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Dean walks into the map room to war-like chaos. The board on wheels is standing next to the table, covered in pins and cut-outs. Sam’s hunched over his laptop, typing away. His hair is astray, his eyes are red-rimmed, and that coffee pitcher and three mugs next to him leave little to the imagination. The air feels heavy. Even the Christmas tree that Jack insisted they set up after watching one too many holiday ads looks slumped over somehow, blinking its blue lights at no one in particular.

“What’s all this, Beautiful Mind?” Dean yawns, walking up closer to look over Sam’s shoulder. Sam flinches at the sound of his voice and whips around. A couple seconds of eye contact later, he shoots a tired smile in Dean’s direction.

“I’ve been looking for cases. Since we have so many hunters on staff now, I want to make sure everyone’s got a job to work. And it can be harder for a beginner hunter to piece the evidence and the lore together than to go actually kill the thing.” Yeah, no shit, most of these guys popped out of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They’re very much the shoot first, ask questions never type.

“So I got up early and made this.” Sam points at the board. Dean leans in close to inspect it. It’s elaborate and pretty damn hard to read, but he knows Sam’s organization habits well enough to manage. Mary and Bobby are on a shapeshifter case near Nevada. Donna is hunting a rawhead down in Ohio. The Sioux Falls folks are chasing down a werewolf. Cas and Jack are working over a djinn.

“What’s this one? No one was up for it?” Dean points at a pin in Colorado, a print-out about weird happenings in the local aquarium. It’s suspiciously lacking a name label.

“I had more cases than people, so I had to leave something off. Looks like they just set up a new small museum exhibition, and I’m pretty sure one of the artifacts, a piece of a sunken whale hunting ship, is haunted. But there’s no one left to take it on.”

“Dude, aren’t you forgetting someone?”

Sam stares at Dean, eyes bleary. “No? I’m pretty sure I assigned everyone I had to. Didn’t I?” He pulls out a list of names and starts double-checking it. Dean puts his hand over it, obscuring Sam’s view.

“You and me. We don’t have a case right now. Let’s get that Killing Nemo asshole.”

Sam stares at Dean in shock like Dean just reinvented the wheel, and then frowns. “Uh, no, this case is too easy for us. We should hand this one over to someone new to hunting and take a harder one. Let me just rearrange...” He reaches out for the pins on the board, but Dean catches his wrist mid-air.

“Whoa, cowboy. Did you already call everyone with their assignments?” Sam nods. “Chances are, they’re either getting ready or driving down there at this point. So quit meddling around with the seating chart and let’s go work that milk run.”

“Fine,” Sam says in a you’re-right-but-I’m-not-happy-about-this tone of voice.

“But first, you should take a nap.”

Sam shakes his head no. “Too buzzed up on coffee for that.”

“Then a shower, at least.”

That Sam doesn’t argue against.

Dean tries to perk up the drooping branches of the Christmas tree while Sam’s gone. If anything, all his ministrations just make it look sadder.

So much for cheer this year.

---

It’s seven hours to Colorado which is nothing by Winchester Driving Standards, but Sam manages to drive Dean crazy all the same. Apart from the time spent chewing on his cobb salad and fries, Sam does not shut up. He mumbles under his breath as he types out emails, hums as he sends out texts, and speaks out loud whenever a call comes in.

And, man, do the calls come in often. Dean doesn’t even bother making the stereo louder at this point, because Sam will just turn it back down as soon as that annoying tra-la-la sound of his phone going off hits again. He grinds his teeth throughout the drive as Sam plays field office, pretending to be a big bad FBI boss or the editor-in-chief of “The Mannford Reporter”, as Sam walks someone through hunting a werewolf and patiently explains the difference between wendigos and rugarus like he’s giving a lecture in kindergarten.

Everyone needs Sam.

“You’re doing great, Maggie,” Sam says, voice soft. “Now feel for the small pins inside the lock. Yes, while torquing the tension wrench. There we go. Should unlock now.”

