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Behold, A Pale Horse

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It's been seven hours since either of them has said a word. Not since Kevin came out, smiling but confused, proud of himself for finally breaking the code on that tablet after weeks of being unsure whether it was even possible to fix the damage they'd caused.

It seems a little bit wasteful, them not talking when they only have so many hours left to not talk to each other before—

Sam shakes his head, hard enough that his whole body shudders, and he sees Dean look over, raise an eyebrow. Smirk. He hates Dean for knowing how to smile at times like this. He's been good at it since before Hell, and they've both had plenty of chances to practice, but Sam still resents it.

"You having a fit or something?" Dean asks, probably referring to the shaking, but who knows. Maybe Sam's been talking to himself this whole time, maybe he imagined the silence. Maybe he's blind and deaf to everything that isn't Dean at this point, even himself.

"I won't do it," he says after a while. "I'm sorry, Dean. I can't."

"You can," Dean says, easy as if he was talking about Sam brushing his teeth or saying an exorcism. "And you will. Because you gotta."

Sam nearly laughs. Since when has that counted when it comes to them? Sam would be dead—all of this would be moot—if Dean had done what he's so calmly expecting Sam to do.

_______________________________________________________________

Kevin had taken weeks to fully translate the last tablet, but once he had it, he had it. No mistakes, no room for second-guessing. It was obvious, really, that this would be the solution. As soon as Kevin told them, Sam knew it couldn't have been anything else. It's his life, after all.

"It does talk about the trial failing, and about the shadow creatures. Calls them shadon. Apparently they're born in the barrier between Earth and Hell. They were released because the dimensions got too close to touching when Sam tried to shut Hell down."

The prophet had coughed, and Sam knew, despite what he said when they asked, a part of Kevin resented them both for the fact that Sam is still alive. He's got every right—they're fucking hypocrites is what they are, so willing to let everyone go for the greater good. He'd thought of Ellen and Jo, how brave they'd been, how willing to do their part to stop things like this from happening. Sam could have been brave, too. But Dean needed him. Dean had begged him.

He hadn't known about the shadon, but that's no excuse. More people are dying than they'd been betting on, but it's not like he hadn't made the call that his life was more valuable than everyone who would suffer at a demon's hand thanks to Hell not being locked down. It had been his turn to die, and he'd sat it out.

Kevin's mom is out there somewhere, suffering god knows what torture at Crowley's hands, if she's even still alive. Kevin gave everything to help them shut down Hell. He'd done his part, and he and his mom would be at home reapplying for colleges if Sam had finished that trial. Of course the kid is a little bitter.

"Tell me what to do to fix it. I'll do whatever it takes," Sam had said, and he'd thought he meant it, too.

Kevin had smiled at him, grateful. Despite everything, the kid still believed in him. "Good, because you're the only one who can. The fix for this has to be carried out by. Um. Well, I'm quoting here. 'The champion who chose his own life over others must make the ultimate sacrifice to rid the world of the shadon.'"

"Okay, so I have to die," Sam had said. He looked up at Dean. "Seems like I could have saved a few months of suffering if I'd just finished it when we had Crowley chained."

Kevin bit his lip, looking down at his notes and at the tablet, and sighed. It was obvious he had more to say.

Dean's arms crossed over his chest, an angry expression on his face. "There's another way," he insisted, with absolutely no reason to think so, but damned if he didn't have conviction.

"You didn't let me finish," Kevin replied, lifting his head. He had given Sam a sympathetic look, then tried to smile. "Look, if you get this done, I mean. It'll wrap the trials up for you. Not just send the shadon back. When it binds them, it'll lock down Hell, take all the demon scum on Earth back down with them. No way to reopen it. No more demons, forever. That's better than we were hoping for."

Something about Kevin trying to sell this to him—it didn't sit right with Sam. "I'm ready," Sam had said for what felt like the thousandth time. "I'll do whatever it takes. Just tell me how, I'm ready to die for this."

"Sam!" Dean growled, but Sam had just waved him off.

Then Kevin finally got the hell on with it. "Thing is, you're not the one who dies. I mean, this is the part I'm kinda of tripped up about. It says you have to sacrifice 'the one who holds your soul.' Which is," Kevin laughed, "really bad writing, but basically a Metatron way to say your soulmate."

Dean had sucked in a breath across the room, and Sam felt his legs about to give out under him. He gripped the table, hardly held himself up even then, but Kevin went right on, oblivious.

"Love of your life? Do you have one of those? 'Cause we're not really working with a lot of time here before those things eat…basically everyone. Didn't your girlfriend die a while ago?" Kevin frowned. "Sorry, I mean. Not to sound insensitive. I certainly know the feeling, after Crowley—well, you were there. I'm just saying do you have a—?"

By this point, Sam had collapsed into one of the chairs at the bunker's long desk, and he hardly heard what Kevin was saying. "It's not her," he damn near whimpered. "It's not Jess, it was never Jess."

"Then you know who it is?" Kevin had asked.

Sam looked up, not at Kevin but at his brother, tears already threatening to overflow. "Dean, I won't."

"You will," Dean replied. He'd cut his gaze away from Sam, away from Kevin. "I'll pack our stuff. We're leaving now." He clapped Kevin on the shoulder as he walked out of the room. "Your mom will be free by tomorrow night, kid. Just give Sam the instructions."

Kevin's eyebrows had drawn close together, questioning, and Sam saw the moment it clicked. "Oh," he said. Then, "Oh. Oh. Wow. Well. Fuck."

"I won't," Sam whispered. "Not Dean. Not Dean, I won't kill Dean."

"You better," Kevin replied, his voice surprisingly cold. Sam looked up, imploring, and Kevin's expression had softened. "I'm so sorry, Sam. But you better."

_______________________________________________________________

"You didn't," Sam fires back. "If you'd just let me finish the trial when I had the chance, none of those souls would have been lost and I—I wouldn't have to—"

"It's not like I knew," Dean answers, still infuriatingly blasé about this. He's gripping the steering wheel too tight, but aside from that, he's downright chipper.

"You fucking bastard," Sam says, and that, finally, gets Dean's attention. His brother looks over at him, and Sam wants to grab the wheel, drive them both off the road just so he can stop thinking. "You're glad this happened. You still think—even with the shadon coming. You think this is the better way."

He expects Dean to deny it, yell back, keep insisting he didn't know like he has been since the first shadow grew too long, swallowed up a shopping mall full of souls—innocent souls, just minding their own business, didn't do anything wrong except be too close to ground zero when Sam let the ball drop—and dragged them down to Hell. That's the bitch of it. These things don't just kill. They're like hellhounds on steroids. Not as messy, maybe, but swallowing up everyone they come across, and dragging them down to eternal torment.

When Sam had chosen not to complete the trial, he'd thought it would just mean returning things to how they were. Demons still loose, deals still being made, but all that has existed nearly as long as people have—it wasn't on him to fix it. His big brother had asked. Had begged him. He hadn't known it would cost him Dean. God, if he'd only known.

"Yeah, maybe," Dean finally says after a long pause. "Maybe I do, Sammy. What do you want me to say?"

"That all those lives weren't worth mine," Sam replies. "That you even care that I'm going to have to—to. Dean, I can't do that to you. You couldn't even let me die, how do you expect me to be able to kill you?"

"You will." Dean swallows hard, keeps his eyes trained on the road. "You will because you're stronger than I am, and you always have been, and you're gonna do just fine."

Sam covers his ears, tries to curl in on himself as if that will protect him from what Dean is saying. "You don't know me at all if you believe that."

"You were fine last time," Dean answers, same old worn out pain in his voice, and Sam hates him, he really hates him right about now.

He lets his head drop back against the headrest, laughing because he hurts too much to even cry. "You really think that. Even now. You actually think that."

"I'm not trying to start a fight about it, okay?" Dean sounds tired. He wipes a hand over his mouth and shrugs. "All I'm saying is, I know it sucks, Sam, and I wish you didn't have to do it. But you will be able to, and I wouldn't. You're gonna let me go, move on. Hell closed, no demons. You can actually start something this time, have a real life. So yeah, a few extra people had to go to Hell, and that's horrible, but you're here, breathing, and you're gonna get old and gray and maybe have some kids."

"You're an idiot," Sam tells him. "I tried to kill myself last time. I didn't look for you because I hit a dog trying to run your fucking car off a bridge. You think I was fine without you? Every day, it took all Amelia and I had to stop each other from putting a knife through our own chests. How long do you really think I'm gonna last this time?"

"You found a way to keep going then, you'll find a way to keep going now."

"Fuck you," Sam replies, and it feels good to say it, cathartic, so Sam does it again. "Fuck you. This isn't fair. It's not right, Dean."

Dean shrugs and keeps going as if Sam hadn't said anything at all, "If you want to hear that we made the wrong choice, that I should have let you die instead of me, you're gonna be waiting a long goddamn time. I mean, fuck, Sam. It was supposed to be me in the first place. If you hadn't insisted on doing the trials—I told you from the jump one of us was gonna end up dead and I told you it wasn't gonna be you."

"Pull over."

"Why? You wanna take a swing at me?" Dean asks with a huff of a laugh. "If that'll make you feel better, sure. I'll—"

"No," Sam says, reaching out to grip the dashboard. He feels faint suddenly, like if he doesn't get some air, he'll pass out. He's been cooped in this car, holding his breath, stuck in his own head since they left the bunker, and everything outside the window is too bright, swimming in lines in front of his eyes. He might be crying. He can't honestly tell. "Please. Motel. Please, just get me off this road. We won't be there before tomorrow anyway, Dean. Please."

Dean turns his way, and maybe he finally sees exactly what this is doing to Sam. His expression goes soft, his voice even softer. "Yeah, you're right. We can grab a few hours. Whatever you want."

He takes the next exit and they're checking into the first motel they see, a little nicer than their usual fare, but Dean smiles and offers Sam the room key like sixty bucks a night instead of forty is some kind of apology. Sam really does consider taking a swing at him.

As soon as the door closes—hell, maybe before that—Sam is on him. He's got his hands bunched in Dean's jacket, his brother pressed against the thick metal door. His breath is heavy and so is Dean's, and they're close enough to share.

It's inevitable, that's what this is. Dean doesn't look surprised; Sam doesn't feel it. They linger, frozen in that moment as if they don't know what's next, but unspoken and unacknowledged, it was always going to come to this. They've both always known, even if they never admitted it to themselves, and Sam doesn't have the time or mind right now to mourn how much time they wasted getting here.

He'll have so long to obsess over it starting tomorrow night. Who knows how many years with no brother, no nothing, to sit and count out every second they didn't let themselves have this. He won't waste now.

"Are we really gonna do this?" Dean finally asks, looking up at Sam like he could crack the world open with a single thought.

"Oh, hell yes," Sam answers, and before he's even done, Dean's mouth is his. Claiming Sam and letting Sam do the same right back.

They kiss like it's a fight, but it's not angry. As much as Sam resents Dean for being okay with this, as much as he wants to really feel that rage, this is all the passion and heat they ever put into fighting, but it's nothing except pure love and desperation, violent in force but not intent.

