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The third time Dean offers Sam the Impala Sam takes her. Grabs the keys, hugs Dean quick and hard, his face twisting up like he’s not twenty-nine and pissed with Dean and scary as fuck, and drives off into the sunset. Or, well, the late morning. Dean ducks back into the motel and leans against the door for a second. Then he gives the room a cursory once-over, his usual check to be sure they – he – didn’t forget something. One of Sam’s fancy clicky ballpoints is lying in the corner, where it ricocheted off the wall when Sam threw it during their argument. Dean clips the pen safely in his pocket, shoulders his duffle, hands the key card in at the office. Then he sets off walking. He could steal a car, or rent one, or even buy one, but hitchhiking feels right. When the first truck that pulls over turns out to be headed for New Hampshire he goes with it. Enough of destiny. Time to try chance.

A few things he’s decided. He’s not hunting. He’s not going back to Lisa and Ben – Lisa’s moved on, Ben deserves a chance to bond with the guy who’s there in their lives. And he’s not sticking with Sam, distorting each other in the warp field of whatever the hell it is between them. When he calls Bobby from Franklin, NH, lets him know that he and Sam have split up, Bobby is somewhere between worried and relieved. And he comes up with a name. Maureen McKenna. Nasty spirit in the cellar of an old bar twenty years back. She’s still running the place, she’s hiring, and she’s just moved in with her second husband, needs someone to rent the apartment above the bar.

McKenna’s does good business, Dean finds in his first few weeks, for a small town restaurant/bar. There are locals, a lot of plumbers and electricians and contractors, maintaining ageing historic houses and working on the snazzy new lakefront places. That crowd’s not so different from the guys Dean worked with that in-between year at Lisa’s. There are the weekend people. And then there are the people passing through. Doesn’t take Dean a month to realize he’s been had. He’s not the only hunter Maureen has a soft spot for. Bobby’s landed him at some New England Roadhouse, co-opted him into his network.

If the men and women who drive up with trunks full of knives and rifles and salt know who Dean Smith is, the code doesn’t include saying anything. But every now and then someone will lean across the bar when he’s serving and mutter, “Bobby said you might be able to help me.” Sam’s got Dad’s journal and Samuel’s files, but Dean finds himself passing on wendigo tips and showing some kid who doesn’t look twenty how to make salt shells, the good kind with shavings of silver, and how to load capsules with dead man’s blood.

That’s how he finds himself at three in the morning, long past closing, with a harpoon gun made of blessed iron in pieces across the bar – apparently there’s something in the water off of Martha’s Vineyard, eating yuppies – while Tamara finishes her third brandy and decides to stop pretending she’s never met him before.

“How’s your brother?” she asks, “is he . . .” she makes a complicated gesture, tactful retreat in case of unspeakable possibilities. In case Dean’s gotten his brother killed like he did her husband.

“Sam’s fine,” says Dean. It’s the spring mechanism that coils the cable that’s gone. He pokes in the toolbox he keeps under the bar. It’s gotten a bit more extensive than needed for putting the coathooks back when they fall down. “He’s out there somewhere. Hunting.”

And yeah, Sam’s fine. Bobby would know if something happened. Sam’s fine. A bit dead about the eyes, with a wall in his brain, and pissed at Dean, but fine.

Tamara is eyeing him sharply. “What, you got tired of the job and he didn’t?”

“Something like that,” says Dean. Something like Sam snatching Ruby’s knife out of Dean’s hand and putting it through the eye of a ten-year-old boy, as coolly as if he’d stowed his soul away again, maybe locked it behind the damned wall. The demon riding the kid had snapped two necks, might have taken out someone else before they could finish the exorcism, but Sam made his move when the boy’s eyes tracked to Dean. Dean’s not up for being the guy Sam does that for.

Tamara runs her finger along the rim of her glass. “I quit,” she says, “After Isaac. After the demon war died down. Went back home, stayed with my mother, didn’t read newspapers. But quitting – it bled backwards. Like nothing we’d done meant a thing once I’d stopped. At least this way there’s the next job. And sometimes someone gets saved, even if it’s always the wrong ones.” There’s a prickle of hostility in her voice. Quitter and survivor, two marks against him. Not like Dean doesn’t think that sometimes himself. He grunts, finishes tightening the screw round the spring, tests the trigger. The reel whirs like an angry bug. He starts to refasten the cable. “Should work now,” he says.