Dean white-knuckles the steering wheel and stares at the long stretch of the road ahead. “So, man, about that case we’re driving to—”

“I have the file right here. Look it over at the next pit stop, okay?” Sam looks up from his laptop for just long enough to wave a manila folder in Dean’s general direction. “There’s my notes, a couple of blueprints of the aquarium, and the approximate plan of action.” Okay, Dean’s not one of Sam’s baby hunters who needs their hand held through a salt-and-burn, but whatever. He’s not picking a fight with Sam over something as stupid as that. As long as the job’s done, who cares how it's done? “We need to cut the alarm, and it should be smooth sailing from there.”

“Ha. Smooth sailing.” Dean grins. “Geddit? ‘Cause the ghost is haunting a ship—”

“Just a second.” Sam raises his hand as his phone rings, his index finger almost poking Dean’s arm. “Hey. Yes, you need to dip the blade in lamb’s blood.” Sam’s eyebrows shoot up. “Wait, what? You decided to go vegan?” He rubs his forehead, processing the info. “Uh, well… congratulations, Jack. This is a really cool decision.”

“Vegan, for real? Kid’s missing out,” Dean starts but Sam shushes him. “Nothing quite like a well-done, juicy patty in a burger with some crunchy…”

“Shut up. No, not you, Jack. Hey, look, can’t you ask Cas to dip the blade in the blood for you?”

Feels like it takes light years to get from one mile marker to another. Dean grits his teeth.

“Dude, don’t you think that’s gonna be one cup of joe too many?” he asks as they stand in the drive-thru line. Sam squints at the list of the coffee offerings, holding his phone to his ear with his shoulder.

“No,” he says shortly, because apparently that’s all that’s left over for Dean after Sam’s done talking to everyone else. “Mom, it wouldn’t be weird to invite Jody to your get-together. Who here hasn’t tried to kill one of their friends? It’s all water under the bridge. You were brainwashed. Happens to the best of us.”

The sky’s gray and the air’s cold, but there’s not a single snowflake in sight.

---

As he hoists himself into a back window at the Downtown Aquarium, Dean realizes two things at once. First, the floor is really fucking firm when you crash down on it from the windowsill’s height. Second, he’s getting too old for this shit.

The place stinks of cleaning chemicals. A mop leans against the wall. Sam’s already inside, having made the climb first. The moonlight carves out Sam’s face in darkness, the worried furrow between his eyebrows, his tired eyes.

Dean grabs the flashlight from where it tried to roll away to and scrambles to his feet, squinting into the dark. He opens the door leading to the main hall of the aquarium and peeks out, looking around the hall.

“Coast’s clear,” he mutters in Sam’s direction and steps outside. His steps echo under the high ceiling, and it’s pretty damn, well, pretty here, what with all these colorful fish in the low glow of their dimmed aquariums. Dean stops in front of the one full of jellyfish and watches them float around, their tails fluttering in the water.

The one and only time he’s been to an aquarium, it was with Ben’s class. He signed up to chaperone the trip after a lot of nudging from Lisa, who was on the PTA and thought it would be helpful for Dean to get out of the house. That trip mostly consisted of herding rambunctious children, and he spent more time grabbing runaway kids than actually watching any of the fish.

Dean inspects the poster promising fun Christmas-themed events. They’re showing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the 4D theatre, apparently. Sam blinks and rubs the bridge of his nose, looking around like he just realized they’re there already and not still in the car. Probably all that fucking coffee finally wearing off. “Um… Dean, where’s the breaker box? You looked at the blueprints I gave you, right?”

“Yeah. Keep it together, man.” Dean grabs Sam by the shoulder and steers him in the approximate direction across the dark hallways.

Sam picks the lock and stifles a yawn as he steps back. Dean swings the tiny door open, impatient.

“Hey, shine some light for me here.” He elbows Sam in the ribs. Sam hisses but leans in close, shining his phone’s flashlight on the tangled mess of wires inside the breaker. Dean takes out a wire cutter and hums under his nose as he looks where to start. He barely gets the first one when Sam’s phone vibrates in his hands again.

