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Wayfinding

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After the crypt, after Meg, after Cas, Sam and Dean drive back to the bunker. Dean keeps the radio off. Sam doesn't try to make him talk. They get out of the car and stand there in the night air. Road noise is so distant as to be almost imperceptible, but they can hear the dry grass rustling in the wind. "You know what," Dean says. "I'm going to need a minute." Sam nods. And Dean gets back in his car, and he drives.

*

"Hey, brother," Dean hears. Dean's outside some shithole gas station in the middle of nowhere, sitting on Baby's hood, watching the moths flitter and swarm the lights above the pumps. The hood holds no residual heat from the engine block. The phone pressed tightly to his ear is warm.

"Hey," Dean says. His voice comes out wrong, low and rough and thick. Distantly, part of his brain is surprised that the words don't taste like copper, that the working of his jaw and tongue come out without physical pain. He doesn't realize until the hurt doesn't materialize that his body was waiting for the words to pull at the split of his lip.

"Hey yourself," Benny's rumble comes, something like relief in his tone.

Dean's not sure how long he's been sitting here. There's a blank space in his head.

"Where you at?" Benny asks, and Dean, pressing his other hand absently, gently, to his cheekbone, his orbital, realizes he doesn't know. "Dean, you still there?"

"Yeah," Dean says. "Just a sec." The gas station is generic, hum of the overhead fluorescents is the same as it's ever been. The highway runs dark towards a distant city glow in one direction, fades into the blank nothingness of night on the other. The air smells like gasoline. He turns on his GPS. "I'm half an hour out of Tulsa."

"Okay," Benny says. "That's good. Can I get you to do something for me? I'd take it as a real personal favor."

"Sure," Dean says, and "okay," as Benny talks.

Dean moves the Impala a bit down the road, so that he loses the lights of the station. He lies down on the hood, staring up at the roof of stars overhead and tonguing the inside of his lip, checking, until Benny gets there.

*

Dean wakes with a start, hand automatically jerking towards his pillow and the knife under it. The hotel room is grey in the early dawn light, color sucked out of everything. There's a moment, two, where the mattress beneath him is hard as rock and the walls fade out into nothingness and there's blood and smoke in the air, and he tenses automatically, listening for the rustling of leaves in the wind or the footsteps underneath. Then he sees Benny, standing with his back to him, staring out the slats of the blinds. Dean exhales, slow, lets his hand unclench from the hilt of his knife, and he sees Benny's shoulders relax almost infinitesimally in response.

"Morning, sunshine," Benny says, turning his head over his shoulder, towards Dean. Pale strips of light from the blinds play across his face, light up his eyes and leave shadows beneath them. "Bag's in the bathroom if you want to shower, get changed."

"Yeah," Dean says. Sits up and scrubs his hands across his face gingerly at first, then harder. He can still smell purgatory. Showering helps. The bathroom is small, worn but well-cleaned, and the water runs hot and the pressure is good. He closes his eyes, braces his arms against the cool tiles, lets the water beat stinging pinpricks against his skin, and doesn't think of anything until he gets out of the shower. In addition to Cas knitting back together the bones of his face and arm, Dean's lost some of his scars again. He wipes steam from the mirror and looks at his arms, his chest, his shoulders, and can't figure out rhyme or reason for what's been left behind. "Okay," he tells the backwards version of himself in the mirror, and dresses quickly from the bugout bag Benny grabbed out of his trunk. It's not until Dean goes to fold the clothes he slept in that he realizes they're still covered in blood. The shirt's a loss, he thinks, even though he's gotten pretty damn good at getting monster crud and blood out of things over the years, then he thinks - Oh, shit, Benny. -

The jacket's salvageable, the jeans mostly untouched, but he shoves them into a plastic bag first, ties off the bag in the garbage can around the abandoned t-shirt. Carefully washes the flakes of blood from his skin.

As far as Dean can tell, Benny hasn't moved, except to turn his face back to the window. The light is starting to cast everything in gold.

"Hey," Dean says, and "thanks," standing awkwardly, then "sorry," because it's not like he's afraid Benny's going to lunge for his throat, not really, but it's rude, that's what it is, for him to walk around covered in blood. It's like dangling a bottle of water in front of a man in a desert, except the desert is made up of bottles of water - and, okay, that metaphor doesn't make sense. It's like taking an alcoholic out to a bar and then slowly swirling a tumbler of Glenfiddich under their nose. And because Benny's turned to face him now: "thanks," Dean says again, making a gesture that he hopes encompasses the entire situation, the hotel that he doesn't remember finding or paying for, the fact that he's a goddamn mess, everything.

"Any time, brother," Benny says. He leans in to clasp Dean's arm, but stops when Dean tenses, just a little. (Dean's not thinking of Cas's iron grip on his shattered arm, the way his radius and ulna rubbed together.) Benny leans back the couple of inches to the wall instead, crossing his arms easily across his chest. "Any time."

This close, Dean can see that the shadows beneath Benny's eyes weren't just tricks of the light. The heavy stubble Benny usually carries is starting to move into beard territory. The hairs pick up the golden glow of the warming sun, but his skin is sallow. Dean swallows, steps back. "How're you doing?" he asks, guilt twisting at his gut, because he remembers the last time they talked, the strain in Benny's voice, his low rumble that he was in a bad way.

"Oh, you know," Benny says, tilting his head back. "Getting by."

"Yeah," Dean says. "Same."

*

They're almost a mirror image, leaning back against the sides of their vehicles, facing each other, drinking from paper cups. Dean's is full of coffee. Benny's isn't. Benny has to be getting flakes of rust and paint all up the back of his dark coat from his piece of shit camper. Dean has a million places he needs to be and a million things he needs to be doing, but he's drinking coffee as the morning fog burns off and pretending not to notice that there's hazelnut creamer in his cup, making the bitter scorch just that much more palatable.

Dean's almost forgotten what it's like to just be able to be quiet with someone. Sam always want to talk about his feelings and shit or there's a case, and Cas (Cas was so silent in the crypt, face so still) Cas is full of questions and wisdom and lacks a filter and when Dean stops talking or snarking they fill in the spaces, and even when they don't there's just so much weight there. He and Bobby - he and Bobby could sit there, quiet, working their way through a bottle of Jameson's, watching the glitter of light through glass and the way the whiskey changed colors as it dwindled down. Lisa - Lisa chattered as she moved around the house, used to fill the silence with light small talk because she could tell that's what he wanted then, something to fill in the spaces inside him, white noise to fill the spaces in his head. (God. He never deserved Lisa. He hopes she's happy.)

"I should go," Dean says. His only movement is to tighten his fingers around the warmth of his cup.

Benny hums in agreement. The sun's starting to get high enough that even in his coat and hat, it's going to be a problem for him. Every sip from his cup, he's careful to make sure no tell-tale residue stays behind, tongue flicking out to catch any stray drops of red.

Dean turns away. Swallows the rest of his coffee with a burning throat, chucks the cup at a nearby trash can. He's half into his car, one leg inside and the other arm on the door when he stops, straightens. Crosses his arms along the top of the door. "Oklahoma City," he says, and Benny nods like that means anything to him other than a two hour drive. "There's this museum in Oklahoma City," Dean says. "National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum."

Benny's eyes crinkle. "I've got no other plans."

*

Dean tries to figure out if it's weird, that this is the first time he's been in a museum. At least, during the hours the museum is actually open, and not just because he was casing the place for a later break-in or searching for something cursed. No Fed suit. Paid admission. He has a handout with a map of the museum and everything. It's weird.

It's a weekday morning and there aren't any school tours, so people are just a low hum around them. He has a brief flash of what it might be like, the wave and press of kids in cowboy hats hollering "look!", parents yelling "slow down," bored teenagers supervising younger siblings, and he winces. Dean and Benny's steps echo, just a little, in the main hall. The air is cool and they look less out of place than they did outside, each five or six layers deep into their clothing.

The Weitzenhoffer Fine Firearms Gallery is everything Dean's ever dreamed it would be, and Dean's fingers itch to drift across some of the more ornate engraving. "You don't belong behind glass," he definitely doesn't tell one particularly beautiful rifle, its wood stock carved in intricate lines, gold inlaid with delicate scrollwork that spirals out from a buck with proud antlers. If he does, Benny definitely doesn't laugh gently.

"I like this one, here," Benny says, standing in front of a pearl-handled revolver with intricate filigree crawling down its silver barrel.

"Mine's nicer," Dean says with a sideways grin. Their eyes meet in reflection. Maybe this gun, behind glass, is prettier and objectively in better shape despite its age. Dean picked his gun out of the selection in the trunk of some skeezeball's car for his sixteenth birthday, and his father huffed. It has a lot of wear on it - and Dean suddenly wonders just how many bullets he's unloaded down its barrel - but he's taken care of it like he's taken care of his Baby, and he knows it as well as he knows the back of his hand.

Benny turns his head to him, raises an eyebrow. Dean realizes that Benny's seen him with a machete, a purgatory blade, a knife, but never with a gun. "I'll show you later," he says, feeling weirdly proud. The Colt 1911 is tucked at the small of his back, and Oklahoma's an open carry state, but this is - this is a nice day so far, and he doesn't want to risk drawing attention by pulling his gun out in the middle of a museum.

Benny likes art, it turns out. Dean shifts a little. "I don't know anything about it, really." The Art of the American West Gallery - sunsets and wagon trains and cowboys caught mid lasso - is really more his speed than the Prix de West Gallery, where Benny lingers.

"I don't know much about art, either," Benny says. Every painting in this room won some sort of major award, so Dean knows that in the opinions of people who think they know about art, they're all good. Benny turns away from the one he's been looking at (a single, tall ship with layered sails, reaching into the wind and towering over two smaller boats that trail dark clouds of smoke from their smokestacks). Benny looks at him intently, just like he was looking at the painting. "I just know what I like."

*

Benny huffs a little, sometimes, at some of the exhibits. Soft, amused sounds. At the clothes in the Museum of the Frontier. At some of the full-sized buildings they move through in Prosperity Junction.

"Of course he's about to get thrown from that horse," Benny says. Points at how the man in the photograph is grasping the horse with his thighs. Uses his hands to sketch out how the rider should have the reins wrapped across his palm, around his wrist.

Dean's mouth is dry. "How old are you, anyway?" Dean asks. "I know you bit it just before the sixties really started to swing."

"Now that," Benny says. "Is a complicated question." Dean, who is either in his early thirties or a septuagenarian, understands. "I was born in 1862. We counting to when I was turned, to when I died, to today, or we starting from when I crawled back out of my grave?"

The picture in front of them was taken in 1915, and the man - boy - about to fall off the horse can't be more than 25. Dean's standing next to a man who died before this photograph was even taken. "You know how to ride a horse, then," Dean says. "Not very pirate-y of you."

Benny smiles, slow. "Oh, I know how to ride," he says. Dean definitely doesn't blush.

Pop Quiz, Dean thinks, only a little wildly. What's the weirdest thing about this situation? The hunter standing peaceably next to a vampire; the fact that the person - the man - next to him was born before the man in this faded, sepia photograph; or that Dean Winchester is in a museum, no hunt involved?

*

Benny's sitting in the shade of the back of his camper. Dean has his hands in his pockets and his face to the sun. He feels like he should be saying see you later. Heading back to the bunker. Sam's there. His room is there.

(Sam will want to talk about it. Kevin will have been working on the tablet, and will have news about the trials. Sam will want to do the next trial. In Dean's room, he can stare at the ceiling and listen to the hum of whatever magic power system keeps the bunker lit.)

"I could do with some food," Dean says instead. (Things he didn't say, because he has some situational awareness, take THAT, Sam: You hungry? I could use a bite.)

"I could eat," Benny says.

It's what he says the next day, too.

And the one after that.

And the one after that.

*

They drive. Nowhere in particular. Benny is no more willing to ditch his shitty-ass camper than Dean is to part with the Impala, so they make a bizarre caravan, the sleek, low purr of a muscle car and uneven hitching of an engine on its last legs.

"You should let me look at it for you, sometime," Dean says. He knows that what he should be offering is to show Benny how to fix it himself. They're somewhere in Texas, sitting on the back of the Impala, eating pulled-pork sandwiches wrapped in foil from a roadside diner. The sandwich takes both hands, and Dean has an open bottle of beer wedged between his thigh and the back bumper. It's cold through the denim. He has a flask tucked into the inside of his jacket, coming up to body temperature.

"We're ever somewhere with the time and tools, you go right ahead," Benny replies. Somewhere. Benny's always known more about boats than cars, and a thing or two has changed in the last half century.

Dean thinks about it, a bit. Being somewhere. He was in the bunker for what, three months? He's been on the road with Benny for a week. He feels untethered, unmoored. He's crisscrossed the country more times than he could count, spent near his entire life doing it, but he always had a target. Always had a goal. (He shouldn't be here, he thinks. He shouldn't be running away from - )

"Easy, brother," Benny says. His hand is hovering near enough to his shoulder to touch, like he's waiting for permission to touch, and that's bullshit, Dean thinks. When did Benny ever need permission to clasp his shoulder? Dean's not some skittish -

"Thanks," Dean says, to drown out whatever was about to come tumbling out of his brain. Leans into Benny's hand.

*

They've somehow fallen into a bizarre travel schedule. Dean sleeps better at night but Benny has a hard time traveling during the middle of the day. Nothing else calling, they either split the day with a siesta in the middle, or leave sometime in early afternoon and drive into the evening. They should just switch to travel at night, Dean thinks, because it's not like he hasn't spent his entire life snatching winks of sleep where he can find them. At least that way it works for one of them instead of half-assed for both, but every time he tries to shift their schedule it somehow ends up rolling back. He doesn't think he's ever seen so many sunsets and sunrises.

In Purgatory, the sun never really ever rose or set, just hovered, a distant presence that sometimes shifted unpredictably in intensity or angle but never waxed or waned. Sunsets and sunrises were never really Dean's thing but he thinks, maybe, if you were used to watching the sun rise and set over the open ocean, you might miss them after a half century without.

Dean's driving and watching the sun set when he turns his phone back on and calls Sam.

"Hey," Dean says. He thinks he can hear the grinding of his brother's teeth and the way he inhales through his clenched jaw. Dean's had his phone off but he's been using credit cards he knows Sam can trace.

Sam inhales once, loudly, lets it out. "Kevin's here," he says. His voice sounds stronger than Dean remembered. "When you bugged out, I went and grabbed him." Laughs a little. "Literally threw him across my shoulder and dragged him back to the bunker. If you couldn't -" Sam stops. Pauses. Sam sighs. "How could we expect him to handle this on his own?"

