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Deal Me Up Another Future

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“…I can’t.” Sam lowers the mortar and takes a step back from the Baozhu, the single pearl still sitting whole and pristine on the table before him. It shimmers as it catches the light from the bunker’s sconces. Like it’s mocking him.

“Sam,” Dean whispers in warning. There are tear tracks on his face. Sam knows he’s got his own matching set. They all do. “We talked about this.”

But Sam shakes his head. His hand trembles at his side, still clinging to the heavy bowl. “I can’t,” he whispers again. “I’m sorry, Dean. I can’t do this to Mom. To you.”

“Sammy.” That’s John now. His voice is still soft, still heavy under the weight of love and loss, but his eyes are starting to harden into a more familiar flint. That well-known mask of ice shuttering into place so that he can power through. “You send me back, son. That’s an order.”

He chokes out a wet laugh. “That’s the thing, Dad. Dean and I, we’re— We don’t have to follow your orders anymore.”

John swallows hard. He sizes him up for a long moment, but he must see something in Sam’s stance, in the rigidity of his back, because he flicks commanding eyes over to his eldest instead. “Dean.”

His brother is already moving into place. Already on the same wavelength without John even having to say it. “Yeah. I’ll do it.”

“Will you?” Sam asks him honestly. He holds his ground, but doesn’t fight Dean when he pushes into his space. “Do you actually think you can?”

Dean doesn’t say a word in response. He just wrestles the mortar out of Sam’s fist and shoves him aside. Swings it up above the pearl in a violent arc. Pauses. Falters. Holds the threatening position for a breathless eternity until his hand starts to shake just like Sam’s did. Until it becomes clear that he can’t strike the final blow either.

Sam waits until Dean drops his own arm in defeat—the mortar, and his knuckles, knocking against the wood with a dull sound. “What now, Dean?” he asks quietly, but his words are sharp as steel. “You gonna make Mom do it? Make her erase her own husband?”

“Sam,” Mary chides, but it’s half-hearted. Like she can’t muster up a stronger admonishment through her own sorrow.

I’ll do it.” John lets go of his wife’s hand and strides forward, but Sam snatches up the pearl before he can get close enough, backing away and clutching the thing to his chest. “Dammit, Sam,” John bites out, and there’s pain in his eyes under the anger. “This isn’t about me! This is about your mother!” He flings an arm out to gesture at Mary, but he clearly isn’t strong enough to look back at her himself. “You okay with exchanging my life for your mom’s? Because I don’t want to live like that. I’m not going to.”

“Except you are. Right, Dad?” Sam tenses his jaw as John’s fist clenches to match at his side. “You go back to 2003, and you’ll be alive, and Mom will be dead. That’s another three years of you living without her.”

“You think I don’t know that?” his father barks out, advancing another step out of sheer adamancy. The momentum of his argument carrying him forward.

Then—he suddenly seems to stop himself. Purposefully gets ahold of his faculties with a controlled sigh. Lowers his voice back to that soft, regret-soaked rumble. Maybe because of his and Sam’s earlier conversation. His guilt stronger than his grief now that Mary’s with him again.

“You three,” John says slowly, “you’re together now.” He lets a tragic smile flicker at one corner of his mouth, but it’s gone just as quickly. “That’s worth more than me. I’ll live through whatever I have to in order to keep it that way.”

Sam sniffs to try and control his running nose. To swallow back the unfairness of the universe. “But why can’t it be the four of us?” he says, not even caring how petulant he sounds. How childish. “That’s better, right? All of us, together.” He flips his gaze on Dean then, pleading. “We just have to figure out a way to do it.”

“Sammy,” Dean lets out on a breath. He closes his eyes to shore himself up, then violently runs his bottom lip through his teeth, opening them up again with an agonized sort of determination. “Zachariah said that his ‘big plans’ for us went away after Dad disappeared.”

“Yeah, Dean. Exactly.” Sam clenches tighter around the pearl in his palm, brings his other hand up to press it even harder against his heart. If Dean hadn’t already used up the Baozhu’s power, then Sam probably wouldn’t have to be arguing about this now. It would have already happened via the magic. By his own desire. “If I never killed Lilith, if I never opened the Cage—” He sucks in a shaky breath. “Think of how many people’s lives we could save. Michael would never be in your head in the first place. How isn’t that worth it?”

“Because it doesn’t mean there won’t be an apocalypse, Sam!” his brother bites out, though he flinches even as Sam does. “It just means some other poor schmucks will have to deal with it instead! I already told you, I’m not doing that! We’re not putting our bullshit on innocent people!”

“Why not?” Sam shouts back. “Why can’t we be selfish, just this once? We’ve already sacrificed so much, maybe it’s time for someone else to step up for a change!”

Dean pulls in a ragged breath. His shoulders heave with the weight of it. “Because if we’re not involved,” he spits, harsh, “then Mom never gets brought back.”

Sam winces at his brother’s venom. At the validity of his point. “We— We’ve brought people back before.”

“Not that us,” Dean says in exasperation. In desperation. “If we never hunted together, then none of any of that happened. If you let this timeline lap us, those versions of us are gonna have no fucking clue how to do something like that, and they’d have no reason to even try.”

Sam fumbles for another foothold. Looks back to John. To Mary. His father’s teary-eyed determination. His mother’s anxious, glancing heartache. “Mom,” he says. “You can’t want this.”

Mary slams her eyes shut rather than look at him, hiding behind the pale curtain of her hair. “Please, Sam,” she begs, rough and miserable. “Don’t make me say it.”

“Say what?” Sam pushes, gentle but unrelenting. “That you want me to send Dad back, or that you don’t?”

She flattens her lips in a pained line and drops her head…and there’s his answer.

“See, Dean,” he says. “Mom agrees with me. Two against two.”

Dean holds himself terrifyingly still, immovable as stone. “You’re being selfish, Sam.”

“No, I’m not,” he breathes. And it’s the absolute truth. “This is for you, Dean.” His brother scoffs at the excuse, but Sam doesn’t waver for a moment. “Look me in the eyes, tell me you wouldn’t give everything to have Dad back, and I’ll destroy this thing right now.”

Dean looks up at him in that very specific way that means he’s flaying himself open for Sam to see. “I wouldn’t give up everything,” he says, stepping in close enough to whisper. Close enough that their parents won’t be able to make out his words. He keeps his back to Mary and John, just to be safe. This is just for the two of them. “I meant what I said earlier. I wouldn’t give up us.”

And that, that right there is almost what breaks Sam…but his faith holds stronger somehow. “You wouldn’t have to,” he promises. “Dean, we’d find each other. I know we would.”

Now it’s Dean’s turn to shake his head, letting out a bitter sound of derision. “No, you don’t know that.”

“I believe in us, remember? I do.” And he’d meant it more than anything he’d ever said in his life. “You said you did too.”

“Sammy—”

“Please, Dean,” Sam pleads softly, even as he knows he’s already won. “Let me do this for you. This is how we stop Michael. You’ll be safe, and so will everyone else in the world.” He glances back to the rest of their family. “Dad will find us somehow—that other us. We’ll figure out a way to save Mom.”

“Sammy…”

Please.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Sam jolts awake with a violent start. His heart is racing under the feather down of his comforter, a sodden knot lodged tight in his throat. Dean. He’d been dreaming about Dean. Sam reaches up to scrub a hand over his eyes, to chase away the half-remembered figments of the nightmare, and there are tears on his face. A faint sense of sorrow and loss still lingering behind his ribs.

He punches out a rough breath, swipes at the offending wetness, then flips his head over to blearily squint at his alarm clock. Harder to make out without his glasses. The blocky digits blink 4:48 at him—red, because one of the bio-hack articles he’d read had said that blue light was notorious for disrupting sleep—and the little matching dot is lodged squarely under the AM section. He’s not supposed to be up for another forty-two minutes. Getting out of bed too early will mean he’ll be just the slightest bit lethargic all day, especially without any coffee to cheat and do the hard work of waking up for him. But trying to go back to sleep now will just make a mess of his REM cycles. It might make him even more groggy. Worst case scenario, it might make it harder to fall asleep tonight. And he can’t have that. He can’t lie in bed, thinking, in the dark. Can’t let himself stop moving for a single minute or his brain will start drifting down dangerous pathways. Ancient longings, aching immoralities that have no place in his life anymore. More importantly, any misstep in his performance reflects poorly on him, his company, his junior partners, and his employees—and he’s spent a decade and a half building up his reputation. He won’t let it be negatively impacted by some stupid nightmare.

Not when it’s all he has. All he needs.

Sam decides to get up, despite the early hour. Lesser of two evils. He blends up a green smoothie, doesn’t think about Dean, slips into his running gear, doesn’t try and pinpoint the last time he’d spoken to his brother, and jogs a full half-mile more than he usually does, just to eat up the extra time. He needs to keep to his schedule as best he can. He has everything timed to the exact minute. The same way he started doing ever since Jess had— Sam clenches his left hand into a fist, feels the absence of cold metal around his third finger. It’s been eight years. Strange that he’s still not used to it.

Sam lets his feet pound against the pavement on the last stretch back home, forceful, jarring enough to blank all other thoughts out of his head—and doesn’t let himself remember the last time he’d seen Dean in person, the last time he’d caught a glimpse of his wanted poster on the evening news. The way that little flicker of adrenaline floods his veins every time his eyes run across his brother’s face.

It’s not important. He’d put that…defect behind him years ago, an unhealthy result of his fucked-up childhood. Shoved it into a tiny little corner of his psyche and smashed it down under work and exercise and more work until it only gnawed at his heart while he was lying awake at night.

The sleeping pills fixed that—the one concession he makes in his otherwise clean lifestyle. The all-natural melatonin hadn’t been nearly as reliable. Sam’s triazolam prescription may be an artificial chemical crutch, but the pills are a necessary evil of their own effectiveness.

He doesn’t think about Dean at all anymore.

Sam showers and shaves and gets himself dressed for work, snugs the Windsor knot of his tie up against his throat, then pauses, car keys in his hand and one foot out his front door. The tip of his loafer glinting under the pale Palo Alto sunshine.

He takes another few breaths, tries to force himself to take one more step. But he can’t.

Sam slowly, quietly closes the door again.

Sam goes back to his bedroom, strips his suit off, and puts his weekend clothes on instead. He texts his assistant and tells her that he won’t be coming in today. Then he texts her again and lets her know that he won’t be coming in on Friday either. There’s a reason his name comes first in Winchester Nguyen Tax Group, PLC. Maria doesn’t raise a single objection. Just a pleasant, professional:

of course sir

Sam steps back into the living room to sit down at his laptop, ignoring the worried twinge in the back of his head that’s warning him how far off schedule he’s already gotten. It’s dangerous, what he’s doing. Delving into complicated entanglements from his past much better forgotten. It’s a waste of time, something that will sap the energy he needs to perform at his best—at work and in the rest of his life…but something about that dream had gotten a hold on him, deep and unable to be ignored. Even if he can barely recall the details.

He flips open his computer and boots it up before he can change his mind. Sam may have distanced himself from his earlier life as much as humanly possible, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t remember a few old tricks. He still knows how to trace a cell phone, how to track down a missing person. He still knows his brother—a slight whisper in the back of his mind reminds him, even despite how many years have passed between them. But he’s not sure if the mantra is actually true, or if he’s just desperate to believe that it is.

Either way, Sam sits down at his laptop and types the name ‘DEAN WINCHESTER’ into the search bar.

 

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The room numbers are peeling off. The thin veneer of gold encasing the digits of 103 crackling away to reveal a cheaper metal beneath. Sam twitches his lips in mild irritation at the sight. It’s always disappointing when a person doesn’t take pride in their work. If the motel’s owner spent just a minimum of effort to spruce the place up, he’d probably get more customers. More customers leads to better reviews, better business practices, and if he worked hard enough, he’d be able to turn the place into a chain. What a waste of a good opportunity.

He rolls his neck a bit, the Arizona sun baking the hair on the back of his head and making him begin to sweat. Sam’s regretting wearing black now, but he hadn’t thought far enough ahead to bring a change of clothes with him on the three hour flight. See, it’s already starting—the loss of mental acuity by allowing himself to become embroiled in unnecessary emotion. It doesn’t matter. He’ll be inside soon. That is, if Dean actually welcomes the visit. If he doesn’t turn him away at first sight.

Sam takes a deep breath, tries to unconvincingly convince himself that he isn’t going insane for doing this, and knocks on the door of the Cactus Inn. Two short raps. So Dean will know it isn’t the police. There’s a shuffling sound from inside, the peephole goes dark for a second, and then there’s an all-too-familiar click which can’t be anything other than the muzzle of a gun being pressed up against the other side of the wood. For safety. Or spite. But the door swings open a moment after that.

Dean looks older—is the first, immediate thought that pops into Sam’s head. The one that follows close on its heels is the one that he refuses to entertain. How impossible it is that his brother is even more attractive now than he’d been the last time Sam had seen him in the daylight. It’s just one more disturbed, unhealthy affliction that he doesn’t give credence to, even as he can’t help but soak in the sight of him. The short, tidy haircut hasn’t changed at all. The unbelievable fullness of Dean’s eyelashes and lips are still the same as when he was twenty-three, as is the clear, mossy green of his eyes…but his face is broader, his jaw squarer, his overall appearance a little more rugged. A little more masculine.

Sam finds himself uncharacteristically at a loss for words, his brain automatically cataloguing the rest of the differences. The darker, more dangerous glint to his gaze. The faint scar running diagonal over the left side of his face, nicking the edge of one eyebrow and getting caught up in the creases at the corner of his eye. Sam drags his gaze lower, over the hard-packed bulk of Dean’s shoulders and trunk. The swoop of faded red ink swirled over the inside of his forearm and a duller black peeking out from beneath his t-shirt sleeve on the opposite bicep. A hint of another tattoo at the base of his neck, just barely visible past his collar.

Dean gives him a long, silent once-over as well, head to toes, and Sam easily smothers down the heated flush that tries to rise up at the perusal. He’s had a lot of practice controlling his body’s baser reactions over the years, preferring to spend his energy on more worthwhile pursuits. He’s positive that it doesn’t even show on his face. And Dean must find whatever he’s looking for, because he turns around to traipse back into his room. Casual. Disinterested. “Steve Jobs called,” he tosses over his shoulder. “He wants his douchey turtleneck back.”

“Hello to you too,” Sam murmurs under his breath as he follows his older brother over the threshold. He’s not sure what he was expecting, really. The annoyed passivity is probably better than he could have hoped for.

“How’d you find me?” Dean asks gruffly, barely even sparing him a glance as he tosses the pistol in his hand back onto the motel’s small table.

Sam closes the door behind him, for privacy more than security. “I’ve got a couple of work acquaintances in high places. Tech guys.” He shrugs, but Dean doesn’t spare him enough of a glance to catch it. “Y’know, Silicon Valley types.”

“Well, la-dee-dah.”

There’s an uncomfortable moment of silence. The absence of a negative. Everything that can’t or won’t be said hanging between them and stretching back for decades.

“So,” Sam starts awkwardly, “how have you been?”

Dean finally grants him a derisive look. “Peachy.”

Sam slips his hands into his pockets, remains on his feet. “Me too. The firm went 7-for-0 last year.”

Dean’s facing away from him again, but he can tell he’s rolling his eyes. “Great,” he says. He doesn’t mean it.

Sam stands uncomfortably in the center of the room, but Dean sprawls back out over his bed—a clear power play he might even be threatened by if it wasn’t so obvious—then picks up the whetstone by his hip and goes back to sharpening the knives he must have started on before Sam interrupted. He looks like a serial killer, surrounded by his glinting, jagged-edged armory. One of the Ted Bundy types, all looks and charm just barely covering a roiling miasma of violent rage.

The miniature cold war goes on long enough—just the rhythmic scrape of metal on stone to break the monotony—for Sam to nudge over toward the room’s single chair.

It looks like a blind man’s best approximation of a pueblo in here, and he allows himself a flutter of not-quite-fondness for the string of similar themed atrocities littering his own past. The walls are as colorful as they are ugly, mud yellow and brick red, with a bedspread like the pattern on a Mexican blanket and way too many adobe knick-knacks adorning the dresser and table. For ambiance, he’s sure.

Dean doesn’t even look up from his work as Sam carefully settles in the raw-hewn wooden chair. “Happy Birthday, by the way,” he tries. Though he regrets it as soon as he’s said it. Just another reminder of every reason Dean has to be mad at him. “I mean, I guess we owe each other about fifteen or so of those, but still.” Sam breathes out a sigh, his best attempt at playful. “4-0. Kind of a big one.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Dean says dismissively, but then a twitch of his lips settles into a genuine smirk. “One of the ladies down at the Beaver Lodge helped me celebrate it real nice.”

Sam doesn’t know how he feels about that, so he logs it away somewhere he won’t have to think about it.

“What do you want, Sam?”

It’s blunter than he’d been expecting, used to the passive-aggressive equivocation of the attorneys and clients he has to weed through everyday, but he shouldn’t be surprised. Dean’s always cut to the meat of things like that. It’s kind of comforting, actually. Sam slips his glasses off to rub at his eyes, and then keeps them off. “I had a weird dream last night,” he admits, cards on the table.

Dean raises an eyebrow, the scarred one, and it pulls at his skin in an unfamiliar way. “And you came all the way out here to tell me about it? What is that, thirteen hours by car?”

“I took a plane, actually,” Sam says. “Much easier trip.”

There’s a twitch of tension in the muscles of Dean’s jaw that Sam can’t place, but it disappears just as quickly. And his brother goes back to ignoring him.

“No, I just…” Sam lets out another sigh, unplanned this time. “It made me want to see you.” Honesty takes up less energy than lying anyway, and Sam doesn’t have anything to hide. Yes, you do. Nothing to hide in regards to this conversation, at least.

“Well, here I am,” Dean says, his tone mocking and insincere. A sarcastic curl of his lips adds flourish to the flick of his wrist, the point of his blade gesturing back toward the door. “Thanks for stopping by.”

Sam won’t be waylaid that easily. Not after investing all this time coming out to the scrubby, red wasteland of Marana, Arizona. “Dean, I know that—that you’re kind of on the run here,” he brings up, lowering his voice by half. “And it can’t be easy, dodging cops while trying to hunt.” He pulls in a deep breath, lets it out on a slow four-count. One of the most effective breathing exercises according to his meditation app. “I just wanted you to know that you could always stay with me, if you wanted. At my place.” Dean just stares at him, likely searching for the punchline, and Sam tilts his head at the rest of their surroundings. “Not that this chlamydia den isn’t nice too.”

Dean huffs out a breath, almost contemplative for him. “I don’t get it,” he says eventually. “What’s with the olive branch?” He studies Sam for a bit, then clicks his tongue, like he’s figured it out. He leans back against the headboard, shaking his head in amusement. “You got some vengeful spirit in your house you need me to take care of? Is that what this is?”

Sam may have left the hunting life behind him long ago, but he isn’t a complete pushover. Plus, his strict adherence to diet and rigorous exercise has kept him in peak physical shape. “I’d like to think I could take care of a ghost on my own,” he says in his own defense.

Dean scoffs, not even trying to hide his disbelief for politeness’s sake. “With those soft hands?” Sam pauses, then curls his fingers around his glasses a little self-consciously, unnerved that Dean had been cataloguing him so closely in return. “You’d probably ask your secretary to do it for you,” his brother continues—and while there’s a humorous mental picture in imagining his five foot nothing assistant exhuming a grave or burning some poor soul’s bones in her Prada work heels, Sam still feels the dig to his reputation.

“It’s not about a hunt, Dean.”

His Apple watch suddenly goes off, piercing the moment with a repeated high-pitched beeping and reminding Sam that it’s time for his cucumber noodles with peanut sauce. “Sorry,” he says, fumbling with the touch screen. “Lunch alarm.”

Dean’s face slowly closes off again, masks settling into place almost before Sam realizes that he’d let them slip in the first place. “Sure,” he says tautly. “Gotta make sure you take a tight fifteen in between all the billing and paperwork.”

“Dean—”

“Nah, don’t worry about me, man. You go back to your big fancy lawyer shit.” He drives the tip of his knife into the bed’s end table, hard, embeds it deep into the cheap wood, then picks up another one to sharpen. A harsher, more reckless slide to his movements, as stubborn and unyielding as the stone in his hand. “Because nothing else matters but the job, right? Not hobbies. Not family.” The sheer amount of venom he lets loose on the last word takes Sam aback for a few moments…until he noses out the pertinent info there.

“Wait. You watched my SLS lecture?”

