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Sing Your Hymns Like Angels In Defeat

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In the end, saving the world doesn’t cost much.

Just a couple pints of blood, some sea-salt infused chalk, a few dozen candles, and a match.

It’s the subsonic explosion of light following Lucifer’s second Fall that turns out to be so expensive.

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

The death toll in the first few weeks after the Flare is staggering.

Dean’s not supposed to know—he can tell from how low Sam is keeping the TV, and the way he and Bobby always step outside to talk about the world governments’ disaster response efforts. He hears everything anyways, the newscaster’s voice booming like a snare drum in his head. It hurts—even whispers hurt these days, make his head pound and ache and his stomach lurch violently—but Dean doesn’t shy away from the noise. He strains his ears for more, shifting his head and feeling the gauze wrapping around his eyes snag briefly on the cotton pillowcase.

Beneath the gauze, his skin feels dry, and Dean thinks that the dressing has become unnecessary, but Sam doesn’t show any signs of wanting to take it off. He doesn’t want to look at what their last-minute Hail Mary play did to Dean.

Dean doesn’t want to look at it, either, but that isn’t exactly going to be a problem for him.

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

Mary Carlson, 26, was weeding in her garden when it happened.

When the sky started to turn, she dropped her sheers and stood, mouth agape and hand shading her eyes.

She never saw the car swerving off the road and speeding straight for her petunias.

Ben Reynolds, the 48 year-old insurance salesman from Detroit behind the wheel, never saw Mary Carlson either.

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

Sam looked at the Flare.

So did Bobby.

They all stood together and watched as the sun seemed to expand, as it burned from yellow to red. In every direction, the sky was exploding in bands of color—crimsons and violets and oranges with a single, sinking stream of black cutting through the fiery madness.

Lucifer, the light-bearer, gone dark and silent on his second descent into Hell.

Dean’s last sunset.

He’d blame God for being a vindictive son of a bitch about the Michael thing, but just around half of the world’s population plunged into the darkness with him, so he guesses it’s just God being a raging asshole.

Fucking figures.

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

“Dean.”

Dean grunts, rolling over onto his other side to get away from his brother’s nagging hands. It works for all of a second.

“Dean, come on, man.”

“Fuck off. ‘M sleeping.”

“One of those UN medical response teams is in Sioux City,” Sam says instead. “They’re trying to figure out if there’s a cure for the ...” He trails off and then continues, more brusquely, “I got you an appointment.”

No, Dean wants to say, I’m not gonna let them fucking poke and prod me like some kind of goddamned freak.

But he’s not a freak anymore; he’s just one statistic among many. Anyway, Sam’s practically oozing hope, hovering close enough that Dean can feel his brother’s body heat on his upturned arm. This visit is just going to be a humiliating waste of time—Dean can sense it in the way the cold, heavy weight in his stomach hasn’t so much as shifted—but he already knows he’s going to go. Has to go.

After a brief hesitation, he sits up. Sam’s hands close on him instantly, gripping his bicep and shoulder with steadying firmness—like Dean’s eyes have anything to do with his balance. It’s insulting, but worse is the momentary flicker of memory that hits Dean, turning that grip harsher with possessive greed.

Like Sam’s ever going to touch him like that again.

Scowling, Dean shakes the considerate, careful touch away.

Sam doesn’t say anything as Dean gets up and feels his way around the room for some clothes, but the image of his brother’s face pulling down into a hurt, wounded expression rises vividly in Dean’s head anyway. His shoulders tense, facial muscles stiffening in an expression of his own—something he thinks might resemble a dog’s snarl.

“Enjoying the show?” he snaps, not even trying to locate his brother in the room’s small space.

“Here,” Sam answers, his own voice soft and gentle.

Fabric brushes Dean’s forearm—rough denim, soft flannel—and he jerks away, almost falling over the chair he wasn’t expecting to find on his other side. Sam catches Dean’s arm, starts to right him, and Dean pulls free again. This time there’s no stopping his fall, and he crashes over onto the floor with his legs tangled up in what sounds and feels like a broken chair.

“Jesus, Dean, are you oka—”

“Don’t fucking touch me.”

There’s a beat of near silence, where all Dean can hear is his own breath coming quick and harsh. The constant drone of the television out in the living room, where Bobby’s likely keeping tabs on the Flare Incident. Birds outside in the salvage yard—gulls, which means it’s mid-morning at the earliest. He can hear the goddamned house settling around him, for fuck’s sake.

Sam, though. Sam might as well have evaporated into the air.

Panic—lost Sammy, lost him again, where the fuck is he—has started to choke Dean’s windpipe when Sam finally bites out, “Fine.”