Dean's tongue curls in his mouth. He tastes like stale whiskey and gas station coffee and Sam's first broken bone, every birthday he ever celebrated, badly told bedtime stories from the same four stolen library books. He tastes like Sam's big brother.

Sam sobs against his lips, and Dean cups his cheek with a strong, calloused hand, pulls away only to shake his head. No crying, not now. Not because it's forbidden. Because it isn't sad. No matter what happens, they're going to have this. This is no occasion for tears.

He kisses Sam again, shrugging out of Dad's leather jacket as he makes space between their bodies and the wall. Closer to the bed as he sheds it, and Sam's glad to see it go. Dean wears the damn thing like a shell, keeps himself at bay by wrapping himself up in John's orders and expectations. He gets why Dean needs it, but this—this is raw, painful if it's going to happen at all, and Sam doesn't want any ghosts in this room except for their own.

Sam reaches for his brother's belt, starts to unbuckle it while Dean's still pulling his last layer off his chest. The jeans fall in a pile with the rest of Dean's clothes, and Sam's legs hit the edge of the bed. He lets himself fall until he's sitting, staring up at Dean in nothing but his short black boxer shorts. He's seen this millions of times, never even let himself linger on the sight. But it's different now; Dean is watching him with a hungry look, and Sam doesn't have to pretend he wants anything less than he does.

"Sammy," Dean says, reaching out to tug on Sam's flannel overshirt.

For a few brief moments, Sam lets himself dream, imagines a world where they have enough time to get comfortable with this, where Dean teases him about being the only one naked, and how Sam should return the favor.

They won't ever get that, but at least they get this.

He lifts his arms over his head and Dean pulls off both layers of clothing for him, just like when he was a kid and Dean dressed him every day for school, helped him into his pajamas at night. There's a dull voice in the back of his head that says that sort of memory should really be turning him off. Sam kinda laughs at it, and Dean just raises an eyebrow in question.

No point in explaining the joke, Sam decides. He stands just long enough to push his pants off his hips, and then he falls onto the mattress, taking his brother with him.

Their kiss is sloppy as they squirm their way to the head of the bed, each of them groping blindly at war-torn skin, fingers tracing the scars they weren't able to spare each other. It's not guilt, there's no time for guilt, just like there's no time for questions or taboos or thinking about why this is happening now, why it had to be now. Sam just wants to learn his brother in the few ways he hasn't yet, and it feels so good. So intimate and open, no hiding. For once, Dean isn't hiding from him.

"Sam," Dean says.

Sam nods, grabs Dean's face in his hands and kisses him, over and over. "I know," he says. "I know."

He stops what he's doing only to look around. There has to be something here, something that can ease the way for them, without Sam having to get up and find lube. He sees three small bottles on the nightstand: shampoo, conditioner, and lotion, and smirks as he grabs for the last, thankful at last that they're in a slightly less crappy motel.

"How do you want it?" Dean asks him, his eyes on Sam, and it's obvious what he's saying. Anything. Anything Sam can dream up, he can have.

"Everything," Sam answers. He pushes the lotion into his brother's hand and doesn't break eye contact. "I want everything."

So everything is what Dean gives him. Sam fucks his brother until his dick aches, sucks Dean and lets Dean do the same. They lick their come out of each other only to make the mess all over again.

He's spent. Every last drop of energy he had lost somewhere between orgasms he's lost count of, and now he can only lie here, lie here with Dean's weight crushing down on him, his brother's hips circling as he drives his way into Sam. Over and over for what has felt like hours, and Sam is tired, but he's not tired of this. Dean can keep going forever. It seems a little like he has.

His cock is still rock hard and buried as deep in Sam as it'll go, still thrusting rough like Dean cannot get enough. Stamina is one thing, but Dean is super human. Sam's been heavy limbed and pliant for a while, not rocking up to meet Dean's dick, too overstimulated to feel much more than a spark of pleasure as Dean ruts up, cock on his sweet spot with every sharp push.

Dean is panting on top of him, keeping his thrusts measured, dragging this last time out as much as he can. He's been here so long, Sam nearly doesn't remember what it was like to be empty. It's a home, Dean has carved out a home for himself inside of Sam, not for the first time tonight. He wants to keep Dean there, wants his brother to live in him so much longer than Dean will live anywhere.

"Everything," Sam says again, his voice a fucked out echo of his words from before. "Please, Dean, give me everything."

Dean hides his face in Sam's neck and shoves his way in faster, and Sam knows he's close. He clenches, making himself that much tighter on his brother's cock, and Dean lets out a broken moan, half his name, half nonsense, as he floods that house he built in Sam.

Sam takes and takes and takes, and when Dean tries to pull out, Sam holds him tight. "Stay."

For once, Dean obeys his order, doesn't bother arguing. Tomorrow, Sam will be unbelievably sore from this. Maybe he won't even be able to walk, maybe he'll still feel his brother stuffed up inside him, filling him out. One can only hope.

They lie there in silence for a long time. Neither of them sleeps—Sam knows Dean's body when it's asleep even when they're apart, so he'd be able to tell if Dean were out on top of him. But they've been quiet long enough that Sam can pretend he thinks Dean won't hear him.

"I love you," he whispers into the hair just behind Dean's ear, where his face is resting against his brother. "No one has ever loved anything like I love you."

"Don't," Dean says quietly, and suddenly Sam gets it. All these years, Dean's rules about what can and can't be said, Sam thought it was supposed to project some illusion of strength. That Dean thought not admitting what he felt out loud would fool Sam into not knowing he felt it. But now he understands, suddenly he's buckling under what Dean has been trying to protect them both from all along. It hurts, more than any torture Sam has ever suffered through, to say something and mean it that much.

Soulmate, what an ugly word. What a trick to make it sound beautiful when you die without someone and still have to go on breathing.

_______________________________________________________________

The next day goes down in history as relatively uneventful. No wars begin, and none end. The president isn't assassinated, volcanoes don't erupt except where expected, and somewhere in the far north, a polar bear floats along on not enough ice, catches a seal to share with her cubs.

Oh, and in an abandoned church in South Dakota, Sam Winchester holds a blade against his brother's throat, can't bring himself to move it until Dean surges forward, cuts through just enough skin to be in pain but not enough to take the honors from Sam.

He finishes what Dean started as a mercy to his brother, nearly indifferent to the rest of what will happen. Dean doesn't take his eyes off Sam's the whole time, the last thing he says before his vocal chords are minced is that he couldn't think of a better way to die than by Sam's hand. "It's my favorite death so far," he says, laughing, patent Dean Winchester bravado right up to the very end.

Sam hates him so much for saying that and meaning it that it makes it just hardly possible to force his own hand. Dean bleeds out into the bowl they set up to catch it, and once his lifeblood is all good and gathered, Sam returns to the monster he was bred to be. Drinks every last drop and isn't ashamed to admit he loves it.

It's not like his blood, but it is. Clean, purified, deandeandean, Winchester blood like Sam had for only 6 months before Yellow Eyes turned him into this. This is what the trial demanded, and maybe Sam should have been disgusted by it, but he licks every drop off his fingers, rolls on the floor next to his brother's corpse, laughing and crying in equal measure.

He feels the effects of the trials bubbling back up inside him, that burning pain and the glow in his veins that nearly killed him once before. Maybe it'll kill him now, too. Maybe he won't actually have to live without Dean, he'll have to sacrifice himself to lock up Hell and they can meet in their shared Heaven just a few minutes apart.

The light doesn't stay inside him now, not like it did when he shoved it back down and smothered it inside himself. Because Dean asked. Dean asked him to. It bursts out of him and he grips the ground, but his touch only splits it in half. A hole opens, wider and wider, so dark it makes black look like blinding white, a powerful vacuum erupting under his hands.

He watches in horror and hope as the door to Hell gapes in front of him, as thick clouds of black smoke and howling shadow creatures are pulled down and down. It's the opposite of the devil's gate in Wyoming. He remembers how that had blown outward, pushed so much evil into the world, how hard it had been for them to force the door shut. Now all that force is reflected, and Sam thinks he'll be pulled down, too. It would be fair enough, him going to Hell. Easier, even, than staying on Earth after what he did to Dean.

Dean. Sam crawls forward, grabs onto his brother's body with his sin-stained red hands, kisses Dean's slack mouth with his own. Dean is like an anchor, and Sam clutches onto him as everything around him turns to chaos, the sound of the wind rushing past him so loud Sam expects to go deaf.

Then, stillness. Silence so loud Sam really thinks he has lost his hearing, but everything else is quiet, too. The hole is gone, the church looks no less dilapidated than it had before. There's nothing but a charred black mark on the ground to show what just happened.

He closes his eyes, pulls his brother in closer. Waits to die. He's done enough now, hasn't he? Sam thinks he's done enough.

"He's alive."

It's a woman's voice Sam hears when he wakes again. Familiar, he thinks. He's not sure. She's got her cold little hand on his neck where his pulse is. He feels sick and ragged and—

"Dean," Sam says, sitting up. "Dean."

His eyes are crusty with sleep and his body feels just the same. Blood, he realizes as he opens his eyes. He's covered in dried blood, and he's hugged around his brother and Dean is smiling up at him. Bright and beautiful and peaceful and.

Dead. So dead. Dead because of Sam.

"No," Sam says, pushing the body away. "No, no, no, no. It wasn't real. It wasn't real. I didn't do it."

"You did," says another voice. Male this time. Definitely familiar. It sounds almost happy; definitely exhilarated. Kevin kneels down in front of Sam, reaches out to try and sooth him. "You did it, Sam. Charlie's been monitoring demon activity while we drove out here and you really—"

"No," Sam says again. He clutches Dean's body back into his arms, shaking his head. He must look like a child hugging a stuffed toy, but he can't let go. "No."

Kevin gives him a sad look, tries to reach out to loosen Sam's hold on Dean, and Sam growls.

"I'm sorry," Kevin says. "Sam, I know. I mean. He was a really great—"

"Don't," Sam replies.

Kevin nods, looks just above Sam's head, where Charlie must be. "Sam, you closed the gates of Hell forever. Just think of how many people are going to be okay because of him, because of you. He died for a good—"

Sam ignores him. He looks down at his hands. "I did it. I did it."

Charlie puts a hand in Sam's hair, and it feels good, relaxing. Dean used to do that. Dean used to do that to calm him down, back before he sliced through the mark he'd sucked into Dean's throat.

"C'mon," she says. "Let's get you home and we can." Her voice breaks, exposing her cheerful tone for the lie it is. "Find a good way to put him to rest."

"Hunter's funeral," Sam says, still cradling his brother. "We need wood. We need salt. And. And…"

Sam stops. Stops. He stops. Everything stops and suddenly he's crying so hard he can't think, can't remember anything except this. This has happened before. This wasn't supposed to happen again. He bathes his brother's face in his tears, in kisses, doesn't even care that Kevin and Charlie are both there, and they both know. He doesn't deserve to be touching Dean. To be loving Dean.

He did this.