Dean forces out an ugly, condescending noise. Captures the tip of his tongue between his teeth like he can’t believe Sam could miss a point so massively. “Why are you here, Sam?” he spits. Blunt again. But meaner this time.

And Sam has nothing to say to that. He has absolutely no idea.

“I don’t know,” he says truthfully. He straightens up his spine, focuses on his posture like that ‘power stance’ seminar had taught him. “I just had this strange nightmare last night,” Sam repeats again. “Vivid. So vivid it felt real. And when I woke up—” —he’d been crying. Sam shifts his gaze away from his brother, skims his attention over the rest of the room. The stiff, sun-faded curtains. The way Dean never seems to unpack all of his shit, no matter how long he’s staying in one city. His bag stuffed to the brim with dirty jeans and balled-up socks. At least some things never change. “Dean,” he says once he’s in control of himself again, “Dad’s been missing for nearly two decades now.”

“Dad’s not missing, asshole,” Dean hisses—not the reaction Sam had expected—and he’s up off the bed quick as a rattlesnake too. “He’s dead,” his brother says, getting as far up in his face as he can bring himself to. “He wouldn’t have just run off and cut me loose like that. Ever.” He clenches his fists against his thighs, arms as tense as Sam’s ever seen them. And now it’s Dean’s turn to collect himself, to cool the fuck down before he lashes out and stabs another knife into something he’ll have to pay for. “Just ‘cause I haven’t found his body yet— He died on a hunt. That’s what happened.”

Sam swallows back the ever-pressing need to be right. The niggling knowledge that of course John had just left. Cut off contact and disappeared into the wind once his boys came of age. Once he wasn’t responsible for them anymore. Like father, like son. “The point is,” Sam says diplomatically, “is that he’s been…gone for a long time. It’s stupid to keep fighting over him.” He gathers himself upright, slips his glasses back on, and then takes the first step toward Dean. Literal and metaphorical. “Look, I may not be ‘in the life’ anymore,” he says, “but we can still see each other more than a thirty second voicemail once every few years. Can’t we?”

“Yeah?” Dean asks rhetorically. “And what’s with the change of heart? Because I don’t remember you ever seeking out much of a brotherly relationship with me before this.” His eyes are cold when he fixes them on Sam, like the burn of dry ice. “Not like you haven’t had seventeen years’ worth of chances.”

Sam’s been taller than his brother for the entire latter half of his life, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

“You’re right.”

Dean turns to focus on his work again. Gives him his back. No changing his mind. “Get out of here, Sam,” he says. “I don’t need you anymore.”

The arrow strikes its target, clean and brutal. Sam doesn’t miss the intentional irony. The deliberate phrasing. How could he? It’s the exact same thing he’d said when Dean had turned up at his dorm room all those years ago, cussing out his roommate and trying to drag him out of there in order to search for their missing father. To drag him back into hunting.

And Sam had kicked him right back out into the night. Still too furious over the blow-out fight they’d all had just a few months before.

“Right,” he says in acceptance. “Sorry, Dean.” Sam walks back to the front door silently, his dignity intact. But he pauses right before he steps out of his brother’s life again, one hand on the doorknob. “Be safe,” Sam requests, quiet and over his shoulder.

Pretty good final words, all things considered.

 

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Sam finishes the last bite of his grilled chicken salad and then snaps the plastic top back on before the shame can really get to him. There were even croutons in it. He never should have gone off-schedule. The schedule is there for a reason. He wouldn’t have been able to start his own law firm under the age of forty if it weren’t for the schedule. He owes everything he has to the code he lives by, the stringent rules he adheres to. And now, all thanks to a worthless nightmare, his worthless older brother, a worthless six-hour round trip flight, and a worthless delivery boy who brought him a worthless cooked meal for eighteen dollars with tip, Sam’s so behind he might as well call the entire day a wash.

Then again, what’s the point of holding yourself to a unflinching regimen if you don’t backslide a little here and there?

He reaches out to grab the plastic delivery carton one-handed and then vaguely flings it in the direction of his kitchen. Sam doesn’t want to look at the reminder of his failure anymore, but he doesn’t want to get up from his three thousand dollar sofa either. He’ll toss it in the recycling tomorrow morning. Plus, it clears up space on the coffee table for both of his bottles of wine and his single glass, that last drip of velvet red hugging the base of the bowl until he refills it over and over. Sam’s been drinking since the moment he stepped through the door, and he’s already leagues past feeling it. The alcohol hits him harder now, takes less to get him to where he needs to be, thanks to his diet. Thanks to how efficient his system has become at absorbing nutrients. He’s spent his entire adult life turning his body into a streamlined biological machine—and, on rare occasions, it also helps him to get completely shitfaced.

In fact, he’s feeling just about shitfaced enough to backslide another way as well. No point in a relapse if you don’t take it all the way and go down in flames, after all.

Sam scrounges around in his front pocket for his smartphone, bringing it up to his face and blinking at the screen until the digits on the keypad come into focus and he can dial his ex-wife’s number. It only rings twice.

“Sam?” Jess answers, clearly worried and just a little bit confused. “Is everything okay?”

Sam falls back against his couch at the sound of her voice, even as the familiarity of it squeezes at his heart. “Yeah,” he says, easy. “How are you doing?”

“Um, I’m fine.” He can hear the background ambience fade as she leaves whatever room she was in and shuts the door behind her. “Is there a reason you’re calling me?”

“What?” Sam teases. “I can’t call you? Are we in that bad of a place?”

Jess huffs out a heartfelt breath. “No, of course not,” she says. “So…how have you been?”

Good,” Sam answers slightly too unevenly. “Real good. I spoke to my brother today.”

The mood dips suddenly, something about his response, and Sam can feel it all the way across the line.

“And how is Dean?” Jess asks stiffly, her tone distant enough that he’d be hard-pressed to call it polite.

“He’s Dean,” Sam replies anyway. “You know. Doing whatever—whatever he does.”

“You mean breaking laws?” she prompts too immediately. “Hurting people?”

And oh, yeah. That’s right. He probably shouldn’t be talking about coming into contact with a wanted criminal like Dean. He could make himself an accessory after the fact. Sam lets a warble of a laugh escape him at the thought. “I didn’t actually see him,” he tells Jess reassuringly, covering his bases. And that seems good enough for his inebriated brain. “Just spoke to him.”

“Sam,” his ex-wife sighs, “I really don’t wanna talk about your brother.”

There’s a short pause between them. Sam can hear her breathing. He can imagine what she looks like right now. Resting against the wall, her head tipped back and her long, blonde curls falling over her shoulders. Or maybe she cut her hair after she’d left him. It’s been such a long time.

“Yeah, okay,” Sam says. “Fair enough.” He adjusts his phone against his ear and settles into the leather cushions until he’s more comfortable. “How are things going with you? You never said.”

“I’m pregnant, actually,” Jess blurts out, like she’d been waiting the whole conversation to find an opening. She sounds happy. “Sorry. I don’t know if that’s too weird to tell you, or—”

Sam cuts her off with a tutting sound and a forced smile, but there’s an unsettling tension creeping across his shoulders that doesn’t belong there. “No. It’s great,” he says warmly. “Congratulations.” He holds for a moment, then forces himself to ask, just to be courteous. “Do you know the sex yet?”

Jess lets out a relieved little breath at his supportive reaction. Like maybe she thought he’d be weird about the good news. He can imagine her grin. “No, Dave wanted to wait.” She forces out another breath, almost a laugh this time. “I know he’s hoping for a boy though.”

Something agonizing and ferocious suddenly claws at Sam’s chest, an unexpected pang of regret, and he’s speaking before he even decides to. “I think—I always thought that ‘Jack’ would be a good name for a boy,” he says too roughly. Too hard. His throat tight with displaced pain. An aching absence gnawing at him for no good reason.

It’s stupid. He’d never even planned on kids. Well, he had for a second in college, but he’d quickly changed his mind once his dad had disappeared without a trace midway through his freshman year, proving every fatalistic doubt he’d ever had about parenting to be a stark truth. Once he realized how much work he’d have to put into his career if he wanted to make the Winchester name mean anything. Once he and Jess had said ‘I do’ in that tiny, sunlit church in front of her family and the vows hadn’t knit up the ragged hole inside of him the way that he thought they would. There’s no way to knit it up. Sam knows that now. Knows that the best he can do is smother it down with an unending stream of arbitrations and mediations and depositions. Until he’s so caught up in work that he can almost ignore it.

The awkward silence from the other end of the line goes on long enough for him to know he’s offended her somehow, even if he didn’t do it on purpose. In fact, it goes on so long that Sam almost speaks up again just to backtrack. “You didn’t want kids, Sam,” Jess says eventually. Cold. Though there’s hurt in her voice, even now. Even after all this time.

“…No, I know. Sorry.” And Sam knows he deserves it. Knows he deserves every bit of blame and pain his ex-wife can throw at him, even if she’d technically been the one to leave him first. He doesn’t blame her for unchaining herself from the corpse of their marriage though. He never would. She was braver than he was. “Don’t know what came over me,” Sam apologizes again. “I’m sorry. Not my place.” He shoves all his own crap down, more difficult than usual under the fog of the alcohol, and reaches for genuine compassion. It’s tucked away deep, but he knows he still has it somewhere. “I think you’re gonna make a really good mom, Jess.”

There’s another long silence that follows his compliment, but Sam doesn’t understand it this time until Jess lets out a sharp sound. “I don’t know if this is a shitty thing to say,” she forces out, “but…I know you would’ve been a good dad.” The line clicks dead. Not one of their more sociable goodbyes.

Sam drops his own phone onto his glass coffee table and tries to figure out why it feels like the woman has just punched a hole through his chest. Sorrow stuffing his throat and filling his lungs until it hurts to breathe. Until he has to scrub at his burning eyes again. There’s just no reason to be this upset over an imaginary child he’d never even wanted in the first place.

Unless…

Unless it’s just a reaction to his earlier confrontation with Dean. Exacerbated by the perceived rejection of a family member. Yeah. Yeah, that’s gotta be it.

Sam sways himself forward and downs his final glass of wine in one go. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need Jess and he certainly doesn’t need Dean. He’s proven that well enough, time and again. The property tax alone on his townhouse is more than most people make in a year. His firm’s reputation is impeccable. He’ll have enough work to last him until the day he dies.

Sam won’t ever have to feel anything again if he doesn’t want to.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Sam hasn’t let go of the Baozhu for a single moment since he’d first grabbed it away from his dad. He can’t leave it just lying around. He knows that John would destroy it in an instant to save Mary, and Sam can’t let that happen. Not like this. Not until he’s figured out another way to save all of them.

Dean paces back and forth along the length of his bedroom, and Sam watches him from his spot on the bed, still clutching the raw pearl in his fist. His brother knows just as well as he does that their time is ticking down. More things are changing around them. Little things, here and there. Guns disappearing from Dean’s wall. Magazines from his bedside table. Sam just has to run out the clock.

“What about Cas?” Dean spits, turning on his heel and reaching for the facile argument. Still fighting with every breath, right up until the end. It’s so much of why Sam loves him. “Huh, Sam?” he prods aggressively. “He just goes back to being Heaven’s heartless little foot soldier? You think he’d want that?”

Sam fixes him with a wobbly smile. “It’s not the worst fate in the world, Dean. He’ll be okay. Alive.”

“Yeah,” his brother scoffs, “alive, as a fucking dick.”

“Never possessed by Lucifer,” Sam points out without missing a beat. “Never having lost his mind. Never stuck in Purgatory. Never dragged to the Empty and back.”

“Okay. Fine.” Dean squares his shoulders to face him head-on, giving up far too easily for how passionate he’d been earlier. It doesn’t take long for Sam to figure out why. “What about Jack?” he asks coldly.

Sam’s heart thumps sickly in his chest, lopsided and broken. The question pierces him right through his core, but he’d already worked it out in his head. Of course he had. Jack was the very first person he’d thought of after Dean. “Without Lucifer,” Sam starts carefully, “Kelly will still be alive. She’ll probably still hook up with her boss.” He shrugs a little too sadly—just one shoulder and he can’t muster up much energy for it. “Jack will be born, Dean, he’ll just be human. He’ll have a normal life.” Sam lets out a bittersweet shadow of a laugh. “So he’ll grow up to be really, really Republican,” he jokes weakly. “There are worse things, I guess.”

“Dude, I am not sitting through another Trump rant,” Dean grumps. Automatic.

But Sam can’t help it. Not if this is the last chance he’ll get to annoy his brother with the oft-repeated grievance. “He wasn’t even elected, Dean. He was on the ticket for Vice President as a gimmick. Rooney never should have resigned.”

Dean turns around to flash unforgiving eyes at him. “Yeah, well archangel possession can do that to you.”

Sam meets it with his own understanding stare. “Just one more thing that will change for the better.”

And Dean deflates down to sink onto the bed because he knows that Sam is right.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Sam wakes up with a pounding headache, a mouth so dry his tongue feels desiccated, and another lump of misery lodged tight in his throat. He can barely even remember his dream this time, though he’s sure it involved Dean again. It must have. Something in him just knows.

He drags himself out of bed with a pitiful groan as the world tilts clockwise, barely able to think past his hangover—the painful drumbeat in his skull, the acid-sour sickness churning in his stomach. This is why he needs keep to his schedule. This is the punishment from Sam’s own body, well-deserved, to remind him of why it’s so important.

There’s no way he’ll be able to make it into the office, and even though he vaguely remembers letting Maria know that he’d be taking today off as well, Sam still feels the burden of guilt driving him on. The most powerful motivation he’s come across. It’s why he’d spent his entire career honing it into his own personal secret weapon. He needs to make up for the time he’d lost yesterday. There’s no excuse for laziness, no allowance for physical or emotional weakness—not on Sam’s watch. He’s already done enough damage to his body and his way of life for one day. He can’t afford for the backslide he’d fallen into to get any worse.

Sam slowly gets up onto his feet, working in stages, then stumbles down the stairs and onto the first floor landing. His laptop is still sitting open on his table. When he taps the space bar, the screen boots up onto the booking details of yesterday’s ill-conceived flight, and Sam closes out of the page with a grimace that’s only partially caused by nausea. It’s only the work of a few staggering minutes to carry the laptop over to his living room couch. Everything Sam needs for a full day’s work is saved in the computer’s files. He can telecommute from home.

The specifics and last-minute adjustments of the Chapman trial keep Sam busy until mid-afternoon. His housekeeper shows up and lets herself in around 1:30 and, thankfully, Oksana doesn’t say anything about the empty wine bottles sitting incriminatingly askew across from him. Or the fact that her employer is lying around at home, half-dressed and clearly hungover, on a weekday afternoon. She doesn’t toss him any sympathetic or judgmental looks. Doesn’t ask if he’s sick or if he’s just broken. She simply handles the damage from last night as best she can, cleaning so quietly in the background that Sam is able to catch up on almost all the work he’d let slide, before she heads out again a few hours later, locking the door behind her without a word. Until no one would be able to tell that Sam had spent the entirety of the previous day wallowing pitifully in his own past.

The way he prides himself on never doing.

Sam refuses to let himself linger over his own hypocrisy.

With the strategy for the Chapman case mostly handled for now, he moves onto another one of their trials on the horizon, and it keeps him distracted until late into the evening.

He’s putting the finishing edits on a preliminary discovery report one of their paralegals had sent over, when he’s startled by a loud, blunt knocking on his front door. Sam pauses, his hands frozen in place over his keyboard. This isn’t expected. He hadn’t ordered any more delivery—unable to keep down anything stronger than a few glasses of cold-pressed organic orange juice—and, as far as he knows, Oksana hadn’t accidentally left anything behind. Sam slowly pushes himself to his feet, then cautiously pads over to the door, and swings it open.

Right onto his older brother’s tenuous expression of civility.

Sam’s brain stutters and flops over for a moment, still playing catch-up after the havoc he’d recently wreaked on his system. “What—?” he starts, the thought instinctive and half-formed, but Dean simply stands there, unmoving, and Sam gradually pulls himself together under the larger implication of the man’s presence. “You’re…here,” he eventually says instead, and Dean clenches his jaw in restraint. But he doesn’t look angry, not like he had back in Marana.

“Yeah,” Dean says gruffly. He doesn’t quite meet Sam’s eyes. “Thought I’d take you up on your offer, unless you’d changed your mind.” The indifference in his tone says he couldn’t care less if Sam had. Like he’d just disappear into the night again without a single hard feeling. But Sam knows his brother better than that.

He’d never see him again.

“No—no, of course not,” Sam stutters out too quickly. He immediately steps aside to welcome him in, and doesn’t even for a moment question why he’s so easily falling backwards into that pit he’d spent all of yesterday in. The one he’d spent all of today trying to claw his way back out of. “Did something happen?” Sam ventures, trying to logic out Dean’s unexpected arrival. “The police find out where you were staying, or something?”

Dean shrugs, an intentional non-answer. He sidles into the entryway. Lets the door close behind him. There are no bags in his hands—not the weapons duffel nor his clothing one, Sam notes. They must still be in his car. Probably a back-up plan for safety. A way to move light and avoid any awkwardness in case he had been turned away.

Just like the last time he’d tried this. Nearly a lifetime ago.

Though it’s only then that Sam realizes how unsuitable he is for company in his current condition. So uncomfortable at the realization that he almost apologizes for his appearance. He’s not wearing anything but a pair of dark sweats, and he’s practically radiating nausea-heat and completely shirtless other than the Merino wool blanket he’s got draped over his shoulders. His hair tangled and lifeless because he figured he hadn’t needed to slick it back, not planning on coming into any human contact today other than his maid. He hasn’t even showered.

Neither has his brother, clearly, but with Dean it looks artful. Intentional. Like he’s been on the road for a day and a half and didn’t have time for a pit stop. He looks like hard living weighs easy on him. Cool and careless. A modern day Kerouac coated in road dust and their father’s beat-up leather jacket.

Dean wets his lips, nervous, and Sam very studiously doesn’t track the movement of his tongue. “You sure I’m not putting you in trouble here?” he asks. “If the 5-0 catch wind of my location, this could rain a whole lotta ugly down on you.” Then he seems to realize what he’s just said, quickly reversing direction. Prickly over accidentally showing Sam any genuine concern. “Not that a slippery bastard like you wouldn’t be able to lawyer-talk your way out of it.”

Sam doesn’t let the insult get under his skin. “Honestly,” he points out, “this is probably one of the last places they’d look for you.”

And it’s true.

The FBI had come to visit him and Jess years ago, back when Dean had first started jumping up slots on their Most Wanted list. Two hatchet-jawed meatheads had sat across the table from them with notepads full of questions about Dean’s behavior, his aliases, any contacts or safe houses Sam might have knowledge of. He’d told the agents that he was sorry he couldn’t be of more help, that he and Dean were estranged, and that he hadn’t been in contact with his brother for coming up on ten years by that point—only barely a lie. The bureau may have set up some sort of rudimentary surveillance around their old house, as far as Sam knows, but they wouldn’t have found anything. And after another few years of nothing, they would have almost certainly lost interest in Sam as a viable lead. There’d be no reason for them to change their minds now.

Dean hums at the valid point. Then he steps further into the foyer, hands in his pockets and boots tracking caked-on mud over Sam’s Calacatta marble floors as he takes in the view. “I like the new digs,” he says, nonchalant.

Sam thins his lips and mentally tallies how much it’ll cost to schedule an extra day of maid service this week. “How’d, um—how’d you find me?” he asks through the lingering throbbing in his head.

His brother snorts. “You’re listed,” he reminds him. “It wasn’t hard.” Then he cuts his eyes back to Sam, sharp and judgmental. “That’s pretty stupid, by the way. Just putting your home address out there where any bloodthirsty belly-crawler could see it and come after you.”

“I’m not a hunter anymore, Dean,” Sam says in mild exasperation, adjusting the blanket he’s wearing when it threatens to slip off completely. “Nothing’s ever ‘come after me’. There’d be no reason to.”

Dean flips around to harass him about it some more, but he pauses when he catches sight of Sam’s door from the back. More specifically, when he catches sight of the adornments lining either side of the painted wood frame, subtle enough to just look like a decoration. A pair of carefully-etched pentagrams with crosses tipping each point. Sam had carved them himself, the day after he’d moved in.

The potential argument dissipates into thin air. “Well, at least you’re not a complete idiot,” he relents with an almost smile.

Sam doesn’t quite know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything at all.

