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Sam wakes up groggy, hungry, and restless. It’s been five days since they walked away from their last case—supposedly wrapped up without a necessary kill but both he and Dean were still grinding their teeth over that—and then a long, solid stretch of nothing. No pings on their radars, no fresh leads, no new disasters to deal with. Yet.

Sam keeps telling himself that he should be grateful for the break, that days without hunts are few and far between and that any time not spent doing frantic damage control is as close to a freaking miracle as they can get. But Sam doesn’t trust calm without a storm anymore, if he ever did to begin with, and it’s always been if not when for them. He rattles with adrenaline and fear and anticipation.

And something else too. Something foreign but familiar, like swallowing too fast and having it go down the wrong way. It’s not bad but it’s not where it’s supposed to be.

Sam sits up in his bed and starts cataloging the last week, the last month. No lost time, no displaced memories. No visions. No chances (that he knows of) for Dean to have gone and made any secret deals to keep Sam safe when he absolutely shouldn’t. And Dean hasn’t been acting particularly suspicious or guilty lately, which is also a good sign for whatever this is not being another outlaw angel or souring demon deal.

It—whatever it is—rattles again like it’s trying to smooth itself out. Sam pauses, focuses on the sensation so that he can have an accurate list of symptoms to search for in the bunker library.

It feels—like feeling. One particular feeling, actually: irritation. Sam can feel the spikes of it, peppery pricks under his skin and it’s inexplicable because Sam isn’t irritated. What would he even be irritated about—no new cases? Hanging around in the bunker all day? Disassociated feelings?

And now Sam is getting irritated, because all of these things are irritating and because he’s feeling irritated with feeling irritated and it’s a chicken-egg scenario because can a person feel irritated without having any conscious reason for it and, if so, when subsequent reasons are discovered does that validate or negate the original irritation and now Sam is beginning to question some of the core tenants of human reality but then—

Gone. Washed away and replaced with relief like a minty mouthwash and Sam doesn’t understand because, if anything, he had been working himself up into a panic. A panic that sticks around, clinging to the surges of anxiety that feel like him. But the relief is still there, an uninvited guest sitting next to his panic on Sam’s internal couch.

It’s weird.

Sam thinks it over for a few more minutes. He considers texting Dean for an emergency pre-breakfast meeting but decides that he’d rather be sure something is going on—something besides him going stir-crazy—before making a big deal about it.

After a while, the feeling-that-isn’t-his-feeling fades and nothing replaces it. It doesn’t leave a void or an aftereffect; Sam doesn’t feel like someone—something—is trying to poke around inside of him without his permission. He exhales.

The floor is cold under his feet as he swings his legs off the bed and shuffles towards the door and then the bathroom down the hall and then the empty coffeepot waiting for him in the kitchen.

---

“You’re up early.” Dean wanders through the doorway with his robe hanging open and nothing but a threadbare t-shirt and wrinkled boxers underneath. Sam gives him a quick up-and-down glance—an assessment—before turning back to their relic of a toaster. It churns with two slices of sourdough and he’s careful not to linger on Dean. He never lingers.

Dean scrubs a hand over his face and doesn’t notice either way.

“It’s nine-thirty.” Sam wrestles with the lever as the crust begins to sizzle. “That’s not early.”

“It is on our days off.” Dean fishes around in the silverware drawer and offers Sam a fork with a smirk.

Sam swallows down a retort that he knows wouldn’t be as clever as he thinks it is and settles instead for huffing and rolling his eyes and more or less ignoring his brother and his bad jokes. He inches the tips of his fingers down into the metal slots and wiggles the lever as far as it can go and he’s almost got the barely-burned bread but then—

It’s back, strong like a punch in the gut. Embarrassment and…something else. Something immature and needy, like being picked last in gym class. It distracts him and his fingertips sear against the hot coils.

“Ow, damnit!” Sam pushes past Dean and heads towards the sink. He gives the water a few seconds to run lukewarm before shoving his hand under it.

Dean is next to him in a second, tone caught between alarmed and lecturing. “You okay, Sammy? I keep telling you that we oughta just buy a new toaster. What are they, like $20? Why do we even need a toaster anyway? Toast is pretty overrated—I mean, who even eats toast anymore? Besides nerds like you?”

“Dean, you order a side of toast every time we go out for breakfast.” The feeling is shifting again, pulling itself apart and restructuring but Sam can’t tell what it is yet.

Dean’s face twists, eyebrows pulled in and lips tight. It’s the same face he makes whenever he’s trying to deny something that’s absolutely true.

“That’s only because there aren’t any better side options.” He shakes his head. “I won’t have fruit or vegetables for breakfast, Sam—I won’t do it.”

“Yeah, okay.” Sam shuts off the faucet and wipes his hands on the thin dishtowel. A pattern of small welts already crisscrosses the tops of his fingers but they aren’t bubbled or blistered. They’ll probably be gone in a week, if that.

The new feeling grows steady, tampered down at the edges like it wants to keep itself under control. It’s concern—clear and undiluted—and Dean grabs Sam by the wrist to examine the injury for himself. Sam holds his hand open automatically, shifting his focus from the feeling of concern to his brother’s fingers pressing gently against his hand and back again.

Weird.

“No broken skin, no blood. These should heal up just fine.” Dean holds on for half a second longer than is strictly necessary, staring up at Sam and brushing his fingers along the lines of Sam’s palm. Then he lets go and Sam’s whole arm drops back to his side.

He turns his back to Sam, reaching up into a cabinet for a clean mug. “Next time we leave the bunker, we’re gettin’ a new toaster.”

---

Sam has a theory. It’s not a great theory—it’s not even really a full-fledged theory. More like an inkling. Something he wants to run some tests on.

He calls Castiel’s cell—this doesn’t warrant an urgent prayer—but it goes to voicemail. Somewhere along the way Cas picked up the bad habit of leaving it on silent (which Dean has gotten on his case about more than a few times) so Sam doesn’t take it personally.

“Hey, Cas—it’s Sam. I was just wondering…you were pretty adamant about not ganking that psychic on Sunday and I just wanted to make sure that Dean and I got the whole story on her. I mean, you usually don’t show up at a case unless it’s on Heaven’s radar so…you know, I just wanted to make sure that we weren’t dealing with another—I don’t know. Sacred weapon or something. Anyway, just give me a call back when you get a chance.” Sam pauses. “Stay safe out there.” And he hangs up.

This last case had been a little strange, but still within their (admittedly-skewed) range of normal. Honestly, Sam wouldn’t have even put it in their ‘Top 20 Strangest Cases’ list and most of the strangeness had come from Castiel zapping in at the last second and somberly urging them to not make the kill. A young woman—a girl really, Sam thought, although her gaze had felt archaic—had shut herself up like a hermit for who knows how long until a couple of local asshats decided to break into her house on a dare, only to end up in the county psych ward a week or so later. Two of them suffered from what the chief psychiatrist called “acute paranoid delusions” while the third was catatonic. The responding officers had also started to show signs of psychotic breaks, and neither the cops nor the asshats had any histories of mental illness that Sam and Dean could find. They’d finally figured out that she was a psychic without a safety switch—she’d isolated herself to protect other people. They’d managed to get her cornered in the root cellar and Dean and him had been in the middle of debating what exactly to do with her when Cas showed up in full-on vague angel mode.

(Dean would have called that ‘vagel mode’ and Sam would have pretended that his lips didn’t quirk up at the just-barely-a-pun.)

Cas had sidestepped the why? question altogether—claimed it would be an act of mercy, that he’d heal the victims and equip the girl with a safeguard. Pointed out that she hadn’t killed anyone—that they knew of, Sam noted—and that she wasn’t causing harm intentionally. Said that she was righteous, which wasn’t a phrase that either Sam or Dean had heard him throw out in a long time. He’d seemed stern and full of conviction and Sam hadn’t really been relishing the thought of offing someone who’d been more or less acting in self-defense anyway. In the end, they convinced Dean together. It hadn’t felt absolutely right, but then again neither had the idea of killing her. Sam chalked it up to one more ambiguous win in their roster.

But now he wonders.

---

Sam pokes at it.