Sam doesn't know when they leave. Wouldn't notice them coming back, either, except that Charlie puts her hand on his shoulder, tells him they built a pyre and it's ready. Sam had never made it this far last time. He'd kept Dean's body in that crate, waiting for a miracle to pluck him up and bring him back. And it had. It had.

He rocks as he brings his brother up so that they're sitting, Dean draped over him, head lolling on his shoulder. "Where's Cas?" Sam asks, desperation and hope putting a little metal in his voice. "Cas can save him. Cas will bring him back. He brought him back last time. He'll just bring him back, we can't burn him before Cas—"

"Sam, you know we haven't heard from Cas since the angels fell. He might not even be—"

"No!" Sam yells. "He has to, he can bring Dean back. He can."

"You can't undo the trial," Kevin says. He doesn't even back down when Sam glares murder at him, just shrugs. "I'm sorry you lost him. I'm sorry we all did. But I won't let you risk those things coming back."

Kevin walks out then. Sam watches him go, and after a few minutes Charlie promises to let him have some more time alone.

Eventually, Sam picks his brother up and carries him out into a bright, sunny day. He's much lighter now than he should be, and Sam knows it's the blood churning in his own gut that's made him so easy to hold. He never got to do this for Dean.

Dean did it for him, more times than anyone could count, when Sam fell asleep in the Impala before they reached the motel of the week, or pretended to be asleep so he wouldn't have to walk his own bags up to their room. He still remembers what it felt like to fit inside Dean's embrace, the way he would bob up and down with every step his brother took. But Dean was never this small, not the whole time he was alive.

He places his brother on the pyre and the three of them watch until the flames have worn themselves out and Dean is a pile of ashes, just like their mother and father, Jess and Bobby and every other goddamn person who has ever meant anything to Sam.

He sweeps Dean into the only thing he can find to hold him, an empty takeout container sitting in the back of the Impala with Dean's order scribbled on the side in black permanent marker.

_______________________________________________________________

They go back to the bunker, or rather, Charlie and Kevin somehow get Sam back. He doesn't register much of anything except roads he's driven a thousand times with Dean. Dean, who was too big to fit inside Sam's life sometimes, who was so explosive with sound and movement and who now fits inside four thin white paper walls, clutched between Sam's hands.

Home is what they call it when they walk in. They say he's home in their too quiet, apologetic voices and Sam wishes they would leave. He knows they mean well, feels terrible for thinking it. But he wishes they would leave.

This is not home. Home was what Dean called it, with his memory foam mattress and lovingly cooked hamburgers and the weird vintage porn he'd look at no matter who was around. That was home. Sam's home went up in flames, and Sam set the fire.

Oh, but for a good cause, they keep reminding him, as if that means anything. It was for a good cause. Sam wants them gone.

It's not long before they are. A few days and Kevin starts getting antsy, starts calling around to find out where his mom is and how he can get to her. He leaves once they finally get in touch, promising they'll both be back as soon as he can make it.

He's not surprised that Kevin doesn't keep his word. He lets Charlie take the messages, hardly remembers the excuses she passes on.

Charlie goes about two weeks later, once she's fully convinced Sam can manage to keep himself fed and that he's not just being polite when he says he'll be fine without supervision. He feels her eyes on him when he spends too long staring at the arsenal, but she's satisfied when he never actually reaches for anything.

He thinks about it more often than she knows, thinks about how he and Dean will see each other again in Heaven, on that never ending road they're supposed to share eventually. Sam will admit he wants it, that nothing this life has to offer could bring him the same satisfaction as a bullet in his brain.

Dean would be furious. Dean died for him so many times, and as much as Sam genuinely despises his brother for some of those sacrifices, they were made, and he can’t bring himself to throw them away.

Castiel shows up nearly a month after Dean's death. Alive, which is nice, but very much human. Sam tries not to show his disappointment at that. His last good hope.

He'd been hunted after the angels fell, tracked by his own brothers and sisters, and Sam both pities him because he knows what that feels like and envies him because he still has brothers and sisters to run from. Cas says he stayed out of touch so long because he didn't want to lead the angels back to their safe house, but Sam can tell from the condition he's in that his life has been flight-or-fight for months and he wouldn't have had time to check in even if he'd felt safe doing so.

But he missed Dean. Dean's closest friend wasn't there to say goodbye. Castiel looks almost as broken as Sam feels when he tells him what happened while he was running, and why his brother isn't here to greet him.

They are the last two left to mourn Dean. It's new to Cas, so he feels it sharply, long after it began to dull for Charlie and Kevin. He and Sam share their grief as well as their bunker, going through the motions of daily life. It's comforting to have someone there who doesn't try to pretend he'll recover eventually. Cas has other things to lament, of course. He's lost Heaven, the love and trust of his family, he feels guilty and foolish for letting Metatron get the best of him. He's just as bad off as Sam is, but it's about more than Dean.

Sam thinks he should care, maybe, about the thousands of angels prowling the Earth, scared and angry and out for blood. But unlike Castiel, nothing much touches him.

Another couple of months pass before he decides to go on. Not move on, he's got no delusions this time. But here's what Dean would have done, here's what Dean will hate him for not doing: he saves people, he hunts things.

It's not quite the same any more. Sam doesn't feel the drive that made his father's and his brother's and for a while even his own devotion to this cause so powerful. He does it because it's what he's supposed to do, and because lying in Dean's bed, crying into the pillow and coming into the sheets from morning to night has become unbearable.

Castiel stays at the bunker, says he spent so long trying to get to safety, he's not really itching to dive back into danger just yet. He argues that with the angels still out there, he'll just cause Sam trouble, and Sam knows he's right. Every now and then, Cas even muses aloud about starting something, eventually, once things have quieted down. A life of his own, if he has to be human.

Sam should get it, he really should, he's wanted that so many times. But the concept of wanting anything except a swift and painless death has become foreign to him.

_______________________________________________________________

It's not a hunt gone wrong that does it, the day Sam finally gets his wish. Well, not a hunt he knew he was on, at least. He's reckless now, just on this side of looking for trouble, but he's too good, too well trained, too sharp. He comes out of it alive every time, no matter how hard he hopes.

It's a bottle of whiskey, dangling from his fingers and nearly empty by the time he's stumbling into his motel room, that really does it. He'd just finished a job, went straight to the liquor store with chupacabra guts on his shoes to get started early on the post-hunt numbing, and he's damn near out of it by the time he gets inside.

He doesn't see the man waiting for him, or the taser, and he's not in any condition to fight back. He blacks out, and when he comes to again, he's tied to a chair, his head splitting from the alcohol, the whole world still spinning. Maybe from the drinking, maybe from the hitting, or some combination of both.

Who cares? At this point, who really cares?

"Sam Winchester," the guy says, in this showy way that tells Sam he's watched way too many action movies and now thinks this is how this conversation has to go. "As I live and breathe."

"Whoever you are," Sam replies. "Such an honor to meet you."

The man huffs out a laugh. "You're in an awful sorry spot to be sounding like a smartass, kid."

"Yeah, whatever." Sam tries to shrug, but his arms are tied too tightly. Oh well.

If the stranger is disgruntled that Sam's not playing along, he only lets it show for a second before continuing, "Guess you'll want to know who I am and why I've come for you before I kill you."

"Not really," Sam answers. "You could just skip to the good part."

This time, he does take a pause, scrunches his face up all annoyed. He hits Sam with the back of a gun and watches Sam blink his way through the pain. "Do you care now, boy? You're not gonna talk your way out of this one."

"Is that what you're trying to do? Talk me to death?" Sam sighs and looks up at the ceiling. "Why do I always get the chatty ones?"

"My name's Jackson," his attacker says. "Jackson Coulter."

"Look, let me teach you how to use that gun. We can have this all taken care of in just a few minutes—"

"You shut your mouth!" Jackson yells, rifle to Sam's gut this time.

Sam gets very close to throwing up on him. Laughs at the mental image alone.

"Is something funny, you little bastard?" Jackson aims the gun this time. "You know how many people are dead because of you?"

"Yes," Sam answers. There's one. One that matters. One is more than enough to justify this asshole shooting him in cold blood. "So pull the trigger already."

"I knew your daddy. Good hunter. Blind spot a mile wide when it came to you, it turns out." He shakes his head. "But I don't doubt John would have been man enough to put a bullet through your brain if he'd known what you were going to turn into."

Sam's lips thin. John knew. John knew and instead of sparing Sam early, he died so that Dean would have to be the one to put him down.

Dean was supposed to be the one to—

"Do it," Sam yells. "Just do it."

"Talking to my network, I've got hunters who can place you at, what, four apocalypses now? They all argue you were trying to stop most of 'em, but I don't believe in no coincidences."

"That means you do believe in coincidences," says Sam. "Double negative."

There's the back of the gun again. Sam's lip splits, and he can taste the warm blood as it drips down his chin.

"I know you been trying to kill us all. Whatever that demon did screwed you up good, huh? You just don't give up, do you? Not even after him and Lucifer got out of the picture, you still—"

"Not that I care a whole lot," Sam interrupts. "But you might want to ask your network who got them out of the picture."

"Your brother, from what I can tell." Jackson gives him a challenging look, and, actually, Sam won't argue with that one. "Well, you made your last mistake, son. This last time. Those shadon took my wife with them, and thanks to you locking up the box, I can't ever get down to Hell to get her out. You're gonna pay for that."

"I'm sorry," Sam whispers. "I am sorry."

"You couldn't do us all a favor and just die when it was your time. You had to set those things loose. Now I lost my baby and you—" The son of a bitch laughs and gives Sam a nasty smile. "Hear you finally turned on that brother who spent so many years cleaning up after you."

Sam finally struggles against the restraints, and Jackson drops the gun on one of the beds, picks up a long machete instead. "There's what I've been waiting for. A little spark of life to take away."

"You want to kill me, kill me," Sam tells him. "But you better do it right. Do it right, because if I ever see you again, you're gonna regret even mentioning my brother."

There's a flash of silver glinting in the glare of parking lot lights as the blade comes down on him.

Sam opens his eyes. He has the worst headache of his life, the visions he used to get couldn't even touch this, and he doesn't think it's just the alcohol to blame this time. He's in the same shitty motel room he remembers from before. The same room, but no shadowed hunter on some misguided revenge trip. It's just him, still sitting in the chair. The restraints are gone, but there's blood.

There's blood, and something tugging at his neck, and cold hands, and oh. There's.

"Heaven already?" Sam asks, feeling his busted lip split open when he smiles.

Dean looks up at him and meets his eyes. His hands are covered in blood as he works at—something. He's doing something, but Sam's not really concerned with it. His brother is here. He is, he can feel Dean, cold but solid.

"Hey, Sammy," Dean says, the corners of his mouth turning up. "You doing okay?"

"Not really," Sam says, but it's a lie. He's good. He's finally good. He's never been better.

He tries to stand, so he can wrap his brother up, throw him on the bed, cling to him for eternity because that's what they have here. If this is Heaven. They have forever. Finally.

As soon as he moves forward, his head falls back, and he's looking at the door, the window, everything upside down, and it makes no sense. He's facing the opposite direction.