Dean watches the sun set ahead of him, watches Benny's camper in his rearview. 'I could handle it,' he doesn't say. Instead: "He asked us to-"

"Yeah, but he's not exactly in his right mind at the moment."

Dean shrugs, like 'none of us ever are.' Sam can't see him down the line, but in the silence Dean can hear that he understands.

Sam doesn't ask how Dean's doing. Sam - Sam might not have known what happened after Flagstaff, but he'd been there in Boise after Dean had been too slow to stop one of the vamps from getting at Sam. Sam'd been there, afterward, scrunched down helpless in the back seat of the Impala, one hand pressed to his bandaged neck and the other to the window of the Impala while John had Dean up against the brick wall of the alley. Sometimes, Dean thinks that the look on Sam's face was the worst part of it.

"I'll leave my phone on," Dean says.

He calls Cas. Cas doesn't answer.

*

The thing about Benny – one of the things about Benny – is that they're square. Dean's not a fuck-up brother and replacement father-mother figure. He's not a righteous man with a glittering soul, born to lead armies; he's not the best-worst example of free will out there. He's not an FBI agent or a looming savior with a knife and a gun and the blood of monsters on his face. He's not one of the (in)famous Winchesters with a kill list as long as the Mississippi.

And yeah, maybe, Benny rode him out of Purgatory but Dean wouldn't have known there was a way out – wouldn't have gotten there, through every being, every creature – without him. Benny looks at him and all he sees is Dean.

*

Benny doesn't need food, but he enjoys it. Dean knows he likes to cook. Likes the act of creation. The job at the diner wasn't just because of Elizabeth. He favors Cajun food in part because of his childhood, in part because of the heavy spices, the depth of flavors. With his amplified sense of smell, the scent of herbs, of fresh fruits and vegetables cooking elevates itself to an art form. More than once Benny's turned them around just inside a restaurant's door because he can smell something that's gone off.

Benny takes to food like a smoker gone cold-turkey takes to gum. Food's changed a lot in the last half century, and Benny wants to try it all. Sometimes, Dean laughs to himself and wonders what Sam would think if he could see him, crammed into a too-small booth in a hole in the wall, slurping noodles Benny finagled them off a menu devoid of English.

Dean wants a burger most days, fries, but that's all in the taste, the grease, the salt. Not a lot of heady aroma. He's willing to compromise, sometimes. He's willing to set aside a craving now and then, when Benny's doing it every day.

*

The country crawls by in a never-ending sprawl of diners and roadside attractions and museum brochures and ticket stubs. At a Biggerson's in New Mexico, for a split second, Dean thinks he sees Cas. Dean and Benny kill monsters where they find them, when they're hurting people. Dean starts picking up battered paperbacks at second-hand book stores and leaving them in whatever motel room or park he finishes them in. He chooses books by author, by cover, by a vague sense of familiarity with the title. Sometimes he just grabs the one with the most battered spine or the one languishing at the bottom of the pile.

Benny reads every newspaper he can get his hands on, front to back, building context for a world moved on.

*

Somewhere around Des Moines, Dean realizes he likes Japanese woodblock prints. He's seen them before without really paying too much attention. Bobby had a bunch of them for research, depictions of monster and folklore and fairytales. (Bobby also had a book of pornographic ones that Dean found in a closet when he was twelve, a mix of confusing and arousing and not at all helping the fact that by bouncing between schools Dean'd managed to miss sex ed entirely.)

The woodblocks are landscapes and slices of life, but there are geisha and samurai, monsters and demons and gods. Dean likes the cleanness of the lines, the vividness of the colors, the cleverness of the technique itself. Ukiyo-e, the museum plaque calls it. Pictures of the floating world.

There's a face in one that strikes him as familiar. It makes Dean think of cool shadows. He closes his eyes and smells damp wood and grass gone to seed. Bobby's place again, Dean realizes. He'd been climbing in the open rafters of Bobby's porch when he found a long tube tucked up against the eaves of the house. Legs kicking into empty space on either side of the beam, he'd pried the tube open and unrolled the print inside, careful of the age of the paper. That face had been the one staring up at him, heavy mustache supporting his bulbous nose, eyes crossed under dark, overhanging brows. The hell are you doing up there, boy? Bobby had yelled, and Dean had shoved the print back in and jammed the lid on quick before he swung sheepishly down to the porch, careful to take the weight on his good ankle.

"That's Shōki the Demon Queller," the docent tells him when he asks. "Families with male children used to hang images of him outside their homes to ward off evil spirits. Some still do."

"Would it mean anything if it were done in red?"

"That would make it an aka-e as well," she says. "Used to ward off disease and illness, primarily smallpox."

The Leviathans left some of the walls of Bobby's house standing. Dean wonders if there's any chance the print is still there, tucked up safe, like it was meant to help keep them.

*

There's a werewolf in Odessa, a rawhide ranging around Salton Sea, vampires at the world's largest outdoor bookstore in Ojai. Benny whistles when he fights and hums when he's happy or he's not paying attention, Dean's not sure which. He doesn't ask. Doesn't want to draw attention to it. It makes falling asleep easier, sometimes.

Dean keeps thinking that maybe they should talk about it. They should talk about a lot of things. He knows this can't last.

He thinks maybe, just maybe, he's happy.

He wonders how he'd know.

*

They're outside of Canyonlands National Park when Cas drops out of the night sky.

*

Dean is out of his car before Benny's even come to a stop. Cas is bleeding and Dean freezes, uncertain, for a second, two seconds, until Cas growls "help me." Dean starts forward, but Benny pushes past him. Backlit by the Impala's headlights, Dean casts a long shadow across them. Benny picks Cas up like he weighs almost nothing. Dean's on the phone with Sam by the time Cas is settled into the Impala's back seat. Benny hangs back while Dean looks after Cas's wounds as best he can, considering he doesn't know what to do about wounds on an angel that close slow.

Benny's leaning against the front of his truck. He's shut it off so that the headlights didn't blind them, and he's cast red by the brake lights of the Impala.

"Twelve hours to Lebanon," Benny says. "Nine, the way you drive. You going to be okay?"

"Yeah," Dean says. "I'm fine." Dean has known this moment is coming from the second he saw Cas's trench coat, the blue of his eyes. (He's known it was coming for longer than that.) No matter how Dean tries, he can't see a place for Benny in the bunker, not like he can Cas. It's not just that Sam (and Cas) hate him. (Neither of them are going to be Benny's favorite people, either, because Benny and Cas never had much in common but Dean, and Sam's the reason for Martin, for the look on Elizabeth's face, for Benny's backslide. And look - Dean was a vampire for all of five minutes, really, but he can still remember the thirst.) The entire bunker would be a reminder of what Benny is. And look, Benny knows what he is. It's not like he ever forgets that he's a vampire, not really. He's perfectly aware what he's capable of. What he's done in the past. But you can't ask someone to live surrounded by reminders that people set up entire huge secret societies dedicated to hunting things like you, built lairs to hold and torture and experiment.

Dean realizes that Benny's holding out his arm for Dean to clasp and Dean does so, steps in close and uses it to pull Benny into a hug. "Look after yourself," Dean says, pulling him in tighter.

"Same to you, mon oisillon," Benny says. Dean can feel the cool rush of his breath on his neck. The hand on his back drifts lower before they release each other. "Drive safe," Benny says. He stays, leaning against his bumper, arms crossed against the night air he can't feel, watching as Dean gets in Baby. Without the backlight of headlights, he falls away quickly into the dark. In the mirror, Dean can see Cas, propped up against the door in the back, close his eyes.

*

When Dean has installed Cas into a room in the bunker, when he's seen to his wounds again and carefully washed his hands, he finds Sam in the war room. Dean's afraid Sam's going to try to make him talk about it, talk about everything, but he just folds him into a tight hug. Dean half-breaks it eventually, holding Sam at arm's length so he can take a good look at him. Sam looks - not good, exactly, not healthy, but better.

Dean nods.

"Let's get to work," Sam says.

*

It's a big bunker but Dean sometimes feels like he's suffocating. For some reason, they've all decided to congregate into one little corner of it, when they haven't even explored the extent of its expanse.

Kevin is yelling about going to the desert. Sam wants to either take off to Colorado after Metatron or hurl himself back into hell, looking for an innocent soul. Cas is somehow still bleeding and appears to want to cause the same in someone else. And Dean, to be honest, would rather be either killing something or in a tiny-ass restaurant in Buttfuck, Idaho, while he and Benny bump knees under the table. The four of them are trying to fly off in at least seven different directions. Dean's sitting in the library with a hand pressed to his forehead to try to contain the throbbing pain centered there while Sam looms over Cas and Kevin pulls book after book off of the shelves, looking for something, and the next time a heavy tome hits the desk, Dean just snaps.

"That's it! No one is going anywhere," Dean snarls. It takes him a second to realize that the reason everyone's silent and looking at him is that he smacked a book to the table so hard the noise is still echoing. "No one. Not right now. No wandering off. No taking off to find ourselves or run secret missions or make any damn deals. No one is going anywhere until we get our shit together. Everyone's going to find an empty corner of the building and take a deep breath and I'm going to chew a handful of Advil and cook us all supper." Sam starts to say something, but Dean holds up one finger. "And yes, I'm a hypocrite. New rules, starting now."

And because Cas isn't human and is shit at body language, he stops forward into the silence. "Dean," he says, "You know that I don't need to --"

"EVERYONE," Dean snarls, and stomps out of the room.

*

In heaven, Dean watched a full-grown version of his brother have Thanksgiving with his 13-year old girlfriend.

In Minnesota, Dean was on the menu for a bunch of inbred cannibals.

More than once, when Dean was hunting with his dad, the most expedient way to save lives was to use Dean as sex bait for whatever they were after.

When they were looking for Anna's grace, Sam, Dean, Ruby, and Anna ended up crammed into the last, too-small booth in a greasy diner that didn't even have the courtesy to serve booze.

This is still the most awkward family dinner Dean's ever been involved in.

*

"I'm still a vegan," Kevin finally complains one day.

Sam pauses. Looks at the salad Kevin has made himself out of burger fixing. "Did – did you think we were bringing you vegan tacos on the houseboat?"

Kevin gasps. "You weren't?" His eyes are wide. Sam looks a little frustrated and a little distressed.

"Gelato isn't vegan?" Dean asks, before he can stop himself.

"Milk and eggs, bitch!" Kevin crows.

Dean and Kevin snort with laughter. Sam looks just as confused as Cas does.

Things get easier, sometimes.

*

Another week in, and Sam corners Dean in an artifact room.

"You need to know," Sam says, "you need to remember, that no matter what happens, I don't want to die. I'll accept it, if I have to. But it's nothing I'm looking for."

Dean, who has been facing the wall, forces his shoulders to relax. "Good," he says, and as long as he doesn't turn around he can pretend that his voice isn't rough.

It's not like Dean doesn't know it's fucked up, the lengths they'll go to for each other. Or at least the lengths he'll go to for Sam. The Purgatory thing – if there had been any sign that Dean was dead, he'd understand. A body, or a smear that used to be a body or an atomic shadow, or Cas's wings burned into the ground.

It's not like Dean doesn't get it, on some level. Their dad sold his soul so Dean could live and Dean carried that heavy. Sam had to watch that whole year. Had to deal with the aftermath when Dean came back. When Dean broke the first seal. Sam's got to be getting tired of carrying the weight of his fucked-up brother's mistakes.

"You know what the most messed up thing is?" Dean asks, later. He's in his room, sitting at the foot of his bed, talking low into his phone. It's not the most messed up thing, but it's not exactly great, either. "I think, probably, that Lisa was when I had my head the most together. I mean, I was –" he grasps for words.

"Shell-shocked, half-mad with grief and guilt," Benny says, like he knows. Because he knows.

"Yeah," Dean says. He had screaming nightmares, days he saw monsters around every corner. But the press of guilt drowned out the constant mantra of look after Sammy running through his head. The Look after Sammy. Look after Sammy. LookafterSammy. Lookaftersammylookaftersammy that bounces around in his brain sometimes, broken only by his father's voice whispering if you can't save him, you'll have to kill him. "But I was clearer about a lot of things."

Dean's not dumb. He's not a genius like Sam or Kevin or Charlie, but he can see patterns. He knows that every time he and Sam are apart for any length of time, things get a little more clear. He thinks of the case in Waterville with Cas, how he hadn't laughed that hard or that freely in years.

"Little like Purgatory itself," Benny says.

Dean hums in affirmation. Because, yeah, sucks in a lot of ways, painful as anything, hell on the nerves, but pure. "How's your bucket of bolts handing together?" he asks. Drops to his back on his bed to stare up at the ceiling. He's been trying to picture where Benny is, how he's doing. How much color there is in his skin. How many days deep his stubble is. If he's somewhere warm enough that he has to carefully fold back the bottom few inches of his sleeves so as not to appear out of place.

"Still packing on the miles," Benny says. Doesn't offer anything about where he is, but the light conversation and clink of glass that was in the background when Dean called has long since been replaced by the distant rumble of cars and the occasional call of night birds. The bunker is full of a constant, low electric hum, the occasional rattle of old pumps, the sigh of recirculated air.

"Tell me a story," Dean says, and falls asleep listening to Benny's voice rise and fall like the waves.

*

Sam and Dean are neck-deep in research – literally, in Sam's case, because to one side he has a stack of books that reaches past his chin – when Sam gets a look on his face that Dean's learned to hate over the years. It's Sam's 'let's talk about our feelings' face. Dean feels his eyelid twitch. Dean tries frantically to think of something to say to ward it off, but Sam's already talking.

"Dean," Sam says, as he carefully marks his place in the book. "I just. I'm glad you're here. I don't like the thought of you out there alone, with everything happening. I know you're an adult – you're a hunter, one of the best out there – and you can take care of yourself, but - "

"I wasn't alone," Dean interrupts. The muscles in his thighs tense, and his jaw clicks.

Sam's face gets tight. "Who –"

Dean relaxes his hands. Flips a page. "Don't ask questions you don't want the answer to, Sammy."

*

"Hello, Dean," Missouri says when she picks up the phone. "And yes, you should bother with the small talk," she continues, which Dean was just wondering about. "I haven't heard from you boys in years, and I don't know everything. I ain't gonna ask you how you're doing, but a little bit of consideration wouldn't hurt. A few minutes out of your life right now aren't going to make any difference at all."