He makes a quick run into town for supplies and notices a magic-markered sign in the bakery window advertising their fresh seasonal peach cobbler pie. Sam usually doesn’t pick up a slice unless he’s trying to smooth over a fight or if Dean is recuperating from a particularly nasty run-in; he doesn’t like encouraging Dean’s nagging that starts up any time they’re within fifteen miles of a decent dessert menu.

But this could be a controlled variable, so he swings a U-turn and gets a generous cut to go.

When he drops a white box on top of the book—open to a section on parasitic creatures, from what Sam can make out of the diagrams—in Dean’s lap, an itch of surprise and confusion scratches near the top of his spine.

“What’s this?” Dean looks back and forth between Sam and the package.

Sam stuffs his hands into his jean pockets. “Today’s special.”

Dean pries the tape off the edges and opens the lid; a surge of happiness like clear skies to the horizon soaks into Sam’s skin before Dean even glances back up at him.

“You shouldn’t have.” Dean smirks and Sam could have mistaken it for smugness if his fingertips weren’t glowing warm with happy that didn’t belong to him. “You spoil me, Sammy.”

There is another feeling curling around it now like vines up a wall. It’s the same feeling Sam gets when Dean starts singing to himself slightly off-key, or when he orders Sam a beer if he gets to a bar first. It’s complex and Sam’s not entirely sure that he could name it in just one word, but the closest one he registers is: fondness.

Dean’s not doing anything particularly endearing right now—he’s shoveling a too-big bite into his mouth and losing a few chunks of crumble for it—but the feeling is infectious. Sam smiles back and the happy-fond tangle pulses.

---

“Where’s the sistrum?” Sam slides a few curse boxes aside on a high shelf. “I cataloged it as being right here.”

Dean is pacing aimlessly behind him. “The what?”

“The sistrum.” Sam repeats, pitched just this side of snide. “The super powerful magic instrument from Ancient Egypt.”

Dean’s steps slow down but don’t stop. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Seriously?” Sam turns, hands on his hips. “You don’t remember calling it—and I quote—a ‘bigass mummy maraca’?”

Something drags the hairs along Sam’s forearms up, already throwing barbs at Sam’s thinning patience.

Dean’s eyes narrow. “No, I don’t remember any stupid giant rattle. Maybe you lost it.”

“I never even touched it, Dean.” Sam’s arms drop, fists balled tight with two sets of matching tempers.

“Then maybe somebody stole it. You know, one of those times when we opened the bunker up like a freakin’ paranormal YMCA. Crowley, Rowena, Metatron, Lucifer—hell, maybe Chuck took it.” Dean’s hands jab at the air for emphasis. His chin juts out and he doesn’t blink.

He’s doing what he always does when he’s being defensive—getting so worked up and over-the-top that Sam ends up more or less retracting the accusation to diffuse the situation. It’s one of the games they play—one of the petty, annoying games they unconsciously developed—to protect the weaker parts of themselves without actually having to have a whole conversation about it. This particular game, as far as Sam knew, was about Dean’s ego. The big brother pride of always needing to be right about the little things, even (especially, Sam suspects) when the big things were all shot to hell. And nine times out of ten Sam would let him have it, would just roll his eyes and walk away because cornering Dean and getting him to admit that he’s wrong is almost never worth it. It tended to leave Sam with a heavy-sick lump in his stomach and a bitter swallow down his throat.

But this…this is ridiculous, even for them. Sam knows that Dean remembers the sistrum, knows that Dean would only lie about that if he’d done something really dumb with it. He just wants Dean to say so, to stop trying to make Sam think he’s nuts for being so sure. He doesn’t even care what Dean did with it (well, okay, that’s not entirely true but he isn’t going to make a big deal about it or anything) he just needs Dean to dial back his fragile ego for five seconds and—

A new stranger, something that had been hiding behind the anger, claws at the back of Sam’s lungs. He feels it go jittery, skittering around his chest like a dog off its leash. His thoughts suddenly sound too loud in his brain.

It’s fear—Dean’s afraid. That’s what this has to be. Sam feels reasonably confident in the evidence he’s been gathering and the conclusions they point to: something went wonky during one of their last cases (he’d bet money on it being the not-dead psychic thing, but he’s waiting to hear back from Cas before committing 100% to that) and now he’s…what? Feeling what Dean feels? Sharing emotions? Something like that.

And it’s not just reading body language or sensing vibes either. Sam doesn’t need a private backstage pass to Dean’s psyche to know that, for example, he’s defensive and therefore pissed off. But he wouldn’t have picked up fear from that—he never did before. At least not this much fear.

Fear of what? Being wrong? Having Sam upset at him? Disappointing Sam? Over a lost rattle? Dean’s eyes dart just slightly, break his steady gaze for a fraction of a second, and Sam wonders how he never saw through these cracks before.

Sam sighs, pushes all the air out. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” And the skittering quiets itself down.

---

His bedroom gets stuffy, packed too close to one of the generator rooms, so Sam tends to leave his door open when it’s just the two of them in the bunker. He thinks that maybe it’s a force of habit from years of having nothing between them but vinyl seats and stale motel air; Sam’s instincts have settled comfortably against physical barriers between him and Dean.

Not that he doesn’t appreciate the privacy sometimes—it’s nice to be able to shut a door on Dean’s mouth breathing, even if the silence is harder to fall asleep in. And to not have to dust crumbs out of his duffel after one of Dean’s midnight snack binges, even if he’s still the one who cleans the kitchen in the morning. And to have an extra five minutes to take care of himself—no more timing his showers just right so that he doesn’t have to deal with a smirking leer or waiting until Dean’s wheezes even out in the cramped twin next to him.

No more keeping his eyes fixed ahead in the darkness, blocking out the soaked-in scent of his brother and the heat of the body that (second only to his own) he knows best, just out of arm’s reach.

Not that Sam is reaching. Not that he’s ever reached, would ever reach. But he closes the door just to be safe.

Sam doesn’t close the door when he changes clothes or stretches before bed, although three days’ worth of repeated hot yoga jokes from Dean had made him seriously reconsider. Eventually he’d decided that he wasn’t going to let poor ventilation and Dean’s immaturity win, so the open-door stretching continued.

He finishes his routine for the night and peels off his undershirt to get some salve on a fresh line of stitches above his left kidney, courtesy of a nasty adlet infestation that they’d hit in the Upper Peninsula before doubling back for the psychic gig. He can feel them strain against the pull of muscles but he doesn’t worry about them popping. Dean’s stitches never pop.

The salve is thick and cool and he works it into the creases of the wound. His fingers rub rough and then soft and it stings sweet. He lets out a quiet little groan.

Suddenly he’s awash with it, drowning and choking against it. His fingers squeeze against the stitches and he hisses out the pain. Desire like an ache that can never be soothed like a need that can never be met like a pillowcase full of bricks to the shins and Sam’s knees almost buckle.

Whatever this Vulcan mind meld thing is, it must be getting stronger. Either that or Dean is indulging in some especially awesome porn; Sam doesn’t really care either way. He doesn’t want a front row seat for the parade of busty Asian beauties and magic finger beds and first-name-only hook-ups that he assumes litter Dean’s fantasies. He doesn’t want—can’t want—the curl of Dean’s lust wrapping around the frayed edges of his soul and strangling the life out of him.

He’s gonna go, gonna storm down the hallway and pound on Dean’s door and give him the same kind of mid-masturbation heart attack that Dean gleefully administered throughout their childhood, like it was one of Dad’s mandated ‘Take care of Sammy’ duties. He’s gonna relish the slap of horror and shock and rage that will wash away the dirty of this. Or at least, the dirty that isn’t already sewn into Sam’s bones, that hasn’t already been there since always.

Sam’s gonna do it but then he turns and Dean’s there, stopped in the doorway like someone paused him. He has a whiskey tumbler full of water (or clear alcohol, if Dean had made an adventurous trip to the liquor store without him) in a vice grip, although Sam can only tell that by the faint ripples along the surface and the clench of everything—feeling, movement, air—that descends between them.