The word brings Sam back, places him solidly at Dean’s feet, and Dean hates how strong the swell of relief that fills him is. He flinches imperceptibly as the clothes hit his back, and then Sam’s footsteps storm over to the door, which slams behind him.

It’s the best conversation they’ve had since Dean’s eyes started leaking blood.

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

As soon as they walk (Sam walks, Dean shuffles) into the room, the doctor asks if there’s been any recent bleeding. It’s the gauze around his eyes, Dean guesses, that prompts the inquiry. Stuff’s pretty damned pointless otherwise.

There’s a beat where Sam waits for Dean to answer—fat fucking chance; Dean came, that’s enough participation on his part—and then Sam clears his throat and says, “Not since the first week.”

Dean waits for the inevitable follow-up question about the reason for the gauze wrapping, but it doesn’t come. Looks like Sam’s not the only one who’s been clinging to the hope that hiding what happened behind a layer of cloth is somehow going to make everything better.

There are other questions after that—what was Dean doing at the time of the Flare (jogging, apparently, which is news to Dean), does he still get the headaches (Sam’s gonna give him hell for that one when they get home, since Dean never got around to letting his brother know there were headaches), how many sighted people in the household (two), any other Flare victims (no)—and finally cool, unfamiliar hands brush the sides of Dean’s face. He jerks away, heart racing in his chest and sweat breaking out across his skin.

“Sorry,” the doctor apologizes. “But I need to take the wrapping off if I’m going to examine you.”

Of course he does.

But when Sam finally herds Dean back out to the car half an hour later—minus the gauze wrapping—Dean’s pulse is still unsteady and the hairs on the back of his neck are standing up.

He understood on day one how fucking useless this makes him, but it wasn’t until the doctor touched him that he realized how vulnerable he is.

Can’t see, can’t fight back.

Sitting duck.

He'd be better off dead.

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

David Yarrow, 34, was sitting at his desk.

He was running late on a deadline, and when Jill from Records called out for everyone to come look at the sky, he just hunched lower and kept wading through his calculations.

When the lights went off for David Yarrow ten minutes later, he thought it was just a power outage.

Then the pain started.

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

Things are better when they get back to Bobby’s—familiar smells, familiar sounds, terrain Dean can sort of picture in his head from his memories of Before. He speeds his steps, keeping his hands out in front of him to keep from running into anything.

The doctor gave them a cane when they left, but he also said it would take Dean a while to get the hang of using it, and he’s not lurching around like a dumbass in front of Sam.

“Dean,” Sam says from behind him. “Can we talk about this?”

Talk about how the doctor told them both, gently but emphatically, that the condition doesn’t appear to be temporary, is what Sam means.

Dean silently feels his way down the hallway to his room and then, in case his brother missed that message, slams the door behind him.

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

“Dean? Hey, man, you awake in there?”

Dean rolls over, turning his back on the door, and doesn’t say anything.

After a beat of silence, Sam calls, “There’s an information session at the town hall for that government-funded orientation program—you remember, we talked about it at dinner?”

Two weeks since that torturous doctor’s appointment, and all Sam has achieved is a shift in his fixation—from healing Dean to adapting him. Never stopped to ask whether Dean wants to fucking adapt.

“Or, uh, I talked about it and you sulked like a moody bitch,” Sam continues, his voice stilted with false levity. “Anyway, I’m gonna head down there. I thought you might want to come. We could stop for ice cream on the way back?”

Dean waits, jaw clenched, and resists the urge to throw something at the door.

“Well, uh. I thought I’d check. Bobby’ll be here if you need anything.”

Bending the pillow in half, Dean holds it tightly against his ears.

“Guess I’ll see you later.”

See him later. Right.

It isn’t until the dry ache registers ten minutes after Sam has gone that Dean realizes his eyes are open.

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

“Boy, I’ve had it up about to here with this bullshit.”

Ignoring his pounding heart, Dean smirks vaguely into the air and says, “Up to where, Bobby? You wanna point that out to me again? I didn’t quite see it the first time.”

The careless response is supposed to nettle and, from the anger straining Bobby’s voice when he speaks again, it does.

“I mean it, Dean. You been moping around here going on two months now, and maybe Sam doesn’t mind playing punching bag for you, but he doesn’t deserve the crap you’ve been giving him. So you’re blind, so what? Half the fucking world’s in the same goddamned spot. Grow a pair and deal with it.”

“Bobby.”

Dean tenses at the unexpected sound of his brother’s voice. He didn’t hear Sam come in. Thought he was at one of his stupid rehabilitation meetings—the ones he keeps on going to in Dean’s place.

“Someone’s got to say it, Sam,” Bobby maintains.

“No, they don’t.”