His whole world tumbles like he's stuck in a drying machine as Dean's hands set him right on his neck and he laughs softly. "Careful there, little brother," he says. "I've only just started sewing."

"Sewing?" Sam asks, his hands flying up to grasp at his neck. His neck. It's a dead end. There's nothing attached except by three stitches on the right side where Dean's working.

"My head is," he says intelligently, and Dean nods.

"Decapitated," Dean tells him bluntly. "You got decapitated. I'm gonna take the motherfucker who did this to you apart slowly. I'm gonna—"

"Dean," Sam interrupts. "Why do I need my head sewn back on in Heaven? Last time, we, I mean, we didn't have bullet wounds or anything. I—I'm still in pain. This sucks."

"You're not in Heaven, Sam," Dean says, his voice gentle. It might even be happy. "You're not dead. Just a flesh wound."

"How am I not dead?" Sam asks, laughing because…maybe he's hallucinating? Maybe he's in the veil and he's tripping out. Maybe he forgot there's an in-between period between dying and Heaven.

"It's okay," Dean promises. "I'm patching you up, and when I finish, you're gonna be good as new."

"My head got cut off," Sam says, nice and slow so Dean can grasp the gravity of the situation. "I had my head cut off. Most people die from that."

"Since when are you most people?" Dean grins and starts working a little faster, and Sam can really feel the string dragging through his flesh now. It's not a great feeling, really, being decapitated.

"I don't understand." Sam reaches out to wrap his wrist around Dean's, is struck again by how cold it is to touch. "What are you doing here if I'm not in Heaven? How am I not dead?"

"Remember that case we worked, a little after I got back from Hell? That town where no one was dying?"

"Yeah, right," Sam says, only a little weirded out by how casually he's having a conversation with his dead brother while his detached head flops loosely on his neck. "When I met Tessa and we fought with ghost mojo and Pamela…"

Dean clears his throat and nods, waiting a few seconds before saying, "Anyway. It's like that. Can't die if there's no reaper to take you, so all we have to do is fix the problem and give your body a little time to heal."

"Heal from having my—wait. Why isn't there a reaper to take me? Where's my reaper?"

Dean pulls back enough for Sam to see his smile. "Right here, Sam. Whenever you need putting back together. I'm right here for you."

"No," Sam spits back. "No. That. Doesn't make any sense. What are you talking about? You're not a reaper. You're not. You went to Heaven. You're waiting for me in Heaven and you're not a reaper, so. I'm dreaming, is that it? This is a weird dream, but I'll take it."

"Not dreaming," Dean says, and Sam knows it's true, because there's pinching to test if you're awake, and then there's your brother holding your skin tight and in line so he can shove a needle through it and keep your head on straight.

"Answer my questions, then!" Sam yells.

"Shh," Dean soothes. "God, you made my hand slip. You know I was never as good at this as you are, Sammy. Gotta be still. You'll be living with these threads your whole life."

"My whole life," Sam repeats. "My whole life is over. Multiple times but most recently when my head got fucking cut off, Dean!"

"I know," he responds, his voice hardly more than a whisper. "I know. I couldn't stop him. Couldn't do anything until you crossed over. I wanted to do something sooner. I couldn't."

"What did you do?"

"I made a deal," Dean admits. He looks a little sorry at Sam's disappointed sigh, but not very. "With Death. I'm your reaper now. You'll always be safe now."

"Dean, that's demented," Sam tells him.

Dean shrugs, keeps on sewing. "So tell me, how's life been?"

_______________________________________________________________

Sam gets on. Hunts don't dry up just because demons are gone: there are still lost, angry angels to send home with a blade through their brand new hearts, still monsters that go bump in the night. It's all he knows to do, and he loses track of months, maybe years. One case after another after another.

Who knows how long it's been before he meets Jackson again. He's not entirely surprised that he does. There aren't as many hunts to go around as before, and with hunters dying much less frequently now that the creative bad guys are all locked up in Hell, it's becoming more common to bump into people on the job.

They're both working a case with a ghoul who's moved onto fresh kills when they realize they aren't the only person on the job.

For Jackson, the focus of the hunt reroutes pretty quickly. Sam should be dead, he says, which is fair, the guy did cut his head off. There's a lot of confusion, a lot of yelling 'what are you?' and finally, a lot of pointing weapons at Sam.

Sam doesn't have a whole lot of impetus to fight back against the guy. His reasons for hating Sam are pretty solid, he seems like a capable enough hunter, and besides, last time they met, Jackson gave Sam the sweetest gift he's ever had. He got to see Dean.

If he's nervous about why Sam doesn't try to defend himself, he doesn't show it. He gets Sam down pretty quickly, and then he starts to hack away. Arm in one pile. Leg in another. Sam is alive long enough to see his body parts littered all over the room.

He watches the guy work because there's nothing much else to do without limbs, listens to Jackson promise that this time you'll be in so many pieces nothing in this world will be able to pull you back together, I'll scatter you everywhere, and bides his time.

Until finally, finally, what he's waiting for happens. The hunter removes something vital. And Sam's body starts to fail.

Jackson stops at that point, gives Sam a weird look as Sam stares up at him, his face so torn by the smile on it, so unused to the muscles curving up at this point that it genuinely hurts, but he can't stop smiling, not now.

"What the hell are you so happy about?" Jackson asks.

Sam uses his last breath to say, "My big brother's behind you."

He looks over his shoulder and then back to Sam with a confused expression on his face. He can't see Dean yet. But Sam can tell from the rage in his brother's eyes, Sam knows he will.

Dean reaches out, and Sam tries to stop him. "Dean, don't make it hurt. Do it if you have to. Just don't hurt him."

"This is the second time," Dean replies. "I've watched him kill you twice."

"His wife," Sam tries to explain, but before he can, his brother's hand is on his forehead, and the other is touching Jackson, and suddenly the hunter standing above Sam is screaming for help, realizing what he's done. Sam tunes out the cries. He only has eyes, ears, a heart in his chest for his reaper.

Dean is wearing a black suit, black tie, the standard company uniform. Sam hadn't paid attention to his clothes the first time this happened, it had been too surreal then, and with his head detached, he was somewhat limited in his range of vision. But seeing it now brings things into sharp perspective. Dean would never choose to wear something like that, not unless he was playing someone else's game, scared to break the rules.

But he looks like Sam's brother, beautiful and strong and fiercely protective. Sam wonders if that's what Jackson's seeing, too, or if this is the face Dean wears for him and him alone. Reapers aren't supposed to look like this. Dean told him what they're supposed to look like. Terrifying with gray, ashy, warped skin. Is that what has Jackson so terrified? Or is he looking at Sam's perfect big brother and is that all the more damning? People used to know better than to hurt Sam Winchester. People used to know Dean would come for them, one way or another.

It's like the first reaper they met then, the one Dean was so angry at Sam for turning to. He trades their lives, and Sam feels himself recovering even as Jackson crumbles, screaming as if his limbs are being torn apart, even though he's still whole.

It does look like it hurts. Sam wonders if it hurt when it happened to him. He can't remember with Dean standing in front of him.

Dean props Sam in a chair after making a corpse out of his killer, and Sam watches as he gathers body parts from around the room and prepares to reattach them.

"His wife is in Hell because of us," Sam explains, wishing Dean had given him a chance to talk sooner. "The shadon took her."

"That sucks," Dean says, not sounding particularly interested. He's comparing two arms to see which is Sam's left, and once he figures it out, he grins at Sam. "Hey, watch this."

Sam does watch as Dean makes his severed hands high five each other and can't help a soft huff of a laugh before he forces himself back on track. "Dean, I'm serious."

Dean makes a sour face and busies himself with reattaching Sam's arm. "Yeah, so his wife went to Hell. Now the son of a bitch can see her again."

"He's not damned just because he killed me—"

"Twice," Dean mutters with a long thread held between his teeth. "And, yeah. He is."

Sam ignores him for the most part. "Those people. They're never getting out now, are they? Not like we did. They didn't even do anything wrong."

Dean pulls back, looks Sam in the eye. "Just say it, Sammy."

"Reapers can still get into Hell, can't they?" he asks. "To lead people who belong there when they die."

"We can."

"So you could save them. All the human souls down there. Make it so the demons have no one else to pick apart but each other. You could even—I mean, Death got my soul out. Couldn't you get Adam?"

Dean finishes sewing up one arm and pulls back to survey his work, tugging Sam's skin in a few places and then smiling to himself. "Would that make you happy?"

Sam shrugs the one shoulder he has anything to shrug on, and Dean kind of laughs. "It would make me hate you less."

"You don't hate me," Dean reminds him as he grabs Sam's left leg by the knee and starts to line it up. "Not for this. You know I had no choice."

"You had every choice," Sam replies, closing his eyes and sighing and relaxing back into the chair as the needle starts to work into his skin again. This isn't a fight worth having. Neither of them is going to get through to the other, and Sam knows he's the one with no power here. "I'll stop trying to hate you?"

Dean is quiet for a long time, either because he's focusing or because he's thinking things over. When he finishes on Sam's left leg and confirms that he's satisfied with his work, he leans in close, smiling up at Sam before pressing the softest of kisses to his knee, just under the new row of stiches.

"Whatever you want, Humpty Dumpty. Consider them saved."

It takes Dean hours to finish putting Sam back together. He gets almost a whole half a day being dead and adored under his brother's frozen hands, and then Dean fades away and Sam stands up, walks across the room to test out his fully functional corpse.

Out the door after that. There is still a ghoul on the loose.

_______________________________________________________________

There are good days and there are bad days. The good days aren't actually good, but they're serviceable. The bad days, well. There aren't words.

He goes back to the bunker every now and then. Between hunts. When the stitches holding his limbs together need a touch up, or the local libraries aren't quite supplying the research answers he needs.

There are always bits and pieces lying about, signs that there are lives being lived here when he's away. Castiel's new favorite hoodie draped over a chair in the study, Charlie's video game systems hooked up to the giant screens that used to be for monitoring demonic omens.

Even Jody checks in every now and then, less in person, but often with phone calls and emails. She's started to take stock of cases around Sioux Falls that don't fall under her jurisdiction, non-human crime, and has even begun to build a web of hunters to assign cases to. She tells Sam to stuff it when he makes a joke about her becoming the new Bobby, but the smile is there in her voice.

They speak and she sounds proud of the hunt she's just put away, and she's full of praise for the help Sam supplied her with. Today, Sam thinks it's a good day. A 'getting along fine' kind of day. After Jody hangs up, he goes grocery shopping, and he makes it past the 'homemade' pies and the saturated fats in crinkly bags, so he thinks he'll be just fine.

The canned food aisle takes him by surprise. It's a wall of Spaghetti-Os, the first 'dinner' Sam ever learned how to make for himself. It's the memory of his much bigger brother standing with his chest pressed against Sam's back as Sam stood on a plastic blue stool and stirred the neon orange noodles, and the way Dean had smiled as he ate them that night, swore up and down it was the best Spaghetti-Os he'd ever eaten, even though, at best, they tasted exactly the same as the thousands of cans of the shit they'd eaten before and the thousands that came after.