Dean sniffs and turns back to survey the living room. Stretches his neck out like he’s looking for something. “Where’s the missus?” He snaps his fingers as if he’s trying to remember. “The blonde with the body. What’s her name? Jennifer? Jo-something?”

“Jessica.” Sam forces himself past the uneven lurch in his stomach. The unintentionally merciless reminder of their conversation last night. Of how it ended. “We’ve been divorced almost eight years now,” he says frankly. Not the first time he’s admitted it out loud, not by a long shot, but it still stings of failure each time. That black mark of loss, beyond his control, no matter how he’d tried to spin it in his Forbes interview.

Dean stills at the news. “Shit. Sorry about that.” And it sounds at least a little sincere.

“Yeah,” Sam agrees. He lets the moment sit for the time it deserves, then heads back into the living room proper, assuming Dean will follow him. “No one here but me,” he says over his shoulder, “other than Oksana, that is.”

Oksana,” his brother enunciates teasingly, and when Sam glances back, Dean’s eyes are all lit up. He looks ten years younger. “She sounds like a hot little pierogi,” he says, practically salivating. “She your—?” He assaults Sam with a lewd gesture that he, unfortunately, discerns the intent of, and then an even lewder one that he can’t quite figure out. Not that he wants to.

“No,” Sam says bluntly, hoping his brother will just drop it. A naïve assumption, really. “She’s my housekeeper.”

Dean lifts his eyebrows up and it pulls at his scar again. “Alright, man. Fine. Just asking.” He pushes past Sam to drop down onto his expensive couch with a heavy sigh of contentment, dirty boots scuffing up the spotless finish, and then flings an arm over the back of it. “Hey, that means you wouldn’t mind if I took a crack at her, right?”

“Please don’t,” Sam says, knowing full well that he’s going to anyway. “She’s very good at her job. I really don’t want to go through the hiring process again.”

“’Course not, Sammy,” Dean lies.

“It’s Sam.”

Dean ignores him entirely. “Whatever you say, Sammy,” he says indulgently, stretching out against the cushions and grinding his soles even deeper into the leather.

And Sam can’t fully stifle the flush of warmth at the old nickname. At the affection in it. Like Dean is intent on pretending that they’re fine through sheer force of will. Simply cramming down all the heartache and neglect and ugliness of their past to shellac it over with some shiny, surface-level veneer of amicability. Like they’re just normal brothers, the kind who see each other on the holidays and catch up on the phone once every couple of months. Friends, even.

Sam pushes through the uncertainty in his gut and settles into one of the matching armchairs across the coffee table.

“You got any liquor, man?” Dean asks after a minute or so. “Might as well break this place in proper if we’re gonna be roomies or whatever.”

“Uh, no,” Sam says. “Sorry.”

Dean rolls his head to the side to gape at him, dismay slowly rising in his eyes. “You don’t drink?” he asks carefully, and he looks like Sam has just admitted to some mortal sin.

Sam bites at the inside of his cheek to fight off a smile. “Only wine,” he says—and the capitulation seems to soothe Dean’s horror somewhat, even if it doesn’t placate him completely. “I’m on this raw food diet,” Sam explains, “and the rules are pretty strict. Anything more distilled than that doesn’t have much nutritional value.” He lets out a disdainful scoff of his own. “And don’t get me started on the empty calories in beer.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dean mutters under his breath. “Don’t worry, I won’t.” He scrubs a hand over his eyes, probably trying to keep himself from launching off the couch and escaping into the night. “Sorry to offend you, Mr. Fifteen-Percent Body Fat.”

“Twelve percent, actually,” Sam corrects him reflexively.

Dean goes quiet, slipping him a sideways glance from under his eyelashes. Heated and incomprehensible. Resentment maybe. Or annoyance at Sam’s dietary regimen. The man’s never been one for healthy eating, and Sam doubts that much has changed since they’ve been apart.

Either way, he suddenly feels more underdressed than he has all day. Uncomfortably aware of how much skin he’s showing. Sam shifts under his brother’s inscrutable gaze, adjusting his blanket until he’s a little too warm, but at least he’s covered.

“Well, it’s a good thing I travel prepared, I guess,” Dean says after a moment, like nothing curious had happened at all. “Got a cooler full of brewskis back in the Impala.” He swipes the back of his knuckles over his chin and then pushes himself up to standing, a faint pop emanating from his knees. “I’ll be back in a sec.”

“Yeah,” Sam replies, a little unmoored, “bring in the rest of your stuff too.”

The door shuts behind him, and Sam heads back to his bedroom and slips on a sweatshirt the second he’s gone, unable to get that look Dean had given him out of his head. Unable to ignore the way it had unsettled those long-dormant stirrings in him. The ones he’d buried deep. Sam digs his fingernails into his palms and shoves them back down again. There’s a time and a place for that shit, and it’s never and nowhere.

Dean makes it back inside a few minutes later, dragging a lazy man’s burden of a couple of six-packs, three full duffels strapped over his chest, and a plastic grocery bag full of minimart junk food, all at once.

Sam helps him with his luggage, not wanting to touch any of the processed sugar and saturated fats Dean’s got swinging from the fingers of his right hand. “There’s a guest room down the hall,” he says, dropping his brother’s duffel onto the pile Dean had left of the other two, and then leading him to the kitchen. “Your own bathroom too.” Dean grunts in appreciation and drops his ‘groceries’ onto Sam’s white quartz countertops. Then he pulls one of his beers out of its cardboard packaging before shoving the rest into Sam’s refrigerator, making himself fully at home. “So, uh,” Sam speaks up, “how long do you think you’re gonna be staying?”

His brother’s back goes tense, though he doesn’t turn away from where he’s still facing the fridge. “You’re the one who invited me here,” he says warily.

“No, I know.” Sam takes it upon himself to sweep the remainders of Dean’s garbage into the recycling. “I’m not trying to push you out.” And he isn’t. He’d meant what he said. Even if he’s not sure why. Even if he’s not sure what changed between yesterday morning and the last several years. Even if the impetus was just his own repressed subconscious pushing him to make up for long-forgotten slights. “I’m just curious how long you’re gonna be here,” Sam says.

Dean’s shoulders lower from around his ears, and he’s clearly somewhat assuaged by Sam’s peace offering, if not outright charmed by it. “I dunno,” he says. “Guess it depends on how batshit my fucking stalker detective is feeling this month.” He twists the cap off his beer and takes a long swig. “The guy’s been getting close lately. A little too hot on my heels, y’know? Hitting cities I’ve just left.”

Sam frowns at the deliberate nature of his brother’s wording. “Wait, you’ve got one detective handling your case? Like, obsessing over your crime scene photos over day-old Chinese food at his desk?”

“Victor Henriksen,” Dean announces, elongating every syllable and flinging his bottle cap at Sam’s wall for emphasis. He sounds just about as smug over it as he does annoyed.

Sam’s lips only purse a little at the tiny scratch it leaves in his plaster. “So, what? He’s your Brad Pitt? You’re his Kevin Spacey?”

“Well, he’s black,” Dean says, “so more my Morgan Freeman. And—dude, c’mon.” He winces. “Don’t compare me to that psycho.”

Sam can’t help the huff of amused breath at the well-worn grooves of their familiar banter. Kind of like riding a bike. “The character or the actor?”

“Take your pick,” his brother mutters in disgust.

“Maybe he’s possessed,” Sam suggests, leaning back against the counter and crossing his arms over his chest.

Dean lets out a contemplative hum. Tilts his head a little in acquiescence. “It would explain some things.”

Sam bites back a laugh. Swallows it down. Tries not to let himself fall too deeply into the seductive allure of emotion. The distraction of companionship. Of family.

Because for the first time in a very, very long time, his house doesn’t feel quite so empty.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The alarm clock doesn’t go off in the morning.

Sam only realizes he forgot to set it when he opens his eyes to faintly streaming sunshine instead of the cloudy chill of half-past five. It’s still early—7:26AM, according to his silent, slightly-blurry clock—but there’s no need for him to be anywhere at the moment. It’s the weekend. There’s no employees to wrangle or clients to impress. The pounding in his head is gone too, as is the dry dizziness, and Sam feels more like an actual human being than he has in twenty-six hours.

It’s only after he swings his legs out from under the covers and settles his bare feet on his Brazilian walnut floors that Sam remembers what else happened last night. Everything that happened last night. Dean, showing up out of the blue and taking him up on his offer to crash for a while. The both of them simply chatting until way past Sam’s self-scheduled bedtime.

He frowns as that memory in particular hits him oddly. He hadn’t taken his customary sleeping pill last night, he realizes. He hadn’t needed it.

Sam fumbles for his glasses on his bedside table, then slips them on so he can see more than two feet in front of him—pushing himself out of bed and trudging down to the first floor before he can dwell on the thought for too long. Not quite caring that he’s still in his pajamas.

It’s something his brother isn’t concerned about either, considering the sight that awaits him once Sam makes it into the kitchen. The very shirtless sight that awaits him.

He pauses at the landing.

His aforementioned houseguest is already awake, hunched over and eating breakfast at Sam’s kitchen table. Though Dean does shoot off a gravely, “Morning,” without actually turning around to look at him, engrossed in his meal as he is. Cereal, it looks like. There’s a bright blue box boasting a cartoon character at Dean’s left elbow and he’s clearly helped himself to Sam’s almond milk, given the carefree crunching sounds resonating throughout the room. Too loud for him to be chewing with his mouth closed.

Sam lets out a stifled sigh and crosses through the room to take out his own pre-prepared coconut chia porridge from the fridge. The box of Frosted Flakes must be one of the diabetes-laden Gas-n’-Sip sundries his brother had dragged into his house last night. It could be worse. At least he hadn’t doused them in beer.

Sam heads over to join Dean at the table, but comes to a stop halfway there. Finds himself caught up in the swirls of dark ink decorating his brother’s bare back instead. They’re elegant, really—once he’s close enough to actually make them out. Even if that’s the last thing Sam would have guessed he’d ever feel about Dean’s insistence on tatting himself up like some kind of hick convict.

John E. Winchester is spelled out in an ornate cursive script, high on his left shoulder blade, with the dates 1954-2003 right below it. And he’s got a matching memorial on his right, Mary S. Winchester and 1954-1983, respectively.

“Those are, uh, nice,” Sam says, finally stepping around to sit across from him. He gestures to his own shoulders when Dean just gives him a blank look. “The tattoos.”

“Oh,” Dean hums, “thanks.” Then he glances at Sam’s breakfast and does a double take—lifting his eyes to Sam, and then down to his food again. “Is that really what you’re eating?” he asks in barely-disguised disgust. He taps a thumb against the ‘Don’t Hate, Just Litigate’ mug he’d clearly hijacked from his cupboard. “I just put on a pot of coffee if you want something other than that…mush.”

Sam matches him with every inch of his own stubbornness and intentionally takes a bite, followed by a simple, “I don’t ingest caffeine.” Dean pins him with a flat look that goes on for just a little too long. “The chemical high is an unhealthy shortcut,” he informs him—not like his brother will actually listen. “It stops your body from producing clean energy naturally.”

“Well, I’m gonna sit here and enjoy my chemical high,” Dean says sarcastically, “if that’s okay with you.” Though he does lift his spoon out of his bowl to point it at Sam’s face. “This fakey shit tastes real weird by the way.”

“Cow’s milk is pasteurized.”

Dean rolls his eyes at the explanation, but he doesn’t seem to be bothered by it enough to stop shoveling it into his mouth.

And Sam can’t seem to stay bothered enough to remember to be annoyed at his older brother. Not when he’s sitting across from him so…half-naked.

The pale golden light from the floor-to-ceiling windows behind him illuminates every twitch of movement and slight inhale that Dean makes. The thick muscles of his shoulders shifting under morning-soft skin as he wraps his fingers around the novelty coffee mug. The heavy bunch of his biceps maybe even more impressive than Sam’s own, given how hard it is to add bulk on a diet of zucchini and flaxseed. Sam takes another bite of his porridge just to give him an excuse to continue observing in silence. Dean doesn’t seem to notice, thankfully, stretching his neck a little bit to crack his spine.

He takes the opportunity to linger over the shiny pink and white network of scars scattered across Dean’s bare torso. The striking musculature high on his sides, right above his ribs. Sam’s seen fellow regulars at the gym who don’t have that kind of definition. Although hunting down monsters probably beats out burpees for core engagement any day.

He gives into his darker inclinations, feels the guilt, but still lets his gaze drift over Dean’s tight, rosy nipples, the softly curved planes of his chest. Lower. His brother doesn’t really have the kind of abs a strict workout of jackknifes and bicycle crunches brings—not with the way he eats—but the flat, solid block of his stomach is even more alluring somehow. He looks real.

“Gotta admit, that’s a pretty sweet balcony you’ve got there,” Dean says out of nowhere, interrupting Sam’s depraved internal monologue with a splash of cold water that borders on ecclesiastical.

He takes a beat to pull himself together, shoving another spoonful into his mouth to cover for the fact that he’s still far too worked up for his own liking. “It’s western-facing,” he blurts out.

His brother blinks at him. “Is that better?”

“Yeah. It, um…yeah, it is.”

Dean shrugs at the information. “Okay,” he says, clearly going along to get along.

They eat in silence for a few more minutes, and Sam does his best to keep his wandering eyes to safer pathways—much harder than it should be with all the skin on display. He narrows his focus onto the rest of his brother’s tattoos, the art punctuating the much more tempting canvas space. That’s innocent enough.

Sam starts with the star on the base of his neck. A simple, low-level protection from evil. The exact same warding sigils that Sam’s got carved into his doorframe. The amused smirk that twitches at his lips is genuine, and he waggles his first two fingers to get Dean’s attention. “You match my house,” he says.

“Lucky me,” Dean grumps back.

“And that one I know,” Sam continues, tilting his head at the outline of Led Zeppelin’s Icarus adorning his brother’s left bicep.

Dean reaches across the table to pour himself a second bowl of children’s cereal. “I can make him dance if you want,” he says flatly.

Sam ignores the ridiculous offer, skimming his eyes over his collarbone—over the three serrated lines of jagged scar tissue that remind him disconcertingly of claw marks—and fixates on the dark tattoo spread over Dean’s chest, just above his heart. “What’s that?” he asks, pointing to what looks like a ring of fire surrounding an infinite pentacle. The artistry of it is actually quite impressive.

Dean sniffs and glances down, then goes back to his cereal. “It’s an anti-possession sigil. Got it from some shop down in Louisiana.”

“Possession,” Sam clarifies. “As in demon possession?”

“Got it in one,” Dean tosses back unenthusiastically. “Only had to learn that lesson once.” He shudders in playful exaggeration, but there’s an edge of real darkness underlining the action. “The hard way.”

“Jesus,” Sam says.

“Yeah.”

“What about this one, down here?” He taps at his own torso, referring to the larger red pentacle sprinkled with smaller symbols that wraps around his brother’s ribs.

Dean nods and keeps eating. “That’s a devil’s trap,” he says. Then he glances up at him from under his brows, probably checking to see if Sam’s suitably impressed. “It’s a fucking game-changer, man.” He leans forward, crossing his arms over the table. “Keeps any demon stuck within the circle. They can’t break the lines.”

“So…what?” Sam asks, not quite getting the gist of his excitement. “It keeps them glued to your side? You sure you want that?”

Dean lets out a crude laugh, coughing as he tries to swallow and breathe at the same time. “No, dipshit,” he says, sputtering out half-chewed frosted flakes—and Sam has to wipe his lenses off on his pants. “It’s just a template. Helps me remember how to draw one without your freaky nerd brain there to memorize all the details.” He scrubs his mouth with one of Sam’s nicer cloth napkins and shrugs. “Plus, I figure if some sneaky son of a bitch actually gets past this one,” he taps his chest, “then it might keep them locked inside my meatsuit. Stop ‘em from going after anyone else. Hell, it might just keep them frozen in place entirely.”

Sam shifts back in his seat at the inventive reasoning. “That’s actually pretty smart.”

“Oh, wow,” his brother effuses in a dry monotone. “Golly gee. Thanks, Sam.”

He ducks his head at the well-deserved rebuke. “Okay,” he concedes with an apology. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

His faux-pas doesn’t seem to taint the conversation for too long though. “We should actually put one in here somewhere,” Dean mentions, gesturing vaguely with his spoon, “just to be safe. On the entryway ceiling, maybe. It works just as well, and it won’t fuck up your froufrou décor or whatever. Your Baby’s First Warding Sigils ain’t gonna do much against anything more serious than a poltergeist.”

Sam bites at his bottom lip, kicking away the pleased flicker at his brother’s automatic use of the word “we”. He concentrates back on the tattoos to get his mind off it. To slip away from that faint promise of connection. “And what’s this one?” he asks, gesturing to the red mark branded across Dean’s right forearm. Kind of a rough-edged, backwards ‘F’. Or maybe it’s a ‘7’ with little vampire fangs.

“I dunno, actually,” he admits. “Some psychic chick did it for me for free, thought it was funny for some reason. I didn’t press any further ‘cause I liked it.” Dean lets out a little chuckle under his breath. “Plus, I was pretty fucking wasted at the time.”

Sam lets out an amused breath of his own. He can definitely believe that one. “Is that all of them?” he asks, wiggling a finger in his general direction. “You got some drunken regret on your ass from a night of stupidity?”

Dean leans in a little closer, like he’s letting him in on a closely-guarded secret. “I’ve got ‘non tiembo mala’ inked along the inside of my thigh,” he says suggestively.

No, you don’t,” Sam calls him out. But his brother’s expression of clandestine amusement doesn’t waver. “Do you?” he asks, sucked in even though he knows better. Then he catches himself, pushing back in his seat again. “No.”

Dean clicks his tongue and tosses him a wink, jokingly flirtatious. “You could always find out for yourself,” he offers.

And that’s how Sam knows Dean is just pulling his leg. That—or he’s very, very proud of the truth.

He fixes his attention back on his neglected breakfast rather than try and figure out which one it is. “Where’d you learn about all that stuff, anyway?” he asks, picking a chia seed out of his teeth. “I’m pretty sure Dad had never heard of half those things.”

“Bobby mostly,” Dean shrugs. The corners of his mouth tip down for a moment. “Picked up some other bits here and there.”

The name hits Sam square in his chest. Knocks him back twenty-five years into the past. “Bobby,” he lets out on a disbelieving breath. “Uncle Bobby?”

“Yeah.”

Sam marvels at the reminder of ancient history. And even though he knows loved ones aren’t good for much more than dragging you down and ruining your potential, he can’t quite help the spark of nostalgia this time. He hasn’t seen the man in ages. “How’s he doing?”

Dean’s free hand curls into a fist, dark ice shuttering down over his eyes. Abrupt as snuffing out a candle. Nothing left behind but grim, somber loss. “He bit it a few years ago,” he says curtly. Callous. “Went out fighting.”

Sam’s stomach sucks itself into one tiny point, and it’s suddenly stilted between them. Stiff and awkward. Every bit of hurt they’d been trying to pretend wasn’t there bubbling up again. Refusing to be ignored. “Shit, Dean,” he whispers. “I’m so— I’m so sorry.” He hadn’t even known.

“Yeah,” Dean says again, but the easiness is gone.

Sam goes back to picking at his own breakfast, but Dean gets up a few seconds later and dumps his half-full bowl into the sink.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

When Sam gets home from work on Monday, the house is dark and Dean is smoking out on the balcony.

He drops his briefcase by the door, loosens his tie a little, and flips a few lights on as he passes through. Just until the place looks more lived-in. Less haunted.

Doesn’t stop it from feeling it, though.

Sam pauses at the large pile of fabric sitting abandoned outside the laundry room door and crouches down to pluck at one of the wrinkled sheets with two fingers. The linens haven’t been cleaned, and neither have his clothes, and that’s how he knows that his brother has slept with his housekeeper. He isn’t even surprised, even if it means he’ll have to let Oksana go. Though a quick peek inside his kitchen reveals that she’d at least managed to do the grocery shopping. Sam sighs and pours himself a much-needed glass of wine before opening the sliding glass door, trying not to think about how much his drinking has ramped up this past week. Or why that is.

“Enjoying the view?” he asks, closing just the screen behind him.

Dean acknowledges him with a grunt and a slight nod of his head. He doesn’t turn around. His usual flannel is missing and his belt’s undone, but the slight winter chill doesn’t seem to bug him much. When he brings the cigarette up to his lips, the tips of Icarus’s wings peek out beneath the edge of his sleeve. “Had to check out your western-facing balcony,” Dean informs him. He pulls in a long, deep drag, then lets the smoke billow back out over the lights of the city. The courtyard below.

