"You know I'm right," Bobby said, voice low and stubborn and furious, and if Sam hadn't been playing Hide 'n Seek (and if Dean hadn't given up the game without telling Sam twenty minutes ago), he would never have heard this conversation. "They deserve better than this. Hell, even you deserve better than this."
"Are you trying to tell me how to raise my own sons?" John asked in a quiet, dangerous tone Sam hadn't heard since the once—and only the once—Dean had started to clean the Winchester without first checking the chamber for a bullet.
Bobby's voice went rough, like a truck with no suspension hitting a pothole at top speed. "I'm trying to tell you, you stupid son of a bitch, that you don't have to do it alone."
"Yes," John said, "I do."
They didn't even stay for dinner: John went away for fifteen minutes and Bobby went to the basement to bang on pipes or something for a while, a heavy thudding beat of metal against metal echoing up through the floorboards; when John came back, he told Sam and Dean to pack their bags, that they would be on the road before dark. Bobby's eyes were bright, but his hands were steady as he clapped first Sam, then Dean on the shoulder. "Take care of yourselves."
Sam looked at John, the briefest of glances at his closed off face and the way he held himself tightly together, movements smooth and economical and nothing like the easy grace he'd had just two days previous, then back to Bobby, with his baseball cap pulled low, casting half his face in shadow. "We will," Sam promised. "And Dad, too."
"It's my job to look after you," John said, but he wasn't looking at Sam or Dean.
His stare-down with Bobby lasted a good twenty seconds, and then Bobby turned to Dean and said, "I made you turkey sandwiches and added in some peach cobbler, too. The bags are in the backseat. Save some of the cobbler for Sam."
"Yes, sir," Dean said in that serious-grown-up voice he'd taken to lately before he wrapped an arm around Sam's shoulder and said, "Peach, Sammy. That's even better than apple."
Much later, locked down in a motel room while their dad went out to stock up on supplies, Sam asked, "Do you know why we left Bobby's?"
Dean crawled into the double bed with Sam like he thought Sam was just lonely and said, "We're hunters, it's what we do. We don't stick around any one place very long. Like drifters." Dean's tone indicated he thought this was romantic, if he'd ever use the word romantic to describe anything, and very cool.
"Bobby stays in one place," Sam pointed out.
"Bobby looks after a tri-state area," Dean said, even though Sam knew this wasn't actually true, that Bobby called in back-up even when it was for something one town over. "There wouldn't be room for all four of us."
"Maybe I won't be a hunter, then," Sam said, thinking of how nice it would be to have his own room where he could maybe keep a poster on the wall, store his books somewhere other than a duffel bag. "Then you and Dad and Bobby could each have a state of your own."
"Nah," Dean said, scrubbing a hand through Sam's hair despite the way Sam frowned and wrinkled his nose in annoyance. At the time, Dean sounded proud. "There's no escaping it. It's in our blood."
"It's—it's like playing cards or getting really, really drunk after a bad hunt," Dean said. "It's just, you know, bonding. It's how you know the other guy's got your back. It's friendly."
Sam made the mistake of looking up from the laptop to squint disbelievingly at his brother. Castiel caught his eye and said, "Does he use this line on everyone? What is his rate of success?"
When Dean started fucking Castiel, Sam started stocking extra vodka and Jack Daniels in the trunk. "It'll all end in tears," he told Castiel, his voice humorously dry and yet utterly serious.
"I would not make Dean cry," Castiel said carefully.
"Not his," Sam said, closing the trunk.
Castiel got a weird look on his face, like he was making delicate calculations in his head. Solemnly, "I apologize. I was unaware of how you felt. I never meant to hurt you, Sam."
"What?" Sam said, and then he got it. He laughed. "No, Cas, I am not carrying a deep and deeply conflicted torch for you—or anyone else." He patted the trunk. "These bottles are for you."
Castiel was silent a moment, and when he finally spoke, his words were so quiet that they barely brushed Sam's ears, made him lean in to listen. "I have no intention of crying over things I can't have."
"Yeah, well," Sam said awkwardly. "I'm here for you if you need it."
"I'm fine," Castiel said.
"Winchesters make a habit of fucking up people who are fine," Sam said, and if he was thinking of an afternoon hidden behind a beat up couch, listening to the sound of metal on metal like someone was banging the hell out of pipes, he didn't say anything.
"Back so soon?" Bobby asked, and his voice was tight, like they'd left yesterday instead of five months ago.
"I need someone to watch the boys," John said, his grip on Sam's shoulder nearing painful. "I may be gone a while."
Bobby's brows drew down, his lips pulled back like he was pressing in his first several responses, but he just opened the door wider and said, "Come on in, boys."
Sam followed Dean in, but where Dean went on to toss their stuff in the guest room, Sam paused and listened carefully.
"You're not going to let me in?" John said, and there was something bitter there, but nothing like surprise.
"Depends. Gonna return the favor?" Bobby's voice was level, and what Sam could see of his back was rigid, utterly still.