“Heh. One of those days, right?” Sam says nervously. Dean throws a look at the screen and doesn’t recognize the name. Must be one of Sam’s apoca-hunter men.

“Don’t pick up,” Dean grumbles. “We’re on a case. Don’t text and hunt. It can wait.” He snorts at his own joke. What? Someone’s gotta appreciate how hilarious he is, and Sam’s clearly not the man for the job, judging by the you’re-not-all-that-funny way he’s scowling right now. Angry dimples galore and everything.

“Could be something urgent. Sorry.” Sam throws a sheepish smile in Dean’s direction as he presses his finger against the screen. “Hi. What is it, Oliver?”

Dean stares into the depths of the dark circuit box. Feels like it stares back. He bites down on his own flashlight and cuts the second wire. Then almost chokes on the damn thing when he hears what exactly Sam is helping Oliver with.

“I’m in the middle of something, so let’s make it quick. Go to Gmail… that’s G-M-A-I-L. Dot. Com.”

Dean puts the flashlight back in his pocket and slams the circuit box’s door shut. The sound echoes through the aquarium, but if a security guard comes by, Dean would be more than happy to punch him in the face, free of charge. He’s in the mood to throw down.

“You want to put in your login and password. The ones I wrote down on that sti...”

Sam stares at Dean in disbelief when Dean yanks the phone out of his hands. He’s visibly tense, wound up like a tight spring, and only relaxes a little when Dean starts talking.

“Hey, bud. Sam’s real busy with a case of his own and can’t help you right now. Google whatever it is you need. Adios.”

For a second, Dean expects Sam to clock him. The angry sounds coming from him alone would make less brave men run for the hills. But Sam doesn’t start throwing punches. He goes right for the phone instead.

“No. Hey, no. Dude! Unplug for once.”

Sam’s nostrils flare. “What are you, five? Give it back.” He strains as he reaches out, but Dean keeps the phone at an arm’s length. “I have to be available in case someone needs help.”

“In case someone needs help logging into their fucking Gmail account?”

“Big talk from someone who I taught to login into his Gmail account in the first place!” Sam scoffs, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Shove it.” Dean takes a step in Sam’s direction, brandishing the phone in the air. “Look, I get it, it feels good, what with all these people looking up to you. But we’re in the middle of something here!”

“They’re all in the middle of something too! This wasn’t urgent—but it could’ve been! Give it back,” Sam says, and seamlessly goes from a fearless leader to a bratty twelve-year-old. “Give it!”

“No!” Dean says very maturely because when Sam’s twelve, he’s sixteen. Dean pulls Sam’s phone out of reach, but Sam uses his freakishly long arms to his (very unfair) advantage. He ends up slapping the phone out of Dean’s hand by accident, and it slides across the floor, lighting up the large room with its blue glow.

“My screen’s cracked,” Sam snaps, picking up his phone. He prods at the cracked surface and his nostrils flare. “It— it broke. I swear, Dean, I—”

Whatever it is Sam swears to do, Dean never finds out, because suddenly there’s a whooshing noise in his ears and pressure in his lungs like he’s getting baptized really hard. His vision blurs, but even through the sudden onslaught of water in his eyes, he sees Sam’s breath come up in a white cloud.

Then the ghost pushes him face-first onto the floor, the ground rushes him, and Dean doesn’t see a whole lot of anything anymore. He digs his nails into the tile for all he’s worth as he fights for the smallest breath of air. Something swishes above his head, and, finally, the pressure lets up.

Dean rolls over onto his back, coughing up a lung.

Sam’s standing above him, an iron poker clasped in his grasp, his chest heaving just as hard as Dean’s. It never gets easier, this brush with death and the subsequent adrenaline pumping through the veins.