Sam sidles up next to him and rests his own crossed arms over the clear windowpane railing. Modern, his interior designer had called it.

“How much does a place like this set you back?” Dean asks, not to be pushy. Just making conversation. Sam cups his wine glass between his laced fingers and discreetly chooses not to play this game. “What, half a million?” he guesses. Sam remains stoic. Dean raises an incredulous eyebrow. “More?”

He takes a sip of his only-decent 2012 Pinot Noir and tries not to smile at his brother’s vast ignorance of the Palo Alto real estate market.

“You could buy a lot of vintage car parts with that kind of scratch.”

“Yeah,” Sam says, letting the moment sit, “but then where would you put them?”

Dean snorts out a laugh on his next exhale. Bitter smell of burning tobacco. Sam faintly remembers his brother buying a pack of unfiltered cigarettes once, right after he’d dropped out of high school and right before their dad had frog marched him into the GED office. He probably thought they were more badass or something, that antsy, reckless nineteen-year-old version of Dean. His own blood on his knuckles and wildness in his eyes. He’d hated it though. Spent two days straight spitting out little dried leaf flecks. Sam can’t recall him smoking anytime after that.

He tosses Dean a sidelong glance, this forty-year-old version of him who still has wildness in his eyes. Wonders when he’d picked up the habit again.

“What do you need the parts for, anyway?” Sam asks. “Your fifty-year-old car finally breaking down?”

“It’s called maintenance, asshole,” Dean tosses back at him, petulant. “You better believe my girl runs like a Whitesnake wet dream.” He taps some ashes over the edge of the railing, the gray flakes drifting and falling into the darkness like dirty snow. “The Impala was the only thing I’ve ever been able to find of Dad after he died,” he says. “No body, no bones, no blood. Not a single clue.” Dean seems to catch himself sliding into melancholy, so he clears his throat to get some of the seriousness out. “I’m not gonna have him rolling around in his grave. Give him a reason to come haunt my ass.” Though he sounds wistful as he says that last part, like—joke or not—it’s an outcome he wouldn’t fight too hard.

Sam has to call on years of self-discipline to not start this exact same fight again. Over their father being alive or dead. Although, maybe his point can actually help Dean this time. “Maybe he left it for you on purpose,” he tries carefully. “You ever think of that?”

Dean scoffs right in his face, and Sam has to wave his hand around to disperse the smoke. “Are you kidding me, man? That’s how I know he’s dead. He was obsessed with that damn car. No way he’d just give it to me.”

Sam accepts his point, taking another sip of wine and soaking up the impressive view alongside his brother. This is the most civil they’ve been in a conversation about John Winchester in their entire lives probably. God, Sam doesn’t like to think about the rager of a fight they’d had in his dorm room. The guilt it inevitably stirs up. He’d been too hot, so soon after their last blow-out—the one before he’d left for Stanford. He’d been brutal, turning Dean away with a flurry of harsh words and raining more at his back as he’d walked out. Though Dean had got a fair few of his own in as well.

Sometimes, when he’s feeling particularly self-destructive, Sam wonders what would’ve happened if things had gone down differently. If Dad had the decency to stick it out for a couple more years. If Dean had come to see him after Sam had long enough to cool off, to get some distance from it. If he would’ve followed his brother through the door instead of kicking him out of it.

But thoughts like that don’t lead anywhere productive. There’s no such thing as do-overs. No alternate universes spun off from each person’s random choices. Or, maybe there are—if that Hugh Everett guy was right—but Sam won’t see any in his lifetime. Which makes them practically fictional, if nothing else.

When he comes back to the present, Dean is staring out into the night too. Matching his silence. Probably just as lost in thought as Sam is.

But the peace doesn’t last.

“Why’d you and Jessica split?” he asks after a few seconds.

“Jesus,” Sam mutters, sloshing Pinot over his fingers, “just drive the knife in a little deeper why don’t you?”

Dean doesn’t back down. No sense of common courtesy or propriety over suitable conversation topics. “I mean it,” he says. “You’re a fucking catch, tiger. Smart, successful, no criminal record, you’ve got a full head of hair.” He brings his cigarette back to his mouth, mumbling around the stick between his lips. “I mean, you’re not as handsome as me, but who is?”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Why’d she bail?” he asks, not letting it go. Stubborn as a—well, as most of the hunters Sam’s come across.

“I didn’t want kids.” Sam wipes his hand dry on his slacks. “Jess did.” That’s the main reason, his go-to answer every time he’s asked. Simple. Easy. Just a difference of opinion. The kind that doesn’t put the blame on anyone’s shoulders.

…But it isn’t the whole of it.

Hell, it might not even be the majority of it—just a symptom of the underlying disease.

And maybe it’s the calm of the moment, of his brother standing physically beside him for the first time in years, but Sam lets out a long breath and decides to tell the truth. “We drifted apart,” he says, more honestly. “My fault, mostly.” And it was. He can admit that.

Jess stuck with him far longer than anyone else would have. Hell, a part of Sam had been distant from the start, and it only got worse as time went on. He’d gotten everything he ever wanted; the life, the girl, the job, the normal he’d given up everything else for, and it still hadn’t been enough. Sam had married a kind, gorgeous, brilliant woman, and he’d gotten an incredible, almost unheard-of job offer, right out of law school, and they’d put a down payment on a charming little house so perfect it looked like it came right out of a sitcom, and he still lay awake at night thinking about the curve of his brother’s back. The feel of his calloused hands. The roguish flash of his smile. So Sam had thrown himself into his work instead. Only way to drown out the thoughts.

He schools his expression, brings himself back to level. “The further we drifted apart,” he continues, “the more I started focusing on my career.” Hint of a bitter laugh. “Or, maybe it was the other way around. I don’t really remember. Kind of a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation.” Sam taps his fingernails against his glass and then cuts his eyes over to his brother. “Plus, she wasn’t super pleased when you’d drop by in the middle of the night, drunk and bloody and refusing to go to a hospital.”

Dean makes a face. “That happened one time.”

“That happened four times,” Sam corrects him, “and I fucking stitched you up every single one of them.”

Another moment of quiet descends on them, but it’s easier this time, under the lingering ash and tobacco smoke in the air.

Dean stubs his cigarette out, then flicks the butt into a corner of Sam’s balcony. “So why don’t you want kids?” he asks, twisting around to lean his back against the railing. “You always seemed like the type. Coupla little Sammys running around wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

Because it felt too permanent. Because having an actual child would seal off any possibility of dropping everything and just leaving one day.

Of being with you.

“I dunno,” Sam lies instead, “the way our childhoods turned out— I guess I just don’t wanna fuck up anyone else like that.”

Dean watches him for a long moment. “Yeah, fair enough.” He crosses his arms over his chest and lets out an amused huff through his nose. “And hey, the fewer vegans around the better as far as I’m concerned.”

Sam has to bite at his own tongue in order to not snap back too condescendingly. “It’s a ‘raw food’ diet,” he explains again, “not veganism. It’s different.”

His brother tilts his head, clearly toying with him. “Is it, though?” he prods, and Sam can’t help the laugh at his own expense. Accepting the defeat.

He goes to take another sip of his wine, then pauses, leaving the rim barely pressed against his lips. Then he pulls it back. Examines it for a spell. Sam’s not quite sure what comes over him, or why, but he keeps moving his hand even further. Past the safety rail. He holds it out, dangling his only wine glass over the edge of good reason, and then lets it drop right off his balcony to shatter in the courtyard below. And he’s not upset. Not even when he comes back to his senses. The sound it made was almost beautiful.

“Butterfingers,” Dean teases, but there’s a glimmer in his eyes that says he knows it wasn’t an accident.

Sam clears his throat, not meeting his brother’s gaze. “You want a beer?” he asks.

“Always.”

He ducks into his house and grabs two of the cheap beers Dean had stuffed the fridge with when he’d moved in. Then he heads back out to the balcony before he can think better of it. Before his brain can catch up to his heart. Sam hands one to Dean, which he immediately twists the cap off of, and then just holds onto his own. Waiting. Because something’s not exactly right, but he can’t put his finger on it.

“Well?” Dean prompts.

“Well what?”

He raises his eyebrows until the lines crease across his forehead. “Are you gonna give it here, or what?”

Oh. Of course. Sam lets out a slow, silent exhale and hands the bottle over. Dean opens it for him like it’s second nature before giving it back. Completely unnecessary with a twist off, but it makes something warm curl in Sam’s gut. He doesn’t shove the feeling away this time.

“Try not to drop this one too,” his brother jokes. Then he adds, “Bitch.” Soft and quiet, under his breath.

“Jerk,” Sam says back.

Dean holds out the neck of his bottle expectantly and Sam clinks it with his own. It’s the first sip of beer he’s had in years.

It tastes so much better than he’d remembered.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“…I don’t know who that Dean Winchester is,” Dean says, the fluorescent overhead lights of the bunker’s kitchen emphasizing the faint purple-red bruising around his left eye. The nick at the corner of his mouth. Parting gifts from this timeline’s version of Castiel. Just one more reason they have to fix things, no matter how much Sam’s gut is warning him that he won’t be able to go through with it. “And I’m good with who I am,” his brother continues. Blunt and genuine. “I’m good with who you are.” He lets out a scarce hint of a laugh, then glances back at Sam, never breaking eye contact. A deep, steady connection, even when Sam has to duck his head at the enormity of it. Of hearing those words straight from Dean’s mouth, even though he knows his brother has felt them in his heart for almost a decade by now. “‘Cause our lives, they’re ours. And maybe I’m just too damn old to wanna change that.”

Sam swallows and turns his head, absorbing everything that’s just been said. It’s romantic, really. That kind of confession. The knowledge that Dean would willingly give up his literal heart’s desire—John Winchester, alive and in reach—in exchange for them being together. To know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he comes first in Dean’s heart. In every way. Sam had spent his entire childhood jealously competing with his dad over his brother’s attention and love, fighting tooth and nail, even when he was too young to consciously realize that’s what he was doing. And now…

Sam lets out a defeated sigh, running his washcloth over the cooking spoon in his hands. The last remaining bit of the dishes—Dean washing, him drying, the way they always do. He dumps the utensil into the drying rack and then picks at the old rag’s loose embroidery, scraping his thumbnail over the pale red stripes.

It’s still unfair. He’d said it out loud to Dean, and he’ll keep saying it privately to himself in his own head. To have your lost love suddenly brought back to you like that, and then be ripped away again just as quickly— Sam winces at the thought of it. And he knows that Dean hates it too, no matter what kind of ‘greater good’ act he’s got going on right now. He’d seen his brother spend the entirety of their wholesome family meal double-fisting two glasses of both whiskey and wine. Not exactly dinner at the Kennedys’. Or—actually, that’s probably exactly what it would be like, and his point still stands.

Dean finally pushes away from the sink and turns back around to grab at the dirty sponge floating in the even-dirtier water. He squeezes it out, tosses it into the drying rack as well, and then opens the valve to drain everything. Finishing up the last of the chore.

But Sam doesn’t want to face the dissolution of the moment, not yet, so he lets his attention drift over to the block-letter wording behind the sink instead.

NO FOOD WASTE IN DRAINS. USE SEALED BAGS TO DISPOSE OF ALL MATERIALS. NO CHEMICAL WASTE PERMITTED. CLOSE VALVE AFTER USING.

He lets out a quiet snort at the sign’s ineffectiveness. They never follow any of the bolded directives. Sam knows for a fact that his brother has poured all sorts of hazardous summoning ingredients down this very sink more than once. Plus, they almost never keep the valve closed. Laziness, really. There’s a very real likelihood that some fastidious member of the Men of Letters might come back one day and haunt them just for the gall of it.

“Dishes are done,” Dean mentions casually, curling his hands around the lip of the counter, but he doesn’t make any move to head out of the kitchen.

Neither does Sam.

They both know how little time their parents have left with each other. Neither of them wants to destroy that by pushing the deadline any closer than they have to.

It’s the same reason Sam had tugged his reluctant brother out of the room during John and Mary’s first reconnection. He’d seen the way they looked at each other then too. Felt it, just as strong. Sam knows intimately what it’s like to have the love of your life unexpectedly brought back from the dead. The joy of it. The disbelief. The burning, frantic desire to cling to them in any and every way possible. He’d made sure to give them their space. Privacy for their impossible, priceless moment. The exact kind he and Dean are so rarely afforded after one of their miraculous reunions.

Sam huffs out a bitter sound at the twisted synchronicity of it all. He’d meant what he said earlier, about how happy their mom and dad had looked together. What he hadn’t said out loud was how much it reminded him of him and Dean. “It’s, uh— Kind of…” Sam can’t think of the right word, so he just pushes on through. “Seeing it from the outside like that,” he finishes. “Y’know?”

Dean cocks his head at him, not quite understanding the jumble of words Sam had laid out, but willing to listen anyway. He leans back against the sink again, scooting in close enough to rest their shoulders together. “Seeing what?” he asks.

True Love. The painful, tragic kind of true love that can’t ever be forgotten or moved past.

Sam has always privately wondered why so many people around them have been able to guess the truth about him and Dean. How they could have figured it out when they’re both so painstakingly careful to hide the less appropriate aspects of their relationship from any and everyone. But now, after seeing his parents together like that, after seeing the way they shine in each other’s presence, the way everything seems to fall away and nothing matters except for each other…he wonders what took Cas and Crowley and Rowena so long. “Nothing,” he says with a slight, rueful smile. “Never-mind.”

Dean lets out a long, slow exhale and tilts his head back on his neck. He’s wearing one of his shirts Sam hasn’t seen in a while, a dull gray plaid that looks just as good on him as everything else he’s ever worn. He shoves down the fervent desire to lick a stripe up his brother’s throat, just like he always does.

“You know Dad told me that he’d always wanted me to have a family?” Dean says conversationally. But there’s awe in it, like he’s tickled by the thought.

Sam nudges in a little closer, trying to be supportive despite the unavoidable flare of jealousy. “Yeah?”

Dean pins him with a heart-stopping smile. “I told him I’ve already got one.”

The bloom of affection is the first thing Sam feels, but it’s soon followed by a chilled, slow-mounting dread. “You told Dad…about us?

His brother goggles at him. “What, you think I’m an idiot? No, I didn’t tell him-tell him.” Dean lets out a sharp scoff, then sets his voice to an unflatteringly moronic imitation of himself. “‘Yeah, Dad. I have a family. I’m pretty much married to my little brother and we’re raising a child together. Oh—also our best friend is basically another parent too. It’s a real Three Men and a Baby-type situation, y’know, if Tom Selleck and Ted Danson were secretly fucking behind everyone’s backs. Aren’t you proud of us?’” He hits Sam with a disparaging look. “C’mon, man,” he says bitingly. “Like I’m gonna rip a hole through our family any bigger than the one that’s already—” Dean cuts off with a short hitch of breath, the gravity of their situation settling back down around them. The inexorable conclusion they can no longer ignore.

“…We should head back into the library,” Dean says. Though he looks just as crestfallen about it as Sam feels.

“Let’s give them a few more minutes,” Sam murmurs back, and he tries not to dwell on how unfairly, incredibly lucky he feels in comparison. Maybe for the first time ever.

He slips his hand over Dean’s own, only breathing again when his brother grips him back.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Dean lets out a disgusted sound at the sight of his lunch. “God bless kale, am I right?” he mocks Sam, his voice two octaves too high as he does his best whiny impression of him.

Sam refuses to let it bother him, spearing another bite of his kale and edamame salad with his fork. “How many times did you watch my lecture, man?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Dean tosses back, but he’s not even really paying attention. He’s just staring at Sam’s salad like he’s afraid it’s gonna sprout tentacles and claws and he’ll have to go for the holy water. “Okay, seriously,” he says, “how can you eat that stuff?”

“It’s good for you,” Sam says around a mouthful.

“So’s a colonoscopy.”

Sam isn’t going to touch that one with a thirty-foot pole. He just continues eating with his left hand while he keeps track of his online scheduling with his right, frowning as he taps at his keyboard. “Y’know,” he says, “if you want to do something good for your body, you should come running with me in the mornings.” He spares his brother a quick glance, trying not to linger too obviously. “Couldn’t hurt.”

“I’m fine, fuckyouverymuch.” Dean sits with his indignity for a bit, sulking over the perceived insult, and then his expression morphs into a leer as the innuendo practically walks right up to him and introduces itself. “Plus, I do something ‘good for my body’ all the damn time.”

“Not what I was talking about,” he sighs in exasperation—but it was a decent joke, Sam has to admit.

Dean just leans back in his chair like he couldn’t be more proud of himself, balancing his weight on the two back legs. Sam secretly hopes he tips over backwards before he breaks the expensive craftsmanship. “So what’s with the suit?” he asks, tossing back a few French fries from some disgusting fast food chain. He chews with his mouth open. The greasy paper is leaving streaks all over Sam’s nice table.

“I have a Skype call for work,” Sam says, still only half-paying attention to his brother’s antics.

“Uh, yeah, dude. I get that part.” Dean thumps the chair back down to level with a wince-worthy creak of wood. “But you’re calling in from home. That’s like the lowest of low priorities.” He casts a critical eye over Sam’s current attire. Suit, tie, slacks—the works. Even his best leather belt and loafers. “There’s no need to get all dolled up on my account.”

“Dolled up?” Sam echoes, raising an eyebrow. Though he mentally shies away from the reminder of how much time he’s been taking off work lately. Multiple days the previous week and this one as well. Hell, he can’t remember the last time he’d had to web-call into the office. His brother is shooting all kinds of holes in his regular schedule. It’s disconcerting, and he doesn’t like to think about it.

Dean sucks at his teeth, probably trying to distance himself from the sudden interest, and goes back to cleaning under his fingernails with Sam’s Wusthof paring knife. Apparently his lunch break is over. He tries to stay annoyed at the sight, but mostly it just launches him back into the strange dream he’d had a couple nights ago. He and Dean, doing the dishes together. Simple and domestic. As if they’d done that exact chore a hundred times before.

“Whatever,” his brother mutters, interrupting Sam’s train of thought. “I just meant you look good, man.” Then he seems to realize he’s accidentally complimented him again and shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Better than that stupid turtleneck at least.”

Sam smiles privately to himself. Pride is one of the minor sins that he’s kept with him through the years, despite his focus on ascetic living. Like the few strands of gray threaded through the hair at his temples that no one knows about because he dyes them brown again. “Dressing professionally puts you in a professional state of mind,” he explains. “It’s one of the ten most important ways to increase efficiency at work and at home. I have the article bookmarked if you want to read it.”

The constipated look on Dean’s face makes it very clear that he doesn’t. “Is that what the fakey glasses are for? To make yourself look more ‘professional’?”

Sam just blinks at him in confusion. “No,” he says slowly, “the glasses are for seeing.”

Dean scoffs, but his sneer falls away once he catches on to the fact that Sam isn’t joking. “But it’s a genetic thing, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“No, I just mean,” he waves a hand in front of his own face, “don’t need ‘em.”

Sam gives him a neutral look. “Good for you.”

His brother peers at him for another beat, then seems to let it go without too much of a fuss. “Think it’s from all that reading? Slaving over a computer screen eight hours a day?” he brings up pointedly.

Sam shrugs his shoulders and refreshes the app again, still focused on the clock. Nguyen is supposed to connect him to the conference call in roughly eight minutes, and the man is aggressively punctual. “Probably,” he says distractedly. Then adds, “And it’s more like ten hours.”

“All work and no play makes Sammy a dull boy.”

“All work and no play makes Sam able to afford the two-bedroom, three-bath townhouse his drifter brother is currently staying in, rent-free.”

Dean wiggles his own knife at him. “You say ‘drifter’ like it’s a bad thing.” Sam ignores him in favor of making sure the time/date settings on his laptop are accurate, and he can hear his brother’s heavy sigh at the continuing inattention. “It’s worth it though, right?” he prods, only mildly facetious. “Saving the world, one underprivileged tax case at a time?”

Dean’s words spear something deep inside of Sam, open up a dark, dusty part of him he hasn’t felt in a very long time, and he freezes—eyes staring vacant and unseeing at the screen in front of him.

“…Sammy?” his brother asks warily.

Sam slowly draws his hands away from his computer, curls them into fists over the table. The smooth wood presses solid and centering against his knuckles. “You know what kind of people hire tax attorneys?” he prompts.

Dean watches him with an uncertain quality to his posture. A feral sort of tension, as if he can sense the sudden unease. “Nah, enlighten me.”

One,” Sam says, holding a finger out to keep count, “rich people that are dying because they’re super old.”