Dean laughs, shaky. "Okay," he says, and does his best to make casual conversation. He knows how to put someone at ease, how to lead a conversation. He learned how to carefully pass for almost normal for when he slipped and a teacher or social worker got suspicious. He knows lore. When he has to, he can talk about the big things, about life and death. It's not that he's rusty. It's that he's never really learned the in-between. He didn't have a friend - just friend, no romantic interest or parental substitute - until well into adulthood, long past the time he was supposed to learn these types of things. It's like learning a second language late in life, when the plasticity of the brain has long since been lost. They talk for a bit about Sam, about Lawrence, about Missouri's kids and grandkids. She tells him that he should tell Benny that when he thinks of home, he thinks of docks on the water and porches facing out into the green. Tells him that he should call Charlie, because both of them could use a friend.

"We should come see you sometime," Dean finally says, because they only live a few hours away now. (He lives somewhere, he thinks.) "Or you could come see the bunker, if you want."

"I'd like that, Dean," Missouri says, and he can hear her smile. There's silence then, and Missouri sighs. "No matter what you do, this ends the same. There are variations, of course. You don't usually think to call me. But no matter what, neither of those tablets gets used, not right now, not during this story. And I'm sorry, but the longer you fight it, the bloodier it ends. For everyone."

*

Dean thinks about that painting in Oklahoma City, sometimes. The graceful, tall arc of the sailing ship, the mountains, played against the squat lines of the steamships. There was an art that's been lost, he thinks, in playing to the sea. To tacking into the wind. Traded for convenience and motors and soot and the ability to chart your own course. To draw a straight line.

What the fuck does he know, though.

*

"Nash Equilibrium!" Sam yells. It's been an unusually quiet day, and Dean sees Kevin startle. It's evening, maybe. It's hard to tell when you're so completely cut off from the cycle of the sun and moon. Their sleep schedules have started to desynchronize from each other's and from the clock.

"The Nash Equilibrium!" Sam yells again. His eyes are a little feverish.

"You keep saying that," Dean says. "But you repeating 'Nash Equilibrium' doesn't actually tell us anything we didn't already know."

"There are two tablets in play," Sam says. "Opposing tablets. So –"

"It's game theory," Cas says. "Each side – each side is making the best decision they can, given the decisions made by their opponent. As long as your opponent's position doesn't change, neither can yours. It's reciprocal."

"So, stalemate?" Kevin asks.

Dean feels a grin start to tug at his lips. "Mutually assured destruction."

*

Crowley, with one and half tablets, no prophet, and taste for some of the finer whiskeys made only on Earth, offers a trade. He's surprisingly easy to capture really, in the end. Naomi appears with little fanfare when they call, seems entirely unsurprised when they light up the lines of holy oil that encircle the devil's trap.

"Welcome to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Tablets, bitches," Kevin says.

It goes better than can be expected, which means that everyone yells and brings up shit from before humans were walking upright, but no feathered or black-eyed dicks pop up to try to gank everyone and disrupt the proceedings.

Naomi and Crowley appear to agree that a formal cessation of hostilities is probably for the best. "Neither one of us wants to get trapped at home with the kids for all of eternity," Crowley explains.

The big hang-up appears to be figuring out what to do with the tablets so that no one gets an advantage. "They should be with me," Naomi insists. "I have no interest in preventing tarnished souls from spending the rest of eternity in Hell."

Dean snorts. Presses a hand absently to his cheekbone. Can see the blank look on Cas's face as he stood above him. "Yeah, because you're Miss Trustworthy."

Naomi seems angry then, humanly angry, in a way he's never really seen an angel get. "As the only being in this room who has not started an apocalypse, let Lucifer loose from his cage, or unleashed ancient primordial evils upon the world, my judgment deserves a little more weight."

Kevin's currently getting a snack, so this is, unfortunately, true.

"The hell with this," Dean says. "We'll smash the tablets."

*

Kevin has a sledgehammer suspiciously close at hand.

They let him do the honors.

*

"Come home," Naomi tells Cas, when tablets have been reduced to dust, when the line of the devil's trap has been broken, when the holy oil has been extinguished. "Metatron has heard, somehow, that the archangels are dead. He wants nothing more than to cast every angel out of heaven. Fight with us."

"I'll consider it," Cas says, and disappears to spread the dust of the tablets across the solar system. Kevin is passed out in the Impala. Sam and Crowley are off tying up loose ends, which apparently includes the fact that Crowley stole Bobby's soul from heaven, what the actual fuck.

It's just Dean and Naomi then, in an echoing warehouse, lingering wafts of holy smoke still on the air.

"You were around for the whole apocalypse thing, from what I gather," Dean says. There's literally blood on his hands, from a nick earlier that day. "You don't get to pretend like your hands are clean. That's without even getting into your little torture chamber and mind rape gig."

Naomi's face goes through a range of emotions. It's fluid in a way Dean hasn't even seen from Cas. "I'm a Seraph," she says. "Do you honestly think I had any control over the archangels?"

"Probably not," Dean says, tracing patterns in the grime on the wall. "But something tells me you didn't exactly kick up a fuss."

"What would you do, to stop the end of the human race?" She asks. "What have you done?"

"Yeah, well," Dean says. "You know what they say about the road to hell."

"I don't think you understand," Naomi says. "We're an endangered species. Only God himself can make more of us. I wish that I could say that Castiel decimated heaven," Naomi tells him. "I wish that we had only lost ten percent of the angels. He's known you for less than the blink of an eye."

She flies away before Dean's hand can hit the banishing sigil.

"I really do not like that woman," Dean snarls.

"She's not actually a woman," Cas says, close behind him. "But yes, I agree. Unfortunately, I can think of no better options."

"Yeah," Dean says, heavy. Clasps his hand to Cas's shoulder. "Yeah, buddy, I know."

*

Here's one version of how the rest of their lives could go: Sam and Dean live together, they hunt together. They live out of each other's pockets and they sleep down the hall from each other in an isolated compound for however long the rest of their lives are, and they hunt things until they die and they hope that the ratio of the disasters they stop and the disasters they start remains tipped in their favor. Dean and Cas eventually get their shit together, or they don't. They all die bloody together, or they die one at a time and mourn each other's passing when death finally takes them. It's not a bad life, all things considered. It's comfortable, familiar, and a damn sight better than any life Dean ever really believed he'd get.

Here's another: They learn how to live apart from each other. Not like the only way they've been able to in the past, which is cold turkey, no contact. They try to figure out how people who aren't hunters or in cults relate to each other. Dean goes somewhere he can feel the night air and hear birdsong. Sam goes back to law school or he starts a new Men of Letters. Maybe one or the other of them becomes the new Bobby, now that Garth's missing. Cas teaches angels about free will or he and Naomi end up in another civil war. They never leave the life, not really, not entirely. They all die bloody together, or they die one at a time and mourn each other's passing when death finally takes. It scares the shit out of Dean, and he has nothing to measure it against.

*

Dean gets in his car, and he drives.

*

"You going to invite me in, or what?" Dean asks.

Benny, standing in the doorway with golden light spilling out onto the porch, jazz playing low in the background, opens the door and smiles.

Chapter Text

Louisiana burns hot. It's still spring, but Dean can feel it coming on. It's not like he's never been in the south in the summer, never felt the press of heat, but he's not used to the way a heatwave simmers in place, the constant weight of humidity. He's always been on the move, sliding between climatic zones, between heat waves and cold snaps and driving storms. The weather in Cicero changed rapidly outside the windows, Lisa's house a constant and steady island, warm in winter and cool in the summer.

Dean thinks it's lucky he got here before the heat of summer, so he can ease into it. Most days, it doesn't get too hot. It still cools down overnight. They can prop the windows open and run the fan and it brings relief to Dean, at least. Benny likes frogsong and the smell of fresh air, so he's not complaining.

Benny's experimenting with curries. Layering all sorts of powders that Dean can't name, building fluttering layers of aromatics, smoke and earth and warmth and spice that waft through the house and stain Benny's fingertips yellow. It's not Dean's thing, not exactly, but he likes it well enough. Even more, he likes the way Benny looks at him when Dean lets him feed him, when a dish really knocks him off his feet. Dean likes the way the heat lingers on his tongue.

Sometimes, Dean thinks, he almost wants to talk about it.

"It's weird," he tells Sam, when he calls. "Watching the weather roll over you, instead of cutting through it."

Sam tells him about a wraith about two hours out.

*

The diner Benny's working at is more Creole than Cajun (the difference, as far as Dean can tell, is something about tomatoes). It's also air conditioned. Dean visits him there sometimes. Business goes down when the temperature goes up, no matter the AC, because hot bowls of gumbo and jambalaya don't call to everyone the same. If it's slow, Dean will sit in the back corner, legs kicked up on a bench, nursing a cup of coffee and a slice of pie while he works his way through a book or newspaper. Sometimes, if no one is looking, he carves small sigils of protection on the bottom of the windowsill. The owner, Susan, has a four year old and if Julie wants to climb up beside him and color, he can't say he minds.

Today is a quiet day, and Dean sighs as he pushes inside. The wraith took a couple of days to track down and gank. He took the drive back easy but straight, windows rolled down and music turned up. It's humid outside, and his jeans feel damp and heavy.

Susan looks up from where she's cleaning the front counter, apparently more to keep her hands busy than for any other reason. Dean feels his face fall for a fraction of a second. Julie skitters into Dean and wraps an arm around his leg. Susan smiles. "Sorry, Dean. Just sent that man of yours out on an errand."

The bottom drops out of Dean's stomach a bit, and he feels his face freeze. (It's his father's voice he's hearing, mostly.) It's not much of a slip, but it's enough of one that he sees Susan notice. He exhales, smiles, and she smiles back, uncertain, as he takes a deep breath and scoops Julie up. "And what makes you think I'm here to see him, huh?"

*

The house is outside of town, belongs to Susan. She bought it at auction to flip, right before the bottom fell out of the housing market. Before Julie. It's ramshackle, gone to seed, but the bones are good. Benny gets it cheap in exchange for doing a bit to just halt the inevitable march of time. He's comfortable in the worn-in, worn-out spaces.

It's been a long few days, and the third time Dean catches himself on a popped nail, he snarls "Screw this," and drives to the nearest Home Depot.

Benny's standing in the kitchen when Dean gets back, staring past his reflection into the night outside. The house is hot and still. He startles when Dean chucks the bags into the corner, like he didn't even hear Dean come in.

"You okay?" Dean asks, because Benny should have heard Baby halfway down the drive. He shifts around Benny's bulk to grab a beer out of the fridge. "You want one?" he asks, leaning into the cool blast of refrigerated air. There's a complicated series of emotions moving across Benny's face.

"Nah," Benny says, something like relief in his voice. "I'm good."

"Cheers," Dean says, taking a long pull before he rests the cool bottle against his forehead. Tries not to think about that relief in Benny's voice and the fact that the house is still closed up when normally at this time of day they have the windows propped open and the fans going to cool the place down. Tries not to wonder if Susan said something. They should probably talk about it, but Dean is afraid of fucking it up.

Dean leans back against the counter, settles his hip against Benny's. He talks about how he's going to teach that living room floor who's boss, about what they might be able to do about the water pressure in the shower. Feels the tension in Benny's body relax.

"I was thinking of inviting Charlie down some time," Dean says. The back of Benny's hand brushes against his.

*

Dean fixes the shower.

Benny starts playing with mixed drinks and iced teas, painting the air with salt and sugar and citrus, with fruit and bitters and fresh green herbs.

*

Dean tenses automatically at a shriek, head snapping toward it, scanning the area, muscles tight, hand drifting automatically to the small of his back. It takes him a second to place it as Julie, laughing as she tears around the people gathered in her backyard, Benny obligingly lumbering along behind her.

Dean lost the thread of conversation at the noise, forces the muscles in his body to relax one by one, his arms to hang loose at his sides as he nods along with whatever Susan's neighbor is saying about - peach trees, maybe? How he grills burgers at home when he's in charge? Susan's looking at Dean with concern, but no one else appears to have noticed. "Sorry," he says, and excuses himself to go get another drink from the cooler on the deck. He stays there, elbows braced on the railing, as he watches Julie lead Benny on a merry chase.

Susan settles her hip against the railing beside him. "You okay?" she asks, watching her daughter.

"Yeah," he says. "Just. More people than I'm used to." It's not that big of a barbeque, really, all things told. Benny and Dean haven't said too much about their pasts in town, because the key to a good, sustainable lie is vagueness. Dean's dropped a hint or two, though, to nudge people into thinking they're ex-military or ex-law enforcement. It's true in its own way, and it helps cover moments like this.

(Susan had shown up on their doorstep a few days before while Benny was at work. Wanted to ask if Benny'd be more comfortable if it was a dry party without putting Benny himself on the spot. Susan'd woken Dean from an accidental mid-afternoon nap that had ranged into evening, and Dean had been halfway to the door, moving quickly, knees soft and gun held low, before he'd been able to sort through the long shadows of the setting sun and the press of humidity and the metal in his hand to figure out which dimension he was in. Not exactly his drug of choice, Dean had said, throat tight at the consideration, because Benny's said just enough that someone paying attention could get 'ex-addict.')

"He's good with her," Susan says, watching as Julie lets him catch her. "You both are." Julie throws up her arms, indicating up, and Benny obliges her, tossing her into the air before catching her softly. She screams in joy and he tosses her again.

Dean hums at the implied question - do either of you have children - because even if vagueness wasn't key to a long-term lie, he honestly doesn't know what he'd say. Does Ben count? Emma? Sam? Benny has a great-granddaughter, so there was presumably at least one child, but Dean has no idea how much of that he wants them to know. Benny adores Julie, calls her 'little lady' and crouches down to make sure he's on her level when he talks to her. He looks at her with fondness, but never like he's seeing anyone else.

Benny whispers something in Julie's ear and she laughs and shakes her head. Points over at where her mother and Dean are standing, and Benny settles her more firmly in one arm and against his broad chest before they head toward Susan and Dean. Julie's a healthy, solid four year old, and Dean watches as Benny cradles her like she weighs nothing at all.

"You could bring her over some time," Dean tells Susan, watching Benny and Julie and taking a long pull of his beer. "If you wanted. Just give us a heads-up to make sure everything's safe."

Julie leans in to whisper something in Benny's ear again. He throws back his head, and Dean watches the arc of his throat as he laughs.

*

Dean knows where this is going.

He knows exactly where this is going, and he's looking forward to it. It's just –

Dean's never gotten to have this before. The slow burn. The intent. No apocalypse. No armies behind or before him. He likes the way fingers trip along the back of an arm, press to the small of a back. He likes the spark that develops when they're pressed closer than necessary in the kitchen, chopping onions or passing ingredients. He likes the way Benny's mouth goes soft when he's looking at Dean and doesn't think Dean can see. Dean likes the weight of this between them. Likes taking time to let it settle into his bones, while he gets used to carrying it. He likes the liquid pool of anticipation in his gut. He likes that Benny still calls him 'brother,' but also 'mon frère' and 'mon ciel étoilé.'