“Dean?” Sam’s asking a question but he’s not sure what it is. He’s aware of everything all at once: his exposed skin, the thin and betraying fabric of his boxers, the lack of distance from the bed to the door, how big both of them are and how goddamn small this room is. The desire—Dean’s desire—ebbs but doesn’t disappear. Instead it’s smothered, suffocated by a heavy fall of shame and guilt and terror and self-loathing and Sam feels Dean desperate to scrub himself raw, to carve this out of who he is.

Dean drops the glass onto Sam’s desk hard; the liquid sloshes out over the rim and soaks into a few pages of his notes on invasive creature species that have been cropping up in North America over the past few decades.

“I told you to quit doing your pilates with the door wide open. Next time I’m filming it and putting it on the Internet. Make some money off the views and finally get some compensation for my psychological trauma.”

And Sam has something to say, something that he’s clawing his way out of the sticky-thick psychosexual tar to say, something that needs to be said. But Dean’s already turning his back, already leaving, already gone.

---

Dean’s either up early or buried under the covers in his locked room when Sam shuffles into the kitchen the next morning, so he eats breakfast alone. It’s just as well, because he’s got some more considering to do.

First consideration: This isn’t emotion sharing, it’s reality warping. Something that feeds off of fears or twists wants or mines dysfunction. He’d guess trickster if Gabriel wasn’t dead and long-gone, although he supposes there are probably other tricksters out there. He doesn’t think that him and Dean have gotten on the wrong side of another one, but you never know. Maybe it’s just him who’s trapped in here and he won’t have to worry about broaching any of this with Dean in the real world. It’s just him and his own messy self, but he can handle that. He’s been handling that for years.

Of course, this feels real. And ongoing. And not bound by any stupid rules or agendas. They’re just living their lives for the most part, aside from the whole…whatever this thing is.

So, second consideration: This is emotion sharing, or a psychic connection, or something along those lines. This is real life, this is really happening, and he really did feel Dean last night. Dean’s lust when there was no one in the room but a nearly-naked Sam. Dean’s horror and revulsion which, in all honesty, is pretty damning proof of this not being a false reality. Because Dean would absolutely tie himself a noose out of guilt and shame for this, because guilt and shame are the gorilla glue that keeps Dean from cracking apart. Sam knows because he’s right there with him—sealing up the holes where he couldn’t save someone, where he wasn’t strong enough or brave enough or good enough. A lot of that got sliced out of him in the Cage though, so these days the guilt and shame only linger when it’s Dean.

It seems like they have that in common too.

Then again, Sam isn’t ashamed of that part of himself. It’s jarring and unnerving and totally irritating when it rears up jealous or needy but it’s part of him the same way that Dean is. He couldn’t burn it out without going up in flames himself. So he’s come to terms with it, accepted what he’s allowed to have and been grateful for every day that they get to be together—happy or not. And it’s enough, it really is.

Only—

Only Sam didn’t know—couldn’t imagine—that Dean and him shared this. And now that he does know, well, he can’t unknow it so…

His phone rings, tinkles bells that Sam had thought sounded kind of angelic.

“Hey, Cas.” He coughs around a mouthful of cornflakes. “What’s up?”

“Sam.” There’s a pause, always just a little too long to be natural. “I missed your call. My phone was on silent.”

Sam scoffs but let’s him finish.

“I got your message. Where are you?”

“We’re at the bunker. There haven’t been a lot of new cases coming up on our radar and—”

Cas chops off the rest of Sam’s sentence. “I’m outside.”

Sam could ask him why, ask him what’s going on, fill the walk from the kitchen up to the front door with half a dozen questions that Cas probably won’t give him answers for. Dean would give him the third degree and Cas would take it and that’s okay, it is. Cas’s relationship with his brother is different than his relationship with Sam—he’s okay with that. He trusts that Cas cares for both of them, in his own way.

He winds his way from the kitchen through the war room and up the stairs with the phone by his ear, but the only sound from either end of the line is uneven puffs of air.

“You know, we’ve modified the warding to—” Sam shoves the door open and it’s so bright, too bright, blinding like an ant under a magnifying lens. He reels back, hands over his eyes. Cas grabs for his wrist and his skin is cool under the grip but the blood and tissue scalds below.

“Sam!” Cas’ fingers tighten and Sam can feel the sizzle. “Sam, what’s going on?!”

Sam tries to twist away from the sensation but it’s everywhere, filling the bunker to its seams. “What are you doing to me, Cas?!”

The hand tethering them drops fast and Cas back away, retreats through the still-open door. The cold fire dulls slightly the farther out Cas gets and Sam uncovers his eyes.

“Go inside, Sam.” Cas waves him off from twenty or thirty feet down the makeshift gravel driveway. He lifts his phone. “I’ll call you.”

Sam pauses; he wants to ask if Cas will be okay, where he’ll go, when he’ll come back. He wants to apologize for bringing him here only to force him to leave. And even though it scorched him from the inside out, Sam wants to feel that pure rush of power and flame drown him again.

He swings the reinforced door shut between them and the strange headache like spoons being played against the back of his eyeballs washes itself out.

His phone rings: bells.

“Cas?” Sam rubs at his sore wrist. “What the hell was all that about? It felt like a thousand flashbangs went off at the same time. Where’d you go?”

“I’m at a coffee shop two towns over. They have scones.” A cash register dings in the background.

Sam chuckles, steadies himself on his way down the stairs.

“Sam.” The gravel in Cas’ voice rolls through Sam’s eardrums. The tone’s changed—Cas has got something significant to say, something that he doesn’t want to get wrong. Sam gives him a few seconds.

“She wasn’t a psychic.”

Sam would be surprised, if that hadn’t been his leading theory for the past several days now.

“Yeah, I pretty much got that.” He pulls out a chair around the strategy table and sits. “Why’d you lie to us, Cas?”

A heavy sigh, and Sam feels a tinge of something thick like an overfilled mold of apology and regret. “You recall Shane?”

Sam flips through the rolodex of entities they’ve encountered, narrowed by nondescript names rather than species. Not an angel or a demon or a vamp—at least not one that he can remember—maybe a human? Had they pissed off someone named Shane in between all the apocalypse runs?

Cas clears his throat. “The proto-god?”

It hits Sam then like a literal bolt of Zeus-and-Artemis lightening. “You mean, Prometheus? Cas, you buried the lede a little there.”

“Sorry.” Perfunctory, and Sam can tell that he isn’t. “Yes, Prometheus. Heaven was watching that case but—as you know—there were a lot of other things going on then with the angel tablet and Naomi’s…administration.”

A chill creeps through Sam’s shirt and the hairs along his forearms prick up. Memories of Dean’s disappearance, of the Trials, of the aftermath burn blue and hot. But this feels cold, sterile like antiseptics and latex gloves worming over clammy skin.

Sam realizes now that Cas never told them exactly what had happened to him up there.

“Heaven would have intervened if they thought there truly was a danger.”

Sam wants to ask but the glint of stainless steel is already going dull; the echoes of Cas are changing pitch and tone.

So this isn’t just between Dean and him.

“Why would Prometheus be a danger to Heaven?” Sam props his elbows up on his thighs. “I thought that angels didn’t really care about pagan deities, at least in terms of being a threat to their power.”

“Generally speaking, they’re not. Most pagan gods are low-order sub-celestial beings—Heaven only gets…got…involved if there was an imminent threat to humanity.” A solid lump—like loss of order, loss of purpose, loss of home—settles at the bottom of Sam’s stomach. “Of course, there are a few who could rival even the archangels; they were called the Powers. I believe that you and Dean have encountered a few already: Prometheus, Kali…”

“And Not-A-Psychic Girl? We’ve run into three of these super powerful, almost-archangels and we’re just hearing about them now?” Sam rubs circles against his temples. He isn’t surprised; he’s never surprised by the really fucking important details that the angels consistently keep them in the dark about. But he is a little hurt that Cas hadn’t said anything. After all, it’s been years since their first run-in at the Elysian Fields.

An awkward stretch of quiet buzzes over the line and Sam feels hesitation like a child reaching for a parent they’ve disappointed without understanding why. It pulls back, then pushes forward with more confidence.

