised an eyebrow at the two water bottles in his other hand.

“Maybe later.” He handed Sam his water, pretending he couldn’t see his brother’s beam.

“Making me look like a lush,” she muttered, though not unhappily.

“Sammy, there’s a chick back there who wants to get laid tonight if you feel like hanging around the city.” He nodded back toward the bar.

“What?” Sam and Bela said together, in very different tones.

“How do you know?” Sam sounded bemused.

“Yes, do tell,” said Bela.

“She hit on me,” said Dean, trying not to grin at Bela’s outraged expression. “Asked if I was here alone. Obviously, I said I wasn’t.”

“Who was it?” She scowled past him at the bar, narrowed eyes scanning the crowd.

“Brunette, about your height. Blue dress.”

He could tell when her eyes stopped moving and her lips tightened that she’d found his would-be paramour.

“Will you hold this?” She handed Sam her vodka. Dean barely had time to wonder what she was doing before she was kissing him, hard, both hands on his cheeks in a way that wasn’t even remotely subtle.

When she finally released him it took him a moment to catch his breath. “Possessive, aren’t you?” He licked his swollen lips and wondered if he was as flushed and bright-eyed as she was.

Yes. Is- is that a problem?” Despite her bravado, he could tell from the way her voice faltered that the question was sincere.

“No, ma’am,” he breathed.

Her eyes lit up in a way he’d never get tired of, and this time when she leaned up, he met her halfway.

A minute later, maybe several, Sam’s voice drifted in the distance. “Um, guys? People are starting to stare…”

Bela pulled away, but only far enough to whisper, “Do you want to see if there’s a family bathroom downstairs?”

As though on cue, the lights dimmed, but that didn’t stop Sam from grousing as they reluctantly headed back into the theatre for Act II (Dean limping a little), “I’m not going to be able to take you two anywhere, am I.”

* * *

“And how they worked in the origin stories of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, that was awesome. I definitely did not see the Scarecrow thing coming- holy shit.”

Dean paused in his fangirling, as Charlie would call it, and gaped at the room they’d just walked into. He’d known from both the lobby and its reputation that the Waldorf Astoria was swanky, but he still hadn’t expected the room- suite, actually- to look quite so palatial. Besides the requisite expensive looking but probably uncomfortable furniture, the front room boasted a fake fireplace with a gilded mirror hanging above it, an antique-looking coffee table, and multiple views of the Manhattan skyline that even he could appreciate.

“Do you like it?” Bela asked. “I know it’s a bit over-done, but I thought it would be a nice treat, just to be able to say we’ve been here…”

“It’s perfect,” he told her, and kissed her lightly. Really, anywhere would have been perfect as long as it was with her, but he didn’t say so; he was afraid the intensity of his feelings might scare her. Half the time he still felt like he was dreaming, that it was all too good to be true and she couldn’t actually like him the way he liked her.

“Good,” she said, with a faint flush, and closed the door. “I didn’t see it coming either the first time I saw it.” It took him a second to realize they were back to Wicked. “I was so happy. I actually teared up at the whole ending, and back then I used to think it was silly to cry over anything fictional.”

The idea of young, deal-trapped Bela refusing to let herself cry made his heart twinge. Her tone was matter-of-fact, but he still gave her a careful look to make sure it wasn’t just a brave front. She was already moving on:

“All the actors tonight were so good. And they had great chemistry, Elphaba and Glinda, and Elphaba and Fiyero…be right back, going to the loo,” she called, disappearing into the bedroom.

While he waited, Dean explored the bedroom (equally opulent, with stark white sheets on the bed he couldn’t wait to mess up) and took photos of the suite to show Sam when they got home. Bela had offered to get him a room as well, but he’d declined and was driving the Impala back to Westchester. Dean and Bela would take the train back tomorrow afternoon, after a lazy morning (and late night) and lunch in the city.

He was gazing out one of the living room windows and taking off his bow tie when her voice rang out from behind him: “Stop!”

He spun, tie in hand, heart leaping into his throat. “What’s wrong?”

She stood in the bedroom doorway, her eyes huge. “Put it back on!”