It's the creepy smiling anthropomorphized O on the label glaring at Sam with a thumbs up, accusing, that makes him snap. Sam had felt so proud of himself that night. Had really believe Dean all the times he'd let Sam make dinner, claiming it was because Sam was so much better at it, when really he was just trying to make his needy little brother feel slightly less useless.

For a time, not a terribly long time, when Sam had fallen for it, these cheap cans of crap had made him feel like a hero. Like an older brother. And he'd brought Dean little bowls full of orange goop when he was sick in bed, so damn proud that he was the one keeping Dean alive and healthy and strong for once.

He doesn't realize he's shaking the shelf, trying to make it fall down and crush him, not until there are cans spilling around him, the busted lids spilling tomato-scented blood all along the aisle and at his feet, and Sam crumples to the floor, sobbing because he used to think he could keep Dean alive and all he's ever done is the opposite.

There are four employees surrounding him in moments, shouting for him to calm down, customers yelling for the cops, security shoving their way past everyone to force Sam to his feet. He doesn't make it home with groceries that night, and he's banned from the local supermarket, and he hardly gets out before the cops arrive.

But he's lucky, right? Because he inherited an overstocked medicine cabinet and a stash of bad alcohol from his dearly departed older brother, and by the time the sun sets, Sam's taken everything and washed it down with a side of liver failure.

Dean finds Sam not in a grungy motel room with his killer looming over him this time, but sitting on the floor in his own room, leaning back against the foot of Dean's bed.

He looks confused for about a second, but his eyes roam the room, take stock of the empty pill bottles, and then he's pissed.

"Sam, what did you do?"

"What'd'you mean what'd I do, you were there." Sam laughs, then shakes his head. "Then you weren't there. I guess that's the part I did."

Dean crouches down beside him, starts picking up the prescription bottles and reading the labels. "Sleeping pills, Sam. Seriously?"

"Oh, like you never thought about it."

"Thought about it!" Dean yells. "Never fucking did it!"

"I've done a lot of things you haven't," Sam replies, reaching out. Dean pulls away from his touch. That's not what Sam wanted him to do. He tries again, but apparently Dean's face isn't where it looks like it is. On second thought, Sam would probably be able to tell a little better if he wasn't, you know, drunk and stoned and brain dead.

Dean sighs. "You killed yourself. That's how you're gonna play this? I give you a chance to live a better life and you try to throw it away. What, did you really think this would work? Did you think I would take you just bec—?"

"It wasn't the first time, either," Sam says to his hands, which have somewhere between 5 and 15 fingers on them. "Not many people can say that."

"You've never killed yourself before," Dean says.

Sam snorts. "Not that, who cares about that?"

"I care," Dean says. Then, "I'm not going to play this game with you."

"Was it a game? It was, I guess. A game. Not for me, but still. It was a game."

"Sammy, what are you talking ab—?"

"The first time I killed you. Well, the first time was an accident. Lots of them were accidents. But the first time I did it on purpose." Sam lets out a dull sob and shakes his head at his still-swimming hands. "Wrapped them right around your neck. You had no idea why. You didn't even fight back, you looked so confused. So betrayed."

"That's not how it happened," Dean says. As if he knows. As if he's had to remember. He got off so easy and Sam never even told him. Never even told him more than the simplest little details.

"You don't understand," he says. "It had been so many days. So many Tuesdays and you kept dying. And I couldn't save you. So many days. I couldn't count them anymore."

"Are you talking about Broward?" Dean asks, taking a seat next to Sam. "It wasn't real. You know that."

"It was real to me. I thought it was real. And I still did it. Wrapped these hands around your pretty neck, first thing in the morning. Alarm was hardly done singing that fucking song at me and I was so tired. So tired. Every day, just waiting to find out how you would die."

"It wasn't—"

"What's real? Is getting your head chopped off and walking away from it real? Is that real? I remember clear as day. He didn't make me forget any of those days. Those six months."

"I thought it was 100 days?" Dean interrupts.

Sam rolls his eyes. He doesn’t have time to catch Dean up on this shit. He's only got so much time before he isn't dead anymore. "It was real. It was me. Choked the life out of you. Watched you die and there was a moment after. Between the light going out of your eyes and the alarm starting over, there was this long moment. Where I thought this would be the one. This one would stick and it would count and I would have been the thing that killed you. Completely by my own choice, not an accident. It was the worst moment of my life up until then."

"It wasn't real," Dean tries again, and Sam finally looks at him, right in the eye.

"That's every moment now," he says. "This is real."

He watches Dean's expression soften, closes his eyes and leans into the touch and gives a grateful sigh when his brother's hand brushes gently along his cheek. He can feel the lethargy from the pills wearing off, the alcohol leaving his system and sobering him up. He can feel himself getting strong again. But Dean is touching him, so he can't find it in himself to resent it much.

When he's done, Dean shakes Sam so he opens his eyes, and Sam can hardly see him now. Dean's voice is clear as cursed crystal when he speaks, the tone he always saved for repeating Dad's orders. "Don't you ever do this again."

_______________________________________________________________

On August 31, 2015 (exactly three years since the first time, or so Sam is told), Castiel marries Daphne Allen in the little church they worship at every Sunday. It's a lovely ceremony with a peaceful reception held at the park across the street, the kind of picturesque scene Sam has never seen outside of movies and photographs with singed corners.

He calls Sam two weeks before, tells him where to go, and directs him to bring his nicest suit because "you're going to be a best man." Sam doesn't push back, just gets in the car. He has the entire drive from Kansas to Colorado to think about who should really be Cas's best man and why he isn't here to celebrate this and to get angry with his friend for choosing him instead.

Castiel never hated Sam for what he did to Dean the way Sam wishes he did. Just made sorry faces and said unwelcome wise shit that made Sam want to punch him, like "You both did what was necessary. Dean was always a warrior."

Three-fourths of the guests sit on the bride's side and the rows reserved for the groom are nearly empty. But Castiel smiles at his rag-tag group of guests as if there's no one missing.

Kevin and his mother sit side-by-side, and over dinner, Mrs. Tran brags about Kevin's accomplishments after his first year at college. Jody shows up with a man who looks more like Crowley's old meatsuit than Sam is comfortable with ("What? We established the guy is my type," she jokes when she sees Sam's raised eyebrows).

Charlie is there with her new girlfriend Dione, a tall, strikingly beautiful woman with wild hair and dark skin. True to form, Charlie is wearing a silkscreened tuxedo t-shirt and bright blue slacks; Dione's flowing green dress was what she was wearing the first time they met, originally part of what they call a cosplay, and Sam nods along as they hold hands and tell their story, all the while secretly thinking that Dean would be the one to get excited about the costumes and roleplaying they're describing. Dean should be here.

Late into the night, when the dancing is in full swing and little girls with flowers in their hair are standing on their father's feet as they sway to cheesy music, Castiel collapses into the seat next to him. He looks exhausted, hair mussed, tie loose around his neck like Sam has never seen it. His cheeks are red with exertion (and probably more than his share of champagne), and he looks happy. He looks human.

"I hope you're enjoying yourself," he says, giving Sam a smile that doesn't quite touch his eyes.

Castiel understands. Sam knows he understands. Better than anyone else on the planet, but that doesn't mean Sam won't lie right now, fake joviality for the sake of his—Dean's—closest friend's happiest day.

"Having a great time," he says, smiling because, well, in truth, it's been his best day since Dean died, and that is worth something. "Sorry I didn't give much of a speech."

Castiel waves him off, making a dismissive noise. "It was a perfectly serviceable speech. Besides, Daphne's just excited I actually have people here this time. Last time it was Joe from work and his three bored sons on my side of the aisle. Her uncle, who I'd never met, had to be best man. Amnesia, you know? Didn't know who else to invite. She didn't say anything at the time, but I think it made her sad."

Sam laughs and looks across the dance floor, to where the bride is talking to Jody and the Crowley doppelganger, her head thrown back on a genuine laugh. "She's really gorgeous, Cas. Didn't get to meet her last time because," he scoffs a laugh, thinking a wedding isn't really the time to bring up Lucifer and insane asylums, scars Castiel bears just as surely as Sam does. "Well, you remember. Anyway, she's stunning."

"She is," Castiel agrees, lifting his head to follow Sam's sightline. Sam watches the way his lips curl up in a quiet smile, and he feels an ache in his chest. It's bittersweet. Sam is jealous, he hates himself for that, but he can't help feeling it.

"You came back to her," he says. Castiel looks back at him very quickly, cocking his head in that way he always has. "I mean, you never really mentioned her much. But you came right back."

He nods, gives Sam a thoughtful look before sitting back in his rickety white chair, spreading his hands. "It's hard to remember feelings like this when you're an angel. I never really forgot but it was…dulled."

"But being human…?"

"Being human," Castiel says, his head bobbing from side to side. "It puts things in perspective. I had a lot of reasons to feel lost when Metatron first cast me out, I was very unhappy. But I remembered her. I remembered that for that brief time, even as an angel, living with her made me happy."

Sam feels a smile bloom on his lips. Not a big one, but a real one, for the first time, one that's not tied to dying, but to the thought that people who suffered through what he and Dean did can still find joy in living. "What's she like?"

"She is kind. The type of woman who will take in a stranger and care for him. Even after he abandons her. She forgave me." Castiel gives Sam a guilty smile, then shrugs. "She still loves me, even though I have not performed any miracles since returning and have given her some idea of why I never will. She says that my returning is a miracle in itself, she believes that God brought me to her, both times."

Sam can't quite help letting out a bitter laugh at that, and Castiel makes a wry face, then smiles down at his hands. "Her faith is wildly inaccurate and misplaced, of course. But it's simple. It's good. She feels great hope, and that gives me hope as well. I think, had my father truly been the Lord she worships, this world would have been a calmer place. It would not have required you and your brother's sacrifices."

"That's pretty blasphemous, Cas," Sam teases.

Cas gives him a sly grin, standing and patting Sam on the back. "You won't tell on me."

"Nah," Sam agrees. "I'm a locked box."

Across the floor, grinning family members are waving to Cas, and the DJ announces that the bride and groom are about to dance their last song. Castiel leans in, squeezing Sam's shoulder. "Daphne isn't the only one who is glad you were here this time, Sam."

Sam wonders if Castiel knows, somehow, that just a few months ago, Sam tried to kill himself with pills and poison and the only reason he's here is that his brother is a stubborn sonofabitch. But there's no way—Cas isn't an angel anymore, and empathy was never his strong suit even when he did have powers.

So Sam stands to give him a half-hug, a pat on the back as he watches his friend pull away. "I'm glad I could be here, too," he says, knowing full well he'll be dead again before midnight.

_______________________________________________________________

"Now what’s this?" Dean asks. He appears in his impeccable black suit, looks around Sam's hotel suite and whistles. "Not the usual setting, Sammy."

Sam is standing at the end of his bed, the jacket he'd worn to the reception tossed on the foot of the mattress, his white undershirt rolled up to his elbows, and his slashed wrists making little red puddles on the bleached white carpet.