“The Powers were never meant to interact with the human world. Their dominion is cosmic—abstract spheres of space and time and being. Most of them have never ventured beyond the upper realms of creation.” The grit in Cas’ voice softens. “I wasn’t lying to you, Sam, or to Dean. You two have so many other creatures that you have to deal with; these aren’t beings that you really need to concern yourselves with.”

“Except when we run into them in the middle of Montana.” Sam bites back at the sharp edges of his tone. Cas is just doing what Cas does—trying to protect them. “So, who is she and what did she do to me? And why didn’t we have any reactions like this to the other Powers?”

“You aren’t reacting to her, you’re reacting to what she guards. The Powers were each designated a force to nurture and preserve in accordance with the rules of God. Those who entered—or were forced into—the human world often faced a dilution of their power and usually struggled with the instability of their assigned force outside of the cosmic planes. For example, Kali—guardian of destruction—would have once been able to pull the atoms of Lucifer’s vessel apart even with him inside it. But millennia on Earth reconfigured her strength. That’s why he couldn’t kill her, but also why she couldn’t kill him.”

Sam remembers the flicker of uncertainty in Lucifer’s eyes as she raised her hands against him.

“Prometheus had been weakened by Zeus, of course, after his force had compelled him to come to Earth. When he disappeared, his sister came down to find him…although I don’t believe she was ever able to do so.”

“His sister?” Of course, she’s his sister. It’s always a brother, a sister, a sibling. Angels, demons, God himself. Sam’s just gonna start assuming that every vengeful spirit, every ravenous monster, every spiteful demonic entity and wrathful celestial son of a bitch is just lashing out at—or because of—their family. “And wait, if these Powers can’t be killed then how did Zeus kill Prometheus?”

“Zeus didn’t kill Prometheus—Prometheus killed himself.” Cas’ voice sounds muffled and Sam wonders if he caved and got a scone. “He was the keeper of knowledge. His purpose was to direct it where it needed to go, and eventually humans needed it. So he came here to ensure that the knowledge was administered properly. Of course, with humans being…humans…once the knowledge was here you more or less did whatever you wanted with it. And when Pandora arrived—well, I’m sure you can imagine how that complicated things.”

“Pandora?” Sam is up, out of the chair, spine straight like iron. “‘Pandora’s box’ Pandora? Prometheus’ sister is Pandora? We almost killed Pandora?

“Well, no.” Cas takes a drink of something and Sam wonders if the pastry dough is stuck gummy to the roof of his mouth. “You weren’t even close to killing her. You wouldn’t have been able to kill her. The only thing trying to kill her would have accomplished for you would have been complete psychological paralysis.”

“Like those stupid kids who broke into her house, and the cops.” Sam nods to himself; pieces are beginning to shift into place.

“They only frightened her, or spent too much time in her immediate presence. Trying to destroy her may have actually just ended up killing you two. That’s why I intervened.” Something kindles high in Sam’s chest, something fierce and unrelenting. He thinks that if he tried to focus on it for too long it would probably terrify him, but the singe of it gives him comfort anyway.

“Thanks, Cas.”

The burn goes fuzzy at its corners. “Of course, Sam.”

A calm beat, then Sam remembers that he only has half his answers. “So this is what Pandora does to people? She drives them insane?”

“Pandora and Prometheus were twins, paired Powers. Prometheus was the keeper of knowledge, the one who guided it into the world. Pandora is the guardian of curiosity, the one who watches over her brother’s knowledges and keeps it from corrupting into the forbidden.”

“Curiosity killed the cat, and all that. But how can you—her—keep knowledge from corrupting?” Sam scratches at the stubble on his cheek; he should shave today. “You said so yourself—isn’t that what humans do with it?”

“Well yes, and also no. General corruption of knowledge—fiction, manipulation, lies—cannot be contained. Especially not with the introduction of a means for mass publication and circulation.”

Sam chuckles. “You mean the Internet?”

“I was actually thinking of the Gutenberg press. But yes, the same concept applies.”

“Fair enough.” Sam wanders over to the library, opens one of the card catalog drawers: Pl-Ps. “So she’s the guardian of forbidden knowledge.”

“Not in the moral sense of the word. Doctrines have been built on the concept of forbidden knowledge since religious practices first began developing, but if something has been able to disseminate among humans without liquefying your brains then it isn’t the type of forbidden that a Power would be concerned with. Pandora guards cosmic secrets, things that no human soul could contain. Things that should not just be unknown, but that are unknowable.”

“Right.” The gears in Sam’s head grind painful like that semester he’d decided to take an elective on metaphysical and epistemological philosophies. He’s avoided Kant at all costs ever since. “So if you get too close to Pandora she lets out some of these unknowable secrets, and then pretty soon you’re on a one-way trip to your local psych ward.”

“No—as I said, the forbidden forces that she guards against would melt a human brain before insanity could manifest itself.” There’s a mumbled exchange of words that Sam can’t quite make out; he guesses it’s the barista. “And she doesn’t let it out, but I suppose that all this time on Earth has weakened her containment abilities. That’s why she hid herself and did everything she could to attract as little attention from anyone as possible. After Prometheus’ death, she revealed herself to Heaven again and has been under our watch since then.”

“So she can’t control her force anymore? Shouldn’t she be back up…you know, wherever the Powers are from? This sounds like a really dangerous thing to just leave on Earth.” Sam tears out the call card Powers (Celestial), The and weaves through the bookshelves trying to match the reference numbers.

Cas lets out a tight burst of breath. “Angels cannot dictate what the Powers do or don’t do. It is not within our authority to sanction them. All we can do is watch and intercede on humanity’s behalf in emergency situations.”

Sam stops, tracks back to double-check something. “Cas, did you heal the people that she affected?”

Something thorny stabs him in the gut like marrow-deep convictions overgrown with sloppier, grayer shades of conscience.

“I was able to erase memories of the experience from the cops, which canceled out most of their aftereffects. The home intruders had received a more potent dosage of her force and their conditions had progressed further—I’m sorry, Sam, but there was nothing I could do for them.”

On the one hand, that’s three more people they had—Sam had—failed to save. On the other hand, they had broken into some random woman’s house just to mess with her so Sam wasn’t going to say that they deserved to get a cosmic lobotomy but maybe they didn’t totally not deserve it either.

“Yeah, I get that.” Sam bites at his lip and leafs through a yellowed manuscript entitled ‘The Powers That Be: Hierarchies Within the Upper Orders of Celestial Spirits’. “So, what now? Should I start getting ready for another psychiatric lockdown?”

“No.” Cas’ answer comes too fast and Sam feels a punch of protectiveness knock him back a couple steps. “You were exposed to residual contamination—the symptoms should wear off completely within a month or two.”

Sam’s eyebrows hook up. “A month or two?”

Cas’ tone is flat. “At the longest.”

“Awesome.” Sam shoves the manuscript back on the shelf, less gentle than—strictly speaking—he should. “So that’s what all this stuff is.”

“What stuff?” Tickles of worry itch across Sam’s shoulders. “What have you been experiencing?”

Sam pushes his hair back from his face. “I thought I was…I don’t know, feeling Dean’s feelings? Like a psychic backlash. But since, you know, we’re dealing with freakin’ Pandora I don’t know what’s really going on. And I thought it was just with Dean, but then you showed up and I felt—I felt like I’d been dipped in liquid nitrogen. What the hell was that, Cas?”

The ice-bright flames lick at Sam’s heels and the tips of his toes.

“My grace. I wasn’t shielding it…I didn’t realize that I needed to shield it. The vessel usually makes it manageable for humans.”

Sam pulls his hands away from the fire. “But I’ve felt grace before; Gadreel left some in me after he was ejected. Is it supposed to be unknowable?”

“Not cosmically, no. You’ve felt fragments of grace, but that’s not the same as the unshielded grace of a fully-equipped angel or—or an angelic possession.”

Sam flinches before he can catch himself, but there’s no one there to see it.

The background chatter has gone quiet; Cas must be outside now. “Pandora’s contamination isn’t of cosmically forbidden knowledge; it’s more of a leak of humanity’s secrets. People who come in contact with her gain knowledge of things that are usually kept from humans, as well as things that have been personally kept from them.”