“Come on,” Sam says, offering Dean a hand, and Dean’s not too proud to turn him down. He grabs Sam’s hand with his and pushes up. Sam glances at his shattered phone, then back at Dean. “Put a pin in it?”

“Sure. You catch a glimpse of the ghost?”

“Yes. Looks like our guy. The clothes seemed right.”

“So, what, this really is a usual salt and burn? Kept waiting for a plot twist.”

“I think you’ve been through enough plot twists for one day,” Sam says, exasperated, and leads the way to the museum. He shoots endless dirty looks in Dean’s direction throughout the two of them working the glass display open, pouring gasoline, and spilling salt. There’s so going to be an article about vandals breaking into the museum wing and destroying historical artifacts later on, but they’ll be miles and miles away from there by then.

Dean stops by the jellyfish on the way back. Sam doesn’t comment and hangs back instead.

It’s dead quiet, and the only source of light is in the aquarium.

Sam’s looking up, eyes wide. Like he used to when he was a kid and got so overwhelmed by the grandeur of, well, practically everything that wasn’t their normal life.

The first time a hunt led them to a big city and Sam stared at skyscrapers in awe. The time they went to an art museum in some dinkytown and Sam swooned over the small ceramic dogs exhibited there. That time Dean drove across state lines so middle school Sam could go to an event in Borders where his favorite author at the time (fuck if Dean can remember who) was signing books and Sam stood in a long-ass line just to get that damn scribble and a couple encouraging words and still beamed all the way back. That time Dean snuck highschooler Sam into a burlesque show, and he tried his best to act like he was above that kinda crude stuff Dean’s into, but his eyes lit up as he watched the dance all the same.

It’s been so long since Dean’s seen Sam look at anything like that. And it’s understandable: he’s grown up since and been through some serious shit… ‘course his excitement for everything dimmed. But hell if it doesn’t feel nostalgia-laden here and now: a simple case, just the two of them, and Sam’s eyes getting all misty from seeing something pretty.

Ah, fuck it. Dean can appreciate this too. Hunting isn’t always easy. It’s usually not, what with the blood and guts and digging up graves.

But here in this quiet room with Sam, it all feels worth it.

“It’s, uh, nice,” Dean says, and he knows he hit the wrong chord when Sam shoots him a heavy look. Okay, still mad. Pin out.

Sam marches out of the aquarium.

---

The diner they stop at for a bite is dingy and dirty, and Dean feels right at home. Nothing like these sticky tablecloths, yellow-dress waitresses and suspiciously stained cutlery. He might’ve been cooking at his own kitchen for five years, but he’s been eating out of these greasy spoons for a lifetime.

Sam’s sitting straight like he swallowed a rod and staring into the window intensely. Sitting across him in the booth seat gets Dean a first-row seat to Sam’s anger. And he’s not just angry. He’s bone-tired, too, stray hair falling in his face, dark circles under his eyes, that whole ‘I forgot to shave’ three-days scruff going on.

Dean’s probably not looking much better himself. Man, they’re getting old.

“I’ll get your damn phone fixed,” he says at last in lieu of an apology.

“You’re an idiot if you think it’s about the phone,” Sam says, sour.

“Hi, we have a special Christmas offering—eggnog!” the waitress chirps in before Dean can get a word in edgewise. She’s got a rocking body that even the boxy dress can’t conceal, long hair and glittery nails, exactly the type of girl Dean would’ve gone for if he didn’t feel just as tired as Sam. “Would you two like some?”

“No, thank you,” Sam says at the same time as Dean says “oh yes!”, and she blinks but makes a note in her notepad all the same.

Sam smiles through the entire process of ordering, but that immediately shrinks when she walks off.

“Why don’t you trust me?” he says at last, and that’s just so out of the left field, Dean’s left blinking in confusion. “You don’t believe I can run this operation. All your little snide comments about them being there in the bunker, and now this?”

“What? Course I trust you. I didn’t want random people in the bunker because it’s our place, not a… a freaking free for all. They can crash there, but not set up camp.” Dean shakes his head. “It’s great if you found this leadership thing and you want to run with it, but you’re doing a little too much.”