“Thank you,” says Tamara. “Three sailing boats in the last week. Tentacled sucker’s the next one going down.” She pushes her glass back towards Dean. “I could use a hand,” she says. “It’s not far. Weekend trip. You’ve still got a reputation, you know.”

And for a moment Dean’s tempted. Handling a boat and the gun is going to be tricky for one person. And he’s always wanted to hunt something with tentacles. He could call Sam and boast a little. Be a good excuse for getting in touch. Sam’s probably never bagged a tentacle thing. But then there will be the next case, and the next. Sooner or later he’ll be tracking Sam down, needing his help to kill something. It’s too late to fix stuff, of course, too late to save Sam. Dean could die without seeing his brother again, and there still won’t be a Sam out there who’s bound for law school rather than hell, a Sam whose life isn’t made of killing things. But at least staying out of it all Dean won’t make it worse.

He wishes Tamara luck and goes to bed, reaches for the flask in the bedside drawer, the one he’s hardly touched since his first weeks here, and dreams of Ben on the rack. Sleeps until afternoon next day, goes downstairs at three to open.

Thing is, he’s been getting good at this gig. He makes pies, and they’re fucking fantastic. People buy them to take home. And after Tamara word spreads, and Dean spends more time tinkering with hunters’ equipment. The regulars at the bar like him, too. He’s still crap at not missing Sam, but it helps to think about other stuff. Like, ever since they found out you could gank demons by burning their bones, he’s been wondering. Demons must be related to ghosts, right? Spirits plus sulfur. He’s been wondering if it wouldn’t be possible to build something, an EMF detector thing tuned to demons.

There’s an old carriage house out back behind the place, mostly a quiet retreat for overstressed spiders since the new garage got built, but it’s got electricity. Dean hauls in a table, buys more tools, odd bits of electronics he can cannibalize for parts, chases the arachnids away. He does a lot of reading and tinkering. His folding table makes friends with a proper workbench. He starts ordering mercury and sulfur and god knows what online, more occult supplies through channels Rufus puts him onto. Rufus also takes the prototypes for testing. It’s irksome that somewhere in the back of his mind Dean keeps forgetting it’s not Sam he’s working with. There’s always a moment of dissonance when it’s Rufus who comes back to the bar every few weeks, tells him what works and what didn’t. But Dean can get used to it. Sam would probably laugh at him, anyway.

When Rufus drops by in March and gets him shitfaced drinking the health of Demon Detector VI, the one that worked, he takes out his cell while he’s still drunk and looks at it for a long time. He should send Sam one of these things; he could use it.

Sam answers. Dean’s only a little surprised. They haven’t talked since they’d parted at the motel in Connecticut and agreed not to call. Dean doesn’t say where he is. Sam doesn’t say what he’s doing. They end up exchanging stilted small talk about Bobby. A new level of stupid, even for them. Dean drags the conversation round to demon detectors.

“I can send the second prototype out to Singer Salvage,” he says, “You could pick it up there.”

“Thanks. Hey, that’s cool, that you’re doing that,” Sam says. Superior ass. He sounds like the bland strangers Dean met at Lisa’s high school reunion, politely catching up on the lives of people they’d stopped caring about years ago. "But you shouldn't be sending one to me."

“If you don’t want it . . .” Dean says stiffly.

“That’s not what I meant, Dean, Jesus. But if you only have two of the things, you should give one to Gwen, or Rufus. Someone who goes after demons. I shouldn’t be high on your list.”

“What, you don’t hunt demons any more? Got any alliances going I should know about?” Which is a low blow, but fuck, first time they’ve talked in seven months and Sam’s pissing him off.

It’s mutual. Dean can hear Sam’s breathing over the phone, deep and controlled and angry.

“I pass on the gigs that look like demon hunts. They’re not the best jobs for the addict. Be glad I’m not out slaughtering children for kicks, like you think I do,” he says flatly. Then he adds, “None of your fucking business, anyway,” and hangs up. Dean’s left staring at his phone and his demon detector, feeling shitty and worried and furious. A familiar Sam-feeling.

He gives Rufus his other prototype to pass on to Bobby. Bobby will know who might need it.