Sam chews at the inside of his cheek. “They literally and metaphorically open Pandora’s box.”

“Yes. And the more extreme the exposure, the more overwhelming the knowledge. People have solved undiscovered theorems overnight. They’ve found that they can translate conversations into multiple languages at the same time. Some have even been able to communicate with animals and plants. It’s a lot for humans to take in.” Cas pauses and Sam can almost see his eyes narrow and his head tilt. “Have the trees been speaking to you, Sam?”

“Not yet.” Sam presses his palm flat against his eyes. “So what I’m experiencing is some kind of psychic link. Feeling other people’s emotions, sensing their thoughts.”

“From what I’ve learned during my time on Earth, thoughts and emotions that aren’t openly expressed are generally considered to be private. Not meant for others to know.”

Lust like a dozen pillows being smothered over his face replays in Sam’s mind. Dean’s expression stony-frozen in his doorway last night and yeah, he supposes that it makes sense now.

“The intensity of these aftereffects should continue to lessen. I imagine that you’ll be able to be in my presence again with only moderate discomfort by next week.”

Sam shakes his head and smiles, remembers that Dean makes him smile on purpose while Cas makes him smile on accident.

He couldn’t say which way is better.

“And what about Dean?” Cas’ voice is still, but the grit grinds back into it.

Sam snaps back from secrets and smiles. “Dean?”

“Yes, you were both exposed. Have his symptoms been the same as yours?”

Hm. Sam thinks. That’s an excellent question.

---

Sam tries to catch Dean when he rattles his way into the bunker, back from wherever the hell it is he’s been for most of the day, but by the time Sam makes it out of the weapons training room Dean’s already three slammed doors away from him.

Sam tries to catch him at dinner but Dean responds to the fist pounding on his locked door with a series of grunts and slurred half-sentences. Sam thinks that maybe Dean’s drunk—he’s not picking up on any clear emotions but his body feels like it’s sloshing around in a choppy pool.

He wraps Dean’s plate up and leaves it in the refrigerator; he lets his brother sleep whatever stupid thing he did today off.

Sam tries to catch him at breakfast but muffled snores come from Dean’s room until almost noon. At 12:47PM—with no further signs of life coming from behind the thick slab of oak—Sam decides that he’s gonna take a break from his not-yet-initiated plan. Clean some guns. Follow up on some research. Get some air.

Do something to keep him occupied until Dean gets his shit together.

He ends up in one of the defunct control rooms fiddling with an obsolete tracking system, unable to make heads or tails out of it. Dean would’ve been able to get it lit up like Christmas with just a wrench and a Philips screwdriver, and then he’d pass it on to Sam to map out its systems.

But Dean would get it running, get it fixed up—without him, nothing works like it should.

Without Dean, the only thing Sam manages to do is get machine oil—lumpy from decades of stagnation—all over himself. It bleeds through his flannel and streaks across his arms when he tries to wipe himself down. Black splotches litter the side of his jeans; he’s gonna have to get them in their rickety industrial washing machine before the stains set.

He’s out of the room, down the hall, greased fingers working at the buttons on his shirt. He turns corners without really looking where he’s going because who else would even be there? Cas? A rogue spirit still lingering in the brickwork? A pack of werewolves who tracked them back from a hunt? An almost-naked Dean?

Dean. An almost-naked Dean. An almost-naked, low-slung towel, freshly showered Dean.

The lust that snaps back at Sam is an overstretched rubber band—familiar like the sidelong glances that they throw at each other, knowing but never naming. Like the assumptions that have always cropped up and the unspoken moment when they stopped challenging them quite so vehemently. Like the reassurances they pass back and forth that It’s nothing and We’re fine and Because he’s my brother.

This lust is all Sam, but now it resonates with the sense echoes of Dean. Roots of surprise (Sam had been looking for a confrontation but not this confrontation), of embarrassment (Sam wasn’t sure that he was ready for this confrontation), of annoyance (but wasn’t this what Sam had been gunning for since—since the first time Sam realized he was gunning for something) punch through the thick-thatched layers of want and need and allowed and forbidden. And those are all his—all Sam’s—the only thing that’s changed is that they aren’t buckled down by the cement of impossible anymore.

Even if, strictly speaking, they should be.

Sam rocks back on his heels and makes a show of wiping his palms over dry oil stains. Dean shifts, adjusts the handful of cotton that’s keeping his towel pinned in place. Sam can’t be absolutely sure, but it seems like the fabric slips a few centimeters farther from his belly button.

Something’s gnawing at the corners of Sam, pulling at his loose threads. Something confused and curious. Something unbelieving.

Something looking to be proven wrong.

Sam should bundle up the mess he’s making and go. Throw his clothes in the laundry, jump in the shower, never bring any of this up again. Or he should cut in immediately, start grilling Dean for details and descriptions of this phenomenon that can be filed away as research in the report neither of them are going to write up.

He definitely shouldn’t just keep staring. Shouldn’t remember that Dean blushes in uneven splotches across his chest. Shouldn’t note the slight curves of soft flesh that have settled around his hips, cut out from the rougher panes of muscle. Shouldn’t match every scar he can see with a corresponding blade or bullet or set of claws.

Shouldn’t catch Dean’s eye—just for half of a half-second—and make sure that he knows.

A fuse, charred between them, sparks up. It’s Dean—Sam can feel him—but it’s Sam too. He can’t quite make out the lines separating them anymore.

“Oil spill.” Sam points at no spot in particular on his ruined shirt and spins around, heading back the way he came. It’s not a different route so much as totally the opposite direction from the laundry room, but right about now Sam can’t really find it in himself to care.

Behind him, Dean hums slow.

“Huh.”

And Sam has his answer.

---

Two beer bottles clink down in front of Sam on the library table.

“So, we gonna talk about it?” Dean sits across from him, leaves an empty chair between them.

It’s almost time for dinner—or maybe past and Dean’s eaten without him—but Sam isn’t much in the mood for food. He’s been distracting himself with gruesome descriptions of witchcraft victims since their little hallway session.

He turns a thick page in the old magic-medical anthology. “Talk about it?”

Dean rocks in his chair; the back legs squeak with the weight. “Yes, talk about it. I know you want to, Sam. I can feel it playing on loop in that 7-Eleven brain of yours.”

“7-Eleven?” Sam glances up. He doesn’t mean to, but he’s never quite been able to not take Dean’s bait.

“Always open for business.” Dean taps a finger against his temple. “I knew you were a thinker, but hell, I guess I just took it for granted that you had an off-switch up there.”

Sam scoffs. “Yeah, well. I never really liked the silence, you know?”

Dean bites at his lip. “I do know.”

Something worms its way between them, an intense awareness of their hands sifting through the folds and wrinkles of each other. Sam can feel Dean moving parts of him aside, trying to get a clearer view. He can feel Dean’s hesitation, feel how careful he’s trying to be, like one wrong jostle might rip a hole in a rehabbed safety wall. The sensation of someone digging around inside of him spins back into sulfur on his tongue and freezing flames beneath his skin and the tang of spellwork clinging to his nerves and he remembers the last time Dean forced his way into the place that was supposed to be his, the place where he was supposed to be in control. He clenches, reaches to shut the doors, but Dean pulls back first.

“Sorry, I—I’m sorry.” Dean’s eyes go wide; he doesn’t blink. Sam’s not sure that he knows what he’s sorry for but he feels Dean’s apology, feels him waiting stock-still outside for Sam to let him in.

Sam knocks his knuckles against the table, tries to swallow down the aftertaste of being tied and gagged inside his own body. “I’m—it’s just, um, having someone else in your head brings up some less-than-pleasant memories.”

“Right.” Dean smooths his hand over his sideburns. Sam feels him take another step back from Sam’s inner door. “So, this is some sort of Vulcan mind meld thing? We talking witches? I’m so sick of witches.”

“You and me both.” Sam shuts the anthology and pushes it off to the side. “But it’s not witches. It’s Pandora.”

Dean’s eyebrows knot together. “Who?”

“Pandora, guardian of curiosity?”