"I should be back in five days," John said after a long minute, when Sam was beginning to consider going to check on Dean. "If I'm not back in a week—"
"You'll come back in a week, you selfish bastard," and Bobby was leaning forward, obscured by the door, his words equal part threat and promise, "or I'll come find you myself."
The sounds that followed caused Sam to flush to his ears, and he hurried to see how Dean was doing setting up camp.
"Hunters!" Dean insisted. "Totally doesn't count."
Sam was right a lot of the time, but that didn't mean he always wanted to be. Everything went fine, for a given definition of fine—that being, Castiel hadn't had any sort of breakdown as far as Sam could tell, and Dean was actually more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than normal, like the energizer bunny of friendly gay hunter sex, which was not an image Sam ever wanted to contemplate, but was the truth—until they took a job with four other hunters. After they'd brought down the monsters of the week—a Black Annis had teamed up with a couple Wendigoes for an all you can eat human flesh buffet in a small town in Minnesota—the hunters who were a couple threw an arm around Dean from either side, and the woman, Mira, said, "So about that beer."
Dean grinned. "Is a beer all that's on the table?"
The man, Wendel, said, "I'm sure we could sweeten the deal."
When Dean clambered into their SUV, Castiel didn't say anything at all.
"Rufus going with you?" Bobby asked the next time they were dropped off at his house. Dean had already rushed off to practice with the new rifle Bobby had gotten him, and the sounds of occasional gunfire could be heard from behind the house.
"Is that a problem?" John asked.
"Why would it be a problem?" Bobby asked. Gruffly, "It's none of my business who you're fucking these days."
Sam's hand slipped on the duffel bag he was retrieving from the trunk, and it landed roughly on the dirt of Bobby's driveway.
John and Bobby both looked over, and Bobby's eyes softened almost imperceptibly. "Let me help you with that," Bobby said, lifting it and leading Sam into the house.
John didn't follow after.
"Dean, if Dad sleeping with other hunters was about being buddies and bonding and whatever else you've got it in your head it's all about, then why do you think there's so many hunters out there who wouldn't give Dad the time of day?"
They met up with Rufus again for the disaster that was Pestilence. They started the day with twelve other hunters, and sunset saw Pestilence temporarily defeated, but ten hunters and several hundred people dead. Castiel was covered in blood up to his elbows and had chunks of flesh in his hair. Sam had dried blood peeling from his own forearms, caught in the creases of his hands and under his fingernails. Barely five minutes passed after their regrouping and debriefing of everyone left before Dean went off with one of the newer hunters who now had the hard eyes of a veteran, a South Korean who'd come over to the U.S. as a grad student in anthropology.
"That boy," Rufus said tiredly, "is just like his daddy. Stupid."
"I'll drink to that," Sam said.
Rufus shook his head. "I'm going to clean up, then sleep. I'm not leaving that bed for days."
Sam stood next to Castiel for several minutes, trying to dredge up the energy for even a shower.
"Sam," Castiel said finally, "I would like some of that vodka now."
Before Dean had explained about hunting and when they still spent most holidays at Bobby's, before John started the Winchester family tradition of isolation and unhappiness, Sam and Dean were at Bobby's around Christmas, and Bobby gave Sam an amulet before they left.
"I want you to have this," Bobby said. He pressed the amulet into Sam's hands. "You can give it to your dad, if you'd like—" and he swallowed hard and looked down at Sam, "—or you can hold onto it yourself. Doesn't really matter."
Sam turned the amulet over and over, entranced. "What is it?"
"It's special," Bobby said. "I want one of you Winchester boys to have it." In a rough voice, looking away, "It's the sort of thing meant for family."
"I'll give it to Dad," Sam said.
Bobby ruffled Sam's hair and said, "You're a good son." Bobby looked almost—wistful. "I'd be proud to call you mine."
That was their last near-Christmas at Bobby's.
"Dean. I am honored that you would allow me the use of such an important family heirloom."
Dean looked gobsmacked. "You know I didn't give it to you as a token of my gay love, right?" he asked.
Things came to a head nearly a month later when Dean came back into the motel room at some time ridiculously early in the morning, and he obviously hadn't stuck around with his latest companion for long enough to take a shower, because he smelled like dried sweat and musk, his hair mussed and a bite mark gracing the side of his neck. Sam had once again provided enough booze to liquor up even an angel of the Lord—nine fifths of vodka, and Castiel was losing his tolerance with his mojo, because they were down three from last time—and offered a shoulder to cry on, though to Sam's relief Castiel had kept to his promise of no crying. He'd taken Sam's shoulder anyway, the two sprawled on Sam's bed, Castiel with his eyes closed and Sam contemplating the ceiling.
"What," Dean said slowly, "the fuck."
Castiel opened his eyes and tried to sit up, though his inebriation was such that he fell over onto Sam's chest again. "The room appears to be spinning," Castiel observed.
"That's the vodka," Sam said and patted Castiel comfortingly on the shoulder.