He tries to call Sam three times in the next two weeks. Sam doesn’t pick up. But the third of April, halfway between dinnertime and closing, he shows up at McKenna’s. He’s gotten a haircut some time in the last eight months – laws of the universe must have stopped working again, Bobby might have warned a guy – and he’s thinner, but he’s Sam. Dean stands stock still, startled by the sheer familiarity of what he’s feeling, anger and unfocused panic and terrifying affection. Eight months. Sam’s eyes catch on him and for a moment his face is guilty and delighted. Then his expression shuts down and he slides into the dark, drafty booth by the door. Fucking Sam. Not even coming over to say hello.

It’s a busy night and Dean can’t cope with this, not now. Maureen is serving Sam’s corner anyway. They’ll sort things out after closing. There’s an hour to go and Dean’s got his back to the room, drawing someone’s pint, when the feeling of Sam’s eyes between his shoulder blades goes away. The door is still swinging when he looks around. He’d like to think he’d catch the noise of the Impala’s engine, starting and then fading off down the road, but the truth is the crowd’s noisy and he can’t hear a thing.

After that it becomes some game Sam’s playing, God knows what. Every few weeks he’ll come by, sit in the darkest corner, slip out without talking to Dean. Dean watches covertly from behind the bar, making sure Sam’s not moving stiffly, that he’s not bruised or bandaged or drinking more than a pint or two. Habit. Sam stares at him openly, hungry or assessing or hopeful, Dean can’t tell. But he doesn’t come near Dean or say anything, even the third time when Dean gets sick of this damned détente and brings Sam his beer, sets it down a little too hard in front of him with a “Cheers,” that comes out taunting, then walks away.

Sam leaves the beer half finished. He tips Dean five bucks and the amulet.

It’s the same one, definitely. Even if Sam could have found another, Dean knows the tiny nicks and dents of the original the way he knows Sam’s moles, or the catch and purr of the Impala’s engine. He stares at it, swinging from his hand, his heart beating crazily in his throat. Then he sees the five bucks and remembers to be mad.

Next morning when he gets dressed he puts the amulet on. He also stuffs the five dollars in his pocket. Next time Sam comes through, they’re talking.

He shows up in nine days. Like he never went away at all. Dean’s been keeping his eye on the door every night. Soon as Sam comes in he catches Maureen’s eye, points at the door and jerks his head. Maureen nods. Dean grabs Sam’s jacket before he can sit down, hauls him outside and around the corner of the building, to the side yard where it’s dark and quiet. Sam doesn’t resist, even when Dean shoves him up against the clapboard wall.

“What the fuck, Sam?” he says.

Sam’s eyes are on the amulet on Dean’s chest. “I was in the neighborhood,” he says.

“Four times in three months? There a hellmouth in Hanover?”

“There’s a hunters’ bar in Old Grafton. Word got out.”

“So you thought you’d stalk me.”

“I wanted to see you.”

“I’m still the good-looking one. But keep checking.”

“Yeah,” says Sam, half-mocking, “you still are.” He curls his hands in Dean’s collar, like he’s going to kiss him. He’s breathing a little hard. So is Dean. They haven’t done this, not since Dean went to hell and everything followed. Even the night before Sam said Yes, when they’d sat in whatever motel it had been, nothing left to say, they’d just looked at each other, hardly touched. But right now they’re both angry. It would be a stupid idea, a stupid way to sort things.

“Sam,” says Dean. Sam lets go of him.

“Fuck, Dean,” he says, “I know you don’t trust me. I know you can’t hunt with me. I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

Of course Dean trusts him. That’s the fucking problem. But he’s too pissed right now to try to explain that.

“I’m fine, Sam,” he says instead, “Just fine. Got a job, got my little hobby you’re so condescending about. You don’t have to keep an eye on me. Or tip me. Go be the mighty hunter.”

Sam growls and pushes Dean away. Dean pushes back. And then they’re fighting. Not like those couple of murderous fights in the bad years, not even like they sparred when Sam was a teenager and Dean figured fighting with him beat letting him fight with Dad, but like they’re both ten, rolling around in the twiggy grass. Sam jabs an elbow in Dean’s eye, and Dean grunts with pain and annoyance and slams the heel of his hand into Sam’s teeth. Sam’s lip starts to bleed. “Damn it, Dean,” he says. His voice is a stupid, cracked falsetto with indignation, and he’s glaring.

And Dean cracks up. They’d almost faced off in the apocalypse, for Christ’s sake, and now they’re rolling around in the grass in New Hampshire pummeling each other and Sam’s squeaking at him. For a moment Sam’s face is thunderous. Then his lip twitches, and he drops his forehead against Dean’s collarbone, snorting and shaking. Dean laughs till his ribs ache. Makes no more sense than their fight, but when Dean staggers up and hauls Sam to his feet he feels lighter, like something’s shaken loose and into place.