“Yes, Sam, I know who Pandora is.” Dean rolls his eyes and Sam feels a prick of insecurity run along the ridge of his shoulder blades. “I mean, when did we have time to piss off freakin’ Pandora? We haven’t even had any weird-ass hunts since—shit. It was that psychic with the safety off, wasn’t it?”

Sam nods. “Turns out that she’s a proto-god and Prometheus’ twin sister. Although, according to Cas, they’re both actually high-level celestial beings called Powers who are designated specific cosmic forces to protect.”

“Sure, yeah, of course. So like, super archangels who can harness the energy of the cosmos. Just hanging out in a cabin in the middle of the goddamn woods.” Dean reaches for his beer. “Awesome.”

Sam takes a sip from his own bottle. “We do have a track record of finding ancient and incredibly powerful beings in cabins and stirring up shit with them.”

“And Cas?” Dean’s drops his beer and it hits the table with a dull crack. “When were you gonna tell me that you two had already hashed this whole thing out?”

Sam knows that Dean can feel his lies crop up like weeds, pushing at the pause before he answers.

“I was gonna mention it once I figured out exactly what she had done to me—to us.” Sam drops his eyeline to the polished wood grain. “Or, I guess, whenever we ended up having this conversation.”

“Well, good thing I brought it up then.” Dean’s tone is laced sharp and just a shade less than bitter.

Sam flares up at that. “I’ve been trying to talk to you about it for the past three days, Dean. You’re the one who was either MIA or holed up in your room with the deadbolt on. It’s not my fault that you were ignoring me.”

“I wasn’t ignoring you.” Dean’s eyes dart away and back again, like he’s trying not to let something slip. There’s a beat, then he answers the question before Sam can ask it. “I was thinking.”

A pressure starts to build behind the bridge of Sam’s nose. “Thinking about what?”

Dean’s lips quirk up. It’s almost a smirk, except that the pressure expands and wraps around Sam’s sinuses like a vice with it.

“Same thing you were thinking about, Sammy.” His voice pitches dark. “Seems like we’ve been thinking the same things for a while now, don’t it?”

Sam swallows against a bone-dry throat. He knows that hint of a honey-thick drawl, the coy catch of mossy eyes under dark lashes, the peek of dull-white teeth behind lips gone puffy and soft. It’s etched in a hundred bars, against a hundred neon-lit signs humming Bud or Pabst or Miller or Coors. It’s tipped away from Sam, towards bartenders and waitresses and giggly girls-night-outers. Sometimes Sam has to double-check, thinks that it’s flashed at a guy who runs the pool tables better than them or a man in a crisp leather jacket who raises his glass their way. Probably not, but he can’t be absolutely sure.

The only thing that he can be sure of is that it’s never shot at him. Never aimed with purpose in his direction, never trigger-pulled with only Sam in its sight. There are two dozen other mousetrap expressions that Dean springs just on him and two dozen more that they keep locked between each other, but this one—this one Sam has never been privy to.

While you were looking, a suspicion crackles against his eardrum and Sam tries to collect the memories of turning towards Dean just as Dean turns away. Tries to pinpoint the moments when their eyes met, when they reeled in something without even realizing that they’d been fishing in the first place. And the other way around, when Sam steals what he can in the handful of minutes that Dean’s attention isn’t laser-focused on him.

So maybe he knows this game pretty well, maybe it’s been half-swapped back and forth for years while they both pretended not to notice. But it’s never been bold like this, never been so shameless. It’s never been just like all the other bars, all the other people, and suddenly Sam’s livid and nauseous and sick in the clench of his soul because it never fucking occurred to him that maybe that’s exactly what this is. Maybe Sam’s just like the rest of them.

“Are you seriously trying to use one of your lines on me, Dean? Like what—a wink and a tequila shot and I’ll be another notch on your belt?” Sam doesn’t mean to spit the words like acid, doesn’t mean for Dean to flinch back with the burn. He grinds the venom down with his back teeth. “Jesus Christ, dude.”

Then the world goes five sizes too big—or maybe he’s shrunk down, shriveled like a half-peeled orange left out on the counter. But it’s not him. It’s Dean. Dean deflated, bravado burst and he’s shaking apart. A little kid with chubby cheeks that Sam never knew, swimming in their dad’s Jayhawks jersey.

Sam can see him pulling at the overlong sleeves. Feel him, now that Sam has punched a psychic fist through the hardened mask of charm and innuendo and habit—fuck, habit. Dean’s ducktaped habits that support the rickety frame of who he tells himself he is and Sam knew but now he can feel and it’s worse.

It’s so much worse.

The Dean in front of him smiles—tight and sewn shut—blinks and then drops his head. Nods to the floor, hands on his chair arms and pushing up. Away.

“Okay.”

Sam’s head is pounding; he might actually vomit. Something is sawing out a part of him and he’s clawing, screaming, frantically fighting against the blade. He stands on autopilot, on instinct, and he stretches out to the little boy and it’s reaching out to Dean. A hand around his wrist and for a second Sam’s palm burns like grace.

“No. Wait. Shit.” Sam speaks like dead leaves, flat and haphazard. He feels Dean reel back and he braces for the hit.

When it doesn’t come, he whispers. “Don’t go.”

“What do you want, Sam?” Dean’s hands are fists; the tendons shift under his grip. “What the fuck do you want?”

It’s a thousand shards of broken—rage, sorrow, guilt, terror—and it rains over them both. Sam almost lets go, almost lets Dean go, before he catches the glint of a few jagged pieces. Almost lost in the fall, but not quite.

A fracture of hope.

“Tell me, Dean.” Sam takes one step closer and Dean leans back but doesn’t move away. “Tell me that this isn’t like your other…others. Tell me that this isn’t the same, that it won’t be just another thing we’re gonna actively ignore, that it won’t take another proto-god freakout for us to talk about this stuff again.”

Sam drops his wrist, feels Dean trying to wrangle the parts of himself desperate to skitter out. He gives him a minute.

“Tell me that this isn’t disposable, that we won’t make this the exception to the rule.” His heart aches off-beat. “I’d rather have none of this than have to lock it down again.”

Dean sways a little and Sam forces a burst of air out through his nose.

“I kept it locked up for years. For—for so long, Dean. I can go back.” Sam’s nodding fast, eyes gone glassy and he’s not sure who he’s trying to convince. “I can go back, if you want me to.”

Dean inches forward, lifts up Sam’s left hand and traces the lines of a scar that was supposed to help the world make sense to Sam again. Only it wasn’t the sting of the cut or the pull of the stitches that Sam remembered when he dug his thumb into the torn flesh. It was Dean’s fingers, Dean’s voice, Dean’s belief in him.

Stone number one.

And Sam has broken that stone so many times, sometimes cracked it down on Dean himself. He’s hurt Dean and Dean’s hurt him and he just won’t—can’t—start another thing between them that’s gonna end in flames.

“Sam.” There’s honey again, but this time it’s warm like stirred-in tea for a cold or drizzles over Sunday morning waffles. “Sam, what do you want?”

Everything goes quiet like a held breath because: what does Sam want?

Sam wants to be okay, wants them to be okay. Sam wants normal—not the normal that he ran away for or the normal that he clung to while the Devil told him stories he wasn’t ready to hear. He wants their normal, the fucked-up little niche of surviving that they carved out together and made their own. And all this—these parts of him (them) that had always been stamped down and boarded up—that was part of their normal too and maybe they need some locks without keys, some uncrossed boundaries. There is still so much they (Sam) can have without this.

But it’s not enough anymore.

Sam spent so long trying to be better—trying to snap off all his selfish, cowardly, greedy impulses—and he’s gotten so good at it that he almost believes it now. Believes that he doesn’t want to loom over particularly unhelpful witnesses until they’re pissing themselves with fear, that he doesn’t sometimes think that especially douchey victims might have kind of deserved getting eaten. Believes that what they do is worth it, that their best is enough, that the world needs to be saved and who’s gonna do it if they don’t?

But he never quite convinced himself about Dean. About how he always felt entitled to his big brother—his attention, his admiration, his affection—above anyone else. Even their dad, even their mom—the grabby, petulant part of Sam resented anyone else Dean offered to let in. Which was ridiculous.