“Sure, makes sense,” Dean accepts with a restrained huff of amusement. “They gotta make sure Muffy and Chet inherit the winter estate from Great-Grandmama, after all.”

Sam hitches out a matching breath of his own. “Two, “ another finger joins the first, “people starting a small business.” He turns his head and finally catches his brother’s eyes. “They’re the greatest, Dean,” he says, painfully sincere. “They’re normal, everyday people who just want to make a living and put something good into the world and provide for their kids. If every single one of my clients were small business owners…I think I’d actually be helping people.”

Dean presses the tip of his tongue against the back of his teeth, clearly curious about the sudden shift in the conversation. Like he hadn’t expected the open honesty. “What’s three?”

“Rich. Assholes,” he spits out, though there’s a bitter, self-directed sort of humor in it. “Slimy, corporate assholes who are brought up on charges of tax fraud by the IRS because—shocker—they’re not paying their taxes. And then they hire people like me to go to court for them to get out of paying even more taxes because they’re assholes.”

Dean regards him carefully. “And you do.”

“Yeah,” Sam sighs. “I do.”

Another awkward minute of silence hangs over them, almost expected given the frequency of moments like this over the past couple weeks. The notches and grooves of their edges jarring and scraping as they try to fit together again. Failing just about as often as they succeed. Though sometimes it feels like they’re just smashing the pieces with a hammer and pretending that’s good enough.

“Well, at least it pays good,” Dean says eventually. “Right?”

But Sam can’t let it go at that. Not after the reminder his brother had inadvertently dropped on him.

Because he had wanted to help people, back when he’d first started out. That was the whole point behind choosing a career as an attorney in the first place. Sam had only spun the wheel and landed on ‘taxes’ because it was the most mundane branch of law he could think of. The most normal. He wouldn’t have to go to court to defend killers—the exact kind of violent people Sam was already sick of—and he wouldn’t have to go to court to prosecute killers either. He couldn’t. Not when he’d have to sit there, knowing that he’s personally done the exact same things, if not worse, than what the defendants were being accused of. There had already been far too much blood on Sam’s hands the instant he crossed over into adulthood. He didn’t think he’d be able to deal with the hypocrisy of it all.

Plus, he’d been good with numbers and math was the one thing in the world that had always made sense to him. No matter what. There were no shades of gray. No exceptions. Just cold, hard facts. The square root of one hundred and sixty-nine will always equal thirteen, whether or not human lives are at stake. The certainty of it had been comforting against the backdrop of how he was raised. The constantly shifting series of motels and abandoned houses and schools and cities…

…and moral laws.

Sam’s computer chooses that moment to blast him with a cheery, bubbly chime of a melody. The Skype app flashes brightly at him. Nguyen is calling him, right on time as usual. Their meeting on the Hughes case is starting.

He watches the little animated phone icon blink at him.

“Uh, Sam?” Dean asks after the fourth ring. “Ain’t you gonna get that?”

Sam lets it continue for another twenty-nine seconds before he finally clicks on ‘answer’.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It takes another week and a half before Sam realizes that he doesn’t live alone anymore. That Dean has all but effectively moved in for the long haul.

He turns his key in the lock and steps inside, then quietly laughs to himself at the image of his brother sprawled out over his couch, watching what appears to be an old western on Sam’s OLED big screen, and shoving potato chips into his mouth. His legs are casually splayed open with his boots unlaced, and Sam’s almost surprised that his jeans are still on.

At first, he had unconsciously flinched every time he’d walked into his space and found another person in it, not used to anyone else being around, but now the sight is expected. Welcomed, even. It makes his place feel lived-in. It makes him feel a little less alone—even though he’d never placed the emotion before. The impossibility of proving a negative.

“Busy day?” Sam jokes, tossing his keys onto the coffee table and shrugging out of his coat.

His brother crams in another handful of deep-fried potatoes, talking around the muted crunching. “Y’know, I always thought it was bullshit,” he says, pointing at the TV with his thumb, the rest of his fingers loosely curled against his palm, “but this really does have the truest blacks.”

Sam presses his lips together into a subtle, closed-mouthed smile. “It was a present from a client. I’ll let him know you approve.”

Dean snorts at the dumb joke, then tips his head back against the cushions so he can grin at him upside-down. “Hi, honey,” he drawls at him sarcastically. “How was work?” From this close, Sam can make out the dark red lipstick smudges streaking the base of Dean’s jawline. Along with the finger-rumpled creases in his shirt collar, they make it pretty clear that Dean hadn’t been alone all day long. It dampens the glow of his initial teasing, but not so terribly Sam can’t shrug it off.

“Please tell me you didn’t bring her back here,” he says half-heartedly, moving past his brother and into the kitchen to carefully place his laptop case on the table.

“You’re a real gentleman, Sammy,” Dean calls after him, but it sounds like he’s mostly still paying attention to his movie. “Don’t let anyone tell you different.” In the other room, Clint Eastwood asks some old man to get three coffins ready, and Dean barks out a laugh at the line. The musical score swells through his living room, unnecessarily dramatic, which Sam figures probably portends a shootout. “No, seriously,” Dean asks over the soundtrack. “How’d your thing go?”

Sam steps back into the main room and runs a hand over his hair, making sure he’s still presentable after the long day. “Not great,” he admits. But the bad news doesn’t sit as heavy on him as it probably should.

“You fuck up the trial?”

Sam rolls his bottom lip over his teeth, trying not to play right into his brother’s goading. “We lost,” he says evenly. “I’m not sure if I’d call it ‘fucking up’, though.”

“Sure, man,” Dean snorts. “Whatever you’ve gotta tell yourself.”

Sam lets the irritation out on a calming breath and steps around to lean a hip against the couch. Watches Clint Eastwood banter for a bit and then smoke four other gunmen in ten seconds flat. “You do realize the dialogue in this is ridiculous, right?” he says out of the side of his mouth.

Dean just scoffs at him. “He’s not actually talking about his fucking donkey, dude.” He shifts his shoulders at the criticism, offended on the movie’s behalf, and his shirt stretches tight over his upper back. “It’s badass.”

“Sure, man,” Sam tosses right back at him. “Whatever you’ve gotta tell yourself.”

Dean flicks amused eyes up to him, accepting the fair turnabout. “So what happened with your case?” he asks after another few minutes.

Sam heaves out a sigh, and then drops down next to him, disgustedly waving away the half-empty chip bag Dean shakes at him. “Jury found in favor of the prosecution,” he says. “Simple as that. Ruined our streak though. It’s the first case we’ve lost in a while.”

“And what about your guy?” Dean pries further, eyes still on the screen. “Was he guilty?”

Sam lets a rueful smile crawl across his face. “Guilty as hell.”

It’s enough to turn his brother’s attention back on him. “Maybe not the worst thing in the world then,” Dean points out.

“Yeah,” Sam says. And now that he thinks about it, maybe his head hadn’t been in the game during most of the trial proceedings. Maybe he was the reason the jury had sided the way they did—his conscience catching up with him. “I guess you’re right,” he agrees quietly.

Dean quirks the side of his mouth up and goes back to the film.

They watch together in companionable silence—Dean utterly captivated, Sam a little less so—until the Man With No Name rides out of town in a cloud of dust and the credits roll.

Sam shuts off the TV with a flick of the remote and shuffles forward to the edge of the couch. “So,” he says with a distasteful glance at the shiny layer of salt crumbs coating his brother’s fingers, “is that all you’re gonna eat for dinner? ‘Cause I’ve got some extra cauliflower rice if you wanna share.”

“I would rather die,” Dean responds immediately. No hesitation at all.

Sam bites at the inside of his cheek. “Not like you to turn down free food.”

Food being the key word there.” His brother sucks his thick fingers into his mouth, one by one, and Sam’s heart jumps up into his throat. His pulse slamming against his collarbone.

He forces himself to turn his head before he gives too much away, focusing his attention on any and everything else instead. Skidding his eyes across the room. The tasteful art collection gracing his high walls. The way the blue-white light from his porch lanterns shines in through the bay windows. There’s an old, busted-up laptop sitting on the edge of the coffee table that Sam doesn’t recognize. It must be Dean’s. Though he does spare a second to wonder why he’s never seen it out here before. Maybe Dean just usually keeps it in his room.

His brother clears his throat beside him, and Sam feels his nerves start to prickle at the realization of how close they’re still sitting—even though the movie’s over. His shoulders have somehow become too tight under his skin.

“Hey, uh—” Dean scratches at his eyebrow scar with the side of his thumb. “I just wanted to let you know that I probably gotta head out soon.”

Sam jerks his head back, a quick half-motion, and then snaps it over to him in disbelief, a sudden ringing in his ears blocking out what he couldn’t possibly have heard.  “What?” he says.

Dean blinks, keeping his eyes closed for far too long before fixing them just to Sam’s left. “No, I’m just saying.” He rubs his thumb over the knuckles of his right hand, an obvious nervous habit. “There’s some stuff I should probably take care of and,” he lets out a hitched sound, “well, it’s not like you need me around here, right?”

“Dean, what are you talking about?” Sam asks—or tries to. His throat’s suddenly too tight and the words come out strained. “I mean, I thought we were—” He can’t finish the thought. They’re sitting too close to have this conversation. Sam pushes against his knees to stretch himself back up to standing, just to get some distance between them. Though now he’s just hovering awkwardly over his still-seated brother. “What’s going on?”

Dean still won’t look at him. “It’s not a big deal.”

“You can stay,” Sam blurts out, running his mouth over whatever explanations Dean was about to provide. And he means it. Desperately. More than he’s meant anything in years. He clenches his hands into fists and then releases them, like there’s too much anxious energy in his blood.

“Nah, I really can’t, man.”

“Yes, you can,” he says. And Sam can feel the cracks in his control start to widen at the impending threat of loss. Even further than they have the past few weeks. Dean steadily, inadvertently chipping away at his walls from the moment Sam had turned up in that obnoxious motel room. Or—maybe it was before that. Since that first dream he’d had, waking up to inexplicable tears on his cheeks and a heavy lump of ice in his gut that was telling him—screaming at him—that something was missing. All the emotion that Sam had spent the last seventeen years burying under thick, heavy layers of cement beginning to erode and scrape away at his levees…until he simply lets the floodgates crumble. Until he lets it all go. Because Sam doesn’t want to live like that anymore. He doesn’t have to.

“Just stay here with me,” Sam offers, hopeful and breathless. “You don’t have to go back to all that awful hunting shit.”

“I don’t have to go back,” Dean repeats flatly, holding himself a little too stiff. Just the slightest edge of warning to his tone.

“Not if you don’t want to.”

Dean pulls in an angry breath through his nose and Sam knows he’s overstepped, but he can’t bring himself to regret it. “It’s my life,” his brother says. Taut. His fingernails digging into the coarse denim covering his thighs.

“It doesn’t have to be,” Sam tells him. “Not anymore.”

Dean’s expression doesn’t waver for a second though, clearly shoring himself up for another one of their world-class fights—but then he seems to catch something in Sam’s eyes, something new, because all the tension leaves him in an instant. Flows right out of him like water through a sieve. “This is your place, Sammy,” he says, low and rough. “Not mine.”

“It could be.” Sam tries for a laugh, but it comes out more of a shaky hum. He’s absolutely floored by how much he wants it. He hasn’t felt in so long and now he’s drowning in it. “It could be your place too, Dean,” he says. “Why not?” Dean tosses his head with a dismissive sound, but Sam grips onto the opening and holds tight. “No, I mean it. Why not?” He slices his hand through the air between them, palm out and imploring. “I’ve got more than enough money for the both of us. You could quit it with the hustling and the bullshit credit card scams. And you could do something else—anything else—with your life. Isn’t that better?”

“Sam—”

“It’s what you wanted, right?” he continues, more reckless with every ensuing word. “All those years ago. When we were kids. When you came to Stanford to get me.” Sam catches his own tongue, hesitant, unsure about pushing forward until he finally just mans up and says it. “Our whole lives.”

Dean silently flinches at the reminder. Doesn’t move for a long beat. Holds himself completely still until he finally lets out a low, controlled breath that seems to take all the rest of him with it. “That was a long time ago,” he says quietly.

Sam shrugs one shoulder, passive. “I’m here now.” He lets the moment sit. Lets Dean hear everything he’s saying. Everything he isn’t saying. “Don’t leave.”

But Dean simply slams his eyes shut—hard—so Sam knows he has to resort to drastic measures. His legs are carrying him out of the room before he even realizes what his destination is. It’s obvious though, really.

“Dude, what are you doing?” his brother calls after him, annoyed and exhausted. When Sam doesn’t answer, he must actually push himself up off the couch because he’s trailing him into the kitchen in the next moment. As wary as ever.

Sam steps around his kitchen island to pull his largest knife out of its butcher block. It slides out clean as a whisper.

“What, you going full Annie Wilkes on me?” his brother asks dryly. “You gonna stab me to keep me here?”

 “Don’t be dramatic,” he teases, then sets the point of the knife directly into the center of his stupidly fancy designer dining table. The folded, tempered steel drives right through the wood like slicing up an organic, non-GMO mango.

Sam does the ‘S’ first, five straight lines marking out his first initial. Little curls of sawdust twisting out of the grooves and scenting the air. The edges are a little messy on the finished product, and it ends up a little squarer than he would like, but it’s legible. That’s all that matters. The ‘W’ is easier. Four quick diagonal slashes. Then two twists of the knife point for the periods. S.W. Just like he’d done nearly thirty years ago. In a different life. Only, Dean had traced an outline for him first, back then. Always so protective, making sure Sam wouldn’t hurt himself with the grown-up blade that was so unwieldy in his small hands.

When he looks back up, Dean is simply staring at him. Sam flips the chef’s knife around and extends the handle out to his brother, but he refuses to take it. He doesn’t step away from the open archway.

“You want me to do yours too?” Sam asks, mostly rhetorical at this point. “Fine.”

He attacks the table with a determination bordering on religious. Nearly slicing up his own fingers as he marks out the trapezoid of the ‘D’. Shoving his glasses back with his left hand when they threaten to slip off his nose. But he finishes off the rest just as easy as the first. D.W. Resting just slightly tilted from his own mark.

 “It’s ours now, right?” Sam says. “That’s how it works. It’s what you told me back then, when we marked up the Impala.”

Dean swallows hard and Sam tracks the bob of his throat. “We were dumb kids,” his brother says back, “and also Dad read us the fucking riot act when he saw how we’d scratched the back window sill to shit.”

Dad’s not here anymore,” Sam hisses, and Dean balks at the sudden acid in his voice.

Sam sucks in a breath through his teeth. Gets ahold of himself. “You could stay,” he reiterates again. “Dean, just stay.”

“C’mon,” Dean says shakily. “You don’t need me around here messing up your routine or whatever.”

“Dean, I don’t care about my stupid, goddamn routine.” Sam tightens his jaw until he feels less like shouting. “Please,” he begs. “Please just stay.”

Dean finally takes a step into the kitchen, crosses over the line of clean, white tile with the weathered toe of his boot. “Yeah, okay, Sammy,” he says, slipping the knife out of his grip and clapping a broad, warm palm against his shoulder. “Okay.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

When Sam wakes up in the morning, Dean is gone.

His bed is made and his bags are missing. The Impala isn’t out in the driveway anymore, other than the tire tracks he must’ve made while peeling out. Even the obnoxious junk food Dean had crammed into every nook and cranny has been removed from Sam’s cupboards.

He’d left the beers behind though, standing at attention in Sam’s fridge like hunters in a row. Lonely and stark. Like he’d thought maybe Sam would want to keep them. The only trace of him left behind in the entire house.

…Like he’d never even been there at all.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Time kind of passes in a blur after that. Sam feels untethered, like the entire life he’d built is a dream and only his dreams are real. They’re the only time he sees Dean anymore, even if it’s just in his head. He takes another week off of work. He doesn’t even care what people around the office are probably saying about him.

They’re probably right, whatever it is.

Sam drifts through the days without counting them. His new housekeeper keeps him stocked in clean linens and fresh groceries, but he barely eats. He hadn’t even bothered to remember her name. She’s professional though, moving in and out like a ghost. Sam rarely crosses paths with her, even in the same house. She straightens up, she recycles his empty bottles—she doesn’t sleep with his brother.

Someone is though. Sam knows that much. He would’ve found some interested tail almost immediately, at a bar maybe, or on a hunt, or just staying in the motel room next to his. Dean probably scoped out the nearest available woman the second he booked it out of his life. Falling right out of Sam’s bed and into someone else’s. He heaves out a breath at the accidental wordplay and his shoulders dip too. Sam holds onto the metaphor. Grips it tight against his chest to soothe some of the ache. As if his brother was actually in his bed instead of just borrowing the one down the hall. An unintentional innuendo, but it makes it sound like he’d meant more to Dean than…

That he’d meant to Dean what Dean means to him.

It’s impossible. And stupid. Something that Sam had put away back when he was sixteen. Something that he’d put away again at nineteen when the first try didn’t stick. Something he’s putting away again now after his relapse at thirty-five.

The good news is that he still has a quarter of a bottle of sleeping pills at his disposal. He’d stopped using them the last few weeks, but now he starts up again. Only, this time it isn’t to stop the memories from plaguing him while he’s lying in bed at night. Now they’re to let him dream. To create some new memories of his own. Even if they aren’t real. Dean in an old-timey 1920s suit and hat, indifference like pale blue ice in his eyes. Dean holding him by the side of the parked Impala, letting Sam cry into his shoulder, a burgeoning bruise rising along his brother’s cheekbone. Dean pressing him down into a small gray bed, leaving desperate kisses along the long stretch of his throat.

Sam wakes up hard, or he wakes up with tears on his face. Sometimes both. Either gives him his fix.

His assistant Maria checks in with text messages here and there, requesting clarification on the details of a case or simply asking when he’s planning on stopping by the firm. Sam ignores all of them.

Nguyen doesn’t call. Why would he? A senior partner cracking up could only be a good thing for him. He’s probably celebrating already behind the closed doors of his corner office.

Sam is finally forced to leave the house when the pills run out. His triazolam prescription just dicey enough that he doesn’t trust Oksana to pick it up for him. No, not Oksana—the other one. The new one. She’s older. More gray in her hair. Whatever. He doesn’t trust her, regardless. He doesn’t trust anyone. He shouldn’t. That’s an important lesson to learn.

Sam throws on whatever he can find and drives his Tesla Model S to the pharmacy on the edge of town. The one twenty minutes farther away than his usual spot. Just in case. He doesn’t want to run into anyone he knows.

When he gets back, full pill bottle rattling reassuringly in his coat pocket, the sun is just beginning to set over the tops of the trees in the distance. Soft pink and orange light flooding the private driveway leading up to his house, giving way to shadows at every sharp angle. It’ll be dark soon.

Sam parks his car, pushes off the ignition, and hurries his way up to his front step. Not wanting to stay outside any longer than he has to. He fumbles for his house keys, making to unlock his door, but it swings right in the second he pushes against it, easy and unencumbered.

The lock has been jimmied. The lack of scratches along the edges of the knob indicating what a clean job it was.

He should be concerned. Hell, he should be terrified. There are a thousand reasons why his house being broken into is a bad thing, starting with a run-of-the-mill human robbery and ramping all the way up to some overlooked monster seeking blood vengeance on John Winchester’s son, but all Sam can think is that the one criminal he actually wants to see might be waiting inside. Even if it’s a stupid, unrealistic hope. And if it is just some asshole with a gun and a ski mask or a ravenous werewolf waiting for his heart, Sam—quite frankly—might be inclined to give it up anyway. It’s not like he needs it for anything else.

He silently pushes his way inside his own home. Shuts the door behind him as gently as possible. There’s nothing in the living room. No proof of intrusion, wanted or otherwise. It’s spotless and Sam moves on. He almost searches out for a sign of Dean’s bags in the guest bedroom, but something takes him to his balcony instead. Some long-buried part of him that just knows. The guiding flicker dormant, not dead.

There’s a broad silhouette casting a shadow against his clear glass planes, and when Sam slowly slides open the doors, Dean doesn’t move from his spot. Still gazing out over Sam’s two million dollar view.

He should be furious, he thinks. Or maybe even concerned. He should throw him right back out of his house after all that asshole put him through. But all he feels is a subtle glow of relief. Dean’s here. With him. And nothing else matters.

His brother is smoking again, Sam realizes once he steps close enough. The thick, acrid smell carried away by the light breeze—and secondary to the copper-sweet stench of blood. A sickeningly familiar scent Sam won’t ever be able to forget. His whole childhood was practically soaked in it.