“Get me an ice pack, bitch,” he says.

Sam thumbs the eye gently, tilting Dean’s head to see better.

“Come back to the car,” he says.

The Impala is parked in the remote end of the parking lot. Dean’s eye is starting to swell and throb, but the familiar metal of the hood is solid at his back when he lies on it. Sam is poking about in the back seat, and there’s a slosh and chink of ice and then the door slamming. Sam hands him a beer and a sloppy ice pack that’s mostly water and settles down beside him. Dean slaps the ice pack over his eye, and cold water runs in ticklish rivulets down the side of his face and into his ear. He cracks open the other eye to make sure Sam’s suffering, too. Sam’s sitting up, rolling his own beer meditatively against the wrist he’ll probably claim is sprained. There’s dirt and leaves in his hair and his split lip is swelling into a twisted sneer. When he catches Dean’s eye he starts to snicker again, and has to wipe away the trickle of blood. Sam with blood on his mouth. But the flashback to revulsion and despair Dean braces for doesn’t happen. It’s just Sammy, with a split lip because he got mad and stupid.

“Hey,” he says, “Sam,” and he tugs Sam down so he’s sprawling half over Dean. Sam looks into his face, serious and unsurprised, and kisses him. Chaste and careful, and he draws back with an “Ow,” dabbing at his lip. It’s all right, this can wait. They settle with one of Sam’s legs slung over Dean’s, Sam rubbing Dean’s chest absently. Sam’s half hard, Dean can feel it, but there’s no urgency about it, just a familiar potential back in place. Sam runs his thumb over the amulet.

“You’re happy,” he says, “At McKenna’s. You look happy.”

Right now, with Sam tangled up with him, Dean is.

“It’s good,” he says, “It’s good. I’m doing some of the cooking, you know, as well as the fixing stuff. My pies are awesome.”

“You don’t miss it, hunting.”

“I don’t miss kids getting killed because of me,” Dean says. Fuck, he had to bring that up. But Sam doesn’t bristle at him, doesn’t yell, this time, that he’s doing the fucking job and if Dean can’t bring himself to do it he should get out. He hauls himself up on his elbows, so he can look Dean in the eye again.

“It’s not just you, you know,” he says, “That kid. It’s not on you. If it had been the teacher, one of the other kids he’d been going for, I’d have done it. You hate it, I know you do. I do, myself. But he’s me, the guy who can do that.”

“You could stop,” says Dean.

“I can’t quit, Dean. Everything I’ve done, I’ve got to keep going. I don’t even know if I’m making things better, but I can’t stop.”

Dean could argue, but it wouldn’t help.

“OK,” he says.

“OK?” says Sam, “You’re OK with me going on? I don’t do demons any more, but people still die. Get caught in the crossfire. You’ve still got a killer for a brother.”

“Not like you don’t, Sammy. And you didn’t need my permission to hunt last time I checked. Just. Be careful. Don’t scratch at the wall or dent my car or get killed. Or elope with a succubus or go dark side.”

Sam shoves at him.

“I’m taking back that bit about stuff not being on you. I go full on Vader, somehow I’ll make it your fault.”

Dean squints over at Sam. It hurts.

“You been breathing funny lately?” he asks.

“Hilarious, Dean. No.” says Sam.

Dean closes his eyes again, moves his shoulder closer against Sam’s. “Then I think we’re OK,” he says. They stay quiet for a while.

“I could visit,” says Sam eventually, “You know, when I’m in the neighborhood.”

“Yeah,” says Dean, “you could do that.”

Sam lets out a breath like he’s been holding it. Then he pulls himself abruptly away from where he’s close and warm beside Dean, stands up and walks around the car, gets something out of the trunk.

“So,” he says, “My EMF meter’s gone wonky. I heard there’s a guy here might be able to fix it.”

Sam’s all about redeeming the big shit that’s not his fault. It’s rarer for him to apologize for the little stuff that matters. But Dean still recognizes it when it happens. He levers himself off the hood.

“Bring it out to the shop,” he says, “I’ll have a look at it.”

Sam pokes around the carriage house while Dean starts to work, getting between Dean and his light and generally making a nuisance of himself. It’s like having a really ginormous cat with bad fur. Finally he settles on the spare chair and digs the laptop out of his bag. Dean hunches over, undoing a row of tiny screws, and drops one when Sam gives an outraged huff.