“What?”

“The tie.”

What?

She crossed the living room and tugged it from his grasp. “I want to take it off.” She fastened it back around his neck.

He stared at her. His heart jumped again, but not in panic now.

“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for this?” She hadn’t moved her hands from the back of his neck, and as her fingertips threaded through the short hair there, a shiver shot down him, straight to his groin.

“To get me into formalwear?”

She hummed lightly, lips curling. “Yes, but more to get you out of it.”

He shuddered. “How long?” He couldn’t help asking; the thought that she had wanted him, too, that his long suppressed feelings hadn’t been one-sided after all, always made him feel dizzy.

“Remember Romeo and Juliet?”

The ballet. That had been in early April, only a month before they’d gotten together. Selfishly, he felt a stab of disappointment, until she whispered, “When we stole the Hand of Glory?”

His knees almost buckled. He had to swallow several times before he could speak. Her eyes danced, and her smile was unusually wicked, like she knew exactly what kind of effect her words had on him.

“You have me now,” he murmured, making his voice as husky as hers. “What are you going to do with me?”

She hesitated. “What are you up for?”

He heard the note of doubt that crept into the question and leaned forward to put his lips next to her ear. “Anything.”

He felt her tremble. But her voice-

“I want you on your knees.”

Her voice was pure steel.

He almost moaned. Without a word, he dropped to his knees, in his bespoke suit, in the Waldorf Astoria.

As he lifted her dress and kissed the inside of her thigh, as her gasps filled the room and she gripped his hair so tightly it hurt, he knew, with utter certainty, there was no place in the world he’d rather be.

 


VI

“Sam!”

Sam looked round until he spotted Bela waving and walking toward him. “Where’s Dean?” he asked once they’d reached each other.

Her eyebrows lifted as she took the hot apple cider he offered. “I thought he was with you. I just got out.” She tilted her head back toward the porta-potties, her nose wrinkling.

“I've been on line the whole time.” He scanned the fairgrounds, including the concessions stand he had just come from, but didn’t see his brother. “Maybe he’s still at the games.”

They meandered back to the lane of games that stretched between the Cackling Corn Maze and the Trees of Terror, where traumatized patrons could get over their terror by throwing away money on ring tosses and disc drops. Though they hadn’t been in either the Maze or the Forest yet (and it was highly unlikely they’d be terrified after they had been), Dean had insisted on proving his prowess at a darts game. Sure enough, they found him at the same stall they’d left him, taking aim at a moving cut-out zombie head.

“You haven’t won yet?” said Sam; it had easily been at least fifteen minutes since they’d parted. He put Dean’s cider on the stall counter and added, “If you need something easier, there’s one for kids at the end where all you have to do is hit a balloon.”

To his surprise, Dean didn’t take the bait. “It’s harder than it looks,” he said, his tone matter-of-fact rather than defensive. “You have to hit the brain. And I did win. I just need to win more.” He glanced at Sam and did a double take when he saw Bela. “Don’t look!”

“What?” said Sam.

“Don’t look! Turn around!”

“Why are we turning around?” said Bela patiently, pivoting a few degrees and averting her eyes.

“Because it’s a surprise!”

“What’s a surprise?”

“What I’m gonna win for you. Sam, turn around! I don’t want you giving it away!”

“I’m not gonna give anything anyway!” Even to his own ears he sounded like a petulant child. He turned his head and cleared his throat, trying to sound calm and totally mature.

“What have you won so far?”

“Vamp fangs. Plastic.”

“Really? Not genuine enamel?”

Again, Dean ignored the jibe. “Yeah, but that’s not what I want, so I’m gonna be here a while. You guys should go. And don’t look at the prizes!”

Sam lifted his gaze enough to see him take aim again and throw the dart. It hit a moving zombie head a little left of center but within the small red circle that Sam assumed symbolized the brain.

“Congratulations,” said the bored-looking teenager running the booth. He slapped a plastic-wrapped pair of vampire fangs down on the counter and held out his hand. Dean handed him a five for two more shots.