Dean's spent most of his life in liminal spaces, between brother and father, hero and monster, civilization and its underbelly and the open road.

He's never had a liminal space he could just fall into before.

Dean's sitting out on the screened-in porch in the still night air, pretending that losing the sun has lessened the heat. The kitchen window behind him is open, spilling warm light out across the worn wood of the deck. Benny's moving around inside, humming along with the radio. Dean can hear the soft rustle of Benny's steps, the sharper clink of dishes settling. The rustling of leaves in the warm breeze, the call of frogs, the wings of moths beating against the screen.

If this was all he ever got, he'd be happy.

*

"Kevin's going to Kansas State," Sam says, as soon as Dean picks up the phone. He sounds angry, which confuses Dean.

"And?" Dean asks, finally, when it's become clear he's supposed to have something to say about it.

"Kansas. State." Sam grits out.

"Okay," Dean says. "Am I supposed to be angry he's bailing, or are you jealous? Because I gotta say, it sounds like a solid choice."

"He should be at MIT or CalTech or – it just seems like another way we've ruined his life."

"Right," Dean says, and tries not to feel like he just got punched in the kidney. Tries not to take it personal, because he knows it's not about him. "Okay, first – plenty of people do just fine without university. Plenty of others do just find out of Kansas State or community colleges."

"Dean, that's not what I –"

And yeah, Dean knows he's letting his own shit get in the way and he should shut up, but he'd said 'first,' so - "Second, the kid never actually finished high school, on account of us. Most school's'll take a GED and good SATs, but there's a pretty big break in his records. Plus, even though they'll take them, admissions offices still tend to see a GED and assume you're dumb, or you're lazy, or there was some sort of behavioral or criminal shit going on. You can counter that with letters of reference, with personal statements, community and volunteer work, but there's not a real good way to spin 'hung out on secret barge, hiding from demons,' and no one's going to take 'translating the Word of God' as a legit extracurricular."

"Dean," Sam says. Stops. His voice is soft. "Look, I never – I'm sorry."

"Yeah, well," Dean says, and feels like shit, because he knows Sammy's carrying his own regrets, about Stanford and law school and Jess. It's gotta be a lot more than the things Dean wonders about sometimes, just in passing, just in the distant corners of his brain. Dean clears his throat. "You got anything stirring out my way?"

Dean finds his own hunts, most of the time. Benny comes with him when Dean wants backup or a copilot, or when Benny feels like a fight. When Sam does suggest something, he only really mentions smaller ones, ones unlikely to draw the attention of other hunters. Sam never says anything about it, doesn't bring up Martin or Benny or Elizabeth, so Dean doesn't know how to thank him for it.

Before they hang up, Dean hesitates, then says: "Look, I can't believe I'm the one suggesting this, but have you tried doing your girl thing with Kevin?"

Sam sighs and Dean knows he's in for a lecture about 'girl' and insults, so Dean just keeps plowing through. "Talk to him, is what I'm saying. Don't just avoid him because you think we ruined his life or whatever. Kid's had a rough year. Maybe he wants to stay close. Maybe we did fuck everything up for him. Maybe he doesn't feel up to a full-time course load at a big school in a new city."

"Yeah," Sam says, and "thanks," and Dean can almost taste blood in his own mouth from how hard Sam must be biting his tongue.

Dean wonders, sometimes, who he might have been if he wasn't his father's gun and his brother's keeper and the string that bound them together. What he might have wanted.

*

Dean's not quite sure why this is the day it finally happens.

It's a cooler day than they've seen in weeks, which means Dean finally has the energy to do something. He promised himself he'd spend it on yard work, but instead he finds himself in Baby, taking the short drive to the lake for the first time.

The water has a pull he doesn't really remember it ever having. There's something hypnotic about the way the sun reflects brightly off its nearly still surface, and he spends the afternoon aggressively doing nothing, alternating between the water and the sand and the shifting shade of the trees, tilting his closed eyes to the sun or reading Slaughterhouse Five for the fifth or fifteenth time and thinking about what it does to a person, living through a firebombing.

When Dean gets home, Benny is sitting in the living room, one leg hooked over the arm of his oversized chair, reading a book on the Group of Seven. There's half-full glass of iced tea sweltering on the table beside him. "Hey," Dean says. He feels light, like the silver glittering of the sun reflecting off water is still in his head.

"Afternoon, brother," Benny says. He raises an eyebrow when Dean takes the book from his hands. Sits up straight and swings both feet to the floor as Dean carefully slides a nearby bookmark into it, and puts it on the coffee table.

"Hey," Dean says again, and smiles, bringing his hand to touch Benny's face. The jut of Benny's jawbone fits neatly into the hollow of his palm. His thumb nestles below the apple of his cheek. Dean watches Benny's face carefully, feels his swallow, sees him nod, and then Dean's straddling him, knees pressing into the cushions, weight in his lap. Dean still has one hand to the curve of Benny's jaw, the other gripping the join of his shoulder and neck for balance. Benny has brought his hands up, one between Dean's shoulder blades, the other resting at the bottom of his loose t-shirt, fingertips just barely brushing the sliver of skin beneath it. This close, Dean can feel that his skin is still releasing the heat of the sun. He can see the blue of Benny's eyes and the way his lashes are tipped in blond. Dean's gaze roves Benny's face. Benny's looking at his eyes, always at his eyes.

"Hey yourself," Benny says. Dean can feel the rumble of it through his body. Dean's got two inches on Benny at the best of times so he has to urge Benny's head up further and bend down. It's not the most comfortable position, but Dean lets his weight shift back and trusts Benny's hands on his back to support him.

"Hey," Dean says again, quieter. Their faces are inches apart. Dean is hyper-aware of the roughness of his own lips, the tightness of the skin across the bridge of his nose that indicates a sunburn is setting in. Benny's eyes flutter shut. The hand on the low of Dean's back is beneath the hem of his shirt, fingers splayed wide to support his weight. It flexes almost imperceptibly before it stills, like Benny's fighting everything in himself to stay still, waiting on Dean.

Dean kisses him.

*

Dean kisses him a lot.

*

They start soft, sweet, build intensity, nip, cycle back around again. Benny's stubble is long enough that it's started to soften, but it's still going to leave a mark. At some point, Benny appears to forget that Dean needs to breathe, which, okay, they will have to explore in great detail later. It's nice, and it's more than nice, but eventually Dean pulls back because even if the chair is oversized, combined they're twelve feet of grown man, and Dean has hunter's knees.

"Okay," he says. Laughing. Lets his head hang back as he leans into the iron support of Benny's broad hands. Dean lost his shirt at some point, and Benny's whispering something in French as he nips at Dean's collarbone. "Okay," Dean says again. "Bedroom?"

"Absolutely no objection here," Benny says, leaving one last press of his lips to soothe a nip, and then the world shifts around Dean. Benny's standing, and he picked up Dean like he weighs nothing at all. Which, okay, hot. Benny's got one arm under Dean's thighs and the other wrapped low around his back. There's a split second where a small part of Dean's brain tries to whisper something about girl positions, but he flips it off in favor of appreciating the combination of strength and control and all the uses they can put it to. Dean wraps his legs around Benny's waist and his arms around his neck and grins as he whispers filthy into Benny's ear, and they're in the bedroom so fast that Dean thinks he hears something crack.

Yeah, that was definitely a crack. Dean turns his head in concern as he bounces onto his back on the mattress. "What was that?" he asks, propping himself up on his elbows.

"I cannot begin," Benny says, sliding out of his suspenders, "to tell you," he says, fingers flying over his buttons, "how little I care," he growls, pulling his own shirts over his head.

"Huh?" Dean asks, distracted by the fact that Benny's standing there, bare-chested in grey slacks with suspenders hanging loose by his hips, then Benny's hands are curling, broad, around Dean's waist, spanning the spaces between the notch of his hips and the arc of his ribs and Dean stops worrying about it.

*

Later inspection confirms that the door hit the wall so hard the doorknob punched a hole in it. Benny grins without shame as Dean, half-dressed, bitches about it, then reaches out and tumbles Dean back into bed.

Dean learns how to patch drywall.

*

Dean's not really doing much of anything, really. He works on the house and on Baby and on Benny's piece of shit camper. He cleans his guns and sharpens his blades and sometimes he gets to save people. Dean tells himself he'll pick up something real eventually. Right now, between the rent running cheap, the money Benny's bringing in from the diner, and the fact that only one of them actually has to eat, they're getting by. Dean's lazily trying on hats and hobbies to see what sticks.

He tries gardening, because he thinks Benny'd like the fresh produce and herbs, but the weeds keep taking root and the deer and rabbits eat every shoot. It's a constant battle, and he can feel himself get more and more pinched around the eyes, because the entire exercise in frustration is starting to feel far too familiar. Like no matter how many monsters you mow down there are always more. Except you don't actually save anyone because the goddamn deer and rabbits eat them.

They're eating supper one night when Dean sees movement out the window in his wants-to-be-a-vegetable plot. He's out the door in a flash. All he registers is the damp grass underfoot and the weight of the gun in his hands, pointing at the woods out back, and he's yelling – something – he thinks. Oh god, what is he yelling?

He turns around slowly and Benny is laughing so hard he's crying, one hand braced against the wall of the house. Dean takes a second to let everything register. He's standing barefoot in the grass by the saddest attempt at a garden plot ever seen, gun in one hand, what remains of half a sandwich still clasped in the other. Most of the fixings fell out in his mad dash, so there's a trail of chicken and bacon and lettuce leading back to the still-open door. The rabbit is long gone.

"God," Benny laughs, trying to find the breath. "You scared me at first, brother. Didn't know what you were after." His voice cracks. He pushes off the house. "But you just –" he takes a deep breath, "You kept yelling about how you were going to get that rabbit," and he doubles over again, laughing. "That wascally wabbit," he obviously editorializes, and laughs so hard he hits the ground.

"Yeah, okay," Dean says, and tucks his gun carefully back into his pants. He settles carefully on the porch stairs and eats the mustard bread that's what remains of his sandwich while Benny tries to compose himself. "So, I'm thinking of giving up gardening," he says, which sets Benny off again just when he almost has himself under control.

*

"I grew up before supermarkets," Benny says, later, into Dean's sternum. They're half-curled up, half-mashed together on the couch. It's not exactly comfortable, but neither wants to move. They've been working their way through the tail end of Hitchcock's filmography, North by Northwest the last one Benny saw before he died. Dean'd tried to warn him to stop at The Birds but Benny wanted to see them all, and the gunshot at the end of Topaz is still ringing in Dean's head. Dean's feeling moody, low, doesn't know how to articulate it. He's absently running his hands through Benny's hair. Benny's nose pokes into his ribs. "I know much how keeping a garden takes. I swear, I'm more than happy to enjoy the marvels of modern transportation."

*

"You're sure you don't mind?" Susan asks. They're in Susan's house, standing in the kitchen. Susan has a nice dress on, curly hair pulled up off her neck. She doesn't usually ask when she's on her way to work.

"No problem at all," Dean says. He's watching Julie color in the living room and thinking about Sam, says: "I was about her age when I started looking after my little brother."

Susan pauses, and Dean feels that cold trickle in his gut again that lets him know he said something off. The stuff about hunting and the supernatural, that's always been easy for him to edit out. It's everything else that takes more effort. How old are most kids when their parents start leaving them home alone, letting them look after younger kids? When do they become responsible for cooking and grocery shopping and rent and laundry and field trips? Lots of kids learn first aid from babysitting or swimming lessons, but what types of injuries have they realistically had to fix up? How long are you sick before someone takes you to a doctor? What injuries, how much blood, before the emergency room?

Dean shakes it off, opens his mouth to say – something, he's not sure what – but Susan just kisses him on the cheek and goes to say goodbye to Julie. If Susan hugs her baby girl a little longer than normal, no one says anything about it.

*

The bedroom is hot and dark, rotating fans merging with marsh and forest sounds to produce white noise. They've stopped making the bed with anything but the bottom sheet, because it's just too hot for Dean to think of anything else. Benny's a balm against the heavy press of summer, body temperature running low and sucking the heat from Dean's skin. Wrapping himself up in Benny is like that first, sweet, flash of relief when you collapse into cool sheets, only he doesn't get overheated and gross.

Tonight Benny's curled behind him. If there was anyone else in the bedroom with them - if they were on a hunt and sharing any generic motel double in the country - Sam would probably make some smirking comment about Dean being the little spoon. Whatever, though. Dean can't really find it in himself to give a shit. Benny's upper hand is interlaced with his, and there's just enough light for Dean to see how their fingers mesh.

"Sometimes," Dean starts. Stops. Brings his other hand up to tap along their interlocked knuckles. "Sometimes," he starts again, "I wonder if it would have been different for Sam and me, if we'd started running together again in a different way."

Benny exhales against his spine.

Dean thinks: if Jess hadn't burned on the ceiling, if Sam hadn't lost his entire life, if it wasn't for the demon blood and the apocalypse. If Dean himself had been on his own for a little longer. If, if, if. Says absently, like he hasn't been wondering and missing his brother like an absent limb, "He lost - he lost everything, okay. He needed - what was I going to do other than start looking out for him again?" He taps his way across the knuckles of their joined hands. Benny holds him a little tighter. "It was too easy to fall back into the habits we had before," he says. Hears lookaftersammylookaftersammylookaftersammy. Hears you'll have to kill him. Hears the implication underneath that: If you didn't do a good enough job of raising him.

"I think," Benny says, carefully, slowly, "that if you take a child and grow his identity around protecting someone, make his world revolve around it, it shapes a relationship in ways that are mighty hard to fix."

*

"What do you say to a road trip?" Sam asks. He's excited. There's a lightness to his voice that Dean hasn't heard in years. "There's a hunt in South Dakota that could use the both of us. You could swing by and pick me up from the bunker. We could make a week out of it."

"Hell yeah," Dean says. Baby's been itching for the open road, and he misses the hell out of his brother. (He misses Cas, too, but that's even more complicated. Because of Metatron and Naomi and trying to teach ancient toddlers about free will. Because what's between Dean and Cas is heavy and messy and deep and Dean's not actually so oblivious that he thinks that he and Benny doesn't change anything.)

Dean's not going to say the giraffe bounces out of the bunker when he pulls up, but there's definitely a bit of a bound in Sam's stride. Dean drove thirteen hours the day before and three today so they're good to go, and when they're back on the highway it almost feels like the old days again, the good ones that they found crammed in between the shit ones and the end(s) of the world.

They do a straight shot there, and Dean feels something in him relax and release as the highway rolls out beneath them.