“You don’t have wireless out here. You should have wireless.”

“Yeah,” says Dean absently. He’s disemboweling electronics, he kind of needs to concentrate. “I’ll get right on that. Soon as I’ve set up the latte bar in the corner.”

There’s an indescribably scornful sound, a thump and rustle as Sam digs in his pack again, then a long silence punctuated by the turning of pages. When Dean looks up again Sam is slumped with his usual horrible posture at the table, reading a book that looks stolen. His forehead is wrinkled with concentration and he’s drinking from a battered thermos. Dean reaches out to steal a swig and Sam curls his hand round the thermos protectively.

“No way, man,” he says, not taking his eyes from the page. “You can have my coffee when you get me my latte bar.”

Some time towards September, when Sam says on the phone that he’s heading for New England and might stop by again, Dean orders one of those overpriced Italian coffee machines that can steam milk – also possibly pilot a space shuttle -- and sets it up at the end of the bench. If Sam wants flavored syrups, he can shop for them himself. Sam tinkers with it happily when he comes and almost forgets to get in Dean’s way.

***********************

It doesn’t happen often, not any more. These last few months, even when Sam’s not around – he hared off to Louisiana three weeks ago, dealt with some swampy snake thing, and now he’s in the Midwest, last Dean heard -- these last few months the nightmares have tailed off. Still, some nights Dean goes back.

It’s dark, but there’s a glare of light ahead. One of those bare bulbs in a wire cage. Dean can hear a faint whir of machinery and it’s frigid cold. He pushes his way through heavy swinging somethings that move with a faint clank, making for the light. Emerges into a sort of aisle. There are shapes ahead of him, two more of the swinging things. His eyes are dazzled. He steps forward, trying to see what they are. He recognizes a hand first.

Sam’s sliced perfectly in half, right down the center from crown to crotch, white ends of bone and stringy meat of muscle, rubbery nerves and a swirl of fat. The offal is gone; he’s clean, not like hospital clean, but like the window of a butcher’s shop. Alastair stands framed by the two halves, obscured and revealed as they sway gently on their hooks. He’s wearing one of those Russian fur hats with ear-flaps, and his eyes are warm and approving. Dean looks down at the cleaver in his hands, looks up at the fur of frost around the edges of Sam’s skull. There’s no blood on the cleaver, or on his hands. Blood on his hands would be warm.

It’s a small eternity before Dean’s heart starts up again and he’s awake, blurry dresser and moonlight and the glow of his bedside clock. He fumbles at the switch of the lamp and the room springs into view, glaring and unreal. He barely makes it to the bathroom before he’s retching himself dry. He kneels on the tiles a long time, then stumbles back and sits on the edge of the bed, wiping the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his t-shirt.

He doesn’t even realize he’s reached for his phone till it’s at his ear. Which is, well, weird. They’ve never done this, not really, not since Sam’s nightmares after Jess. Dean, waking up at the sink in a motel bathroom, water running pink down the drain where he’s scrubbed the skin off his hands, Sam pretending to sleep or out with Ruby. Sam, screaming alone in the panic room. They ignore the hell out of these things, out of bitterness or pride or politeness or their own crap. When Sam came back not sleeping, Dean hadn’t even noticed.

The phone only rings once before Sam answers.

“Dean? You OK? Something wrong?”

“Nothing. I just, I thought I’d call. Bug my kid brother.”

“At this hour? It’s, like, ass o’clock.”

“Couldn’t sleep.”

“Other people do, you know.”

“Bullshit,” says Dean confidently. He’s known Sam’s you-woke-me-up voice since he used to get him out of his crib while Dad was still sleeping. “You weren’t asleep. You up late saving people and hunting things, or just watching pay-per-view porn in the motel?”

“Waiting for a Black Dog to show. There’s a black standard poodle next door, though. I’m starting to think this one’s an embarrassing mistake.”

Dean snorts and lies back against his pillow. The light is turning ordinary again, the room familiar. There’s a slurp through the phone, Sam sucking down coffee. Dean can almost see the car windows faintly steamed, the smudged, scribbled patches where Sam’s wiped them clear, the crumpled bag from a burger joint – or maybe when Dean’s not there it’s Whole Foods -- on the empty seat. Sam will be stretching his legs across both seatwells, eyes sweeping some deserted suburban road for poodles.