"You spring on this room just to do that?" Dean asks, his tone only a little biting as he points to the mess Sam made.

Sam shakes his head. "Bride's family is paying for the lodging," he explains.

The word 'bride' makes his brother stand up like he's been electrocuted. But then he smiles. Wide, proud, big brother smile. It's a best man smile. "You…you got—"

"Not me," Sam replies, and Dean looks simultaneously disappointed and relieved. "Castiel. Renewed his vows with Daphne."

"Daphne?" Dean asks, like he's never heard the name before. Then he laughs. "Oh, right. Emmanuel chick?"

"Yes, well. She knows his real name now." Sam smiles. "He took her last name."

"Good ol' Cas, doing the decent thing, I guess." Dean shakes his head. "What a sucker."

"It's more than that," Sam insists. "He really loves her. He's happy."

"Yeah?" Dean sits on the edge of the bed, wrinkling Sam's nice jacket. "Well, damn. That's great for him, then."

Sam nods. He doesn't sit. Doesn't want to get the blood on the comforter. He's tired of leaving nightmares behind for unsuspecting maids. "Charlie was here. She's got a serious girlfriend now."

"Hot," Dean answers, wiggling his eyebrows.

"You're terrible," Sam replies.

Dean grins and nods. "Damn right I am. Who else?"

"Jody met another dude online. Looks like Crowley, too, but at least we can be sure he's not a demon this time. She promised she's checked him out with silver, so he's not a shifter, either."

"She's a quick learner," says Dean. "She'll be fine."

"Kevin goes to MIT," he continues. "His mom was here. They aren't mad at you anymore."

Dean turns away with a slight flinch, but when he looks up, he's nodding gratefully. "I'm glad. Thanks for letting me know."

"It was beautiful," Sam tells him. "It was a beautiful night. It was a beautiful ceremony. Everyone was happy."

"What else?" Dean takes Sam's hand, looks up the line of blood on his arm until he meets Sam's eyes. "What else happened? What aren't you telling me?"

"Nothing else."

"Then why this?" Dean asks, lifting Sam's upturned forearm to his lips, pressing an icy kiss to the busted skin, and Sam feels the flesh begin to knit back together. "If it was so nice and everyone was so happy, why would you do this?"

"I was lonely," Sam admits, tears springing to his eyes, impossible to hold back. "I was so lonely. Everybody had someone, Dean."

"You could have had someone," Dean tells him, tracing the reformed skin on his left arm. "You coulda had a nice girl or—whatever. Someone here with you. I want that for you."

Sam shakes his head. "Everyone had someone they loved," he says. "That's why I did this. I wanted to see the person I love."

Dean sighs and stands up, reaching for Sam's right arm like he's gonna fix it, too. Sam snatches it away.

"I know you're not going to reap me," Sam explains when Dean looks up at him, all annoyed big brother. "I know. But don't fix it yet. Stay with me. Just a little while. I just want to not be alone. I want someone to dance with, like everyone else had."

Alive, Dean would never have agreed to something like that. He would have mocked Sam for years just for asking. But Dean is past that now. He wraps one arm around Sam's waist and scoops him in close, and Sam doesn't care that he's shivering in the frozen grip. He lets Dean whisk him from one end of the room to the next, neither of them knowing where the hell to put their feet or how to go about this gracefully.

Sam doesn't doubt they look like a wreck, but he's on cloud nine. He rests his head on his brother's cold shoulder, feels bliss like he's never known before as Dean rocks him to and fro, humming something out of tune beneath his breath. One of those classic rock songs he used to use as lullabies, maybe. Sam does feel weak, so he lets his body sag, lets his big brother prop him up like Dean has so many times before.

"I miss you, Dean," Sam whispers against the thick fabric of his brother's suit. "I miss you all the time."

"I know," Dean says. "I miss you too."

He pulls back, and Sam can see the red splatters on his brother's shirt. "Ruined it," he says, reaching out to touch one of the wet spots. "I ruined it."

"Shh, hey, no," Dean grabs Sam's hands by the wrists, the split one and the clean one alike. He makes Sam look up into his eyes, and the smile on his brother's lips is nothing but tender, adoring, gentle. He never looked at Sam like that alive. Not once. Why did they both have to die to see this? "Hate this stupid suit. But now that it's got you on it, it's better. You made it better."

Sam doesn't even think before he presses his lips against Dean's, and Dean lets go of Sam's hands to grab his face with two eager palms, one slick with warm blood, the other freezing cold without it. Dean deepens the kiss and Sam—

Sam would fall back if Dean wasn't holding him so tight. Every moment their lips are touching, he's slammed with images, each more violent than the last. He sees bodies laid out on pavement, children who are lost and scared and alone, he sees himself through his brother's eyes. He feels Dean's agony, the loneliness, how much his brother hates this job he's taken on to protect Sam. It's a different kind of pain from his own, but just as sharp and just as constant.

Dean pushes him away with such ferocity that Sam collapses onto the floor, falls onto his own blood stains. He looks up in confusion, and he sees pure terror on his brother's face.

"I forgot," he says, sounding far away. "God, Sam, I forgot. I forgot it would happen. I didn’t know how to control it."

"Dean," Sam says, reaching out to his brother with his injured arm. "Dean, what was that?"

"I'm sorry," he says. He kneels down next to Sam, accepting the outstretched arm. "Fuck, Sam, I'm so sorry."

"Talk to me," Sam pleads. "Is that what you have to do because of me?"

Dean shakes his head, presses him thumb to the end of one slice until it begins to disappear, replaced by scar tissue. "I stayed too long," he says. "I'm sorry, Sammy. I stayed too long this time."

"No." Sam reaches out for him again, but Dean is releasing his mostly healed arms. He's beginning to fade. "Don't leave me. Don't leave me here like this."

Dean doesn't answer except to get the first aid kit from Sam's duffel. He sits down to wrap bandages around what's left of Sam's wrists, quiet and exact, and when he's done with Sam, he's done.

He discovers a succubus in a little bar in Tennessee. Well, the succubus finds him in the bar, but Sam did track it here.

Four bodies so far. No pattern for age, race, sex, or occupation, but they could be linked by the way they died: each one at home, in bed, their skin a curious shade of gray and their faces frozen in smiles. He figures out what it is within the first hour of research. Not a lot of things out there that leave behind a trail of happy, fucked out victims.

The thing takes the seat right next to him at the bar and announces itself. It's new for Sam, but monsters with no sense of self-preservation are something he can sympathize with these days.

"Sam Winchester," it says, in a voice more familiar to Sam than his own. He looks over to his left and he sees Dean there, a perfect copy, every freckle in place, his outfit loose worn leather and plaid and denim, much more his brother's style than the suit he wears lately.

That's the only way Sam knows it's the monster and not some fluke death.

Sam slips his hand to his gun and begins to pull it out. "You think I won't waste you in front of all these people, you're wrong. Take my brother's face off and I won't make it hurt too much."

The succubus raises its hands in the universal gesture for surrender. "Hey, calm down, man. I just want to talk."

"Not as Dean," Sam forces every word through gritted teeth. "Change your shape. Now."

"I can't," it says. "I'm talking to you, and you see what you want to see. Not my fault."

"I guess I'll be that much happier to kill you, then."

"You could do that," the succubus admits. "I can't take you. I've heard about you, and I know already. I can't take you."

"So why aren't you running?" Sam asks. "You shouldn't have come to me, because now I'm going to kill you that much sooner."

"How sure are you that that's what you wanna do?"

Sam tilts his head. "What are you talking about?"

"Look, Sam. I know you hunters are very black and white about this kind of thing, but I'm not evil just because I kill people."

Sam snorts.

Dean's eyes narrow at him. It's not the way Dean used to do it, but they're such nice eyes, Sam lets himself get a little distracted by them anyway. "I'm serious. I need life force to live, that's just the way I was made. But I don’t take anyone who doesn't know what they're doing and choose to do it anyway."

"Why would anyone—?"

"Well, just look at you," the monster says, smiling with a slight edge of smugness. "Come on, I told you I've heard of you. I know what you want, and it's not to live. I can offer you what you want. The same thing I've offered everyone I ever fed off. It's a pleasant little death, and the whole time you get to have your brother any way you want him."

Sam swallows hard and watches as the succubus covers his wrist with its hand. With Dean's hand. Warm, like it was when his brother was alive. The one night he got to feel Dean's hands in all the places he wanted them. It's good, so good that Sam feels immediately guilty.

But he realizes with a shock that no one has touched him since Castiel's wedding, and that was over two months ago. Before that, it had been even longer. Not even a casual brush, not even a bump in a crowd. People steer clear of him. The only things he touches now are the creatures he fights. This warm hand on his is unthinkably comforting and welcome, even if it's just another beast he needs to kill. He doesn't want it to stop touching him. It's Dean's hand.

"You're coming on to me," Sam says, less a question than an observation.

"I know the look of someone who wants to die," the monster answers matter-of-factly. "Like I said, I can't fight you. You’d catch me if I tried to run. So you've got two choices. You can kill me. Or you can let me give you everything you've been dying for."

Sam is back in his motel room in minutes, slamming his brother's body against a wall, kissing the mouth deep and moaning because it even tastes like Dean.

It's not the same, not exactly the same, not as good as the real thing. But it's so much. It's so much and Sam has had so little.

He strips quickly, watches the succubus remove layers of his brother's clothing until Dean is standing in front of him, bare and beautiful as he was his last night on Earth. The succubus stares at all the marks on his body, starting with the scar at the base of his spine, the first cut he shouldn't have healed from, and then shakes its head. "You shouldn't be alive," it tells him.

"You're preaching to the choir," Sam responds, and then they get swept away, too distracted to worry about Sam's cuts and bruises.

The succubus was right. What it gives him is a gracious gift, ecstasy so intense his body can't handle it. So, yes, he dies. But he dies with his brother's face above him, kissing him, his hips moving just right inside of him, perfect cock, just like Dean's, taking it out of him. That's what it does, the only difference. Instead of filling Sam with seed, it drains him. But it's good. It's so good.

Sam is coming undone and it doesn't matter. Nothing about this is fake to him. It's his brother. Every now and then, between gasps for air, he really does believe it's his brother. He ends up so wrapped up in it that he doesn't even see Dean until the pleasure is ripped away, leaving Sam with nothing but a gaping ache inside, a hard cock, and his brother's gorgeous body lying next to him in bed, dead as dirt.

Sam cries out, reaches for the body and cradles its face. "You killed him," he says. "Why did you kill him?" He shakes his head. "No. No, no, he was so good. He was so good to me, why?"

"Sammy." Dean's voice is furious, so commanding Sam has to look away from the dead succubus and face him. "You let that thing have you. How could you let that thing have you?"

"How could you hurt him?" Sam fires back. "He was good to me. Look at him. Look at him, he was perfect."

Sam turns back to the body, strokes its cheek. Gets some ideas he knows he'll be disgusted by if he lives long enough, but he didn't get to keep Dean last time, and he's been alone so long.

"Dean," Sam whispers, kissing the slack mouth, the still-warm cheeks. "My Dean."