It's a vamp nest in Rapid City, only takes them a couple of days to deal with. Sam doesn't say anything, but there's a part of Dean that wonder if this is Sam testing him, to see if he's still willing to take out vampires. That part of Dean's a little offended, because these assholes are hurting people, so of course he's willing to come between them and their prey and their heads and their bodies.

The way back, it turns out Sam has a paper map and a plan. He's marked out tourist attractions, world's largest __ of ___, diners with positive Yelp reviews for pie. It's fucking perfect.

*

They stop in Sioux Falls to see Jody, pour one out on Bobby's grave. "I want to stop by Bobby's," Dean tells Sam and Jody after, when they're standing in the cemetery.

"Dean – " Sam's face twists. "There's nothing there."

"I know," Dean says. "Why don't you head off with Jody for a bit? I'll catch up with you later."

Being at Bobby's is harder than Dean thought. It was dilapidated and overrun at the best of times, but now there's an emptiness. The stacked cars tilt farther into disrepair, bushes are starting to grow up through the rusted-out floorboards. Some of the walls that had been left standing have fallen, nature starting to reclaim them, too. Dean stands, leaning against the Impala with his hand tucked deep into his pockets, as the sun tracks across the sky. Listens to the rustle of leaves and the call of the birds. A rabbit darts out from beneath Bobby's Chevelle like it owns the place and freezes in surprise. They regard each other until Dean pushes off his car. The rabbit runs. Dean makes his way to what remains of the house. The front wall is still partially standing, porch canting away at a sharp angle.

Dean's tall enough now that he doesn't have to scale the railing to reach what he's looking for, which is good because he's one hundred percent certain it would collapse under his weight. He feels around in the space between the rafters and the house, ignoring the unsteady creaking beneath his feet and the way the rough wood catches at his hand. He's about to give up when he hits something cool and long, and he goes up on his toes to pull it out. He opens the tube, gingerly pulls out the rolled paper inside.

There's smoke damage, and the paper hasn't exactly benefited from being rolled up for decades, but Shōki's heavy, dark eyes stare up at him, sword held at the ready.

*

"I want to go to the Joslyn Art Museum," Sam says in Omaha. "Look, I know it's not your thing, but admission is free and they have a magic eye painting gallery."

"Sure," Dean says, rolling his eyes and making a left. "Whatever."

Sam does the public tour, like the nerd he is. Dean just kind of wanders, stopping whenever something catches his eye. He stops in front of one, trying to keep a straight face, because he is an adult human being and one of their permanent collection is some pop art thing that, based on the far-too-serious discussion Dean's overhearing, he's pretty sure is supposed to be a commentary on the baseness and commercialization of sex or something. Whatever it is, it's about eight feet by ten feet, and a full quarter of it is taken up by a single, giant boob, hanging in from the top left and superimposed over an old rotary phone, an orange, and a leopard print blanket. Everything is done in flat color fill. The areola alone is at least two feet tall. Ignoring the young, serious-looking couple giving him a dirty look, Dean backs away from the painting and flips his phone around to take a picture. In it, Dean is in three-quarter profile, face somber with excruciatingly exaggerated seriousness, fist-sized nipple about to poke his eyeball out. He sends the photo to Benny. The text just says "ART!!!"

Dean buys Benny a magnet in the gift shop. Thomas Birch. Picks up Shipwreck first, because the sweep of the waves is dramatic, rushing towards the looming rocks that look like lions unhinging their jaw to swallow their prey whole. Puts it down and flicks through the others, looking for one with a less ominous, predatory tone. He finds another one, sailing ship skimming the crest of a breaking wave. He rings it through and tucks it, carefully wrapped, into his pocket.

That night, Sam heads out to some art house movie bullshit. He only tries a little to get Dean to go with him, because Dean reads, and he likes movies, but he doesn't like to mix the two, not unless rubber monsters or samurai swords are involved. "I'll hit a bar," Dean says, and ends up wandering the downtown, following the wail of saxophone and harmonica and blues guitar on the air until he ends up in what turns out to be Jazz on the Green, a month-long, outside, free jazz festival. He hangs back from the crowd, leaning up against a tree as he talks to Benny. Benny lived through the rise of jazz, haunted dive bars in New Orleans as Dixieland began to take shape and form. They just listen to the music sometimes, or Benny talks about this style or that style and Dean hums in acknowledgement. There's the mention of a musician or two whose life was cut tragically short, and Dean can read between the lines. "We should drive up for a bit of it next year," Dean says, heart in his throat, like he ever plans that far in advance. Like the thought of that – of planning on being alive in a year's time, of he and Benny making long-term plans – doesn't knock his entire world off its axis.

The morning before Dean left, Benny carefully and deliberately sucked a dark mark into the join of Dean's neck and right shoulder so that it peered out above the collars of his shirts. Sam hasn't said a word about it, even though he has to see it every time he looks over at Dean from the passenger seat.

When Dean was in the eleventh grade, Sam walked on him and a guy from school in obviously post-coital disarray. He never told dad and he's never tried to make Dean talk about it, which Dean's been more grateful about than he can express. (Plus, if Dean tried to say 'thanks,' that would definitely open the door for conversation.) Between their dad and other hunters and rural America it's been – it's been a relief that Sam never treated him any differently. That he's cool with the fact that Dean's easy, or bisexual, or whatever. That he doesn't comment or condemn when Dean will flirt with literally anyone for a case. That he rolls his eyes just the same no matter who Dean disappears into the back alley behind a bar with. But he only ever refers to Dean's history with women. And yeah, Dean's a heck of a lot smoother with the ladies, and up until now those are the only long-term relationships Dean's had, and it's not like Dean wants to talk about it. But say he ever DID want to talk about it, it would be nice to feel -

Whatever.

It's the perfect road trip, really.

He spends a couple of days at the bunker when he gets back. Catches up with Kevin. Helps them organize some of the new rooms they've opened up. The temperature control is great, and he's not sweaty and sticking to anything and everything, but he misses home. This is always going to be his room, Dean thinks, and wherever Sam is will always be a place he lives, but he misses Benny's face.

"We should do this again," Dean says. He means it. They're standing outside the bunker, and the duffle over Dean's shoulder is heavier than the one he arrived with. It's harder this time than it was the last time he drove away, maybe because now they know that it can stick, that Dean's not going to come roaring back in a week or two, full of bluster and excuses.

"Definitely," Sam says, "Take care of yourself," and he hugs Dean just about as tightly as he ever has.

*

Dean calls Charlie. "You could come visit sometime," he says, without preamble, because he's 100% sure she's been tracking his phone and knows exactly where he lives and everything that he's been up to. "You know. If you wanted."

*

They both have bad days. Nightmares. Sometimes, Benny disappears into the woods for hours or days at a time, returns dragging a deer carcass behind him that he'll butcher and throw in the deep freeze. Dean's feet and fists itch when Benny's gone. He has to remind himself that a vampire gets your scent for life, that Benny will always be able to find his way back. It's hard for Dean, to stand still and trust that he'll be the one that's found. Dean has days where he feels like he's got hell crawling under his skin, can't stand to be touched, which runs in direct contrast with Benny's implicit drive to wrap him up safe. He has days when he wants to get in his car and drive straight through until he gets to Sam and tuck them right back into each other's pockets.

On his bad days, Dean wonders what Benny gets out of this. Like Dean – who, for better or worse, is someone in the hunting community – doesn't make him less safe. More likely to come into contact with the type of people who want to separate his head from his body. He wonders, sometimes, if Benny feels trapped with him. Benny's on the outs with hunters and other vampires, for obvious reasons. Lies about poor circulation will only cover with normal people for so long, and there's not a great way to explain his dramatically lowered heartbeat.

Benny talks about Elizabeth, sometimes, casually. They didn't know each other for too long. He talks about Elizabeth's great-grandmother sometimes, in passing. About Elizabeth's grandmother. Dean knows there was another daughter, a son who died young. Those are losses Benny's had a long time to live with. His tone gets wistful when he talks about them, but the sadness isn't raw. (Those aren't the type of losses you ever really get over, but Dean met his own daughter all of three minutes before Sam killed her, so it's not exactly like he'd know.) From what Dean can tell, their lives weren't perfect - times could get hard, sometimes they fought, and cholera crawled up the Mississippi while New Orleans burned with yellow fever - but mostly they were happy.

Benny doesn't talk about Andrea much, which Dean gets, he does, but Dean's picked up a few things. He knows she was an heiress, that she was classically trained and highly educated. Dean's got a pretty smile, a can-do attitude, and a GED. Now that Dean's actively thinking more than the next hunt or the next apocalypse ahead, he starts noticing other things. Like that Benny looks older than him now, but that gap is going to close, and Dean's going to catch up and sink past him and out the wrong side of middle age.

Sometimes, when Dean can't stand to be touched and has trouble sleeping, Benny'll stand guard. Not to watch him sleep, but with his back to him, arms crossed, staring out the window or door. Sometimes he talks. Sometimes he hums. It helps.

One night of those nights, Dean wakes up in the middle of the night, shaking. Benny's sitting on the far edge of the bed, staring out the window. His hand is close to Dean's foot, but he's outside the radius they've identified Dean needs these nights. "Look," Benny says. His voice is pitched low. "I'm a selfish old man, so you gotta know. Whatever you did – whatever you've done - if it helped you survive, I'm glad you did it."

Dean doesn't say anything. Breathes into the weight in his chest. Feels his lungs and heart move in the intricately-carved cage of his ribs. He shifts a little, so his foot brushes up against Benny's hand. Benny moves his hand slowly, deliberately, so that it rests on Dean's ankle. Not holding, not encircling it, just there.

In the morning, Dean wakes up curled around Benny, who's still sitting on the edge of the bed. He can feel the warmth of the sun starting to track across his body. There's a hand in his hair and his face is buried in Benny's hip, the join of his thigh. "I'm selfish, too," Dean says. Pulls back just enough that his words aren't muffled but he can keep the contact. "I keep wanting to ask you to promise me – " Dean hears his father's voice and You'll have to kill him. "Look," he says, shifts so that his head is still on Benny's thigh but he can see his face. "I keep wanting to ask you to promise me that you're not going to put me in a position where I'll have to – "

Benny's hand in his hair stills. Dean inhales. Sits up. He's doing this wrong. "Look. I don't know if – maybe it's a relief to you, having someone who could take you out, like a pact in a zombie movie where everyone promises they're not going to let the other person go out like that, but – " He thinks of Lucifer wearing Sam like a bad suit that doesn't fit quite right. The snap of his own neck. He thinks of Cas, blood on his lips and Sam's angel blade in his back and 'God' on his tongue. Thinks of Bobby's flask, melting in the embers. Thinks of Cas, black oozing from his eyes and ears and hands reaching out from inside of him. Thinks of Lenore, begging them to kill her, and the smile on her screaming mouth as she burned from the inside out. "- I've been there before, okay, I've been there too many times with too many people and I just - "

Benny gently wraps a hand around Dean's mouth to cut off the tirade. "Mon coeur," he says, gently, and he looks tired. Like he's steeling himself. "I promise," he says, stronger, more sure. Pulls his hand from Dean's mouth. Drops his head to his shoulder. "Je le jure devant Dieu."

*

Charlie shows up with a dirt-speckled, canary yellow car and a gleaming, hot-pink suitcase.

"What's up, bitch?" she crows, throwing herself at Dean at an angle that forces him to turn the hug into a spinning one. When Dean puts her down, she turns to give Benny a critical once-over. "Nice," she finally says, extending one hand to Dean for a high five.

"What," Dean says, flat.

"I have eyes," she insists. "He's a dapper dresser, his beard game is on point, and his eyes get soft and crinkly when he looks at you." Her hand is still in mid-air. "Come on. Don't leave me hanging!" Dean sighs and high fives her. Benny adjusts his suspenders and looks far too pleased with himself.

"I think I'm going to like her just fine," Benny says, and grins.

*

Charlie blows into town with Moondoor updates, a trunk full of board games, and a laptop full of pirated movies.

Charlie blows into town with hunting databases she's created, an application Dean starts calling "Guess Who?: Monster Edition," and automatic algorithms that search local news sites for suspicious cases.

Charlie is dead set on becoming a hunter, and Dean doesn't know what to do about it. He gets that she's a grown woman who can make her own choices, but she's also his friend and this is something Dean tries to protect everyone from. Despite everything, Dean's still worried that she sees it a little bit like LARPing. That she might have a point of view colored by Tolkien or Rowling.

Mostly, she seems to just want to hang out for a bit, which is something that throws Dean off more than when she starts asking questions about the supernatural.

"So," Charlie says, on the second day. She's lying on her stomach on the cool tile of the kitchen floor, hair pinned up, laptop in front of her. Dean, in jeans and a button-up, is sitting in a chair with a book and trying not to think about how much more comfortable she looks. "There's been some unusual blood bank activity in the area that my program's caught."

"Oh?" Dean asks, cautious. He's been trying to figure out how to bring it up. Trying not to think about Sam and Martin and waking up handcuffed to a radiator.

Charlie hums. "I don't know – do you want to check it out? See if it's anything? I don't know if whatever is doing it is supplementing, or doing it instead of eating people, and –"

"It's fine," Dean says, heart in his throat. "We can leave it." Dean wonders, absently, if this is what coming out is like for some people. One of the upsides to barely ever having had any friends and frequently coming across as a mass murderer is that he's rarely ever had to come out to anyone. Sometime around when he sold his soul, his father ashes and fire-cracked bones and Dean already on a fast track to hell, Dean plastered on a 'fuck you, I do who I want and I'm definitely carrying a gun,' attitude. "It's Benny," Dean says.

Charlie twists around to look up at him. "He's looking into it?"

"No," Dean says. Looks at her carefully over the top of his book. "The activity. The blood banks. That's Benny. You should probably stay out of the crisper in the fridge."

"Ah," Charlie says. And "okay," turning back to her computer. There's a longer pause than Dean likes, where he can feel his heart pounding in his chest, hears the clack of Charlie's keyboard. "Okay," she says again. "Here's what we're going to do to make sure no one else picks up on it."

*

Charlie falls a little in love with New Orleans. It's not like Dean was hoping for that, with his whirlwind highlights tour of the city and the fact that it's only an hour or so away.

Charlie sees right through him, of course. "Come on," she says. They're out on the screened in porch. She and Dean are drinking cold beers. Benny, in deference to Charlie's company, is sipping out of one of those yuppy insulated tumblers with a straw. Charlie's sitting in a wicker chair, bare feet up on the porch railing. Dean and Benny are sitting on the bench. Dean's definitely not tucked up under Benny's arm, and if he is, it's only to leach body heat. Charlie raises an eyebrow. "Are you really telling me that you knew that much about the queer community and nightlife in New Orleans for reasons other than luring me down here?"