More than ridiculous really, it was unfair to Dean. Dean who took so little for himself, who kept so little of what was given to him. Dean who’d goad little Sammy about liking kiddie cereal but still skip breakfast when there was only one bowl left. Dean who’d pleaded and begged but still let Sam stalk off to Stanford rather than demand that he give up who he thought he wanted to be for the family. Dean who drove into Stull Cemetery so Sam wouldn’t have to die alone, who left his best shot at a life without monsters for an unwhole Sam, who killed and died and did things that Sam’s sure he’ll never know about to keep them together. So Sam had decided that he owed Dean this much—owed letting him enjoy the few things he allows himself without Sam throwing a passive-aggressive fit. Owed letting him care about other people, be with other people, be happy with other people. Find people who could do the (few) things that Sam couldn’t do for Dean himself.

They’d both allowed each other that and the only thing unspoken had been the resistance to it, hanging low like swamp willows bowed under the heat.

But now Sam wants everything, all of it. Every possessive, desperate, needy urge—even the ones he knows they shouldn’t scratch at. Sam wants (needs) and Dean wants (needs) and if this is something they can give each other then maybe it’s okay. Not for everyone, obviously, not across the board—but maybe for them, in their cramped little corner of this strange world, it’s okay.

Dean’s waiting; Sam can feel a double-pound in his chest, not quite on the same rhythm. He leans forward, down, wraps his too-long arms around Dean’s waist and tucks his too-high head into the crook of Dean’s neck. Squeezes tight like he might crumble without the support. He closes his eyes and listens to Dean’s deep breaths like shudders along his skin.

“I want this.”

Dean’s arms snake around his shoulders, over well-worn trails with markers for all of their near-misses. They clamp down and pull tight and Sam can feel him grab fistfuls of the fabric stretched across his back and it’s so much. Like being flayed alive with obsession, with adoration. With love.

Was it always like this—had this always been seething under their re-seamed skin? Had they always been one right move away from tearing out their sutures just to get some relief? Sam can’t believe that they’ve kept this pulsing within themselves all this time, can’t believe that it hasn’t hollowed them out.

He huffs against Dean’s neck; that trademark Winchester cocktail of denial and repression really is a hell of a thing.

“Always had this, Sammy.” Dean unclenches his fists, rubs broad circles in the valley between Sam’s shoulders.

A blanket of overthick comfort stuffs itself into the places where Sam thinks he might be shivering apart and his instinct is to burrow in, hoard what Dean’s giving him and save the rest for another time. A better—an easier time.

An impossible time, Sam knows, but our life is built on impossible.

He presses his lips against the cords of muscle just above Dean’s collarbone. Dean’s body goes stiff and a strike of blue-hot static climbs up Sam’s spine.

“What about this?” His lips follow Dean’s pulse, the pump of his (their) blood. He kisses firm and dry along Dean’s cartoid, scrapes and catches against Dean’s stubble. Sam can feel the clench and tick in Dean’s jaw as he ghosts over it. He doesn’t let himself linger until he’s hovering at Dean’s mouth, noses pushing together and lungs swallowing each other’s air. “Did I always have this too?”

He doesn’t let Dean dwell on implications; it’s a mostly-rhetorical question and he thinks that maybe he always knew the answer anyway. He doesn’t let himself dwell either, doesn’t hold out for a justification that’ll mean anything more than this is how we were made to be.

Sam doesn’t have to push or pull—he barely has to move—and their lips are pressing together like the echo of a hundred butterfly kisses that little Sammy saved up just for his big brother, before Dean started holding him back at arm’s length and Sam learned to stop wanting them. Sam keeps the kisses light and slow, keeps his hands loose around Dean’s hips in case it all goes to hell and they need to make a quick escape.

Dean’s so warm, so cautious against him and Sam’s nerves are stripped to the wire, double-knotted with the effort of keeping the inch without taking the mile. He wants to let Dean be the selfish one now, but that little brother greed whispers from the shuffled piles in his mind and Sam cuts it a deal. He hooks a thumb under three shirts—for such an exhibitionist, Dean always wears too many layers—and itches a nail just above the waist of his jeans. Dean’s body has more give than Sam thought it would and he suddenly wants to dig himself into the space between skin and bone.

Maybe then he’d finally feel close enough to Dean.

Dean shifts, wiggles a little and Sam wonders if he’s been lying all those times he swore that he wasn’t ticklish. Sam rubs harder until he can trace the jut of Dean’s hip, until Dean pulls his lips back.

Sam whines—maybe out loud, maybe just in his head—because he isn’t ready to lose them, and Dean sighs like he’s over his oxygen limit and some of it’s gotta go.

“Son of a bitch.”

Dean mumbles it against Sam’s teeth and then fingers are twisting in the shaggy hair at the nape of Sam’s neck and dragging him forward, down, in. When Sam hisses at the sting his mouth goes slack and Dean is there again, scooping him open.

Dean kisses wet and hungry and it’s a sledgehammer to the last of the barriers they’d let crystallize between them. Sam can feel their support beams crack down the middle, can feel Dean unraveling him and tying them back up together. Dean’s walking them somewhere, stepping forward and guiding Sam back and Sam’s letting him, hands curled below Dean’s kidneys and he wishes he could sear his palm prints into flesh. The welt that Cas left on Dean’s shoulder faded to a faint outline but (if he could) Sam would make sure his markings stayed fresh.

They don’t stop until Sam’s back hits something solid—a wall, maybe, or one of the decorative pillars—and Dean crowds him so the ridges bite into his spine. He’s dizzy, sick like a good day at a county fair, and Dean angles Sam’s head so that he can make the switch from mouth to ear in one smooth slide. He nips along the shell of Sam’s ear and it’s so fluid, so natural that Sam can’t stop the upkick of jealousy like bile bubbling halfway down his throat at all the practice Dean’s gotten over the years without him.

“Shh, Sammy.” Dean soothes against his flush. “You don’t have anything to worry about. If anybody oughta be jealous, it’s them of you.”

Sam’s tongue is full of cotton and lead. “Why’s that?”

Dean’s voice crackles like a bag of rocks. “Because I always came home to you.”

Something ignites under Sam’s ribs like a match into a pool of gasoline; it scorches through him. He wraps a hand around Dean’s neck and pulls Dean’s mouth back to his, digs the nails of his other hand into the curves above Dean’s hipbone. He barely registers that he’s hard until he’s grinding forward, desperate for friction but Dean’s heavy against him and only lets him have a few teasing drags. Enough to feel Dean—hot and full—and it should be a relief but the burn in Sam’s bones fans into a backdraft.

Sam ruts clumsy and erratic, rubs himself raw against Dean’s stubble and the crease of Dean’s jeans until white spots start to flicker behind his eyelids and his ribs strain at the press of his lungs against them. They break apart and all Sam can hear are their gulps and gasps, a melody without a rhythm.

He doesn’t want to look at Dean, not yet. He doesn’t want to sift through the questions that bounce between them, doesn’t want to slip back into the safe role of counselor-mediator-emotional barometer for the unit of them.

He wants to let go—truly, honestly, unlock the chains and see how far he stretches without them—with his brother and for once not have it end in broken noses and busted motel rooms and one of them swearing they’re gonna walk out that door for good. He wants that good spiral, pleasure-pain until he’s choking on it, death by bliss and he’ll never get that if he lets Dean think too hard about any of this.

Dad had them runs drills on their tactical moves, made them practice pinning and flipping each other until it was more like a dance than a fight; Sam spins Dean back against the wall like it’s second nature. He knows that Dean could flip them again if Sam gives him half a chance so he leans in, wedges a leg between Dean’s knees and tries not to crush Dean’s hips against the cinderblocks.

His palms rub over the grooves of Dean’s ribcage, tracing the scars that litter his chest and Sam doesn’t need to see them to know exactly where they are. He can feel Dean tangling inside like sleeves tied up in the washing machine, knows that he’s bickering with himself over losing full control of this situation. He picks and pulls at it for a minute and then Sam can feel his compromise, can feel his nerves exhale before Dean’s hands slide into Sam’s back pockets and he sets a pace. Calms Sam’s rough, bruising thrusts to a brutal-slow roll and Sam doesn’t know (doesn’t care) if it’s this stupid mind meld or not but every inch of Dean chars an outline on him. He braces himself against the wall—fingers splayed wide on either side of Dean’s head—suddenly not so sure that the next double-demin drag of Dean’s cock along his thigh won’t drop him right down to the hardwood floor.