"That's not me," Dean says. "Sam, you know that's not me, how could you let that thing kill you? Like—like that?"

Sam turns to look at his brother, lets the succubus drop. "I was alive."

"You're alive," Dean agrees, like he doesn't get the connection.

"I was alive and then you took it away," Sam bunches his fists in the sheets, his erection still straining for attention. "Don't you get it, Dean? I'm only alive when you're near me. Inside me. When you're not here, I'm not here. It wasn't killing me anymore than usual. But it made me alive just a few seconds longer."

Dean waves his hand at the bed, and the body disappears, but Dean sits down where it was, so Sam can't complain. "If I could," he says, and he leaves it at that. That's all he needs to say. Sam understands.

"When we kissed…" Sam shudders. "What would happen if we fucked?"

"I don’t know, Sammy," Dean says. There's longing clear in his voice, but he shakes his head. "I'm afraid to find out."

Sam nods, then lies down on his side so he's facing his brother. "Are you going to give back the life force he took from me now?"

Dean tilts his chin at Sam's dick. "Finish."

Without hesitation, Sam reaches down, works himself as slowly as he can manage, trying to draw it out. It's impossible with Dean watching him, all his desire so openly displayed. When Sam gets close, Dean reaches for him, presses his hand to the center of Sam's chest.

Sam's climax reaches its crest with an explosion of heat surging through him, spreading out from where all that life is flowing back into his body. Dean's touch, which has been so cold for years, now feels like the surface of the sun.

He blacks out before it's over, and by the time he comes to again, Dean has vanished. No surprise there. But he touches his hand to the burning spot on his chest, smiles at the pain that causes. In the mirror, he finds an angry burn mark in a circle the size of his brother's palm. It's his favorite death mark yet.

_______________________________________________________________

There's another hunt in Montana a few weeks later. This one is personal. A rawhead stealing kids from town, most recently a four year-old girl, and Sam knows he only has a few days to kill it before it starts snacking. There's already no hope for the two that got taken before.

Sam doesn't waste any time. He wants to save the girl, of course, but he has his own axe to grind as well. A rawhead killed his brother once. Indirectly, sure, and Dean didn't actually die, but the grudge remains. Sam hates everything that tried or took his brother from him, with Sam himself topping the list.

Luckily, rawheads lack creativity and are easy to find. They all live in the same habitats, dark dingy homes near swamps or other still water. They take the same prey and leave the same clues behind. They move slow, too, and Sam follows his instincts to an abandoned cabin just outside of the small town where the child was snatched, only a stone's throw from the local lake.

With just one look through the window, Sam is able to identify the cupboard where the monster is storing its victims. Then it's just a matter of waiting for the stupid bastard to show its ugly face, and Sam lights it up like the New York skyline.

The girl is alive. Sam finds her cramped in the closet with the other children's stripped bones, dirty and scared out of her mind, but she's in one piece. He thinks, in his endless naiveté, that the day is a win.

She cries the whole drive home, which isn't all that surprising, considering what she's been through. Sam's soothing words don't do a thing to calm her. He takes her to the door of her house, knocks and returns her to a mother who is herself crying and smiling and thanking Sam, until the baby points at him and starts screaming. Monster. She thinks Sam is the monster. The mother backs away, slams the door as if Sam will come after them.

There are already cop cars flashing as they turn the corner by the time Sam is speeding off in the opposite direction, never more grateful that the Impala is slick, black, nearly impossible to see at night. He drives until he knows he's safe, and then he parks the car at the first gas station he finds.

In the bathroom, he looks his reflection in the eye, trying to see what that little girl saw. What made him the scary thing, even after days with nothing but a boogeyman and skeletons for company.

It's not hard to understand once he's searching for it. Sam takes in the horrific tint to his skin, a leftover gift from the succubus. The stitches holding all his limbs in place, his Frankenstein's creature neck and arms and legs. Somehow, being the walking dead hadn't really hit him when he was only seeing it through his own or Dean's eyes, warped as they are from a lifetime of so much evil he can't distinguish it in the mirror.

It's hideous, this thing he's become. This thing Dean has turned him into. No wonder children think he's the monster. It won't be long before it's not just them.

Sam lashes out at his reflection, punches it until there's a sliver of glass big enough to lodge in his throat. His brother appears and Sam can't beg him to die this time, he's got no voice. Doesn't matter. Dean knows what he wants and doesn’t give it to him.

He fixes Sam as much as he can and he leaves. That's his specialty now. It used to be Sam's sin, leaving. But Dean's getting good at it. He's making up for lost time.

_______________________________________________________________

It becomes a regular thing with them. Sam waits for a trigger and then he pulls it. Sometimes just waking up is enough. Dean is angry about it some days, or sad, or downright cheerful on others, as if he's been as anxious to see Sam as Sam is to see him. Sometimes Sam gets creative and sometimes he sticks to the classics. Sometimes he's passive aggressive about it. Dean's favorite glock has been fired into his brain no less than five times.

He collects the bullets after his brother is done fishing them out. Thinks maybe he'll wait until he has enough and find a nice way to repurpose them, turn them into a wall decoration or some jewelry to give Dean. Dean used to love that kind of shit. Not sure he could wear it with the new reaper threads, but he could keep it in his pocket, a nice little trinket from his zombie brother.

It gets to be damn near daily. Sam begs for death like he's starving for it (he is, sometimes, stops eating because it's better to think about the clawing from his insides than what he did to be this alone). Begs on his hands and knees, promises Dean the world if he'll just stop bringing him back. Pride is for angels and the living; Sam is neither.

But it's no use. Dean is now the little boy he never got to be in life, picking up the presents under the tree and shaking them to see what's inside.

He grabs Sam, and Sam wants to scold, "be careful, you'll break it," but there's no use. Everything is already broken, nothing but sharp, shattered edges inside this box that used to be a person.

"Please, put me down," Sam asks every time, hoping against everything that he'll get through, if not to his brother, to whatever part of Dean now doles out death as a mercy. "Like a dog, Dean. Put me down."

But Sam is Dean's favorite toy, so he tucks Sam back into his unwanted life like no one will notice the damage he's done come morning.

Then, gone. He's gone, and Sam can only hear his own steady pulse as it begins to beat again.

_______________________________________________________________

This was more-or-less a suicide. More-or-less. The monster he was hunting spit poison-filled needles from its mouth. Sam killed it, brass dagger to the heart of its pretty girl-shaped body.

Sure, he probably could have ducked away from that last one she spit a little faster, and by probably he means definitely, so that's why he's currently sitting against a brick wall in the alley of some dive bar in Vegas, mouth foaming with toxins as he throws up everything that was inside his failing organs.

He spits out the nasty taste and glares at his brother. "Not you."

Dean leans against the wall by a big green dumpster, looking like any other Vegas hot shot, dressed suave and radiating confidence, and cocks an eyebrow at him. "Excuse me?"

"I don't want you," Sam replies. "Send me another reaper. Someone reasonable. Tessa. She knew when to leave well enough alone."

Dean huffs out a laugh. "Tessa's not coming for you. I've got dibbs."

"So? I want to talk to your boss." Sam grins enthusiastically, because finally he's thought of something he hasn't tried yet. "Yeah, call Death. Let him see what you've done. He'll be so pissed at you, Dean. You won't be able to reap anymore. You'll have to go on to Heaven and I can final—"

"Sam," Dean interrupts. "Dammit, Sam, he's not coming. Tessa isn't either. No one is coming for you except me." Dean gets down on one knee next to him. "I've called them off, and I'm the boss now. Death knew, he knew what I was going to do for you when he left."

"Left?" Sam asks. He tilts his head, then looks at Dean's hand, and realizes something he should have so much sooner. The heavy ring on Dean's finger with the dull white rock inside, that's not part of the uniform like the suit is. That's not something the other reapers have. That's something only one has.

"You're Death now?" Sam asks, feeling his last hope deflate. "I'm never going to get out. Never? You can't just do this to me, Dean."

"I'll take you some day, okay? Once you've lived your time out. You haven't even tried that, just keep pulling these stunts, as if you couldn't take this monster one handed, blind, and drunk. Live for a while before you die, that's all I'm asking."

"It's easy for you to ask for that," Sam spits back, and it's not true, he knows. He'll never forget what it felt like when Dean kissed him, but he's angry and he'll say anything to push. "You always cheated. Made deals or talked me out of finishing trials so you wouldn't have to be the one left alone!"

"You think I have it easy?" Dean snaps. Sam nods, as much as you can when your neck is held on by green thread, wide mismatched stitches put in place by an amateur. "I take the sick six-year-olds now. The rosy pregnant ladies. Grandpa while his whole family is watching. I don't save people anymore, I do the opposite. It's a terrible job, but I learned. I won't break destiny again. I have to kill them, and I do it for you."

Sam laughs so hard it echoes off the alley's walls. He gets a perverse pleasure from watching Dean wince at how ugly the sound is. He bares his neck, so Dean has to see the sutures keeping his head on his shoulders, holds out his arms, as if he's asking for another dance, so Dean has to look at the long, razor-precise slices down his wrists. "You call this not breaking destiny? How many disasters do I set off every time you refuse to take me?"

Dean shakes his head. "It's not like that with you, Sam. You can't break destiny, everything else settles around you. You're the one holding things in place—destiny breathes you. It changes to fit you, you're what decides how everything else shakes out. We don't need to fit you into some plan. Things will adjust."

"Please," Sam whispers. "I don't want it to adjust. I don't want to learn to live without you. Please. Let me die. Just let me die."

He feels his brother cup his face gently in his cool hand, lifts his eyes to Dean's face just in time to see the disappointment painted there.

"Sammy, why don't you just try? Find a girl, or go get a dog. Hell, do both. I know it didn't work out in the past, but I won't come and screw it up this time. I want you to—to live a full life, try dying again when you're old and bald and at peace."

"Find a girl?" Sam asks Dean, and he feels himself smiling. "Get a dog."

Dean nods, and Sam shoves him back with more force than he should have, considering the puddles of his vomit and the blood that came with it rotting on the damp floor.

"Dogs bark at me," Sam tells him, his voice black and bitter. "People, when I talk to them, they get uncomfortable. I can see them fidgeting, they don't even know why, but I freak them out. I'm a fucking corpse, Dean. Who's gonna want me?"

From the look on Dean's face, the answer is obvious, and Sam drops his head, laughing again. Always. There are limits to unconditional, sometimes, for most people; never for Dean.

"Besides you," Sam clarifies, his voice choking up because there's no one else he wants, either, but here Dean is and in a few moments, he'll be gone, and his icy touches aren't anything Sam can cling to. "Who else would want me?"

"Please, just try, Sammy," Dean replies, like he's finally at a loss. Like he's some idiot child who really did think things would be this easy. Become a reaper to keep Sam alive and Sam will do just great. It's such a Dean mistake to make, and as much as it tears him apart, it's everything he's ever loved about his big brother.