"I go out," Dean sputters. "We – we go out, sometimes."

"We really don't," Benny says, dropping a kiss to the bolt of Dean's jaw.

"We went out last week!" Dean insists.

"We decapitated a pair of shapeshifters last week," Benny corrects.

"Yes! And we did that out of the house, thank god, slimy bastards. We'd be cleaning shapeshifter goop out of the baseboards for months."

Later, when Benny's inside making himself up another Bloody Mary or Bloody Joseph or Bloody Whomever, Dean looks at Charlie and smiles, feeling grounded in a way he hasn't felt in ages. "I'm glad you're getting along," he says.

Later yet, when Benny's excused himself to turn in for the night (which is both bullshit, because he barely sleeps, and really sweet, because Dean and Charlie are tipping into each other) Dean says "I'm glad I have at least one friend who gets along with him."

Charlie sighs. "Sam didn't strike me as – "

Dean shakes his head. "I think it's the vampire thing," he says, then because he's apparently a few beers in, he says "mostly," and coughs, covers it up. "You're right," he says. "We should probably get out more."

Charlie has her legs sprawled across one arm of the chair, shoulders propped against the other. "Hey," she says. Her eyes are serious. "You know there's no one way, right? To be – whatever, or whatever letter."

"Yeah," Dean says, and "I know," and scrubs his hands over his face, and "thanks," because he knows, but sometimes he doesn't know.

"I'd hug you," Charlie says. "But it's two am and it's still somehow far too hot for me to even think of touching another human being."

*

Despite the fact that he can rip a man apart with his teeth or his bare hands, Benny is sweet in a way Dean has never learned to be. Not always, of course. He can be blunt, sarcastic, an unbelievable little shit, and carries carefully coiled violence beneath his skin even more than Dean does. But there's a slow warmth to him that Dean doesn't know how to replicate, and he's the one with a body temperature that sits above room temp. It would be nice to think of it as a skill he lost in hell, after decades of torture, but Dean's pretty sure he never had it. It feels like another language Dean's never learned to speak.

Benny uses French endearments in their day to day life, calls him cher and mon lapin and ma moitié, and Dean pretends not to understand so that he can let them sit warm in his chest rather than having to protest. At night, Benny will whisper j'adore into Dean's hip, his collar, where skin stretches more tightly across bone. Mouths tu es beau across Dean's scars and down the curve of his ribs. Mon trésor en sucre, as he follows a trickle of sweat down the curve of Dean's spine. Forehead pressed to the nape of Dean's neck, he'll gasp mon coeur, mon coeur, into his skin.

Dean doesn't speak French, but he's picked up some Spanish over the years, has enough working knowledge of Latin to get by.

His stomach twists a bit when Benny calls him mon oisillon, like Dean's a bird Benny's afraid is going to fly away.

*

The night before Charlie's due to leave, Dean sits her down at the kitchen table.

"Okay," he says. "If you're going to do this, if you're going to be a hunter, you need to do it right, and you need to do it smart."

"I wasn't planning on doing it dumb," Charlie says. Laughs a little. "Sorry," she says. "I didn't mean – just get nervous sometimes."

"And that's good, to an extent. Cautious is better, though. Careful is best."

"Yeah," Charlie says. Exhales. "Okay. How do we do this?"

*

If you're going to do this, you're going to need to learn how to fight, Dean tells her.

"Are you going to teach me?" she asks.

"God, no," Dean says.

Charlie looks like she's not sure if she should be bristling. "Why? Because I'm a girl and you don't want to hurt me, or –"

"Or," Dean says. "Mostly. Look. I learned to fight from spending most of my life getting my face beat in. I don't know how to teach you any other way and yeah, Charlie, you're my friend and I don't want to hurt you. And more than that, the way I fight – I rely a lot on brute strength and my reach and the fact that I have a high tolerance for pain. I work on years of instinct. And you – you're going to be quicker and more agile, able to dodge under guards where I can't, and you're smart, Charlie, you're going to be thinking faster and better than I ever could. And I worry that you might freeze up, with so many thoughts. So yeah, I'm the last person who should be teaching you to fight. I'll teach you weapons, though. I'll teach you to shoot. You pick a weapon, and I'll help you learn it as best I can. Fighting though - join a gym or learn a martial art, or find a hunter who's properly trained or built like you."

*

If you're going to do this, you're not going to do it alone, Dean tells her.

"Like you?" Charlie asks, eyebrows raised.

"I have Benny," Dean says. "Sometimes. I hunted with Sam or my father for most of my life. I'm more experienced now."

"I don't need a babysitter," Charlie says.

"You know who had me hunting alone, when I was starting out?" Dean asks. "My father."

And Charlie, yeah, Charlie knows just enough to wince and concede the point. "Okay," she says. Braces her hands on the table with her head down before she steels herself to look at him. "If I don't go it alone, you don't either."

"Look," Dean says. Tries to weigh the guilt he feels asking for help for things he should be able to handle vs. his desire to keep Charlie alive. "Fine," he says, eventually.

"We're making a system," Charlie says, and dives into her bag to grab her laptop. Sets out making a set of automated criteria. From what Dean can pick up, it factors in number of fatalities, probable type of creature, suspected number of creatures, and general weirdness factor.

"Okay," Dean says. "But you and me –"

"Minimum recommended party size changes with experience level, duh," she says. "That's why there's a multiplier for experience, and specifically, experience with that type of nasty. There's also a personal judgment stat, which gets weighted more heavily each time you level up."

"Okay," Dean says.

Charlie's fingers pause on the keyboard. "It's a minimum recommendation, though," she says. "There's a lot of this country I still wouldn't mind seeing. Just so you know."

*

If you're going to do this, you need to know how bad it can get, Dean tells her.

He lays it all out for her, plain. Tries not to sanitize or embellish. It's even harder than he imagined. Sometimes she touches his hand, gently, to let him know that he can skip the details, if he wants.

Every time he meets her eyes, he expects to find her looking at him differently.

They fall asleep tangled up on the couch. Dean's not sure who's comforting whom. In the morning, they wake up glued together by the sticky heat. Dean can hear the faint sounds of Benny trying to move quietly in the kitchen, the chop of his knife.

Charlie's fingers tighten in the collar of his shirt. "I'm still going to do it," she says. Pulls back just enough that she can look him in the face.

She's not looking at him any differently, Dean thinks in relief. Like he's a victim or a monster or both.

Her eyes are bloodshot and red. Dean pretends that his don't match. He hates the dry-eyed, cotton-headed feeling of an emotional hangover.

"If I can help people, I can't just walk away."

"Yeah," Dean says. Sighs. "I figured. I just. I needed you to know what you were getting into. So you'll be smart. So you'll be careful."

"You can remind me," Charlie says. "I'm not doing this alone."

*

Charlie has herself mostly put back together by the time she's supposed to leave. She still looks a little emotionally fragile. Dean feels the same. He poked around under the hood of her car while she was showering, packing, putting himself back together too, because there was at least one type of trouble he could help keep her safe from. They pack her car full of her ridiculous, shiny suitcase and Tupperware containers full of food. The giant, rainbow, stuffed whatever she bought in New Orleans is buckled safely into the front seat.

"That's our good Tupperware," Benny tells Charlie, very seriously. "You make sure you bring it back, now." He kisses the back of her hand, and actually seems a little surprised when she wraps him up in a hug. She whispers something in his ear that Dean, standing a few feet away, can't hear. "I promise," Benny says, and kisses her on the cheek.

"All right," Charlie says, standing in front of Dean, arms open wide for a hug. He obliges her, wrapping his arms tight and briefly lifting her off her feet. "I love you," she says.

"I know," Dean grins. Opens the car door for her. Leans in through the open window when she's buckled in. "Hey," he says. “I do.” Her smile is just a tiny bit watery. He kisses the side of her head. Leans into Benny's shoulder as they watch her drive away.

It's a different feeling, occupying a space and being the one who gets left.

Chapter Text

"If you could be doing anything right now, what would it be?" Dean asks. He's standing cross-armed in the kitchen doorway, leaning against the frame, watching Benny wash dishes. Dean made lunch, so Benny's cleaning up. The light in the room is golden, catching brightly at Benny's hair. Dean feels something warm flutter in his stomach.

"Anything at all?" Benny asks.

"Anything," Dean hums.

Benny shakes soapy water from his hands, wipes them perfunctorily on a towel. "Oh, I can think of one," he says, moving in on Dean with a predatory gleam in his eyes.

Later, Dean stares up at the ceiling and tries to catch his breath. "Okay," he says. "That is a thing we will definitely have to do again." For some reason, Benny's face is pressed into Dean's shin, and he blows a raspberry there in acknowledgement.

"But seriously," Dean asks. "Anything."

Benny shifts. Rolls over to prop his head on the more comfortable meat of Dean's thigh. "Honest? I like this just fine."

Fine. Dean'll figure this out by himself.

*

Dean rents a houseboat.

*

Dean calls Sam before they leave the marina. He's standing on the deck, watching Benny check any manner of things. They talk for a while. Kevin's taking a partial course load. Charlie's digitizing some of the bunker's books. Apparently Jeff Drummer got taken out by a werewolf last week.

"I'm going to be away for about a week," Dean finally says. "If the world starts to end again, I have my phone."

Sam huffs a laugh. "Did you ever think we'd be scheduling vacations?"

"Right?" Dean asks, because it's surreal, that's what it is.

"Where are you heading?" Sam asks.

"Just upriver," Dean says. Susan knew some people who knew some people, and it throws Dean a little, that he's part of networks that can swing into action for end goals other than shooting things. "Houseboat, of all things." Dean had briefly considered blindfolding Benny on the drive to the dock before deciding that his sense of smell would probably render the entire thing moot, and putting aside the blindfold for another day. Sam laughs. Benny's untying the line holding them to the dock, so it looks like it's almost time to go. "Benny and I -"

Sam makes a noise that's probably involuntary, and that he probably thinks is too quiet for Dean to hear.

Dean clutches the phone tight in his hand. "You got something to say?"

Sam sighs. "Nothing you want to hear, Dean. Nothing you don't already know."

"Yeah," Dean says, and "whatever," and "talk to you later, Sammy," and hangs up angry.

*

The Mississippi River is huge. And it's not like Dean didn't know that before, okay. But there's a difference between knowing it and knowing it. Dean thinks about it - about the breadth of the river, about the depth of it, moving below them.

Dean breathes into it. Finds the space.

*

Dean spends his time out on the deck, soaking shirtless in the sun and letting a constellation of freckles bloom across his skin. Sometimes he reads, sometimes he listens to music or watches the river, the glittering reflections of light or the tankers and tugs and fishing boats that move past.

Sometimes, he just watches Benny through half-lidded eyes. Dean's always had a bit of what you might call a competency kink, okay. He appreciates people in their element. He likes to watch people who are good at what they're doing. The lines Lisa could draw with her body as she flowed continuously through yoga poses. The look in Cassie's eyes when she caught the scent of a lead, the way her hands sketched out networks of connections as she talked. Cas, fearful and glittering and smiting. There's something about Benny whistling, blade in hand and arm raised in backswing. There's something else, here and now, watching him with his hands on the ship's wheel, or fighting to reel a catfish, or just watching him move so comfortably about a boat, in that -

Benny notices Dean watching him. "What you thinking about, cher?"

"That I'd like to see you sail sometime," Dean answers with surprising honesty.

*

In Baton Rouge, they hit a dive bar named Phil Brady's. There's smoke still hanging in the air, almost vibrating with steel guitar. The food is cheap and greasy and the drinks are strong, and Dean feels like he's 26 again, hustling pool and flirting with strangers, only it's better, it's so much better, because Benny's watching him move with hungry eyes. Maybe he leans into the cue a little more than he normally would. Plays up the toss of his head and arc of his lower back, curls his lips that extra bit around the mouth of his beer bottle. Benny's not the only one watching him as he cuts through the smoke and vibrating music, but the weight of gaze is the one Dean finds himself swaying towards, even across the room.

When they leave, Dean's flush with cash and dizzy with attention and adrenaline. In the chill night air, Benny smooths down the collar of Dean's jacket as he shrugs it on. "All those eyes on you," Benny rumbles, knuckles bumping across Dean's collarbone, "and you're mine." There's heat simmering in his voice, and something Dean would almost call wonder if he didn't know better, but no jealousy. Benny, gentlemanly, places his hand at the small of his back as they wind their way down the sidewalks and alleys and back to the marina.

"We should do the Atchafalaya basin sometime," Benny tells him later that night, when they're lying spent and sore in bed. It's brighter than it is at home, louder, city lights spilling in through the slats of the blinds and noise carrying easy across the water. Dean has one hand curled, protective, near the nape of Benny's neck so that his knuckles brush soft against the knobs of Benny's spine as he talks about the swamps and bayous and all the things he knows how to do with crawfish.

So this is what it's like, Dean thinks. Having a future.

Dean thinks about the length of the river, about the size and spread of the drainage basin that channels its waters together and inextricably out to sea. Lets the gentle rock of the boat and the low rumble of Benny's voice send him off to sleep.

*

When the other shoe finally drops, it's somehow in none of the many and myriad ways Dean's been envisioning. After they got back, he helped Susan's friend Joshua out with some car trouble, which sent a third cousin his way, then someone's grandma who's finally done recovering from a hip replacement and wants to get her boat running again. Dean's busy thinking about what tools he'd need to pick up if he wanted to do this more regular, so it takes a second for what Sam's just said to register.

"What." Dean says. Like maybe he heard wrong. On the other end of the video chat, Sam seems unperturbed. It makes it seem like maybe Dean's right, and he misheard, because Sam would be defiant or determined or guilty or self-righteous or something, right?

Sam shrugs. "I didn't think you'd mind. They're only a couple of hours out."

"Sam." Dean stops. "What the actual fuck?" he says, voice rising on each word until he's yelling.

Charlie, who'd been visible at the edge of the frame, working with Kevin, closes her book and heads over.

"What the fuck, Sam," Dean hisses. Sam's confused. Maybe Dean misunderstood. He takes a breath. Clears his throat. Clarifies. "You sent Krissy. And her crew. My way."

"It's just her and Josephine, from what I understand," Sam says, as if that Aidan douche is what Dean was going to have an issue with.

"Wait," Charlie says. "Weren't their entire families killed by a vampire? A vampire working with a hunter?"

"Yeah," Sam says. Like it's nothing. Like this entire thing is nothing. Like Dean and Benny are - Like whatever guilt Sam might feel, whatever little consideration he might have had, ended somewhere in that crystalline instant between Benny's teeth and Martin's blood hitting the floor.