“Well, you’re the one with Dad’s journal, Sammy. Better check the style section, scope out Black Dog haircuts.”

“I’ll do that. Good thing you called with your helpful research tip. Seriously, dude. It’s three in the morning. Why are we talking?”

“Cause you can’t tell a Black Dog from Fifi the poodle without my input. Don’t know how you survive on your own.”

“Dean.”

“Bad dream, OK? You happy now, Sigmund?” If Sam says something concerned and helpful, if he asks for details, Dean’s going to crawl through the ether and kill him.

“Flying, or yorkies?” Sam asks calmly, and takes another slurp of his coffee.

“Fuck off,” says Dean. He is not scared of yorkies. And, Sam, fearless hunter of trophy dogs, is one to talk. “So where’re you headed when you finish up with Fifi?” he goes on.

“Oregon, I guess. Three healthy thirty-somethings drowned in a foot of water in an ornamental fountain. I’m thinking glaistig.”

“Sounds likely,” says Dean. He’s lying down again now, eyes shut so he can concentrate on what Sam’s saying. “You dug up any good new glaistig dirt?”

Sam rambles on obligingly, telling him the lore he’s got on glaistigs. It’s nothing much new, but Sam does make it sound like a lot, Dean’ll give him credit for that, and really fucking boring. Dean’s not sure where in the monologue he falls asleep. When he opens his eyes the sun is halfway up the wall and the phone has dug red grooves in his cheek. There’s no one on the line any more, of course.

It could have been a Black Dog after all.

Sam can handle a Black Dog. He’s done it a hundred times.

Still.

“Dean?” Sam mumbles, on the fourth ring. This time, Dean woke him up.

“Just checking if the poodle ate you.”

“I’m reporting you as a crank caller,” says Sam, and hangs up. Dean’s grinning when he plugs the phone into the charger and goes down to make himself a giant omelette in the restaurant frying pan.

*************************


Sam shows up at McKenna’s almost three months later. It’s been a while, he’s been mostly out West the last few hunts. He hugs Dean so hard he almost pulls him off his feet. The habit seems to be growing on him. It’s only when Dean’s staggered back into balance and called Sam a few choice names that he looks at his face. There’s a scar, still red and angry, running across Sam’s cheek from beside his mouth, vanishing into his hair at his temple.

“Jesus, Sam,” he says, “You auditioning to play Al Capone?”

“Harpy,” says Sam, “Didn’t duck fast enough,” like that’s the end of the conversation. And it is, for now. Dean’s letting it drop till the strategic moment. He draws Sam a beer – on the house, because he’s a good brother – and gets back to work. It’s crowded, dead of winter and people going stir crazy at home. Not too much time to picture scenes featuring harpies and Sam not ducking.

He hands the rest of his shift over to Maureen at ten and goes to sit across from Sam in his favorite booth. The darkest one.

“So,” he begins, “You want to stick around here a bit? Annie Bascom over there, her husband’s a plastic surgeon. I did him a favor a while back,” -- Dean’s retired from hunting, sure, but if some idiot’s driving a Beemer with a cursed engine on New Hampshire back roads, he’s going to take a look, out of sheer curiosity -- “He could get you back to your inconspicuous self.” Cause it’s bad enough that Sam’s a giant with that hair, flashing a scar is just stupid. And Sam’s not stupid.

Sam’s lips set in an obstinate line. Dean sighs. He knew this was going to be something screwy and Sam.

“I’m not getting it fixed,” he says.

“Why not?” Dean counters, “You liking the air of distinction it gives the Wanted posters?”

Sam shrugs elaborately. “No time, no insurance,” he says. Dean goes on staring him down, the way he’d done when Sam was a kid and up to something. Sam’s done some pretty extensive lying since then, but even soulless, he was never that great at it. He cracks in maybe forty seconds.

“I can look in the mirror, and it’s me,” he says. Which doesn’t make much sense.

“You got some kinky autoerotic scar thing going?” Dean asks.

“No!” Sam sounds outraged, like being the brother Sam fucks gives Dean no right to question his vanilla credentials. Then he swallows and looks away, “Lucifer,” he says, like it’s an explanation.

“Lucifer, huh?” says Dean. He’s beginning to get it.

“He doesn’t have the scar. I can look in the mirror and it’s me,” Sam repeats. His hands are knotted tensely on the table, next to his untouched beer. “Tell me it’s not a relief to you, too. I’m what you have nightmares about. Some of the time, at least.”