It’s coming from a gash high on Dean’s left shoulder, torn right through his undershirt and the chambray of his flannel and sluggishly dripping blood down his arm. Turning the muted blue fabric a rusty brown all the way down to his elbow. His brother finally turns his head to acknowledge him and Sam can make out a couple of raw abrasions blooming up along the side of his jaw as well.

“I let one go,” Dean says. No ‘hello’. No ‘sorry for ghosting like that’. No ‘I’m and idiot and I missed you’. Just a long, slow inhale of his cigarette. An even slower exhale.

Sam plays right into it, despite himself. “One what?”

Dean tilts his head with a self-castigating smirk. “A ghoul.” He flicks some ash off of his thumb. “I’ve never done that before.”

“What happened?” Sam asks, stepping up beside him to rest his own arms over the railing. Slow, not wanting to scare him away.

Dean darts his eyes around a little but his brows stay drawn. That little permanent line in the middle making him seem like he’s constantly frowning. Sam privately mourns the kind of life that must have caused something like that. “She wasn’t hurting anybody,” he says. “Well—nobody alive at least. The case report had said it was a grave robber-type thing, and I drove down to check it out. Just to be safe, y’know?”

Sam nods, urging his brother to continue while trying to wrap his head around the knowledge that Dean is here. That he was just gone on a temporary hunt. Couple of weeks. Like their dad used to do. He doesn’t want to ask if Dean was always planning on coming back or if he changed his mind halfway through. If Sam was a last-minute afterthought. He’s not sure he wants to know the answer.

Dean pulls on another drag of his cigarette, his sleeves riding up a little too high on his wrists. “She was, uh, she was just eating,” he continues. “Didn’t go after any of the corpses’ families. Wasn’t trying to impersonate anyone for some shitty end-goal. She was just…” He waves his hand out to finish the thought, smoke trailing out over the California sunset. “And I had my pistol trained on her, close-range, easy headshot—and she started crying,” he breathes, like he can’t believe it, even now. “Looked like a twenty-year-old kid at the time, but who knows, right? But she was crying and begging me, said she’d never hurt anyone, and I just couldn’t do it.”

The sunset’s even more beautiful now, golden yellow joining the rays of soft pink and tangerine orange as the sun dips behind the hills, only interrupted by the dark, thin matchsticks of faraway power lines. The green-black bristles of the redwoods. “That seems fair,” Sam says neutrally.

“Yeah,” Dean scoffs, “but I ain’t never really thought about it that way before.” He sucks at his teeth with a sharp sound. “They’re monsters. I waste ‘em. End of story.”

Sam doesn’t bring up Amy, even as he finds himself lost in the teenage-faded memories of her. She was a ‘monster’ and she’d saved his life—an important lesson Sam had learned at the tender age of fifteen. So what if Dean is a little slow on the uptake. “Letting her go was the right thing to do, Dean,” he says, soft and sure. “Don’t get down on yourself for being a good person.” He lets out a breathy chuckle, then tilts his head at his brother’s obvious injuries. “So, how’d you get all beat to hell if she doesn’t hurt humans?”

Dean flicks his entire cigarette off of Sam’s balcony. Doesn’t even stub it out first. “Knocked into a coupla headstones chasing her down,” he says, low and gritty. “One of the corners got me pretty good.”

“You’re an idiot,” Sam says with a fond smile.

“Yeah, yeah. Shut up.”

He hooks his brother around the elbow and physically tugs him back inside, though Dean doesn’t fight him on it. “I’ve got a first-aid kit in the guest bathroom. Let me at least take a look at you.”

 “Jesus,” Dean grumbles. “Just pour some liquor on it and I’ll be fine.”

Sam shoves him through the bathroom door and follows him inside before he can slip out again, blocking off the exit with his own body. “Seriously, Dean,” he orders, flapping a hand at the matted, bloody mess of his clothing. “Off.”

Dean obeys without too much of a fuss, yanking his shirts over his head as he mutters to himself the entire time, and Sam swallows hard as the toned, scarred flesh of his upper body is revealed. Even paler against the dark ink and the jagged crimson slash of his injury. Or maybe that’s just the blood loss.

He busies himself with pulling his first-aid kit out of the medicine cabinet so he doesn’t have to explain the heat spreading across his face. Thankfully, Dean just sits down on the closed toilet seat like a good little patient.

Sam gets the kit clicked open and then kneels between his bent knees, reaching out to wipe the worst of the dried blood away with a soaked cotton pad. “You were gone a long time,” he says eventually.

“Had to take the long way into Tennessee,” Dean explains. His dark eyelashes are cast low over his eyes as he watches Sam work, his voice relaxed under the ministrations. The soft rumble of distant thunder. “A plainclothes caught sight of me grabbing some lunch at a Biggerson’s in Farmington. I had to shake him off my tail before I got on the I-55.”

“They follow you back here?” Another cotton pad gets his deltoid as clean as he needs it.

Dean snorts out a condescending laugh, his chest jumping at the movement. “Nah.”

Sam isn’t sure if he should trust his brother’s self-inflated sense of lawlessness, but he’s already in this way deeper than he can get out anyway. Might as well dive in with both feet. “I, uh—I didn’t see the Impala,” he mentions, patting at the edges of the cut with an antiseptic. “When I drove up.”

“I borrowed your garage,” Dean says. “Hope you don’t mind.”

“No.” Sam tosses the blood-stained wipes into the nearby trashcan. “I don’t mind.” He reaches back into his kit for the tweezers, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. “The shirt’s a lost cause, you know.”

“So am I,” Dean mumbles back automatically, but there isn’t any strength in it.

They both are, probably. Sam doesn’t know what to say in response, so he just squeezes at his brother’s thigh. The muscle jumps under his hand. “There’s some pretty grody cement chips in here,” he warns him. “I’m gonna have to clean it out.”

“Priss,” Dean teases warmly.

“I just meant it’s gonna hurt, you dick,” Sam lobs back, but he knows he’s grinning without meaning to.

Dean starts shivering before he can even touch him with the cool metal. Just from the anticipation of it. Or maybe just from the feel of his hands. Like he’s shaking apart and Sam’s the only one holding him back together.

Dean’s skin is hot against the tips of his fingers.

Sam doesn’t ever want to touch anything else.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The three of them pass through the automatic sliding doors into the corner grocery and out of the biting chill of early February. Dean taking point, with Sam just a half-step behind him, and Jack trailing at their five o’clock. They’ve left Cas behind to keep an eye on the bunker while they get a few chores out of the way, and they’ve saved this for last—despite his brother’s continuous grumblings about starving to death. Mainly because they’re almost down to breadcrumbs back at the ranch and this is the only opportunity they’ve got to stock back up before he and Dean have to head out on a more serious errand in the morning. It’ll be nice to actually have some food to come home to afterwards.

“Shop smart. Shop S-Mart,” Dean mutters to himself, yanking a handheld shopping basket out of the metal rack near the front. He slips it over his wrist.

Jack’s brows draw together as the reference flies over his head. “I thought this store was called ‘Ray’s ABC Grocery’?” he whispers to Sam.

“It is,” Sam says indulgently. “Ignore him.”

“Alright, men,” Dean says, clapping his hands and then rubbing his palms together. “You all know your mission—” He’s interrupted by a tinny blaring of hard rock from his phone, and he fumbles around trying to answer it, juggling both his cell and the shopping basket.

“Hey, Cas. What’s up?” he says once he finally gets the thing up to his ear. He listens for a bit, then frowns at whatever the angel is saying on the other end of the line. “Jules?” Dean tucks the phone into the bend of his neck and raises ‘help me’ eyes up at Sam. “Which one’s that one?” he mouths, quiet enough that Cas won’t hear him.

“Late-thirties,” Sam lists off. “Black. Always wears that beat-up, old Army jacket.” He clears his throat and tries not to smile, then goes for the big guns. “She called you a ‘slob’ that one time.”

Dean’s eyes light up in recognition, then filter back into annoyance. “Oh, yeah. That’s right.” He hunches his shoulders up, then goes back to his conversation. “So what does she want?” Dean asks into the phone. “That’s not even—” He pauses. “What? Why not just send over a Hunting-for-Dummies book? That’s gonna be all the help the Keystone Kops need.”

Sam chuckles privately at the dumb joke, then carefully schools his expression into a familiar look of exasperation once Dean turns to glance at him. If his brother catches even the slightest whiff of encouragement, he becomes even more obnoxious than he already is.

“No, dude. We’re busy. Tell them to learn how to wipe their own asses—”

Sam yanks the phone from Dean’s hand before he can completely destroy all the connections they’d worked so hard to build.

“What does Jules need?” Jack pipes up curiously from his left.

Sam drops an affectionate hand to his back. “I’m checking.” He places the phone against his ear. “Hey, Cas, it’s Sam.”

“Sam. Hello.” Castiel lets out a muted sigh at being interrupted and having to start over again. “I was just telling your brother that Jules called one of the spare burner phones at the bunker about half an hour ago. I picked it up. I figured you’d rather have someone answer in case it was an emergency.”

“Yeah, that’s fine, Cas. What did she say?”

“Apparently, she and a few of the other Apocalypse World hunters need some assistance with a hunt that’s gotten complicated. She asked for you and Dean to come down to Cordele, Georgia as soon as possible.”

“Sorry, man. We can’t,” Sam says, and Dean steers him by the waist into one of the less crowded aisles so they aren’t in anybody’s way. “Dean and I have to head up to Boston tomorrow. There’s a—” he glances at the shoppers milling around, “—a coworker we know who lives there, Bart Kemp, and he’s dropped off the radar the last few weeks. Couple different people have been asking if he’s okay.” Dean thunks a couple of cans of soup into the basket he’s holding. “He’s a friend, man. It’s gotta be us.”

“Sam,” Jack says.

“What about Maggie?” he suggests into the phone.

“Yeah, really calling in the cavalry there,” Dean scoffs under his breath, and Sam twists a quarter-turn away to ignore him.

“I believe Maggie and Riley are on a vampire hunt in Des Moines,” Cas informs him. “They checked in to your laptop three days ago.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right.”

“Sam,” Jack insists, yanking at his sleeve this time. “If Jules needs help, could go.”

Sam pauses. He shares a glance with his brother, then back to Jack. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he says diplomatically. “It might be kind of dangerous.”

“Dude, why not?” Dean throws back. “The kid’s fine on a—” he glances around too, “—on a job. Hell, he could probably show Jules and her crew a thing or two.”

Jack smiles at the praise, but it’s a little more subdued than the beaming, ear-to-ear grin he usually gets whenever Dean compliments him. Sam tosses him a speculative glance and keeps his mouth shut. The reaction might be slightly outside of the norm, but it’s not enough that he’s gonna worry about it.

“I just don’t think Jack should go on his own,” he says to his brother, sotto voce.

“There’s gonna be other hunters there,” Jack adds helpfully. “And Jules.”

Dean thinks for a minute, then spreads his hands. “We’ll ask Cas to go with him.”

Sam mulls it over, still reluctant, but it’s a fair point. “Yeah, alright,” he nods. “I guess that could work.” He brings the cellphone back up to his ear. “Hey, Cas? Would you mind taking Jack to go help Jules? The both of you should be more than enough for whatever they need.”

“Of course I can,” Cas says. “Jack and I have been very successful on the hunts we’ve undertaken so far.”

“That’s good to hear, man. Okay, yeah. We’ll see you in a few.” He hangs up the phone and tosses it back to Dean. “Alright, you can go,” he tells Jack. Though he’s a little surprised that he doesn’t get the excited hug he’d been expecting.

Jack just tightens his fist in victory instead. “What kind of hunt is it?” he asks intently. “When are we leaving? Oh—what do I need to prepare?”

“You need to go pick out some crap for breakfast,” Dean orders, giving him a playful shove toward the cereal aisle. “Food first, work later. And we’re not friggin’ talking about it until after dinner because I’m starving.”

Sam smiles to himself. “You had lunch like four hours ago.”

“Yeah,” his brother agrees pointedly. “Four hours ago.” He squeezes at Sam’s hip, a little more suggestive than necessary in public like this, and then follows Jack around the corner.

The two of them are already hard at work by the time Sam catches up, both scrutinizing the different varieties of cereal like there’s gonna be a test on it. Jack plucks a box of Cookie Crisp off the shelf, examines the back of it, and then places it in the grocery basket. Dean immediately takes it back out and replaces it with the off-brand version, the same way he used to do when they were kids. A pattern of frugality stemming from a lifetime of making sure that their food money lasted however long they needed it to. Sam smiles at the old memory, and then takes that one out and replaces it with a much healthier shredded wheat option—the kind without any icing. Jack purses his lips in disappointment, but Sam moves past his little family to go grab some actual food for dinner. Otherwise they’re gonna end up having take-out again for another full week.

Sam reaches the meat aisle and rocks back on his heels a little, perusing the offerings. He even considers some of the pre-made meals because the absolute height of his culinary skills amounts to dumping a can of chili into a pot and heating it. And even then, it always ends up burned around the edges. Not to sell himself short though. He can also make an only-slightly-lukewarm grilled cheese. Sam lets out a self-effacing huff of breath and loads up with a few steaks and some ground beef—stuff Dean knows how to cook—before moving on to the next item on their list.

The booze selection here at ‘Ray’s’ is always limited, but they’ve got the basics. It’s why his brother prefers the liquor store in the center of town. But as much as Sam likes Jackson—and he does—he’s still uncomfortable bringing their kid in there. Reminds him a little too much of his own childhood. He knows it’s kind of a silly, hypocritical hang-up though. Dean lets Jack drink whenever he wants, within reason. It’s not like seeing a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue on sale is gonna harm him any worse than that.

Sam runs a finger along the collection of six-packs on offer. Dean’s favorite has always been El Sol, but they usually get Margiekugel’s due to it being cheaper. Plus, it’s a decent beer and Sam actually likes it better. The deciding factor, really, is that they always have to pay in cash here. Turns out that settling down in one place had ended up creating a few drawbacks along with the multitude of benefits. Namely, that they can’t use many of their fake credit cards at the businesses here in Lebanon. It’s a small town, and plenty of people know them on sight by now. They can’t take the risk of having someone notice that the name on the card doesn’t match—or, god forbid, one of them gets declined and it raises all sorts of awkward questions. That’s why they keep their shopping lists cheap and slim to avoid suspicion, because paying with a thick stack of hundreds could raise plenty of eyebrows too. Part of that dedication to slipping under the radar includes buying cheaper beer. Sam hovers his hand over the brand they usually get…then grabs the El Sol anyway.

Dean’s been under a lot of strain lately. He fucking deserves it.

He dumps the groceries in his arms onto one of the open conveyer belts at the front of the store and waits for Dean and Jack to catch up. He’s made sure to select Register 4 though because that’s where his favorite cashier is working. Well, not so much favorite as favorite-by-default—as the bitter old crone who also works here always glares at him whenever he comes in. Not Dean though. Never Dean.

“Hey, Mr. Campbell,” Jocelyn says brightly, knocking him right out of his resentment. She’s a young, polite, eager-beaver type of girl, with short, dark hair cut a little longer on one side than the other. Sam assumes it’s a style choice, but he’s never been curious enough to ask. “Where’s your…brother?” she asks courteously. They always do that. Leave that incriminating pause.

Sam helps her to organize his selections out a little neater and chooses to ignore the insinuation. “Probably grabbing some extra bacon, if I know Dean,” he says.

A packet of maple-smoked bacon lands right in front of him the moment he finishes. Like he couldn’t have planned it better.

“Hey, c’mon, man,” Dean says, helping Jack scoop the rest of their groceries out of the basket. “Leave the teenage girls alone.”

“Dude, I’m not— What is wrong with you?” he hisses tightly.

But Dean and Jocelyn both chuckle at him under their breath. Sam tries to muster up a surrendering smile, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes and his mouth stretches all weird and tight. He’s mostly just relieved that she’s flattered rather than offended. Even if he’s put-out, either way.

Jocelyn starts ringing everything up, and when Sam glances down, the off-brand cookie cereal is back among the rest of their goods and Jack and Dean are very nonchalantly not sharing pleased, furtive little looks. He lets them have their victory. Especially when an open-mouthed grin lights up Dean’s face at his beer choice.

It doesn’t last for long. Dean brings his head up too quick, then winces under the store’s fluorescent lights. Rolls his knuckles against his temple like he’s trying to push the headache away by force.

Sam falters a little at the perpetual reminder of the archangel trapped in his brother’s head. The danger Michael poses. To Dean, more than the rest of the world. But it doesn’t matter. They’re gonna fix it. It’s what they do. They’re gonna find another way and Dean is never getting in that fucking box and they’re gonna be fine. Their whole family is gonna be fine.

Sam watches his brother pretend to flirt with the nineteen-year-old cashier. He watches Jack slip a candy bar onto the conveyer, like he thinks if he’s stealthy enough about it no one will notice.

It hits Sam with a sudden, indescribable sort of intensity.

He can’t remember the last time he was this happy.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“When’s the last time you were happy?” Sam asks. Right out of the blue.

Dean pauses, then tugs his rolled-up sleeve back down over his forearm. They’re both several beers in, and his brother had been in the middle of displaying a bite mark on his inner elbow in an attempt to prove to Sam that vampires are real. “The last time I was happy?” he repeats slowly.

Sam cuts his brother off before he can regale him with some over-the-top narrative of pornographic filth, if the growing smirk on his face was any indication. “Like, truly, actually happy,” he says. “I’m not talking about hooking up with some waitress in the back room of a burger joint.”

Dean snerks at the stupid question. “The hunting life ain’t really known for its job satisfaction,” he quips, a little too dark for just a joke.

“No, c’mon. I mean it.” Sam rolls his head against the back of the couch, a lock of hair falling across his forehead because he hadn’t put in any product today. “When’s the last time? Do you remember?”

Dean watches him for a while, his eyes warm and half-lidded. He’s probably trying to suss out if Sam is just drunk or if he actually wants to know. “Dad took me fishing out on Lake Ouachita once,” he finally says, a muted nostalgia tinting his voice. “Right after you left for school. It was just me and him, drinking beer and watching the water.” He chuckles quietly to himself, clearly reliving the moment. “And the funny thing is, we barely spoke the whole time. We didn’t need to. It was just—” Dean trails off with a contented sound. It doesn’t need to be said. He brings his beer back up to his lips, casually holding the bottle with his first two fingers and his thumb. He hums as he swallows and it accentuates the sharp lines of his cheekbones. “Before that,” Dean says, scrubbing a hand over his forehead as he tries to place the memory, “it was probably when you and me closed down that bar in Rockport. Remember?”

“Yeah,” Sam says fondly. Dean had doctored him up a fake ID—an eighteenth birthday present—and then badgered him into putting it to good use until he’d finally caved. They’d had way too many shots and thrown darts and played bad, drunken pool until the bartender had to shoo them out with an actual shotgun. Sam’s not sure if he’d place it as one of his prouder moments, but it was definitely a good one.

His brother adjusts position a bit where he’s stretched out across two separate armchairs. Casual and relaxed, like he could look comfortable absolutely anywhere. “What about you, man? Go ahead, rub it in my face,” he requests playfully. “Tell me how fucking great the normal, civilian life is compared to my shitty one.” Dean balances his beer bottle on his stomach with one hand as he throws the other behind his neck and settles in for the story.

And Sam hates to disappoint, especially with the way his brother is looking at him so expectantly, but none of the several years he’d spent alone could be called anything even approaching enjoyable. Successful, yes. Productive, definitely. But those are probably the only positive adjectives he can use without making a liar of himself.

“The last time I was happy,” Sam says honestly, “…was when we went to that midnight double feature, just the two of us.” He lets himself gaze off into the distance for a moment, and sitting here with Dean like this, it’s almost like they’re right back there. Too warm from all the booze they’d snuck in, too drunk to pay much attention to the movie, and too young to realize how precious and fleeting the moment really was. Sam takes another drink and lets the misty recollections wisp away. “It was the summer right after I graduated high school. North Carolina, I think? At that old outdoor drive-in.” He breathes out a laugh once he remembers the details. “Godzilla vs. Megalon and then Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. You remember that?”

Dean doesn’t break their gaze. He opens his mouth like he wants to say something, then closes it again. His lips look soft and full in the low, warm lighting. God, Sam bets his lips are soft. “Yeah, I remember that,” Dean says quietly, slow concern creeping into his expression. It isn’t the reaction he had expected. No joke about how well he remembers the second film. Allison Hayes growing right out of her clothes. “I mean, that was—Jesus. That was almost twenty years ago.” Dean frowns at him. Then he sits upright, swinging his legs out of the second armchair so he can plant them on the floor. So he can lean forward. Elbows resting on his knees. “You were married, Sammy,” he reminds him. Unnecessarily. As if Sam could ever forget. “You weren’t happy on your wedding day?”