“You’re just throwing your money away,” Sam said, bemused. He risked a glance at the bigger prizes on display on the booth wall- the usual stuffed animals, it seemed. “You could buy any of this for way less-”

“Don’t look!”

Sam rolled his eyes but obeyed.

“That’s not the point,” said Dean, and Sam could hear the grin in his voice. “Now go away!”

“Well, since you asked so nicely,” said Bela.

Please.” Sam looked up in time to see him actually bat his eyelashes. Bela broke into a grin as well and took a step closer.

“Don’t even think it,” said Sam, and before they could start making out like horny teenagers, he took gentle but firm hold of Bela’s arms and steered her in the opposite direction. “Honestly…”

“Spoilsport,” said Bela, but she let him push her away.

Despite its immense size, there wasn’t actually much to see at the Farm of Fear other than the three main attractions that lent the farm its moniker, the Trees of Terror, the Cackling Corn Maze, and the Haunted Hayride. The price of admission granted them access to all three, but by unspoken agreement, they steered clear of the growing lines since Dean wasn’t with them. A woman wearing slightly-too-realistic-for-comfort zombie make-up was painting faces near the stall where Sam had bought their drinks. They joined a small throng to watch her transform a tween into a fellow zombie. When she was finished, she turned to her onlookers and addressed Bela, who was nearest, in theatrically low-pitched, halting tones. “What do you want to be, dearie? Zombie? Skeleton? Demon?”

Sam tensed, but Bela’s smile only froze for an instant. “Been there, done that,” she said, so easily that Sam goggled at her. “I’m good.”

The woman looked elsewhere, and a giggling college-aged girl let her friends push her forward. Sam thought Bela might slip away after that, but she continued to watch. He watched her in turn, out of the corner of his eye, unable to keep from marveling at how far she had come in the last two years- almost two and a half by now- since they had cured her (since Dean had cured her; he couldn’t lie to himself now and pretend that he’d thought it was a good idea at the time; he’d said they should just kill her, and that would haunt him for the rest of his life). He knew she’d been able to talk about the past with Dean, but in Sam’s presence, at least, she always used to flinch at any reference to her time as a demon. Now she watched the excited, smiling girl in the chair with a faint smile of her own. It made Sam’s heart lift to see it.

“Want to see if he’s done?” she said a few minutes later when the girl had been made up to look like a skeleton. Sam nodded, and they wended their way out of the watching throng.

“You’re still not done?” he said incredulously when they reached Dean. In addition to multiple sets of vampire fangs, his pile of prizes included a witch’s hat and a plush toy Jack-O-Lantern now, but he was still taking aim.

“Don’t look!”

“We’re not,” said Bela, still patiently.

“I had to let other people take a turn,” Dean said grudgingly. “A couple of kids wanted to try.”

“How dare they!” said Sam. “Kids these days!”

Bela let out a delicate snort before suggesting, “How about you take another break and come pick out a pumpkin with us?”

Dean hesitated but then, to Sam’s mild shock, shook his head. “I need to finish this. Can we pick it out later?”

Bela opened her mouth, but before she could speak, a nearby megaphone squawked to life and announced that a magic show was about to start.

“Go watch that!” said Dean. “I bet it’ll be awesome!”

Sam was sorely tempted to call him out and remind him of his past disdain of magic tricks, but Dean’s expression was so wheedling as he looked at Bela that Sam bit it back.

“Okay,” she said, after a brief hesitation. “See you in a bit?”

“Definitely,” he assured her.

Sam and Bela made their way back toward the fair entrance and joined a growing crowd in front of a makeshift stage.

“Do you like this kind of stuff?” Sam asked as a caped man also in skeleton makeup claimed to have returned from the dead after an escape trick that went fatally wrong. Bela was watching the magician intently, her eyes narrowed.

She made a face. “It always annoys me when I can’t figure out how they do it.”

Sam chuckled, earning himself a scowl. Given her competitiveness, he should have expected that answer. “We don’t have to watch,” he offered.

“Yes, we do,” she said crossly, eliciting another snicker.

The performance was surprisingly less amateurish than Sam had expected, and as he was sure Bela was doing, too, he found himself making mental notes about tricks to Google when they got home.