"What the fuck, Sam," Charlie says, and hits him with the book she's carrying.

"Why the hell would you send them here?" Dean demands.

"What?" Sam asks. "Charlie, ow. And Dean, for whatever unknowable reason, Krissy likes you. She's in the neighborhood, and she needs help. Why wouldn't I send her your way? Charlie, stop hitting me." He grabs the book out of her hand. Kevin is hanging in close, obviously unsure whose side he should be on, and Sam hands the book to him.

"For starters," Dean snarls, "I'd rather Benny's head stay attached to his body?"

"Why - wait. Are you still with Benny? Didn't you just get back from some big bro-trip?"

Dean reminds himself that throwing his computer across the room will not help anything. "Yes, Sam. We're still together. We haven't broken up. I probably would have mentioned that. And I know that for whatever reason, you of all people aren't comfortable talking about this shit, but -"

"You act like past precedent doesn't mean Krissy and Josephine are more likely to end up dead," Sam says, clearly working up a head of steam. "Because -"

"- but, yeah, let's all just go ahead and assume that I prefer my boyfriend DOESN'T end up brutally murdered," Dean snarls, rubbing at his wrists and he feels it all again, waking up in that stagnant hotel room to the sharp cut of cuffs and the rough scrape of bricks and Benny, Benny, Benny echoing in his pounding head.

"- Martin is the one who ended up without a head - wait. What?" Sam looks poleaxed. "Boyfriend?" Sam says, like the word never occurred to him. "Benny's your boyfriend?" Sam asks, at the same time as Kevin asks "Benny's a vampire?"

"Wait a second," Dean says, flat. "Let me work this out, so I can figure out why I'm the most pissed off. Are you saying that it's not a real relationship because Benny's a vampire, or because Benny's a man?"

There's a moment of silence. Kevin hands the book back to Charlie.

Sam blinks. "Since when are you -" stops when Charlie hits his shoulder with a resounding thwack.

"Bisexual? I don't know, Sam," Dean says. "Since literally always?"

"That's not what I -"

"I didn't think I was being subtle!" Dean yells, because what the hell. "Do I act like I'm straight?"

"No," Sam says. "I just." Pauses. Winces. "Thought you were in denial?"

Charlie starts yelling something about heteronormativity and compulsory heterosexuality.

Dean stares blankly at his brother. Thinks about the jokes about Dean's boyfriends and breakups. Thinks about carrying Benny's soul, writhing beneath his skin, out of Purgatory. Thinks about Aaron Bass and about the siren in Iowa and about talking Charlie through flirting with a dude. Thinks about Cas.

"Dean," Sam says. "I didn't -" Scrubs his hands through his hair and looks he's the one that just got punched in the solar plexus, like it's his world that's been upended. "I'm sorry," he says, finally.

Dean's mouth is dry. "About what?" he asks. "Because if it's about you and your stunning lack of observational skills, I gotta tell you: not my biggest concern right now." Sam's face twists in a way that makes the bottom drop out of Dean's stomach all over again.

"I swear to god, Sammy," Dean says, "if my boyfriend gets decapitated because you thought I didn't notice I hit on dudes sometimes, I'm going to - " but everything Dean wants to say is something he won't be able to walk back later, so he slams the laptop shut and ends the call.

*

Dean calls Sam back two broken plates later.

"Don't you say a single word, Sammy," Dean says when Sam picks up. "This doesn't get you off the hook." His voice is low and flat and precise. "Because even though you somehow failed to notice that me and Benny, that we're - whatever - you knew that he was my friend. You knew he was around. Maybe you didn't set someone specifically after him this time - and Martin was batshit about blood, too, so solid choice there - but you told him to watch, to call you before he did anything. And if you thought I was some sort of closet case, you probably at least suspected that Benny was something else to me. This ends bloody, it's on you."

*

Dean calls Benny. "Hey," he says. "So, fun story. My Ivy League baby brother thought we were just buddies, bro-ing it up together in Louisiana. Less fun story: there are a couple of hunters heading this way."

*

Dean calls Krissy. She's driving, so she hands the phone to Josephine. He arranges to meet them at a mile marker outside of town. It's suspicious, but not as much as calling it off would be, even if it doesn't sound like they do need an extra gun. Krissy has a presentation whipped up on her tablet, a trail of heartless bodies meandering across the bible belt. It loops between Highway 20 and the 65 but always turns back down to the 10, eventually.

"New Orleans next, if the pattern holds," Josephine says. She and Krissy both have bare shoulders and riots of curls caught in ponytails. After the summer, Dean barely registers this humidity.

"Yeah," Dean says, looking at the map. "I agree."

"What we can't figure out is if it's werewolves or skinwalkers," Krissy says. "It's a pack. Probably small, from the number of the bodies. Pattern is close to the full moon, but there are a couple of deviations."

Dean flips between some articles on the tablet. "Could be either. Could be werewolves close to the alpha. They have a bit more control. Could still be settling back into a pattern after Eve. Could also be a pack of skinwalkers trying to copy patterns of a wolf pack so they'll get left alone." There's something itchy behind his eyes, nagging at the corners of his brain. His phone vibrates in his pocket. It's a message from Benny, just an 'x' to indicate he's out.

Josephine nods. "Müllerian mimicry, sliding into Batesian."

Dean hands the tablet back, pops Baby's trunk. "Silver either way. Plan for werewolves, hope for skinwalkers."

*

Because this is his life, and Dean had other things on his mind earlier, Dean doesn't have quite everything he wants if he's going to be potentially taking down a pack of werewolves. "I'll be right back," he tells them, their car idling in his driveway. "Just need to grab a few things." Even with the text, Dean's heart had surged in his chest all the way up the driveway until he saw Benny's piece of shit camper was gone. "Stay here."

He's digging a box of silver bullets out from the bottom of the steamer trunk of weapons they keep at the foot of their bed when he hears the soft creak of a floorboard. He has his gun up and trained on Krissy, standing in the bedroom doorway with her hands raised, before he even recognizes he's moving. He relaxes slowly. "Told you to stay in the car," he says gruffly. He sets the gun on the bed behind him, close, but doesn't holster it.

"Yeah, well, you were acting screwy, old man," Krissy says. She lowers her hands, but her jaw juts out mulishly.

"Yeah," Dean says, watching carefully as her eyes dart around the room. The place isn't a sty, but it's lived in. Dean doesn't think there are any discarded blood bags lying around or anything, but Krissy's sharp and Dean's just not willing to take the chance. He watches her carefully as she takes in the bedroom. Sees clear signs of double occupancy. The half-open closet, full of men's clothes. Dean's plaid shirts pressed up against a wool pea coat. Benny's shoes, fancier than anything Dean would ever wear, kicked under his side of the bed.

Dean watches as her shoulders and jaw relax a little. She starts to roll her eyes, then stops. "You don't hunt much with Sam anymore," she says instead.

Dean lets go of his gun. "Yeah," he says, and "well." Shrugs. Kicks Benny's shoes further under the bed, like he doesn't know she's seen them already and he's trying to hide them. Dean decides to lean into it, because the best-case scenario here appears to be that Krissy walks away thinking Dean's a repressed closet case ashamed of his partner and Sam's a homophobic dickweed.

As far as best-case scenarios go, Dean's had much worse and far bloodier.

*

Of course it doesn't go smooth.

*

They're literally going to die of irony, Dean thinks, watching the gravel pass by his face as he's dragged across the rooftop. He coughs, wet, watches blood splatter to the rocks and fall away behind him. He's pretty sure at least two of his ribs are broken. Knows his shoulders aren't going to dislocate from the rough handling but it doesn't stop his body from screaming into it. He raises his head. Can see Josephine getting the same treatment. Her eyes are closed. Dean can't tell if she's unconscious or crying.

Krissy, right arm limp and face dark with blood, had gone over the edge of the roof and into the river.

Dean feels his ribs trying to shake, realizes it's laughter trying to tear its way out of his throat. They're going to die of irony, Dean thinks. He was so busy trying to make sure that he didn't lead Krissy and Josephine to a vampire that he led them right into a whole nest of them.

*

"Do you think Krissy made it?" Josephine asks. They're in the requisite deserted warehouse. Tied to chairs in the middle of an open expanse.

"Yeah," Dean says. Krissy had one arm working and a head wound disorienting her, and Dean doesn't know how deep the river was there. Too shallow and the impact would kill her. Too deep and the current would take her. She survives that, she probably gets salmonella or some shit from the water.

Josephine sighs. "Yeah. I'm choosing to believe that, too."

"Hey," Dean says. "We're not dying here, not today. And you know why? Because I am not about to give my brother the satisfaction of being right about me getting my face eaten by a vampire."

*

This nest seems to like to play with their food. Sounds like they'd been mimicking werewolves in part to throw off hunters, and in part for shits and giggles. There are five of them left, as far as Dean can figure. Nest leader is a woman named Millie with amber eyes and an unplaceable accent. They throw Dean and Josephine up on the hooks to feed and then tie them back down to their chairs, which definitely suggests they're planning to draw this out.

It takes a little while for Dean to find the correct blend of antagonism and flirtation that makes them focus more heavily on him than Josephine. He thinks about how long it might be before Sam or Charlie or Benny starts worrying. That Sam can't be expecting a phone call any too soon, that Benny's laying low until he gets the all-clear from Dean. Thinks about how long it would take them to get here, once they do start to worry.

Dean thinks about how they're going to feel, after.

Josephine screams and swears when they start taking him more often.

"I literally have more blood in my body," Dean tells her, later, which is both true and a handy excuse for what he'd be doing anyway.

She glares at him, and clearly sees right through him.

"Hey," Dean says. "Josephine. Tell me about Mülllerian mimicry."

*

"I love her," Josephine says. Her eyes are dry and clear. There's blood on her neck. "And I - it's not that I want to die, okay, I don't, but more than that I don't want to do that to her, don't want to leave her alone to carry this."

"I've got one of those, too," Dean says. His mouth is thick.

"Your brother?" Josephine asks.

Dean shakes his head. "Sam, he - he'll be fine. Last time he thought I died, it's like he didn't even blink. Got a girlfriend and a dog and I know he must have cared, but it's like he didn't even look back. Like it didn't even register. And I know that's not fair, but -" He hangs his head. "Except before I left, I told him that if this ended bloody, it was on him."

"Did he deserve it?" Josephine asks, feeling around the edges.

"Thought so at the time." Dean's head spins. "I have a Krissy, too," he says. Breathes into the cage of his broken ribs, the rope now holding him upright. "Benny. His name is Benny."

*

Dean's head is heavy. He feels lethargic. Distant from his body. He's breathing rapidly, but his ribs don't hurt much anymore. He is distantly, clinically aware that he is finally going into hypovolemic shock.

"No," Josephine whispers, "NO," louder, and the love and heartbreak in it makes Dean work as hard as he can to bring his head up. The first thing Dean sees is Krissy, arms twisted cruelly behind her body, head pulled back by the hair to expose her throat. Dean's eyes flutter closed again.

"-brought us a welcome present," Dean hears one say.

"I suppose we could do with a new recruit, given we just lost Nigel," Millie says.

No, Dean thinks, and shit, then -

"Be rude to show up empty-handed," a familiar, low, drawl says and Dean forces his eyes open again. Sees Krissy again, sees the dark, blurred head of the vampire curling over her. Dean hears the first whistled bars of In the Hall of the Mountain King. Then Krissy is twisting her arms out from behind her body, unloading bullets full of dead man's blood into the vampires, one by one, and Benny rips them into pieces.

*

"Hey," Dean hears, distantly, and "Brother," and "Dean," and "Dean," and "Cher," the words distant and twisted and echoing. There are cool hands on his face, his neck, his shoulders.

"Hey," Dean says, slowly, testing his voice against the words. "Benny. Bennnnnny." His mouth feels very far away. His hands feel farther, but he brings them up. Benny's in close, looking frantic. He has his teeth out, and Dean giggles a little, pokes his teeth with one set of fingers. "You're pointy." Dean notices absently that the hand he poked Benny in the mouth with has a decent amount of his own blood on it. It's on his clothes, too, he thinks. Benny's covered in blood, too, and other things, probably, if what Dean's remembering about the ripping apart of the other vampires is correct.

Benny closes his eyes. Presses his forehead to Dean's less bruised cheek. His body shakes as Dean absently pets his head. When Benny pulls back, he has put his face away but there's obvious strain pulling at the corners of his mouth. Which is fair, Dean thinks, looking around. There is. There is a lot of blood in here.

"Come on," Benny says, hauling Dean to his feet.

The sound of a gun being cocked echoes through the open warehouse.

Krissy is standing there, gun in one hand and machete in the other.

Dean tries to shift to put himself between them, but he can't seem to make his body work.

"You've got three options, as best I see it," Benny says. It sounds like he's trying to speak gently, but has to keep his jaw clenched to stop his teeth from popping back out. "One: you kill me and try to haul both these lugs to the car and get them to the hospital in time. You're a strong little thing, but your shoulder's still a mess and Dean's got fifty pounds on you if he has one. Two: you kill me, you call an ambulance, wait for it to get here, and you try to explain this lake of blood and all these body parts. Neither of those options have a great survival rate for anyone in this room other than you, and you choose two, you probably end up in jail. Three: you put that gun down, we get your girl and my boy out to the car, and you burn rubber to the hospital while I stay and try to cover our tracks."

Krissy juts her jaw. Steadies her stance. "Four," she offers. "You help me get them to the car, and then I kill you."

"I gotta tell you," Dean says. Speaking slowly to try to feel out the words. "You do that, you and me are going to have a problem."

"Nah," Benny says. "I got a feeling you're not that kind of woman. But whatever you do, choose it quick, because these two don't have any time going spare."

"Krissy," Josephine says softly. "Hey." Reaches out to tangle her fingers into the fabric of Krissy's shirt. "Come on."

"Shit," Krissy swears. Curses again and throws her machete to the ground and shoves her gun in her pants. "Burn this place to the ground," she snarls. Throws Josephine's arms around her neck and heads for the door. Benny picks Dean up like he weighs nothing, and Dean passes out again.

*

Dean surfaces to the low hum of hospital noise. Distant footfalls, overlapping conversations, beep of monitors. Nothing hurts, which over the years he's learned is a bad sign that he's on the good drugs. Sam is asleep in the chair. Charlie is tucked into the bed with him, a small, warm lump careful not to touch him. Her hair is dark in the dim light. He curls around her as he fades out.

*

The next time Dean wakes, he gasps into it. Charlie is still curled beside him. "Benny?" he asks, hand on her shoulder to wake her.