It’s true enough. Sam’s face, in Lucifer’s garden or Stull Cemetary or the alley where Dean got vamped. Or worse, Sam on the rack, in Alastair’s abattoirs. He remembers the frost on the sawn edges of Sam’s sternum in the deep cold of his dream. None of those Sams have scars. But he doesn’t need Sam carrying one to know it’s him. He stands up abruptly. “Let’s get out of here,” he says. This isn’t a conversation they’re having in the bar. This isn’t a conversation they’re going to get through by talking. Sam trails after him up the stairs to his apartment, shoulders hunched. Dean gets him into the apartment and locks the door.

Freakish giant that Sam is, Dean has to tug his head down to get his lips on the scar. Sam pulls away. Stubborn bastard. “It’s all right,” says Dean, “It’s all right. I know when it’s you.”

Sam’s got his hands on Dean’s shoulders. He kisses Dean once, hard and desperate, then draws back again.

“It’s never going to be just me,” he says, “Even with the scar. You can’t ever be sure that I’ll stay me. I can’t ever be sure it’s not me I should be afraid of.” He backs off. Dean moves with him, staying in his space.

“For fuck’s sake, Sam,” he says, “Can’t we be over that? Of all the souls I’ve encountered in our travels, yours is the most human, OK?”

Sam makes an incredulous, outraged noise, like Dean insulted his angst with classic sci fi. “Let me guess,” he says, “all you need to know in life you learned from Wrath of Khan.”

“All you need to know,” says Dean, “I need to know lots of stuff. You’re a moron who just has to master a few basic principles.” This time Sam relaxes, angles into the kiss, opens his mouth to let Dean in.

Sam’s hands are all over him, now, pulling off his shirt, running over his chest and sides, his ass and the curve of his back. Dean leans in. Sam buries his face against his shoulder, like he isn’t four inches taller, kisses the side of his neck. “Dean,” he says, muffled, “Dean.” Dean gets his hand in Sam’s mess of hair. “Yeah,” he says. “Moron.”

Dean lies for a long time, afterwards, while Sam is busy falling asleep on him, staring at the ceiling, rubbing his thumb across the scar. Eventually Sam opens his eyes.

“You want me to get rid of it, you shouldn’t start fetishizing it,” he says blearily.

“You can keep it, if you’re so attached,” says Dean. “Doesn’t make a difference.” Though it’s still stupid. Another one of those too many edges Sam’s skating on.

“You could stop, you know,” he says again, because he can’t help it. Sam doesn’t answer.

Sam packs up after three days. Dean hangs around the bedroom watching him stow his anally folded shirts in his duffel. Even just a few days every couple of months, he gets used to having Sam around. He trails him out to the car, then says “Wait,” as Sam is settling into the driver’s seat and runs back up to his apartment. It takes him only a few seconds to find what he’s looking for. Sam’s still there, key in the ignition. He rolls down the window when Dean comes up.

Dean holds out the pen. “You left it,” he says, “That morning, at the motel.” Sam stares like Dean’s gone crazy. “You gave me back the amulet,” Dean explains. Sam’s expression morphs into a compound of fond and pissy. He takes the pen gingerly.

“I’m touched, Dean. I’m really touched. I mean, I give you this beautiful, significant thing, that I carried through the cage and back, and you give me a plastic ballpoint. A plastic ballpoint you’ve apparently been chewing on for the last two years.”

It’s got a couple of toothmarks on it, sure. Dean did his taxes with it. Both years. He needed the moral support. Something he’s not telling Sam this side of the grave.

“You’re the one who started with the regifting. Retipping. Whatever. Here. You want special? I’ll show you special.” He seizes the pen and Sam’s wrist, where he’s got his arm out the window, and writes “Sam Winchester cries his way through sex” on the back of Sam’s hand, then tucks the pen into Sam’s breast pocket. Sam shakes his hand disgustedly, like the words will fly off, starts the car with a spiteful sputter, and drives away.

The gravel space in front of the garage looks lonely without the Impala parked there. It’s sad sometimes, how much Dean misses his car.

Which makes it worse when Sam shows up at two in the morning, just a month later, in a fucking U-Haul. He must see the instant death in Dean’s expression, because he’s already spouting excuses and reassurances before Dean has time to ask.

“She’s fine, Dean. Safe and sound in a garage.” Casual, like some deadbeat Dad who’s parked the kids in daycare, probably without ever looking over the place or checking references. “I needed a truck for this.” He rolls up the back proudly, displaying a tarpaulin-shrouded shape with a heavy metal base and a scattering of bulky wooden crates.