“Let’s find Dean,” Bela said when it was over, as the audience slowly dispersed. “If we wait too much longer, the queues will be huge.” The show had only lasted fifteen minutes, but in that time the crowd on the farm seemed to have doubled in size.

“Where did they all come from?” Sam said as they were forced to halt for a group of teenagers racing across their path. “It’s like all of Kansas is here. Halloween is still three weeks away.”

“What else is there to do on a Friday night around here?” said Bela. Her tone wasn’t cutting, but she still looked chagrined a second later. “Don’t-” She broke off, but Sam knew she’d been about to say, “Don’t tell Dean.” He appreciated that she’d restrained herself from asking him to keep a secret from his brother, even though this hardly counted (after five months he hadn’t yet been caught between them, and that was how he wanted to keep it); it wasn’t like they weren’t all already aware that there was a lot more to do in her town than theirs.

Privately, Sam thought it would make more sense if he and Dean just visited Bela, since she had her cat to take care of and they traveled so much anyway, but instead they’d been alternating their visits, when they didn’t meet up elsewhere to work on a case together. He was convinced Dean spent as much time now looking for local, passably entertaining activities he could take Bela to as he did looking for cases. He’d found Farm of Fear after overhearing a pair of moms talking about their kids’ field trip in the grocery store (it was known as Alden Farm during the day, when hordes of school children visited to pick pumpkins and go on non-haunted hayrides). Sam hadn’t personally seen the appeal in the kitschy Halloween fair, considering what they dealt with in real life, but he’d agreed to tag along when Bela had invited him, too, and the alternative was sitting alone in the bunker.

They hadn’t reached the games yet when Bela slowed again, though not because anyone was blocking them this time. Sam followed her stare to a tent on their left with a sign advertising fortune-telling. A short line snaked away from the tent, and a young woman decked out in a colorful skirt and peasant blouse was taking phone numbers of additional patrons, like a maître d’ at a restaurant.

Sam raised his eyebrows. “You don’t really believe in that stuff. Right? You used to do it.”

“Some of it’s real,” she said. “Even some of what I did. You’ve worked with actual psychics before.”

He thought of Pamela (with a pang, still), from so many years ago, and Missouri Moseley before her, and conceded with a shrug. “Yeah, we have. You wanna get in line? It could be fun, even if it’s fake.” It wasn’t actually his idea of fun, but he’d play along if she wanted.

She chewed her lip for a moment and then, to his surprise, shook her head and smiled. “No, that’s okay. I’m happy with things the way they are now. I don’t need to know what’s coming.”

As they set off again, Sam filed that away to tell Dean later. He’d get a disgustingly gooey look on his face.

Any feeling of sentimentality on Sam’s part abruptly vanished, though, when they found Dean still playing the game.

“Dean, seriously-” he began, but Bela cut him off.

“Dean, listen- I’m not looking! I really like this one.” She picked up the stuffed plush pumpkin he’d had earlier, one of several now in his pile of winnings on the counter. “It’s cute. You don’t have to win me anything else. Really.”

“You can have that, too. But there’s something else I need to get you,” he said stubbornly.

Bela exhaled loudly enough for Sam to hear her frustration. Her tone remained calm, though, and gently coaxing as she persisted, “Don’t you want to go on the Hayride or in the Trees? The lines are getting long.”

He looked torn at that, but only for a moment. “You can go without me.”

“Well, they’re supposed to be scary. I might need you to protect me.”

Sam snorted loudly enough to make several passersby look round.

Dean seemed to be fighting a smile. “Sam can protect you. I don’t think there are any clowns around, so he should be good.”

Hey-”

“Please come with us?” Bela wheedled. “I don’t want you to lose your whole night here.”

“I won’t. I’m almost done.” He took her hands in both of his and leaned forward so their foreheads were touching. “Trust me? Please? I just need a little longer, and then we’ll do whatever you want.”

After a short pause, Bela gave a slight nod. “All right.”

Dean grinned and pecked her on the lips. “Thank you. I’ll call you guys when I’m done. Soon!”