Sam wakes with a start. "He's fine."

Dean ignores him, looks at Charlie.

"He's safe," Charlie assures him.

"Josephine? Krissy?"

Charlie pushes her fingers through his hair. "They're all fine. Everyone's going to be fine. Go back to sleep."

He does.

*

Dean blinks slowly awake. Charlie's still asleep against him. Sam is looking at him steadily, eyes dark in the low light. He drops his eyes when he sees Dean focus in on him.

"Would it have made a difference?" Dean finally asks. Sam starts a little, like he'd thought Dean had passed out again. Dean clenches his hand. Discovers that's the one with an IV in it. "Would it have made a difference, if you'd known about me and Benny?"

Sam sighs. "I don't know. Probably not," he says, honestly. "At least, not in the way you would have wanted."

*

This time when Dean wakes, he's still tired and blurry, but at least he can tell that the edges on everything are soft. The light in the room suggests it's early morning. Dean is alone in bed. Sam is sitting in a plastic chair that's almost comically small for his gigantor body, elbows on his thighs and clasped hands hanging loosely between his knees. His head is bowed.

"Morning, sunshine," Dean croaks. It comes out rougher than he anticipated. His mouth is dry. Sam startles.

"You've got three broken ribs, a bruised spleen, a concussion, and severe blood loss," Sam replies. "Benny is -"

"Presumably somewhere away from the trauma surgery and blood transfusions," Dean guesses, reaching unsteadily for the cup of water beside him. Normally, Benny can handle a hospital just fine, but - "Willpower isn't an infinite resource," Dean says, feels like he's quoting someone one. "It's been a rough - look, to be honest, I have zero clue how long ago that phone call was. A week? Six months?"

Sam hands him the glass of water, looks caught between wanting to hold it for Dean to drink and knowing his brother would crawl out of the hospital bed and try to beat him with the straw. He settles back into his Barbie chair.

"He's not what I thought," Sam says, finally.

Dean drinks more water probably faster than he should. Makes himself slow down, put the cup down. Wonders what it would be like to be thirsty all the time. "He's not Ruby," Dean finally says.

Sam looks at him sharply in surprise, and Dean just holds his eyes, because he sees it, yeah. And Dean - Dean wonders if Sam looks at Benny, sometimes, and feels the hot rush of blood under his own teeth.

"Okay," Sam says. Smiles a tight and wobbly smile and scrubs his hands through his hair. "Did you know that they don't wrap up broken ribs anymore? Apparently you're more likely to end up with pneumonia."

*

Benny comes in the next day, looking drawn and pale. Winds his fingers through Dean's and kisses the back of his hand. He acknowledges Sam with a nod. Benny snuck in an insulated bag with a container of still-warm jambalaya, a slice of tarte au la bouillie. Dean can tell from the lack of tomatoes that the jambalaya's Benny's, but he raises his eyebrow at the custard pie.

Benny laughs. "Don't worry," he says. "It's from the café." Benny is a fantastic cook. Benny is also hands-down the worst baker Dean has ever encountered, and Bobby once set fire to those cookies you buy in a roll and slice.

"How are Susan and Julie doing?" Dean asks, digging in.

"Wanted to come down and visit you. Told them you'd rather they dropped by when you got home, since you're going to be laid up for a while."

Dean groans, because he's starting to get the feeling that this recovery period will be more strictly enforced than others in his past.

"That's right," Benny says. "I'm putting the instructions from the doctor up on the fridge."

"I've broken pretty much all of my ribs before," Dean says around a mouthful of food. "It's no big deal. Couple of days, max. Hell, wrap up my ribs -"

"Pneumonia," Benny interrupts, eyebrows drawn.

"- and I could be up and at it right now, if I needed."

"Sure, brother," Benny says. Tosses a quarter on the floor by the door. "You get up out of bed and you walk over and pick that up and we're copacetic."

"If I needed," Dean says, pointing a fork at him. "I'm not crawling out of my hospital bed to pick up your damn pocket change."

"You don't need, cher," Benny says. Leans in to kiss the curve of Dean's clavicle where his stupid hospital gown gapes away. "Julie is apparently mighty excited it's her turn to babysit you."

Dean just shovels more food into his face and rolls his eyes at Sam, who looks a little like someone just stuck gum in his hair.

Dean lets Sam taste the jambalaya. Just so he knows what he's missing.

*

Dean gently squeezes the fingers twined through his. Benny comes awake instantly. There's no startle to it, no change in Benny's breathing or posture, just a gentle pressure back.

"Hey," Dean says. He should have let Benny sleep more, but Dean's been staring at his face and thinking about how he thought Sam just implicitly understood things about him. In a lot of ways, Dean's always kind of considered himself an open book. He's not deep or anything. It's disconcerting to find out that people've been reading him completely different than he thought. Dean's been staring at Benny's face and thinking about how some things might read from the other side. Like the fact that Dean hasn't gotten a job here, or how he always stitches up his wounds before he gets home or how he made Benny promise him he wouldn't make Dean kill him.

"Hey," Dean says again. Benny looks at him expectantly, rubs his thumb in gentle circles along the web of Dean's thumb. "You get that you're it for me, right? It's you."

Benny's thumb stills and Dean freezes, sucks in a painful breath through his teeth before Benny's smiling at him, so bright it's almost blinding. "I figured, mon coeur, but it still does a body good to hear it."

Dean holds his hand tighter. "When I asked you to promise me that I wouldn't have to -"

"It's a reasonable request," Benny says. "I'd rather not have to take you out, it comes down to it."

"The reason that I didn't want to ask isn't that I don't trust you," Dean says. "It's not that I'm waiting for you to fail, or let me down. It was selfish because it makes your - your addiction about me. You have to have noticed, but I've got an expiration date, and it's coming due sooner than yours. And I want -" Benny's hand tightens painfully around his, and Dean shakes his head. "No," he says, "this is important, and you need to listen to me." Dean doesn't even realize that he's surged upright in the bed until he's gasping against his ribs and Benny has him by the shoulders and is easing him gently back down.

"Soft, now," Benny says, settling on the edge of Dean's bed and soothing his hands down Dean's arms. His eyes are tight and bright but his hands are gentle, and the weight of him compresses the mattress so that Dean's hip settles firm against him. "Today's not that day," Benny says. One of his hands comes to rest in the soft crook of the inside of Dean's elbow. The other twines around the one Dean has free of the IV.

"It's coming, though," Dean says. It's strange to think of his death as a concrete event rather than an inevitability. "It's the life. And I want - Benny, I want you staying clean for you, okay, because I tend to come back from the dead, and if I die and I come back and you've gone off the rails, I don't know what I'll do. And if I don't come back, wherever I end up I want to be able to think about you kicking ass and cooking things, because I love you, you asshole, and I'm so tired of everything being game theory and Nash equilibrium and mutually assured destruction."

Benny pulls Dean's hand up to his mouth, whispers je t'aime and te amo and s'agapo and diliget te as he kisses each knuckle. I love you, to the palm of his hand. "I'll do my best," he promises.

*

Charlie leaves with Josephine and Krissy a day before Dean's released from the hospital. She's taking them back to the bunker to recuperate for a little while, and also coincidentally so that she can watch them for any signs of Martin-ish doubling back. Before Charlie leaves she stops by to see him again. She doesn't say anything about what her hunting protocol database would have said about where the three of them were heading. She just punches his shoulder for being dumb and kisses his forehead. There's a copy of the New Orleans Advocate stuffed in her bag and conspicuously visible, which Dean assumes is a show for him since even he knows that they have all their apartment listings online.

Dean's pretty sure he's never going to hear from Krissy or Josephine again, and it makes something twist in his stomach. Krissy's a good kid, and Josephine - it's pretty hard not to bond with someone a bit when you go through something like he and Josephine did. And Dean, Dean remembers being that age and angry and looking for war. They may not be saddled with John Winchester, but they don't have a Bobby either, far as he can see.

Really, though, this is not a worst-case scenario.

(In six months, he'll get a phone call from Krissy. Demigod situation in Alabama, old man, she'll say. Josephine singing along with the radio in the background. Could use you. Pause. Could do with a bit of extra muscle if that fang you're banging feels up to it.)

*

Sam drives Dean home from the hospital in his toy plastic car, because Benny's piece of shit camper remains a piece of shit and vaguely unsanitary. Dean's still tired, so even though the drive's less than two hours he drifts in and out, head knocked back against the headrest and reminding himself never to let Sam know how comfortable the damn thing is.

They talk a bit, when Dean surfaces. Sam lets him pick the music, which Dean takes as the apology it is. He catches Sam watching him, sometimes. Not judging, Dean doesn't think. More like the lines of Dean's face are a map Sam's just realized he doesn't know how to read.

When they pull up to the house, they sit silently in the car for a minute, two. Dean turns to look at his brother, but Sam's not looking at any of it. He's looking at Dean with an intensity that makes Dean want to start deflecting about chick flicks, but Dean breathes into the sharp pain of his ribs and tries to remember where that got them.

"I'm sorry, Dean," Sam says.

Dean sighs. "Yeah, okay," he says. "Don't do it again."

Sam's shaking his head. "Don't let me off that easy."

"Okay," Dean says. "You pull any shit like this, ever again, and I'll shoot you in your favorite knee. Better?"

Sam lets out a frustrated growl. "Just let me do this."

Dean laughs, because he's 100% sure Sam has practiced this speech in a mirror and is not ready to have his groove thrown off. "Look," he says. "As much as I wish I could claim otherwise, it's not all on you. I could've tried harder to talk to you."

"I didn't exactly make it easy for you."

"Yeah," he says. "You didn't. And I still could have tried. Because it was important."

"I know that it's hard for you, okay. Talking about everything. I should have -"

"It's never going to be easy for me," Dean says. "It's never going to come natural. I've got seventeen million reasons that range from bullshit to completely fucking legitimate, but not one of them is worth you. Worth Benny. This shit, Sam, this cannot happen again." Dean gets out of the car then, because he needs the air. He stops and leans against the trunk of the car, and Sam settles beside him. "Really, though," Dean says. "When you take a step back, it's really kind of amazing either of us have more emotional range than a potato. How'd you get so good at this shit, anyway?"

Sam tips his head up to the sky. "You gave me the space to grow and be a kid that you never got, Dean. I don't think I've ever thanked you for that. You seemed so much older than me at the time that I'm still realizing you weren't, not really."

"I was old enough," Dean says.

Sam hums in gentle disagreement. "And therapy," he says. "I got a metric shit-ton of therapy."

Dean's head swivels so hard his eyes spin. "What," he says, and literally bites his tongue.

"You think that when I got to Stanford, I knew how to be a person? I knew how to make friends but nothing about how to keep them. I kept defaulting to lying about everything, even the shit I didn't have to, until I couldn't keep any of it straight. I didn't know how to just exist in the same space as other people. There was a full week when I was convinced this one guy was a monster stalking me. Turns out he just lived in my dorm and had classes in the same building."

Neither of them says anything about Brady.

"And Jess - I ever tell you Jess broke up with me for a while?"

Dean shakes his head.

Sam looks at his hands. "We'd been going out for about six months. It was Halloween, and she was drunk, and she decided that as a joke, she was going to jump out and scare me."

"Shit," Dean says.

"Yeah."

Dean interlaces his fingers. Stares at one of the cuts on the back of his hand. "I hit Ben, once. I'd exorcised that demon out of Lisa, and he froze."

Sam shifts a bit closer. "I'm not saying it was good, Dean, but there were extenuating circumstances."

Dean feels his face twist into a bitter shadow of a grin. "Yeah. That's just about exactly what I used to tell myself about Dad."

Sam nods and doesn't say anything, but he shifts a little, and Dean - Dean knows his brother, okay, and Dean has opened a door here, and he can almost feel Sam standing outside and shuffling through an overstuffed file folder full of shit Dean just doesn't have the energy to deal with right now. Dean loves his brother, but Sam can be fucking exhausting.

"We've got to try to be better," Dean says. He scrubs his hands over his face, and they definitely don't come away damp. He looks at his home and tries to see it for the first time, like Sam must be. The faded-out paint and well-worn wooden steps to the porch, the grass going to seed. Dean pushes off the car and steps forward. The grass to the side rustles and a rabbit bursts out, looking at them curiously before it twitches its nose and turns tail. Now that he's not trying to force the land into a garden, into a shape it's not made for, Dean finds the rabbits a comfortable presence. He likes that no matter what shit goes on with him, they're out there, eating every damn green thing they can get their little teeth on.

Sam keeps pace with him, though Dean's moving slower than normal. Stops Dean at the front door with a hand on his shoulder and pulls him into a hug, grip tight on the back of his neck to make up for the gentle pressure around his broken ribs. "It took our entire lives and a truly remarkable amount of trauma to shape our relationship," he says. "It's going to take time to figure out how we want it to be."

"We've got time," Dean says, and it's strange to say that and feel it in his bones.

When they step inside, Dean looks around, at the popped nails he's patched, at the smoke-damaged print of Shōki the Demon Queller hanging on the wall, at the books and the pictures and the scattered record collection, at the detritus of a semi-normal life, and he smiles. Benny's puttering around in the kitchen, music on low, and not pretending to do anything other than give them privacy. He looks them over once, checking, and doesn't say anything about their red eyes. He and Sam exchange a long look and a slow nod.

"Okay, seriously?" Dean asks, looking into the kitchen. "You actually printed out the doctor's instructions and put them on the fridge."

Benny's voice is serious. "Gotta have it somewhere for when Julie's making sure you don't do anything dumb."

"She's four," Dean says, like maybe this has somehow slipped Benny's mind. "And I am not, and therefore do not need a babysitter."

Sam is looking at the fridge, at the instructions stuck to it. "Did you get this magnet when we were at the Joslyn?" he asks.

"He sure did," Benny replies.

Dean thinks about driving away from the bunker after that road trip. Thinks about how it felt to have two points to draw a line between. Thinks how it was both easier and harder than that first time all those months ago, when he drove away from one of the only homes he'd ever known, no idea of what to expect.

Sam leans in closer to look and the painting on the magnet. Dean knows what he sees. It's an ocean scene. There's a stormy sky overhead, but to the left, the clouds are clearing and the sky breaks through. The crests of the waves are lighter, sunlight refracting through the water and off the distant sand of a windswept shore. There's one ship in particular in the middle ground that catches the eye, cutting the arc of a sunlit crest. Dean can't tell if they're heading to the beach or striking out on the stormy seas, but their sails are set and they're leaning with the wind. They look steady.

"What's it called?" Sam asks.

Dean looks at Benny. Smiles. "Boats Navigating the Waves," he says.