“Jesus Christ, Dean.” Sam sounds like someone took a razorblade to his vocal chords, sliced and frayed.

Dean’s breath is warm, damp bursts against Sam’s cheek and something rattles—a loose cog in the heart of a clock—with it. Something that needs to be jarred free.

Sam runs his teeth along Dean’s shoulder and his nose floods with a zest of no-name glycerin soap, the tang of leather-sweat, and the salt and sulfur that must be recoded in their DNA by now. He follows the smell of Dean to the thickest cords of muscle threaded between collarbone and shoulder blade and bites down, hard but careful. He wants welts, not blood.

Dean jerks against him and everything goes airtight like sucking on a plastic cup until it buckles. Sam’s elbows hit the concrete, caging Dean in with his biceps, and he wonders if he’s about to become the first person who’s ever fainted from dry humping.

“Holy—goddamn—Sammy—” Dean lurches like he’s been shot in the gut, would double over if Sam wasn’t holding them both up. Sam feels it like hands around his neck, like a thousand spark plugs clamped down on every last one of his nerves, and Dean pants soft and shaky:

“You fucker.”

And that, of all things, is it. Dean came quiet but he strangles it out of Sam—hands wandering up under Sam’s shirt and nails ripping down his back and Sam feels like he’s crying, like he should be crying. Sobbing, but his cheeks are dry.

For a few more seconds they clatter together like two signposts along an empty stretch of highway. Dean’s nails go blunt, scratching and kneading comfort patterns practiced in too-long backseat drives and over cold motel nights waiting to hear if this would be the time Dad didn’t come back.

Sam stays burrowed above Dean’s collarbone until the sticky wet pooled in his boxers and trailed along his thigh starts to go cold and tacky. The discomfort must be mutual—or maybe Dean was waiting for his cue—because as soon as Sam shifts Dean’s arms drop. He straightens and shakes himself out and all of the sudden Sam is terrified that if he lets Dean go he’ll be gone.

“Come on, get off me Sasquatch.” Dean shoves half-hearted and Sam thinks that’s only partially because he can’t get any decent leverage. “Don’t make me kick you in the shins. These boots have steel-toes.”

“You got them from a thrift store in Vermont.” Sam mumbles into the nape of Dean’s neck, swaying but not moving back yet.

“So? Thrift stores in Vermont can’t have steel-toed boots? If anyone’s gonna have steel-toes, it’s those lumberjacks up there. How else are they gonna fight off the bears?”

Sam huffs. A smile itches at the corners of his mouth. “Are you saying that you think lumberjacks stomp bears to death with steel-toed boots?”

Dean nods. “Like in Goodfellas.”

Something nags at Sam, tugs at his pant legs and it’s not fear or regret or any of the other half-dozen reactions Sam is trying to box out of them both.

It’s just awkwardness, like first bike rides and first hunts and first mornings (afternoons) after and it hits Sam that that’s exactly what this is. He pulls back, presses his palms along the sides of Dean’s neck, tucks them under the sharp ridge of his jaw. Looks at him, and the strange flutter beneath his sternum kicks up but it doesn’t make him nauseous.

He feels for Dean’s pulse under his thumbs. “I’m good, Dean.”

Dean blinks fast; one two one two one two three, his face caught between expressions like he can’t quite pick where he wants to land and Sam knows that almost everyone they’ve ever met has thought Dean was hot—enough of them have blurted it out over the years—but Sam never understood that. Never understood how hot is where people threw their chips in, because Dean is beautiful. Always had been and never more so than when Sam manages to get a glimpse behind the easy, practiced masks he shuffles through.

“Me too.”

His chest starts to sear like standing too close to a space heater and Dean’s eyes flicker, cheeks blotted pink over his freckles. Sam’s pretty sure that they can’t read each other’s thoughts (yet) but Dean seems to get the gist of it. Sam coughs, trails his hands light down Dean’s chest and then grimaces against the stick and slide of the mess in his jeans. Pulls at his belt loops to try and readjust until he can get to a bathroom.

Dean chuckles and it rolls into a laugh, bright and warm and Sam would weave a blanket out of it if he could.

“Bet you haven’t done that since high school.” Dean winks, mask back in place.

Sam lets him have it. “Not really even then, honestly.”

“Really?” Dean’s eyebrows hook up and Sam collects a handful of comebacks for whatever snide comment he’s about to make. He pauses and Sam’s ready but then his eyes drop to the buttons on Sam’s shirt and he edges forward, reaches out then pulls back. Finally settles on the gentle tap of his fist against Sam’s heart.

“Good.”

Sam tries to sputter but his throat’s gone desert-parched, hot and cold and too damn exhausted to do this all over again right now but hell if he doesn’t really fucking want to anyway.

“Dean…”

“We’re good, Sammy.” Dean spreads his fingers across the flannel and when they leave Sam still feels the singe. “Plenty of time to try out everything else you didn’t do in high school, once we get this goddamn Pandora magic out of our systems.”

The adrenaline and endorphins are wearing off and Sam’s not sure if he heard Dean right over the buzzing in his ears.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Dean’s drifting away now, already shimmying out of his pants and balling them up for the wash. “Another orgasm like this might actually kill me.”

Dean’s laughter echoes off the vaulted ceilings and Sam chases it down to a hot shower and a cool bed and a shine like new pennies on his soul.

---

A week swims by; then eight, nine days and they aren’t avoiding the subject but they’re not not avoiding it either. Sam e-mails a historian out of the University of Houston with some questions on Bantu iconography and goes back and forth with an overly-eager postdoc about amazimu lore. Cas texts them both from outside Poughkeepsie and says that there’s been a spike in angelic activity in the Catskills but doesn’t offer any details. A hunter out of Topeka calls Dean with what he thinks is a skinwalker so they drive up in an afternoon and get a motel room just in case.

The coroner’s office is closed so they settle in at a bar and Sam scans the police reports while Dean chats up two waitresses and one lady biker in a leather crop top who offers to beat him at darts. He flirts and Sam pretends it doesn’t bother him and he thinks Dean pretends to not notice but the knife edge of shared emotions has started to go dull. Sam pretends he doesn’t miss it.

“C’mon Sam, time to hit the hay. We wanna be the first ones in to see that corpse tomorrow.” Dean claps a hand on Sam’s shoulder and he jumps, was so focused on pretending not to care about what the Dean in his mind was gonna do that he forgot to pay attention to the real-life actual Dean in the bar.

They sleep in twin beds with a lacquered nightstand between them. Sam wakes Dean up with coffee and donuts—his favorite but they’re not keeping track—and they head to the police station.

It ends up being a bobcat that’d gone bold, and they drive home in mostly-silence. The low hum of the Allman Brothers ropes them to leather seats and steel rivets and the hot rubber along a dark run of asphalt that goes black as the sun sets.

It’s when they pass Cawker City that it hits Sam: he loves this, is in love with this. Not the rest stops with one working stall and no toilet paper, not the endless rotation of sad diner salads or the stink of too many days in the Impala without airing her out, not the blood and guts, not the enemies or the people they’ve lost—but what umbrellas all of that, Sam loves it. Loves that he has Dean to share this with, loves Dean for sharing it with him. Loves what they are, what they’ve always been—even when it was hard. Even when they didn’t know.

Even when it hurt.

Loves Dean, of course—never didn’t love him, couldn’t ever not love him. And it’s weird and awkward and changes everything and nothing, because Dean’s always been it for him. Even Heaven knew that.

He slides his hand across the ridges of stitched leather and padding to where Dean’s fingers rest next to his leg and doesn’t stop until they’re pressed together at the seams. Sam doesn’t say anything and Dean doesn’t ask. One song segues into another and Dean hooks his pinkie finger over Sam’s and they’re the same as they ever were, with the roll of yellow roadway lights trailing them home.