There was a definite clipped air to Bela’s pace as she practically marched away. If Sam’s stride hadn’t been so much longer than hers to begin with, he would have had to jog to keep up.

“Do you want to go in the Maze or on the Hayride?” he asked, even though he was pretty sure he knew the answer.

As expected, she shook her head, “No. No offense- obviously, you could protect me…”

“Thanks,” he said drily. “Obviously, you’d need protecting.”

She sighed and stopped abruptly at the end of the line for one of the food booths; they had long since finished their ciders. “I’m going to get a hot chocolate. Do you want anything?”

“That sounds good.” He could feel a growl building in his stomach at the thought of food, and it only added to his annoyance. He’d known when he’d agreed to come that he wouldn’t like the dinner options tonight- typical carnival fare: hot dogs, kettle corn, soft pretzels, and nachos- but Dean’s pigheadedness made him feel much less compromising now. Nothing about the Halloween festival had appealed to him in the first place, and now Dean wasn’t even spending it with them. There was a definite droop to Bela’s lips as she waited in line, hugging herself against the growing late September chill. He knew he should say something to try to cheer her up, but he couldn’t work up the motivation to think of anything.

They hadn’t been in line long, though, before Bela’s phone rang. Her face lit up so fast that even in his sour mood, Sam was the tiniest bit charmed.

“We’re getting hot chocolate,” she said, and gave Dean directions and stayed on the phone until he was in sight.

Sam couldn’t keep from staring at his brother. Dean was grinning like a kid on Christmas. He looked positively gleeful- jubilant, even. Despite himself, curiosity welled in Sam. What could he possibly have won at a farm fair that could be worth so much excitement? Not to mention effort?

Bela stepped out of the line to meet him. Sam trailed after her, more interested in the mysterious prize now than hot chocolate.

“Somewhere lighter,” Dean said, and led them a few steps away to stand under an old-fashioned looking lamppost strewn with fake cobwebs. He was practically vibrating with anticipation as he looked around and gave a nod of satisfaction. “Okay. Close your eyes. Hold out your hands.”

As Bela shut her eyes and cupped her hands in front of her, Sam was vividly reminded of when she’d told Dean the same thing and given him the Colt.

Eyes shining, Dean dropped something small into her palms.

What the hell? Sam leaned closer, frowning at the object. It was about as long as a pinky finger and furry. It looked like a-

He gasped at the same time Bela did.

“It’s real!” Dean exclaimed. “I mean not a real luck charm, not like the other one, but it’s a real rabbit’s foot! They don’t kill them, but if they find dead ones on the farm they’ll cut off the feet- the kid running it said that, he lives here. That’s why it took so long to get, because there are only a few- it’s the top prize. And now that I’m saying all that out loud, I’m realizing handing you part of a dead animal is maybe not as romantic as I thought it would be, but…um…do you like it?”

He sounded so uncharacteristically nervous that Sam automatically held his breath as he looked at Bela.

If they hadn’t moved into the light, he wouldn’t have been able to see the tears glistening in her eyes. She looked between the rabbit’s foot and Dean several times before she said thickly, “Yes. I love it.”

Dean’s posture visibly relaxed. His smile reappeared, smaller and relieved. “Okay. Good. I’m-

“I love you,” she blurted.

Sam froze.

Dean froze, too, his eyes wider than Sam had ever seen them.

A ballooning feeling expanded in Sam’s chest. All of his annoyance with Dean had vanished the instant he’d realized what the rabbit’s foot was, and now there was only one thought running through his head-

Please don’t screw this up, please don’t screw this up-

“I love you, too,” said Dean.

They stared at each other for a moment, as though neither could believe their ears, and then they were both stepping forward, and his arms were wrapped around her and her hands were cupping his cheeks, and they might have been the only two people in the world-

Sam stepped away to give them some privacy, walking aimlessly until he’d finished swiping his cheeks.

“Want to learn your fortune, sir? Hear what fate has in store for you?”

Sam looked around and found himself in front of the fortune-telling tent. The woman they’d seen before smiled at him invitingly.

“I’m good, thanks,” he said, a little breathlessly but with a smile of his own. “We’re good.”

 

Fin