Sam takes another sip of his beer so he doesn’t have to answer right away, drags his fingers against the smooth glass until it squeaks. “No,” he says eventually. “I thought I might have been, at the time, but looking back on it…” He lets out a disappointed sigh and starts picking at the label with his thumbnail. “No. Not really.” It isn’t anyone’s fault but Sam’s own. He’s just built wrong and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. He’d come to terms with it a long time ago.

Dean is still staring at him in pity, judging from the prickle along the back of Sam’s neck, but maybe he realizes how heavy the conversation’s gotten because the next thing out of his mouth is, “What about the first time a girl let you get your dick wet?”

It’s funny—and unexpected—so Sam humors his brother with an indulgent laugh. “Yeah, that was good,” he concedes. “I mean, it felt good. But that’s not what I’m talking about.” Sam shakes his head and the room goes dizzy for a moment. Fuzzy. Dean’s outline blurs before it settles again. “I’m talking about being happy.”

“Sex is like pure, unleaded happiness, dude,” Dean says assuredly. “You really wanna get happy, you should hit up a few of the bars around here. Take a couple of chicks home to this ridiculous place. Two at once, man,” he adds with an eager waggle of his eyebrows.

Sam breathes out the lingering remainder of his hesitation. He’s been avoiding this topic for a multitude of reasons, but his time appears to be up. “I can’t,” he says reluctantly. “It goes against my system.” And it does. Sam had tried it for a hot second after Jess. Just to see if the problem lay with him. It had been an unmitigated disaster. “Dating takes up too much mental and emotional energy,” he admits—from painful, tedious experience. “It would hinder my work performance.”

“I’m not talking about dating, Patrick Bateman, I’m talking about inviting some divorced cougar into your bed for a little wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” Dean lets out a scoff and kills the rest of his drink. “‘Mental and emotional energy’,” he mutters into the mouth of his bottle. “You sound like a fucking robot.”

“And how much less effort do you think it takes to go out to bars every night and hit on random women?”

Dean blinks at him in confusion until the statement registers. “Wait, hold on,” he says, like the awareness is gradually dawning on him. “You think all sex takes too much work?” He squints his eyes and peers at Sam. On the scent now. “How long’s it been since you actually got some pussy?” he asks directly.

Sam falters under the question he’s been dreading. Stalls as long as he can by ripping the entire label off his bottle in damp strips. “Sex is an unnecessary expenditure of time and attention,” he explains stiltedly. “Honing that drive, using it on work keeps me sharper. It makes me a better lawyer. There’s a reason our firm is the best in the city.”

“Fucking hell, Sammy,” Dean breathes out in shock. “Has there been anyone at all since your ex-wife?”

He stretches his lips tight and refuses to meet his brother’s eyes. “No.”

Dean just gapes at him in stunned silence for a bit. “I mean, you still jack it, right?”

Jesus, Dean,” Sam hisses. “Yes. God. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Damn,” Dean says, collapsing against the back of his chair. “No wonder you’re clenched up tighter than a nun’s asshole.”

“Nice,” Sam snits. “Very classy.”

“I’m just saying, dude.”

“Yes, I get it. Thank you.” Sam clunks his half-empty beer down, almost spills it all over the table thanks to his slowed reflexes. He knew it would be a mistake to talk about this. It’s the fucking alcohol’s fault. He never would have gotten into this sober.

His brother lets out a muted laugh at his clumsy fumbling, and Sam bristles at the harassment. It’s not even obnoxious. It’s like, fond. Which somehow makes it so much worse.

“Oh, c’mon, dude,” Dean says warmly, like he’s trying to take it back. “It’s not that big a deal.” He rests his lips against his loose fist, hiding a smile behind his knuckles. “I bet lots of guys go through a dry spell after a divorce.”

“It’s not a dry spell,” Sam corrects him. He rolls his hand into a tight fist of his own and presses it into the cushions. Trying not to let his brother get to him. “I intentionally choose to live the way I do so that I can perform at my best.”

“Locking yourself up like a monk?” Dean pins him with a pointed look. “That ain’t your best, Sammy.” Sam refuses to respond, so his brother pushes up from his chair to come around and settle next to him—a little too close given how much space there is on the oversized sofa. “Hey, look,” he says reassuringly. “I bet you’re just out of practice, right? A little rusty?” He slings a tactile arm up over Sam’s shoulders and pulls him against his side until they slot into place. Like they fit. An infinite line of tantalizing warmth that Sam can’t pull away from. He could die here, with them pressed together like this, and he’d never want for anything again. “You get back out there,” Dean says, “and you’re gonna have chicks falling all over you in no time.”

“Dean—”

He shakes him a little. “No, I mean it. C’mon, just look at you.” Dean swallows audibly, the space between them suddenly charged with something unnamable. “You’re unreal,” he says quietly.

Sam flicks his eyes over to his brother in shock, hyper-aware of the incredibly dangerous waters they’ve somehow waded into. His skin so sensitive that he can feel the very air brushing against the hairs on his arms. With Dean sitting this close, he can make out every detail of his brother’s face. The thin, silvery-white scar crinkling up at the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. The clear green glass of his irises, exactly the way he remembers from his dreams. The dark golden-red of his stubble as it catches the light. “What do you mean?” Sam asks carefully. Idiotically hopeful, despite himself. His heart starts beating in triple-time, but he doesn’t move any closer. He doesn’t push.

“No, I’m just saying,” Dean murmurs, his eyes dipping down to graze over Sam’s mouth, his chest, “you’re an attractive guy.”

This is bad, probably. Sam’s tipsy enough to severely impair his better judgment, and Dean drank nearly twice what he had, but he doubts they’re drunk enough to explain this away. To justify the colossal, world-ending mistake they seem to be barreling toward. He needs to get up right this instant. He needs to push Dean away and call it a night and go to bed, alone. He needs to be the smarter man here and put a stop to this insane depravity before it can go any further than it already has.

But instead, all Sam says is, “Yeah?” Breathless and stupid.

“Yeah,” Dean whispers back, like they’re just having any other conversation. He slips his arm back, slow, and Sam’s turtleneck is so thin that he can feel every catch of Dean’s callouses against the fabric. “But you know that, right? “ The corner of his mouth tugs up, flash of his sharp, white teeth. “The way you work out? I mean, you’ve seen yourself in the mirror, Sammy. Who you trying to impress, if not the ladies?”

Sam tilts his entire body into Dean. “It’s not—it’s not about that,” he stutters, unable to take his eyes off of his brother’s full mouth.

“And that’s not even mentioning the Disney princess haircut,” Dean continues absently, redirecting to run his own fingers through the hair at Sam’s nape. Long, soothing strokes against the base of his scalp. “That’s not a sex thing? You’re not looking for someone to tug on it?” he asks, his voice low and hot as sin.

Sam sucks in a shaky breath at the intimate touch, lets it out on an even shakier exhale. “Never thought about it like that before,” he confesses, barely able to concentrate on the words. Barely able to concentrate on anything with the way Dean is carding through his hair. Gentle. Possessive. A scorching contradiction given the gun callouses on his fingertips. The violence he knows those hands are capable of. Sam closes his eyes to swallow back a moan.

“C’mon,” Dean says warmly, “really?” He slips his hand back around to cradle Sam’s face, his palm rasping softly against his skin. “And what about these?” He sounds distracted, far away, and Sam opens his eyes again to see what’s got him so intrigued. Dean traces the pad of his thumb over the line of Sam’s cheek, right near the corner of his mouth. A short, shallow curve.

Oh. His dimples.

Sam lets out a breath at the realization. He’d almost forgotten he had them. Jess had been similarly fond, but he hasn’t thought about them in so long. Sam doesn’t ever see them in the mirror. He hasn’t had much of a reason to smile the last few years.

His brother seems captivated though. Maybe at just the thought of him being happy. Sam breaks into a helpless grin at the attention, and Dean immediately grins back. Tracing over the outline again, now that he can see them. Deliberate and reverent. “Missed these,” he says softly.

Dean’s eyes crinkle when he smiles, so he’s pretty sure he knows exactly how his brother feels.

Sam presses into the hand cradling his face and Dean tugs him forward at the same time. Everything about it is perfect. Better than he ever could have imagined. Dean smells like beer and leather and it’s intoxicating. It’s everything Sam remembers from his teenage fantasies. Every wet dream and painful longing and secret desire he’d ever had all wrapped up around his beautiful, fearless big brother. And Sam had sent him away out of stupid goddamn spite. It doesn’t matter. He’ll never make that mistake again as long as he lives. They can have this now. They can make up for every single second of lost time.

Dean pulls him in even closer. Inevitable. Sam can feel his warm breath on his lips.

Yes.

He slips a hand over his brother’s chest, slides it up until he can stroke along the strong column of his neck. “Dean,” Sam whispers, involuntary. Carried away by the desperate impossibility of the moment. It’s everything he’s ever wanted, everything he’s ever needed, and nothing about his life makes sense other than this. “Dean,” he says again, just as needy as the first time, and he surges forward to finally, finally kiss the only person he’s ever really wanted to.

—But Dean holds him back with the hand on his face, his wrist stiff, his grip hard and unforgiving. His thumb digging painfully into Sam’s cheekbone. Sam frowns at the abrupt change in mood, and at the way every one of Dean’s muscles has suddenly locked up against him. He pulls back to catch his gaze, but Dean won’t even look at him. He’s staring at nothing, the whites of his eyes huge and wild. He looks terrified. He looks dangerous.

“Dean?” Sam asks, but it sounds different this time, even to his own ears. He sounds pathetic. Sad and small and heartbroken. “Dean, what’s wrong?” But it’s a stupid question. He already knows the answer.

Dean pushes himself off the couch. He won’t look at him. His eyes fixed on the opposite wall as he slowly rises to standing. Each twitch of his arms, each trembling inhale, violent and threatening and livid. Sam knows that every inch of his brother is a honed, hardened killing machine, and right now, he looks it.

“Dean, please,” Sam tries one more time, but he knows it’s no use.

“What the fuck—” Dean whispers viciously, so upset that he can’t even get all the words out. So furious that he’s actually shaking. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he hisses. He stumbles forward, shoving Sam out of the way as he races for the door. He slams it behind him so hard that he splinters one of the hinges. Puts a crack right through one of Sam’s pentagrams. He didn’t even take his coat.

The sick feeling in the pit of Sam’s stomach is because he has no idea which one of them Dean was talking to.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Dean doesn’t come back that night. Or the next morning. It isn’t until the sun goes down on the second day that Sam realizes he won’t be coming back on his own at all.

It’s like a replay of the first time he’d split, when Sam had been broken and listless and drugging himself just to get through the night. Only this time, Dean had left all his stuff behind. Sam knows he won’t leave permanently without his coat at the very least. He couldn’t. Not their dad’s precious leather jacket. It’s too important to him, even with his self-respect on the line. And for the first time in his adult life, Sam is grateful to John for something. It’s the one tether that might actually give him a chance to catch his brother before it’s too late.

Because Sam may be irredeemably depraved—hell, he’s known that about himself since he hit puberty—but Dean is the one that fucked up this time. He’d let himself slip. Just for a moment. He’d proven himself to be just as twisted-up and wrong as his little brother is, even if he’d rather run than admit it. Sam’s not letting that get away again. Not without a fight.

Dean hadn’t made it easy for him though. He’d turned off his cell phone GPS and left all his clothing behind, but he still has his wallet and his car. He could be anywhere within a full day’s radius. Sam’s best hope is that Dean hasn’t left the city yet.

He may not want to be found, but Sam throws on a sturdy blazer to fight the night’s chill and sets out in search of his brother anyway.

Sam checks five motels, twelve bars, and three 24-hour diners before he finds Dean at a strip club. It’s obvious, really. This should have been the first place he looked. The Hanky Panky Strip Bar is exactly what his brother needs at the moment. A sticky, neon shrine to casual, no-strings-attached heterosexuality. He knows Dean will be inside even before he pays the cover charge.

He’s getting a lap dance up near the base of the stage when Sam walks in, backlit by the clashing pink, blue, red, and green floor-lights. Harsh and way too bright. A violent assault to subtlety and taste. But Sam would recognize his brother blindfolded, even after another seventeen years.

He doesn’t know where Dean had spent the night. He’s not sure he wants to. Hell, he doesn’t know where Dean had spent most of today. Unless it was right here, hiding out amongst the lackluster day shift.

Sam doesn’t approach him. He just stands near the entrance and waits. Waits until the curvy, older woman grinding all over him comes to the end of ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’. Toffee-brown skin and a cheap, ill-fitting Wal-Mart bathing suit. Not their best line-up for a Saturday night. Sam waits until Dean pays for another song, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge him. Deliberately staring only at his dancer the entire time. Polite, really—like Dean comes to enough of these places that he’s got the etiquette down. Sam waits until Warrant’s ‘Cherry Pie’ ends too, and his brother finally lets out a terse, annoyed sigh and pushes out of his chair to stalk past him, ignoring him completely as he barrels through the exit. Sam follows him out without a word.

Dean walks all the way around the rear of the building, slipping into the back alleyway where no one can stumble upon their conversation. It’s dark as pitch around them, the brick alley shadowed by the massive square bulk of the strip club and the lack of any streetlights from the main road. Dean shoves a hand into his front pocket and faces the wall.

“What?” he asks tightly, lighting another cigarette and jamming it into his mouth.

Sam keeps his teeth locked and stays quiet, just watching him for a moment. “You left all your stuff at my place,” he says. Starting with something simple. Something non-threatening.

Dean glances at him quick, then looks away again. First time they’ve made eye contact in days. “I’ll pick it up later tonight. Get out of your hair quick as I can.”

“Dean, no. That’s not—” Sam keeps his arms pressed tight to his sides. Starts cracking under the pressurized, violent tension between them that they’ve been pretending doesn’t exist. He can’t breathe right. His lungs feel too shallow. “You don’t need to do that,” he says.

“Do what?” Dean snits at him. “Get my stuff?”

Leave.”

Dean pulls in another long drag of his cigarette, nearly burns his fingers trying to suck the entire thing down to ash. “Yeah, Sam. I do.” He keeps his eyes fixed on his boots as he exhales, smoke trailing out the sides of his mouth. “I found a hunt over in New Hampshire. Some fucker snacking on campers in the woods. If I leave tonight, I can get there by Monday.”

“So, literally the other side of the country?” Sam says acridly.

His brother glares at him, tilting his head back in preparation for a fight. Smart, probably. “I go where I’m needed,” he says darkly. “That’s how it works. Whaddya want from me?” But Dean jerks back as he realizes what he’s just unintentionally asked. The dangerous answer Sam could give him. He doesn’t.

A moment of tense stalemate.

Sam pulls in a breath that rattles through his nose, and then he gives up any pretense of delicacy and charges full speed ahead. Foot on the gas. Because that’s how his brother has always driven—and Dean’s the one who taught him, after all. “You can’t go back,” he says. “To hunting.”

Dean looks away and shakes his head and lets out a pissed sound. “And why is that?” he asks tensely.

Sam chokes out a pathetic excuse for a laugh. The edges of the hysteria bleeding into anger. “You think I can’t see it?” he hisses. The corner of his lip pulls up at the question, almost a sneer. “You’re falling apart.”

“And what?” Dean snaps, whirling around to advance on him. Like that was all it took for Sam to push him too far. “You think you’re doing fine?” He flings his still-lit cigarette over Sam’s shoulder, the cherry catching the side of his face. Almost grazes a burn. “Newsflash, asshole. You aren’t.”

Sam swallows hard, then again, but he can’t seem to get his heart back down his throat. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Dean.”

“Oh, really?” his brother asks caustically. “Let’s talk about how you haven’t eaten a single goddamn thing since I’ve been here. Not for weeks.”

He actually lets out a sound of incensed disbelief. So infuriated that he has to defend his chosen lifestyle—again—that all the bile comes rushing out of him at once. “What—what are you talking about?” Sam splutters in exasperation. “I eat exactly three meals a day exactly six hours apart. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t eat processed sugar. I exercise at home and at work every single day, and I certainly don’t fucking smoke!

You just sit around drinking and shoveling fast food into your face and then you go chasing down monsters like you’re begging for a fucking heart attack!” He flings an arm out, nearly catches Dean in the jaw with it and he doesn’t care. “You really wanna talk about which one of us is healthy?”

Dean’s eyes go so wide with fury that Sam can see them in the dark. Like a fucking cartoon character. “You eat birdseed and fucking cardboard,” he says, enunciating each word like he’s trying to spit it through his teeth. “That’s not food, Sam. That’s—that’s arts and crafts shit. It’s fucking gardening supplies. You’ve got eating and breathing and shitting scheduled down to the freaking nanosecond. Penciled in and calculated like some kind of fucked-up Pinocchio robot desperately trying to be human.” He rakes a hand through his hair. “I mean, Jesus Christ,” he shouts breathily, leaning back and heaving his frustration up at the sky, “you’ve got a body like a gay Renaissance painting and you still haven’t had sex in over eight years. That’s insane. You’re not even alive, Sam!”

The words hit deep, too deep and too true, and Sam has to blink away sudden tears. Has to scrub the back of his hand under his nose. “Fuck you,” he throws back, too rough. “Fuck you. And you are? You spend your whole life throwing yourself into danger and blood and death. I’ve seen your scars, Dean,” he snarls at him. “That many close calls don’t come from someone who’s good at their job.” He revels in Dean’s pained flinch at the insult, luxuriates in the bull’s-eye. Dart thrown right into the center of his brother’s heart. “Are you even trying to stay alive anymore? Huh? Or are you just biding your time until some wendigo or demon or poltergeist takes you off the board permanently?” Sam lets out a reckless punch of breath and it feels like he’s smiling even though he’s never felt the furthest thing from it. All flashing teeth and stretched-wide grimace. “You got all torn up hunting down a ghoul who doesn’t even hurt people. How does that happen, Dean? Unless you’re doing most of the work for them. Is that it? You hate your life, but you’re too stupid and stubborn to quit hunting, so you just keep giving the monsters the edge, hoping that one of them will finally put you out of your goddamn misery?”

“Shut up,” Dean growls at him. Wet and threatening.

But Sam can’t help himself. It might actually be a sickness. “Why,” he asks stiffly, “‘cause I’m right?”

“Shut up, Sam!” Dean roars. He lashes out like a viper—wrenches Sam down by his lapels, fists twisted into the heavy cloth like he’s gonna unleash all that bottled-up violence on him. Ted Bundy—Sam had thought that first day, even with all those knives around him. Dean’s anger has always been a blunt thing. All bare-knuckled bruising, fists pounding against heavy meat. Like he needs the weight and the bones cracking under his hands and the solidity of a punch. Like he needs it to hurt him just as much as the other guy. Like without the broken, swollen knuckles it never happened.

Sam holds his ground through it all though, doesn’t even blink as Dean yanks him down to snarl in his face. As he pulls him in close enough to fog up the lenses of his glasses—but then they’re too close. Warm body heat and sweat. They’re too close and Sam can feel his brother’s breath on his skin again. Smoke and tobacco and something even more bitter that he can’t place. And Sam knows it’s gonna hurt but he still wants it. All of it.

Dean must be aware of it too, but he doesn’t let go of the rage howling in his chest. Eating him from the inside-out. “Why are you even here?” he asks, rocking Sam with a sharp snap of his fists.

He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need to say it.

“Why are you here, Sam?” Dean asks again. More broken this time.

Sam pulls in one last breath and puts everything he’s ever had on the line. “You know why,” he says, and then he kisses his brother.

Dean lets out a ragged sound against his lips and he tastes like tobacco and whiskey and sex—like vice. Sam tilts his head, licks his way inside, sucks at his brother’s mouth like he’ll never get the chance again. Because he knows he won’t. Nine times out of ten, the way this is gonna go is he’ll never see Dean again. They’ll never be able to undo this, to move past it or forget. Sam is taking whatever he can before it cold-cocks him across the face and sprints away forever.

But Dean thrusts up against him. He growls and kisses back and bites at his lips like he needs it the exact same way. Rough and desperate. Painful. Sam slips his hands over his brother’s cheeks, stubble scraping against his palms, and Dean yanks them together even harder, his hands still in Sam’s coat. He groans like he’s dying and runs his tongue over the insides of Sam’s teeth and Sam chokes on a breath that sounds more like a sob.