“Killer robot?” Dean guesses. God knows what Sam is expecting him to do about it. It would be better if Bobby stayed in charge of the body disposal end of the consultant hunter business, let alone killer robots.

“It’s a printing press.”

“You need me to bury a printing press? Is it cursed?”

Dean’s actually kind of missed Sam mistaking him for an idiot.

“It’s not cursed, Dean, it’s fine. We’re not burying it. It’s a hand press. It’ll be slow, but I can run it myself. I’ve read a lot of books, done some work with the guy who used to own it. See, I’ve been thinking. A lot of what we’ve been going off, researching, there’s only one copy. Buried in a rare book collection, or with Bobby, or in some amateur warlock’s vaults. It’s not like we want them up on the internet, but someone should be making sure they don’t get lost. This is the best way. More secure than digital, but we can get hold of the irreplaceable stuff, make sure there are enough copies in the right places.”

Dean sorts through that speech.

“You’ve been stealing stuff from libraries,” he says. Life with the FBI after them was too boring for Sam. Now he’s on the run from library cops.

“Just a couple of private collections,” says Sam, “And not the kind of collector who can afford to call the police. Relax, Dean, I haven’t been breaking into the Library of Congress. That’s probably a federal crime or something.”

“And you’re bringing it here why?”

“What, you want me to go set up shop by myself and have no one to fix the press when it breaks and help me proofread the Latin? You’re using, like, half that carriage house.”

“You trying to tell me you’re staying?”

“I’m trying to tell you I want to stay. If you’ll have me.”

“And quit hunting. You’re stopping.”

Sam touches the tips of his fingers to the scar. It looks more Al Capone-like than ever in the moonlight.

“Dean, I didn’t duck. Not just didn’t duck fast enough. Harpy headed towards me, and I didn’t fucking duck. Didn’t freeze or anything. I just, it didn’t seem worth the trouble. And I don’t want that. I don’t want to go down fighting.”

Dean makes some kind of sound, but Sam just carries on over it.

“I know, I know if I quit it should be like you, because of the collateral damage or for something good or whatever, but, fuck, I was always the selfish jerk of us two. I just want to die in bed, probably of something you cooked, and not take anyone down with me.”

Like Dean wouldn’t get it, like Sam doesn’t think he knows what it’s like to just give up one day, to hell with the whole mathematics of saving and killing. The ghost writing that always shows through, no matter how many drinks go to wipe the board clean when the equations don’t balance.

“You saved plenty of people, Sam. You saved the fucking world. You don’t owe anyone. You don’t have to explain. You can quit, free and clear.”

Sam doesn’t look convinced. He never will. They don’t buy it, either of them, but they can go on without. Dean leers at his brother. “You die in bed, Sammy, it won’t be something I cooked,” he adds.

Sam doesn’t leer back. He gives Dean this weird half-smile and suddenly he’s babbling, taking the tarp off the press to show it off, crowbarring a crate open and rummaging for the type Dean’s got to look at.

And, yeah, it’s kind of interesting. Another day Dean will do what Sam wants, figure out how to fix the machine if it breaks, because God knows Sam’s hopeless, but right now he’s too busy watching Sam to listen. Sam scarred and solid and hopeful and wanting something, something real, not just in or out or over. The way he hasn’t in years, not really, not since the damn demon first said it had plans for him.

Sam looks up from showing him the type-cases that they are going to have to pack up again and haul into the carriage house. And moving the press itself is going to be a bitch. They’ll need people, maybe equipment. “What?” he says.

“Nothing,” says Dean. “She’s classy. Nice to see you’ve found the girl you can settle down with.”

Sam comes over and hooks two fingers through Dean’s belt loop. It’s a ridiculous gesture. His hands are smudged with an oily black ink that looks like no amount of detergent will get it out of Dean’s jeans.

“So I can stay?” he says.

“Seeing as you can’t handle this thing without me,” says Dean.

“Don’t flatter yourself. Bobby could do the fixing and the Latin, and he reads Japanese and has a girlfriend who bakes.”

“So why are you here?”

Sam leans in and kisses him. Dean kisses him back for a bit. Then Sam breaks off, not like he’s finished, just like there’s all the time in the world, and slouches back against the press. They stand there, not quite touching.

“I bake,” says Dean at last.