Sam feels something break in him, a wave of affection for Dean crash down and drown him because he can't ever satisfy it again. He holds his hands out in front of his face and stares at them, waits for them to change, to look as evil as the deeds they've done, but they just sit there, perfectly normal aside from all the scars.

"What if I do try?" he asks in a hushed tone. "What if I meet someone and love them?" He looks up, into Dean's eyes, and he stretches his fingers until they touch his brother's neck, the clean, unmarred skin where there should be a deep cut. "How could I touch someone I love with the same hands I used to—?"

Dean curls his fingers around Sam's and lowers them from his throat, pressing them against his mouth instead. "I didn't give you a choice, Sam. You can't blame yourself."

"You never give me a choice," Sam answers, tired. "I love you, but you never did give me a choice."

He hears a sigh, but when he turns to face it, there's no one else in this alley but him. It might as well have been the wind. He finishes emptying his stomach of all the poison and picks himself up.

What do you know? He's alive. Alone and alive. It's a goddamned miracle.

_______________________________________________________________

Today, Sam's chosen method of suicide is old reliable: slit wrists, right down the dotted line of scars from the last time he died this way.

Dean looks annoyed when he shows up, and that makes Sam, spread out on this twin bed with his head lolling on the cheap motel pillow case, laugh so hard that the threads around his neck nearly snap, send him rolling across the room, taking his laughter with him.

"Hey, big brother," Sam says, grinning woozily.

Death crosses his arms over his chest. Such pretty arms, Sam thinks. He wonders if they could wrap around him, squeeze so tight the top half of him just falls right off. "We should try that," he tells the ceiling, and he hears Dean moving closer.

"What, are you drunk or something?"

"Mmm, blood loss," Sam answers, trying to lift his arms to make the point, but he feels a lot weaker than he'd realized.

"It'll come back," Dean says, and then he turns away like that's it and he's leaving.

"Wait." Sam pouts like he used to as a kid, and it works as well as it ever did. He forces himself to sit up against the headboard, and Dean lingers in the doorway. "I'll think of a better way next time. Something that doesn't—" Sam closes his eyes tight to try and preempt the fainting spell that he feels coming on. His vision is black, full of stars. He doesn't want that. He wants to see his reaper.

He presses his hand against his temple and rubs at it until he feels a little better. He's wasting time. The sooner he stops dying, the less time he'll have with Dean. "I'll find a way to die that lets me think clearly, for next time."

"How about there isn't a next time?" Dean asks, moving into the room.

"Decapitation was my favorite, I think," Sam continues, ignoring his brother. "You stayed so long that time, sewing me back together. I was dead a long time, wasn't I?"

"Yeah." Dean's voice is thin, weak. Sam used to hate hearing it like that. Now he just loves hearing it, anyway he can get it.

"Hard to do to yourself, though," Sam tells him. "That's why it's not a particularly popular method of suicide, I guess. I could find people to help. I'm sure plenty would be willing."

"I don't want to have this conversation," Dean says.

"Oh, which one do you want to have?" Sam asks, smiling and peppy. "We don't have long, so, you know. Might as well be one we'll both enjoy."

"I have a job to do, Sam. This isn't it."

"Wasn't this the point? Of taking the job. Wasn't it to see me?" Sam frowns, looks down at his oozing wrists. That really hurt his feelings. "You told me once that it was for me, that you did this for me. Now you don't want to see me?"

"I don't want to see you dying every three days!" Dean snaps, turning too fast and slamming his hands against the wall. "I took the job to keep you alive, not to keep seeing you die."

"That was stupid," Sam replies bluntly. "Becoming a reaper so you don't have to see me die. I only see you when I'm dying."

"I can see you when…" Dean's lips thin, and he doesn't finish his sentence. Sam's probably not any more of a comfort to him when he's doing whatever it is he does when he isn't on Death's door—living isn't quite the right word for it.

"You coulda gone to Heaven," says Sam. "You could have just gone to Heaven and waited for me there. I would have found you. We could have been together in that shithole forever."

Dean shakes his head, but he doesn't look like he's gonna say another word.

"You stayed instead. To what? To force me to live? What's the fucking point? You never could just let me die, but now you've ruined everything. We would have had each other eventually, Dean. You ruined everything."

"Don't say that, Sam." Dean moves closer, passes his thumb over the wound on Sam's arm, which is starting to get crusty with drying blood. "You don't understand."

"Understand what?" Sam closes his eyes, lets himself enjoy Dean's touch, even if it's cold and only making the pain in his wrist sharper. His dick stirs, just because Dean is touching him, even though he knows it won't go anywhere and, fuck, Sam is dying of blood loss, why the hell is his body bothering getting hard right now? "Understand that Dad fucked you up, made you think me dying was the worst thing that could happe—?"

"That's not what this is about," Dean tells him, in a cool, rational voice. His 'I'm older and wiser, so just shut up and take it' voice. Sam used to hate that one, too.

"Then why?"

He shrugs. "I'm stuck here anyway. Thought I might as well take a job. Give Death some vacation days—he's been working a long time, you know. Guy got tired."

"You're lying." Sam actually smiles, fond. Never could understand why Dean ever bothered trying to slip lies past him, but sometimes it was endearing. Such a patently Dean thing to do. "I know when you're lying."

"It's part of the trial, Sam. I have to stay in the veil. Or they come back. Hell is only shut down as long as I'm still on this plane, holding the trial in place. So I took the job. Better than sticking around, haunting you. Going crazy. Making you crazy."

Sam lets out a hysterical laugh. More of a giggle, really. It's high pitched, and even in Sam's own ears, it rubs him all wrong. "God forbid I go crazy."

Dean's lip goes up in the corner, a soft smile, but there's something else to it. He's happy, the way he only is when he's pulled one on Sam. He thinks Sam bought it, and Sam might have, if not for that smile.

"You're still lying." Sam shakes his head. "The trial was supposed to punish me. There's no reason you wouldn't be able to go right on to Heaven."

"Sam," Dean warns. Then it's all so fucking painfully obvious, Sam's been such an idiot this whole time.

"I can't die," he says, the horror of it dawning on him. "I can't die, can I?"

"Yes, you can die," Dean promises, hand soothing through Sam's hair. "One day, you'll die."

"No," Sam looks down at his corpse, and it clicks. Dean really was doing him a favor. Has been doing him a favor this whole time. "That's how the trial works, isn't it? It was a punishment for me, I—I'm supposed to live without you. It only works as long as I'm…"

"I'll still take you," Dean says after a long, stifling silence.

When Sam looks up at him, Dean's eyes are directed to the floor. He's ashamed, but he's not backing down. "None of the other reapers would have. They would have made you go on living forever, because that's what the damned trial demands. Because that's supposed to be your destiny. But I'm Death now, Sammy. I'm the boss, none of them can stop me. I'll take you someday. When this is too much. I'll take you to Heaven."

He smiles, his hand more insistent in Sam's hair, the other coming up to stroke his cheek. "I wouldn't do it before you figured it out. It should be your choice. But as soon as you can't take this anymore, as soon as you decide you've done enough. You've saved them long enough, Sam, this shouldn't be your burden. You can be at peace in Heaven now. No more hurting. No more dying. I'll let this world burn as long as you're not in it."

Sam shakes his head, and it's not because he cares too much about the nine billion souls that would suffer if he went with Dean. Not anymore—he's lonely lifetimes past being numb to anything except the gaping hole that's only ever full when Sam's carved out some vital organ. "You won't be there."

Dean shakes his head. "I'm stuck here now," he says. "The deal I made with Death…it wasn't temporary."

"It won't be Heaven," Sam answers. "My Hell is a room without you in it."

"Then what?" Dean asks.

That's it, the million dollar question. Sam looks down, at the edge of the blade he'd used to call Dean this time. His brother is beginning to fade, which means Sam is coming back to life again. He doesn't have much time.

His fingers curl around the handle, and he turns the sharp end on himself. "Then this."

Pain explodes through his chest at the first stab, and Dean tries to reach out, tries to prevent Sam from continuing, a look on his face like Sam's lost his damn mind, all the way this time, not just the bits and chunks that have been going for years. He just doesn't understand yet. He will.

It's easy for Sam to dodge Dean's attempt, it's easy to pull the knife through thick layers of flesh, it's easy to ignore the agonizing ache in his chest. It's not much different from the way he feels when he's whole and Dean is somewhere else, reaping someone luckier than Sam.

After the first two drags, Dean gives up, sits and watches Sam work with a sad, resigned look on his face, because what he is, he can't stop Sam from killing himself. That's not a reaper's job.

Then Sam finishes, lets the useless flap of skin fall down from his body and into his lap. The important thing is the squirming mass Sam can now see in the window he's opened.

"Sam, stop," Dean says. "What the hell are you doing?"

Sam pries his fingers in, wonders if they're dirty, if he'll get an infection, then laughs at how stupid the thought is. He pulls his heart out, tugs hard enough that all the connecting organs, the tissue around it—whatever the blade didn't already sever—it all gives. Blood pours out, painting him, painting Dean. Dean, who is not just redder, but now more solid in front of Sam. Because Sam has pulled his heart out of his chest, and he is well and truly dying.

It's not the kind of wound Dean can sew up, pretend never happened, wait for it to heal with time. Not unless he pushes the thing back into Sam's chest, and Sam hopes he'll be kinder than that, that he'll use this gift better than the last one Sam gave him. But this is Dean's choice from here on out.

"Take it," Sam tells him, extending his hands. "Take it and I'll always be dying. Maybe not dead. Maybe not passing on. But dying. You can see me whenever you want. I'll be able to see you. We won't have to wait."

His brother's eyes scan over his sawed open body, his eyes glassy. Sam wonders if Death can cry, and then a tear slips out, and that's answered for him. "You're in pain," he says. "You can't go through life like this. You're always going to be hurting."

Sam laughs. Warm blood bubbles up from his mouth. How warm, when there's nothing pumping it? Sam's body is a wonder. He doesn't bother saying another goddamn word on the subject. That he's always in pain, worse than this, when he's alone. Dean will either get it or he won't.

"Take it," Sam begs. "I don't need a heart if I don't have you."

Dean hesitates before cupping his hands around Sam's, like he's scared to touch it directly. Which is just stupid, really, because Dean has been finger painting his name on Sam's heart since he was four years old.

Sam drops it then, lets the pool of blood slip through his fingers along with the still-beating muscle. It'll go on like that forever if Dean keeps it, squirming and ticking even though it's not attached and the body it's keeping alive doesn't need it.

Dean hefts it in his palm, hands dropping just an inch or so, as if the weight of it is more than he was expecting and he's not sure he can bear it. Same way he held the amulet Sam gave him a thousand Christmases ago, or the bags of Funyuns at the grocery store he used to weigh to compare, trying to pick the one that would fill Sam up the most. Hand sinking down, mouth open in concentration, and a faint sense of awe.

When he finally looks up at Sam, something has changed. Sam doesn't know what, if it spells good news for him, or if Dean will try reconnecting the damn thing, forcing Sam to march on without him.

"Do you like it?" Sam asks when he can't stand to wait a second longer.

Dean smiles. "It's beautiful, Sammy. I love it."

The End.