And then his brother freezes. Goes rigid as a corpse as he comes to his senses again.

Sam’s almost expecting it.

He shoves him back against the brick. Hard. Sam clocks the back of his head against the stone forceful enough to send his eyeballs spinning in his skull, his glasses knocked askew over the bridge of his nose and his brother’s left hand still twisted up into the front of his blazer. When both blurry after-images of Dean convalesce back into one, he realizes that he’s got his right raised into a fist, knuckles so tight Sam can see the white stretched against his skin. Even in the dark of the alley. His chest heaving under his panting breaths. His lips kiss-bruised and swollen red. He did that. Dean’s arm twitches forward, threatening, like he’s planning on putting it right through Sam’s face—and then he stops. Lets his fingers uncurl as he changes his mind. Even though Sam never even flinched.

Dean slowly lets go of his jacket instead, and Sam thinks he would’ve actually preferred the punch.

His brother doesn’t say a word. He just turns and walks away. Outline of his back against the mouth of the alley—against the streetlights of the real world. Dean slows for a moment though, pauses, right at the edge of the street. He holds there for a blink of forever while Sam watches. Then he turns his head and spits onto the sidewalk. Deliberate. He walks back into the club and doesn’t look back once.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Sam’s done. He’s done fighting for his brother and he’s done chasing after stupid, impossible fantasies. Sick delusions that don’t (can’t) do anything other than hurt him and everyone around him. He should have stayed gone. He should have let Dean stay gone.

Because Sam was fine, before. He was fine with his life and his career and his schedule and his acquaintances, or lack thereof, and nothing hurt the way it does now. It had taken him nearly two decades to build up the perfect fortress around his emotions, around the obsession and the pain of his past—and now it’s all gone. Reduced to rubble. Just a few weeks with Dean back in his life and he had ransacked the place, burned it to the ground and stomped the pieces into dust.

No. No, that’s not fair. Sam had let Dean in. He’d lowered the drawbridge and thrown a goddamn welcome party for him and he had helped his brother take out the bricks himself. The ruins he’s standing amongst are all his fault. No point in lying to himself.

He turns his head into the couch cushion he’s laying on, shoves his face into the fabric and tries not to scream. Sam’s not drinking at the moment. He doesn’t even have the energy to drink. He’d ripped his blazer off and flung it over the back of the sofa the second he got home. It had slipped off under its own weight and fallen into a crumpled pile on the floor. He’d pulled his glasses off too and thrown them into a corner, and judging from the noise they’d made they went skidding under a bookshelf somewhere.

They’re all he has now, the trappings of his life. No human beings Sam can turn to for support or comfort—not after he’d cut them all loose, one by one, like baggage that was holding him down. No, all he has left are things. The empty, expensive purchases he’s made over the years. Objects of convenience. Proof of the connections and relationships he’d given up in exchange for success. For control. Because that’s what it’s always been about, really. Hasn’t it?

A loud banging erupts from his front door and Sam lets out a scoff, instantly reminded of when this happened the first time. Weeks ago. When he’d been totally floored to see his estranged brother standing on his porch. Only this time, he knows it’s Dean. There’s no one else it could be. There isn’t a single other person in his life. Sam’s made sure of that, one way or another.

Dean knocks again, louder, angrier, but Sam doesn’t get up from the couch. There’s no point. He knows Dean’s just come back for his stuff. Why should he have to get up and facilitate his brother walking out on him? Dean can just pick the lock if he wants his dumb jacket so badly. Get it himself. Sam sure as hell isn’t gonna help.

“Sam,” his brother barks through the wood, muffled and domineering. “Sam, open the goddamn door.”

He rolls over and pretends he’s not home. No. Pretending he’s not at home requires a modicum of effort, even if it’s only in his own head. Sam just isn’t reacting at all. Serves Dean right. He hates being ignored.

“Sam,” Dean says again, a taut sense of warning in his voice. “I’ll fucking break it down if you don’t open it, I swear to god.”

Let him waste the effort. He doesn’t care enough to care.

Dean makes good on his threat a second later—though Sam remains stoic through the heavy kick and sharp splintering of wood. The scraping bang as his door hits the wall and then swings back to hang in place. He barely reacts at all. Sam doesn’t even resent the damage, though he probably should. He can just buy another one.

“Your stuff’s all in the guest room,” he says dully. “I was sick of looking at it.” Though his voice is so muted, his face buried in the cushions the way it is, he’s not sure if Dean can even hear him. Whatever. He’ll figure it out on his own if he wants his crap so badly.

Dean doesn’t say anything.

Fuck him. Let him pack in silence. Sam won’t stop him. He listens to the sound of himself breathing for a while instead. It’s unsteady, a little too fast. He can’t remember the in-out counts. What he really needs is the meditation app on his phone, but he won’t go searching for it in front of Dean. Won’t give him the satisfaction.

Though a frown does gradually crawl over his face once he realizes that there’s no noise at all. Not just the absence of speech, but of movement. Dean isn’t tromping around to his room and back. He isn’t carting around heavy duffel bags or collecting up his bottles.

Sam cranes his neck up from where he’s buried himself to find his brother standing right in front of him, watching him. Silent. Waiting.

He looks exactly like he’d looked earlier tonight, outside the strip club. His clothes haven’t changed. He hasn’t showered. He still looks tired, stark lines under his eyes and tension around his mouth. But something’s different. Something monumental has changed and Sam can’t comprehend what it could possibly be.

“What—” he says too roughly, but Dean is collapsing down to his knees before Sam can finish his sentence. He still doesn’t say anything. Just watches Sam and doesn’t make a sound.

Sam’s not sure what compels him to do it, but he slowly, tentatively reaches a hand out to touch his fingers to his brother’s chest. Dean doesn’t push him away. He doesn’t flinch or run or fling hissed insults at either of them. He simply stays where he is. Lets Sam spread his hand out and press wide against his beating heart, his skin warm and solid under the thin, black cotton of his t-shirt.

“Are you…gonna leave again? Sam asks, thin and reedy, too afraid of the answer to give more strength to the words.

Dean pulls in a breath, his mouth barely parted. “I’m here,” he says instead, a matching whisper. It’s a sidestep of the question and Sam’s more than smart enough to catch it, but he’ll take what he can get.

He can survive on scraps.

Dean doesn’t jerk away when Sam leans forward to kiss him again. Soft, dry press of his lips. He just stays there, on his knees, and breathes into his mouth. An apology that he’ll never say out loud. A commitment that he won’t mean in the sober light of morning. Sam takes it anyway. Clings to what he’s being given before Dean changes his mind again.

The hole in his chest is gone. The one that’s been jagged and bleeding for his entire adult life. The one he thought would never, ever heal. The one he stuffed with work and stoicism and seclusion instead of gauze. It’s all stitched together, somehow, and Sam is whole for the first time since he’d walked away from his family and boarded a Greyhound bus heading west. He chokes back a bittersweet laugh at the realization. He’s such a fucking idiot to never have pieced it together.

Dean still hasn’t moved under the careful assault, just letting himself be touched without the urge for escape. It isn’t until Sam makes a broken sound, deep in his throat, that he finally brings his own hands up to circle his arms. And that must be what smashes the floodgates apart because his brother is kissing him back in the next moment. For real this time. His fingers clamping around Sam’s biceps hard enough to bruise. A groan of his own passing over his lips and into Sam’s mouth. Dean shoves him back against the couch and clambers on top of him, pressing him down into the leather as he attacks his lips and jaw and neck with his mouth.

There’s anger in it, beneath the surface. Violence. But that’s okay because Sam’s pissed too. He drags his fingernails over Dean’s back. Bites at his mouth until his brother’s lip splits and he’s tasting blood.

Dean just growls and thrusts down against him, the catch of their hips grinding rough through the denim and the hard buckle of Dean’s belt. It hurts. And it feels amazing. And Sam never wants anything soft ever again if it means he can’t have this. His dick hardens under the weight and strength and heat of his brother, aching against the fly of his own jeans, and Sam hasn’t touched or been touched in so long that the sheer thought of it is agony. He’s going to come embarrassingly fast. Just from this. Right here on the living room sofa with his front door busted in.

No. No, if they’re doing this, then Dean is going to have to face it. Sam shoves his brother back and slips out from underneath him, reaching a hand out once he gets to standing so that Dean won’t get the wrong idea. He drags him along to the foot of the landing and then takes the first step up toward his bedroom, letting go of Dean’s fingers to see if he’ll chase him on his own. He does. He follows with only the slightest moment of hesitation. A blink of fear in his eyes that he shoves away before sprinting up the stairs close on his heels.

Sam reaches the bedroom door first, but Dean catches him from behind, gets his arms wrapped around him and throws him onto the bed. He pounces on top of him before Sam can pull in his next breath, hands roaming over the ridge of Sam’s abs beneath the thin fabric. The carved vee of his hips. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he breathes, and Sam arches up into the touch because he’s been waiting for it his whole life.

Dean presses them close again. Grinds their hard cocks together as best he can, awkward and off-angle, because neither of them have any clue what they’re doing. He’s been in the same clothes for two days and the stale scent of him surrounds them both. He smells real. He smells human. And it isn’t perfect this time. It’s rough and angry and stilted. Dean stinks like sweat and cheap booze, and Sam can only see the blurry outlines of detail without his glasses, but he could trade every cold, precise accomplishment of his life for more of this. For more of this messy, uncertain need.

Sam stretches up to drag his tongue over the tattoo on the base of Dean’s neck, wanting to taste the faded ink under his skin “We could have had this,” he pants. “We were so stupid. Why’d we wait so long?”

Dean just shakes his head, slamming his eyelids closed against the remorse in Sam’s voice. Shutting out the reality of what they’re doing even as he rocks his hips faster and harder.

Sam can’t think about that. About how Dean will regret this in the morning. How he’ll pull away and pretend this never happened. How Sam will let him. Closing himself off again, only it won’t work this time because he’ll have tasted the one thing he’s always wanted. He’ll have had his brother, just for one night, and he’ll never get over it. Not for the rest of his life. The worst kind of addiction.

Dean crushes their hips together, thick, hard press of his cock against Sam’s own, and the harsh, ceaseless friction of it is what gets Sam shooting off with a strangled cry. Hips jerking. Pulses of hot, wet come soaking the front of his pants. Digging his fingernails into Dean’s overshirt and jerking tight as he rides out his orgasm and forgets to breathe until his vision goes gray at the edges.

He slumps back down against the mattress, gasping heavily, but Dean is nowhere near close. Not going by the impressive erection he’s still rubbing against Sam’s oversensitive dick. The cut of his hip. The top of his thigh. Sam steers into it. Doesn’t even think about it. He just shoves up Dean’s sweat-damp t-shirt as high as it’ll go, fabric bunched just above his chest. Then he yanks at his own thin sweater with his other hand. Gets it tugged up far enough until he can press them together. His brother’s skin against his own. And it’s weird. Primal. Salt and heat and Dean breathing against Sam’s chest. Sam breathing against his.

Dean keeps their skin touching the entire time, riding Sam’s hip until he comes in his jeans just as hard. He doesn’t make a sound.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Dean’s records are all gone now. No Zeppelin. No Styx. All that’s left is Ella Fitzgerald and Howard McGhee and Nat King Cole. The TV he’d dragged in here after the Apocalypse World hunters had set up shop has disappeared as well. Just faded away when Sam wasn’t paying attention. Like they will, all too soon.

They’re sitting together, shoulders to hips to thighs. Have been for nearly twenty minutes. Too afraid to move and find the other one gone when they glance back. No idea when it’ll happen—how it’ll happen. Dean’s legs are stretched out in front of him along the length of the bed, his back propped up against the headboard and his hand steady and constant high on Sam’s left thigh. Sam’s got his right knee bent with his foot flat on the floor so they can both fit. Worth the slight twinge in his joints at the awkward positioning. The pearl digging into his hip from its place in his front pocket.

Sam wants to be touching his brother when he goes. Last thing he’ll remember.

Dean winces a second later. A barely-there duck of his head that Sam catches in his peripheral.

“Michael?” he asks quietly.

“Yeah.” Dean rolls his head back against the cement wall behind them, like the archangel Michael, leader of God’s armies, raging and screaming in his mind is just a pressure headache. “Why couldn’t this be the first thing to go?” he jokes weakly. “Give me a minute of peace at least before I blip out of freaking existence.”

Sam holds his breath so the hurt doesn’t escape from his chest. “We’re not disappearing, Dean. We’re just…changing.” He slips his own hand over Dean’s on his thigh, laces their fingers together and holds tight. “We’ll still be us, just with different memories.”

“Call it what you want,” he gripes, “but that sounds a lot like what I just said.”

Sam lets them sit in silence for a moment, lets his brother mourn the way he needs to, before shifting his leg back up on the bed. Twisting to face him. “I’ll find you,” he says. A promise.

“Shut up, Sam,” Dean replies, but there’s no bite to his voice. Just defeat. And he’s not even all that mad to begin with, given the look in his eyes. He reaches out to trace a thumb over the bridge of Sam’s nose, soft and careful, until the sting of the cut fades away to nothing. Dean suddenly looks better too, the bruising around his eye nowhere to be seen and the nick on his lip vanishing under the explorative press of Sam’s own fingers.

Their injuries are gone.

It makes sense. No Winchesters in this world means no fistfight with Castiel 1.0 in B&E’s Pizza Palace. The timeline is being rewritten. They’re being rewritten.

“Jesus fuck,” Dean lets out on a bitter exhale. “Dad’s life or ours—no substitutions.” He shakes his head with a miserable sound. “Some kinda Winchester luck, huh?”

Sam doesn’t say that he thinks it evens out. An equal exchange. For love like this, what they have, you need a whole lotta bad to balance out the good. And maybe that’s the truth for their parents too, but Sam would rather tear the entire universe apart than go without Dean for twenty-three years. Hell, he has.

Ice-sharp doubt grabs at him then. A wave of second-thoughts pouring over him to seize at his heart and pool in his belly. They don’t have to do this. They still have time. He can smash the Baozhu and everything will go back to normal. He can keep his brother, keep their kid. Tear John and Mary apart, tear John and Dean apart so that Sam can keep everything he has. Selfish.

Or maybe, just maybe, he can fix it for all of them. And all it will take is a little faith.

The one thing—the only thing—he has in spades.

Sam leans over to wordlessly capture his brother’s lips with his own and Dean surges into it almost immediately, like he was just waiting for Sam to make the first move. Dean threads his hands through his hair, cupping the base of his skull and tilting Sam back until he can slip over him. Hastily tugging off Sam’s shirts so he can get at his skin. They don’t have long. They’ll have to make every second count.

He helps Dean to get them both stripped down as fast as humanly possible. Warm, heavy weight of his brother on top of him, pressing him into the memory foam that’ll forget the both of them before the sheets even cool. Their cocks are already straining hard, blood-dark, Sam dripping against both of their shafts. Wet, hot slide as Dean thrusts his hips up and catches his cockhead against Sam’s tight, swollen balls and Sam lets out a broken noise of pure arousal. The threat of impeding separation has always gotten the both of them desperate and needy. Too keyed-up and strung-out to be called ‘turned-on’, even if it’s the unflattering truth.

“Like this?” Dean asks gruffly, panting for breath as he rocks them together, hands locked tight around Sam’s waist and pistoning his hips until Sam can barely think past the pleasure and the need.

He shakes his head against Dean’s pillow, wets his lips and tries to slow his own racing heart. “No,” Sam says breathlessly. He gazes up at the love of his stupid, depressing life and hopes he can see it in his eyes before he even says it. “Inside me.”

Dean slams his own eyes shut with a helpless groan.

“Dean, please, c’mon,” he says, but his brother’s already reaching into his bedside table for the lube. He coats his fingers and shoves inside of Sam too fast. Too hard. Twisting his wrist and slicking the way rough and brutal and efficient like he never does, but they don’t have the time for foreplay. Hell, one or both—or just one—of their parents could walk in right now for a final goodbye and Sam doesn’t even care enough to lodge a chair under Dean’s doorknob. Who cares if they’re caught. They’ll all forget anyway.

Dean squeezes his lube-sticky hand around Sam’s bicep for balance, they don’t even have the time for him to wipe it clean, and lines himself up with his other, shoving against the furled muscle of his too-tight asshole—slicked, but not relaxed enough, they didn’t have enough time—and forcing his way inside Sam with a determined, unceasing push of his hips. And it hurts, but the ache is nothing compared to the ache. The need for them to be joined. To be one. His brother’s thick, hard cock sliding against his wet hole, spreading him wide and keeping him there.

A silent tear slips free at the pleasure, or the pain, and Dean finally breaks as well. “I don’t want to forget this,” he says wetly, his voice cracking with grief. He sounds small. Impossible for Sam’s fearless, larger-than-life big brother. He sounds helpless and scared and Sam hates it more than he’s ever hated anything.

“We’ll find each other,” he promises again. “Somehow we will.” Sam wraps his hands around the back of Dean’s neck, tugs him closer until their foreheads are knocked together and they’re breathing each other’s air. His cheeks are wet and he’s not sure whose fault it is. “There’s no version of me that can exist without you. It’s…unsustainable,” he laughs, too painfully.

“I love you,” Dean says quietly, so close that their lips are brushing with every word. “No matter what happens, baby. It’s okay.”

Sam can’t hold back the reaction on that one, letting out a strangled sob as Dean holds him open with his own body. As he fucks him beautiful and endless and perfect. He’d said it earlier too. Couple of weeks ago over that stupid, stupid fucking box. First time out loud since they were kids, and he’d laid it out so casual. Matter of fact. Like it’s something they tell each other all the time. Like it’s something he always means, voiced or not. And Sam loves that that’s how Dean had done it. Loves him for saying it again now.

This will be the last thing he remembers.

Sam wonders if it will amount to anything in the end. If, despite his confident assertions, he and Dean will even find each other in that other timeline, or if he’s doomed them to the worst possible existence he can imagine. And if they do find each other, if it will even matter. If their dad will be able to track them down. If they’ll find a way to bring Mary back, figure out the last piece of the puzzle they don’t even know they’re supposed to solve. If that cold, douchey version of Sam who doesn’t have time for hobbies or family will even welcome his long-lost father back into his life.

Or, maybe everything is doomed to stay the way it’s supposed to be. That’s how it is sometimes, with time travel.

Maybe John will manage to convince that version of them to send him back to 2003. Maybe they won’t have a reason to hold out against their dad’s request, not knowing what’s waiting for them back here. A monster trapped in his brother’s mind. A grieving widow instead of a widower. A world on the brink of destruction, again. Maybe they’ll end up dissolving their own universe and they’ll all snap right back here, the way they are now, and everything Sam’s just put everyone through will all be for nothing.

Either way. “I love you,” Sam whispers back, dragging Dean down into a kiss, wide and desperate, until he’s choking on his brother's tongue. He can put all his faith in that.

They’ll be together —he thinks. He believes. One way or another. They can’t exist separately and their souls must know it too. It's the core of them. That’s all that matters.

Sam knows they’ll be okay, but god, god he doesn’t want to forget—

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Sam realizes he’s mostly awake before he opens his eyes, but he’d rather fall right back into unconsciousness than spend any extra effort moving. His leg is asleep though, prickly, static fuzz throbbing through his nerves, and that must have been what roused him.

He’s still in his clothes, the front of his jeans damp and cold and rough against his sensitive skin. Annoying more than gross, though there’s plenty of that too. He shifts onto his side and it tugs painfully at his pubic hair where the cloth has dried sticky. The niggling discomfort nearly stirs him from his sludgy thoughts when the bed moves behind him.

A warm, firm body presses up against the line of his back. Cages him in close and protective.

“G’back to sleep, man,” his brother murmurs, his words thick and garbled with exhaustion. He nudges his face into the back of Sam’s neck, slipping a strong arm around him to hold him more securely. “I haven’t slept ‘n two days. Need this.”

Dean—Sam thinks to himself, his mind still heavy and slow beneath the relief. He’s still here. He hadn’t left in the night. Hadn’t slipped away once Sam conked out, despite having ample opportunity. He’d stayed long enough to fall asleep. Right here in bed with Sam. The real Dean, not the too-perfect fantasy one his subconscious had cobbled together out of longing and loneliness.

Sam smiles to himself in sheer contentment and lets himself drift off again. Until the edges of reality and unconsciousness softly blur together.

Though the hand on his waist is so gentle that, for a moment, he almost forgets he isn’t still dreaming.