Dean continued to stare at them with that look of betrayal, and Sam had found his charity had run dry, because it only reminded him of when Dean was twelve and had asked to try the flamethrower, and Bobby told him no—like Dean had had some would-be toy taken away from him.
Castiel frowned like he was trying very, very hard to think, but his thoughts kept skittering away, just out of reach. "Is there something wrong?" he asked Dean.
"No," Dean said tightly, "everything's fucking golden." To Sam, "I see you pulled the stick out of your ass and hopped aboard the hunter bonding train."
An angry, broken part of himself that Sam had been carrying for years—one that lived on the soundtrack of metal striking metal and the soft way Bobby had looked at him, like he didn't want Sam to see the ugly parts of his relationship with John—wanted to run with it, say yes and let Dean believe it. Because he liked Castiel more than he hated Dean in that moment, Sam asked, "Does it look like Cas and I were having sex?"
Dean blinked, stared at their obviously clothed bodies, and blinked again. "Then—what's going on?"
"What do you think?" Sam asked.
"Sam bought me vodka," Castiel said as he nuzzled back into Sam's shoulder like it was the most comfortable of pillows. "I like vodka."
Dean's face went white, and he turned around and stalked out of the motel room, slammed the door behind him like he had suddenly discovered what it was like to be sixteen and angry.
"What did I say?" Castiel asked plaintively.
Sam patted his shoulder again. "It's not you, it's the fact that Dean's an asshole."
All the same, Sam sighed and shifted Castiel off him, onto the other side of the bed so Sam could, as he did all too often, follow after.
A week after Pestilence, Sam had Dean drop him off at Bobby's to recover from a near-miss with a demon and a literal bloodbath.
Sam didn't need the panic room, but he really, really, really needed to get drunk and have it be about his own problems. And then, because he couldn't deal with his own problems, he asked Bobby a question that had been churning in him for years. They were sitting on the porch in rocking chairs, a six pack resting between them, watching the sun set, and Sam was trying his best not to let the crimson remind him too much of anything in particular but sky shaded red.
"Sure you want to know?" Bobby asked, his voice entirely too even, but Sam nodded his head anyway. "Winchesters—there's love, and there's sex, and they're two different things, but sometimes you can get both at once." He sipped his beer, then said calmly, "That's when you get fucked."
Sam swallowed. "Like you and Dad?"
"Yeah," Bobby said. "Like me and John." He rolled the beer can in his hands, then said, going straight for the heart of the matter, "Castiel's a big boy. He can take care of himself." Bobby took another sip of the beer. "Angel's got to learn about heartbreak sometime. Might as well be from an expert."
"Winchesters—" Sam stopped, his throat burning. For some reason, he couldn't stop thinking about Ruby, about the way her body jerked in his arms as the blade went in.
Fondly now, voice soft in a way Sam didn't deserve, had never earned, Bobby said, "Don't tell Dean, but I always considered you a Singer."
"I understand that you are only interested in being friendly."
"What the hell, Dean," Sam said.
Dean was seated on the sidewalk, legs stretched out over the asphalt of the parking lot, like he'd let the door close and collapsed where he stood. He had his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. Sam sat down next to him, breathed in the cold night air.
"Not Cas," Dean said finally. "It—it can't be Cas."
Sam wasn't sure if Dean was talking about Sam, or himself.
"He's—" Sam cleared his throat, disbelieving that he was actually going to say this. "You know he's in love with you?"
Dean made a horrible sound, like Sam had buried a knife deep in his gut. "He can't." Dean kept his face in his hands. "Down that road—only bad things happen down that road."
Sam was calling bullshit. John had believed the same thing, but Sam thought one broken, lonely old hunter and two fucked up sons were enough to prove that theory wrong. "You already got him to lose his angelhood. How much worse could it be?"
Dean looked up, and his eyes were distant, like he was contemplating some far off, terrible thing. "Trust me. It could be worse." His voice was sure, absolutely convicted, as though he'd seen it for himself.
"You're not even going to try," Sam said flatly.
"I'd rather be dead before I saw that future."
Behind them came the small sound of the door pulling shut.
"Dean." Castiel's voice was steady, though he was half-leaning against the wall. "I understand. I don't—I never had expectations. This won't come up again."
Castiel shook his head, held one hand up as if to ward off Dean's words. He walked away, down the sidewalk and around the building, disappearing around the corner. Dean didn't follow him, didn't speak, just sat on the sidewalk and contemplated the backs of his hands like his knuckles held the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Sam went back to bed. He dreamed of Lucifer wearing Ruby's face, and she pulled him in, soft and warm and smelling exactly the same. They talked for a very, very long time.
Sam said, "The answer's still no."
Ruby said, "That's okay. I'm not going anywhere." Kindly, in a tone Ruby had never used, "We have all the time in the world."
When Castiel returned in the morning, he had blue lipstick on his collar and smelled like cheap floral perfume. Neither he nor Dean looked like they'd slept at all.
In Detroit, Sam said yes.