“I have to,” Sam says, shrugging. “Someone has to do it.”

“You’re working yourself to the bone here. Sleeping three hours a night? Looking for new cases for all of them and for lore to help us with Michael? Being the on-call... whatever they need? You can’t do all of it at the same time. Something’s gonna give.”

“It’s on me, Dean! Okay?” Sam snaps, white-knuckling the edge of the table. “They’re my responsibility. They were scared and trapped in this whole different world with different rules, and they needed guidance and a purpose and if I didn’t keep them together…”

“Let me handle Michael then.” That one’s on Dean, that’s for damn sure.

“He put you through hell. You’re my brother. That’s always my responsibility.” Sam pauses for a beat. “I’m fine, Dean.”

Dean laughs, humorless. “You’re not fine.”

“What choice do I have?” Sam rubs his hand over his face.

“Ask me for help? I’m right here. You didn’t even think about that. Hell, you forgot you and I can work cases.”

Sam looks up at Dean, and he looks all but ten years old again. Like he’s working on a school project that doesn’t turn out quite right and desperately doesn’t want to ask for Dean’s hot-gluing help. “I needed to handle this myself. And after Michael, you haven’t exactly been in the best place.”

“When has it ever helped me to sit on my ass and twiddle my thumbs?” Dean snorts. “Sam, c’mon. If you’re doing this whole chief business, I want to pitch in. I won’t try and… and steal your thunder, cool? I’ll research and field calls and whatnot. Whatever needs to be done.”

“You hate doing that stuff. Especially research.”

“Yeah, well. It’s part of the job.” Dean leans back on the bench seat. “It’d be a shame if you were stuck behind a desk all day. Sure, that book and lore stuff is your jam, but you’re good at chopping heads, too. Damn good, I’d say.”

Sam gives Dean an uneven smile.

“Plus, you’re my partner.” Saved his neck just today. “I want you in the field with me. But we can’t be in the field if your head’s not in it. ‘Cause then…” Dean drags his thumb across his neck. “Your head’s won’t be in anything real quick.”

Sam chews on his bottom lip, hesitant.

“Look. A leader needs to delegate. You don’t see, I dunno, friggin’ Jimmy Page setting up the lighting on his shows by himself, do you? Someone like you can’t waste his time on telling people to turn their computers on and off again.” Dean grins. “You said it yourself, we’re in the big leagues. Means we need to work on saving people on the front lines rather than playing backup.”

Sam looks at Dean for an uncomfortably long time and finally nods. “I guess I could ask Charlie to hold a computer literacy 101 course,” he says, thoughtful. “And Jack could teach people to pick locks. He’d be so— so proud to teach anyone anything. And I bet Cas would make a good authoritative FBI voice, even if he’s probably going to need some pointers on what fake names to choose.”

Yeah, agent Aguilera comes to mind. “That’s the spirit.”

“Great. That gives me more time for research,” Sam says, determined, just as the waitress sets his meal in front of him. She also puts two cups of eggnog on the table.

“I know you didn’t order one, but it’s Christmas, so… a cup on the house,” she says, winking. Sam thanks her, awkward, and inspects it close like he’s never had eggnog before. The waitress blesses Dean with his burger and stops to beam at Sam again before walking away.

“Whoa, whoa. Research? No. You need to take a breather, bad. For example, that waitress? Totally into you,” Dean lowers his voice all conspiratorial-like, leaning in close. “Need a wingman?”

“No, Dean, c’mon,” Sam says with a laugh. “I’m good.”

“Dude. For once, the apocalypse isn’t breathing down our necks. Live a little.”

“What about Michael? The other shoe’s going to drop eventually.”

“And we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Dean promises easily. “But you won’t be ready for any kinda archangel showdowns if you run yourself ragged by the time he makes a comeback, alright? This ain’t a sprint. It’s…”

“A marathon, yeah, I know,” Sam interrupts him. “It’s just— it sucked the last time.” He bites down on his knuckles. Dean reads between the lines. Sam stepped up to the plate to keep busy. Dean used to do that too, staying at his construction work till late and taking up extra shifts to end up bone-tired and pass out in Lisa’s bed without nightmares. Only worked half the time.

Whatever he stuffed his life with when he was Samless went south as soon as Sam rose back from the dead. It ain’t pretty, one of them without the other, and Dean hopes they can dodge that in the near future. But if they can’t, Sam’s going to yank him back from whatever brink he might end up on.

And if leading these people is what his newfound substitute calling is, Dean’s got his back. ‘Cause that’s what they do. And Sam’s damn good at this, even if he gives way too fucking much.

“I’m not saying yes to him again. And Cas would know if he was still in my melon.”

Sam gives him an unconvincing shrug.

“He’s gotta ask again,” Dean says, as much for his own sake as for Sam’s. That ghost reminded him what drowning on land was like, and he’s not eager to go back whatso-fucking-ever. “When Cas got yanked out of Jimmy Novak, he had to ask again.”

He says that, but he thinks about Raphael’s vessel slumped in that wheelchair. How he was not fit to give a yes or give much of an anything, and Raphael forced his way in all the same. How Castiel promised that—or worse—is how he’d end up after being ridden by an archangel, but for some reason, Michael bothered to patch him up before cutting him loose.

It was too easy, and they both know that.

Dean doesn’t voice any of it, but he knows Sam’s gotta be thinking that too. If he put these pieces together, Sam certainly did. Sam knows possession all too well. Dean doesn’t even know how to begin talking to him about any of the things that went down lately. Feels like explaining what a punch is like to a guy who got pummeled every damn day. Even if Sam doesn’t think of it like that, it’s enough that Dean does. And he’s not the sharing and caring type to begin with.

He’s so fucking lucky Sam doesn’t hold grudges much these days.

“Yeah, sure. He has to ask again,” Sam says. His eyebrows twitch and he rubs his left hand’s knuckles with the thumb of his right. Dean’s played way too many boredom-induced poker games with the guy to miss his tells.

He rubs his own chin. Closes his eyes. Exhales.

Things aren’t all fine and dandy, but they’re good enough. The world’s not ending, the sky’s not opening up with Michael’s wrath just yet, and Sam’s by his side. That last one alone is good enough, actually. The sky can open up all it wants.

“So, don’t you wanna get laid? Can’t we just take a moment and…”

“We can. I just don’t feel like spending whatever free time I have with someone I don’t know.” Sam takes a sip of the eggnog. An ever-present knot in the pit of Dean’s stomach undoes itself. Michael or no Michael. “We should take a moment.”

“Go somewhere,” Dean picks up on what Sam’s laying down. “You and me.”

“Yeah.” Sam sets the cup back on the table. His eyes light up with that familiar enthusiastic shine. Dean didn’t realize just how much he missed it until he saw it in fluorescent light, the kind of light the Winchester flowers grow best under. “Heh. How about an aquarium? Really look at everything, not just run through looking for something to burn.”

“Works for me,” Dean says. “Let’s go to a different one though. Just in case our mugs ended up on a ‘don’t let these bitches in, they burn stuff’ shitlist.”

He pulls a flask out of his jacket, uncaps it, and splashes a bit of liquor into his own cup and into Sam’s. Sam opens his mouth to protest and then closes it back up, quirking it in a smile. He pulls out his phone and puts it on mute. It’s a symbolic gesture because the thing is smashed real nice and probably can’t get calls anymore, but hell if Dean doesn’t appreciate it anyway.

“Cheers, Sammy,” he says.

“Cheers.”

Sam toasts him. Dean takes a big sip of the saccharine-sweet eggnog and waits for the aftertaste of booze to prickle his tongue.

He looks outside.

Big white snowflakes slowly fall to the ground, swaying in the night air.

For the first time in ages, it feels like Christmas.