Dean’s stomach twists uncomfortably and he hunches lower on the couch. Thinks about getting out from the middle of the brewing argument, but of course with his luck he’d probably walk right into the coffee table instead of out the door the way he means to.

“Damn it, Sam, you can’t keep babying him—”

Bobby’s gearing himself up to an actual shout, and the volume of his voice drowns out everything else. When a hand clamps down on Dean’s bicep, therefore, it takes him by surprise and his heart surges up into his throat. He flails out in an uncoordinated, violent thrash, but instead of letting go the way it’s supposed to, the hand tightens. Before he can grope for his attacker’s (demon, fucking demon, what took them so long) wrist, Dean finds himself hauled to his feet only to fetch up against a wall of unyielding muscle.

Sam, he recognizes from the breadth and firmness of the chest, and a fraction of a second later his brother’s scent registers as well. Instead of calming Dean, though, the recognition sends a jolt of adrenaline shooting through him and he fights harder.

Usually jerking his body in the direction Sam isn’t makes his brother let go, but today Sam’s grip tightens further as he gives Dean a teeth-rattling shake.

“Don’t,” he growls, mouth close to Dean’s ear.

The warm thrill the pitch of Sam’s voice sends through Dean’s gut kicks his heartbeat up a notch and he twists in his brother’s arms, sending a fist hurtling in the direction of Sam’s voice. Sam ducks out of the way easily, of course, because Dean couldn’t win a fight with the broad side of a barn like this. Chest tightening with something that borders on panic, he gears up for another try.

Sam shakes him again before he can manage it, like Dean’s some sort of misbehaving dog. “I’m not letting go, so stop it, Dean.”

Fuck you, Dean wants to say, but he can’t get the words past the bile burning in his throat. His eyes aren’t stinging, at least—tear glands burnt out by the Flare along with his sight. It’s the only silver lining in this particular storm.

Then Sam starts dragging him sideways.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Bobby asks, and Dean would like to know the same thing.

“We appreciate you letting us stay here so long,” Sam answers, getting a firmer grip on Dean as he trips over the edge of the carpet and almost goes down. “But I can’t let Dean stay anywhere someone’s going to talk to him like that.”

Dean’s stomach pulls so tight it aches.

“Fuck you,” he bites out, the words coming easily now that he has a clearer target for his anger. “I can take care of myself.”

Sam lets go of him so suddenly that he’s on the floor before he realizes he’s falling. His left knee pulses painfully from the impact; left elbow and cheek too. He didn’t even have time to try to catch himself on his hands, which is probably a good thing. Just a little over six weeks since the Flare, and he’s already lost count of the times he’s sliced his palms open, or bent his fingers back, or jammed his thumb.

It’s dead quiet in the room as Dean slowly pushes himself up to his knees with a grimace, favoring his left side. He’s going to have a motherfucking spectacular bruise there tomorrow, but right now the throb isn’t as bad as the embarrassed, shamed pit in his stomach. He can feel eyes on him—judging, pitying—and his skin heats.

There’s a clatter of something—the stupid fucking cane, has to be—hitting the floor by his hands, and then Sam says, “Go ahead. Show me how well you can take care of yourself. All you’ve gotta do is get up and walk over to the kitchen.”

Dean’s hands curl into fists against the floor. His face is so hot it hurts, his muscles thrumming with hostile tension. He doesn’t move.

After an agonizingly long moment, Sam huffs out a breath. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

This time, when he grabs Dean underneath the armpits and hauls him up, Dean doesn’t struggle. He hangs limply in Sam’s grasp, head down and eyes focused who the fuck knows where. He doesn’t offer any goodbyes or apologies as Sam turns them both and heads them for the door, but then again Bobby doesn’t either, so what the fuck ever.

Somewhere between the front porch and the car, Sam’s hold changes from restricting to supportive. One of his arms loops around Dean’s lower back. His other hand forms a steadying focal point where it rests on the center of Dean’s chest.

It’s the most contact they’ve had since those first few days after the Flare, when Dean finally realized the scope of what had happened—to him, to the world—and started shoving his brother away.

Almost as distracting as Sam’s proximity is the sudden fresh air on Dean’s skin. He hasn’t been outside since Sam dragged him to the doctor, and suddenly he can feel the sun all around him—beating warmth on his face despite the breeze. It feels funny against his eyes so he shuts them, then tilts his head down as though he can somehow escape the physical reminder of light.

At the evasive movement, Sam starts rubbing his thumb back and forth where his hand is closed around Dean’s waist. There’s nothing but reassurance in the gesture—nothing of the heated memories it’s stirring up—but Dean uneasily starts to pull away with a defensive snarl on his lips. His brother disengages before he has a chance to, wrapping one oversized hand around each of Dean’s wrists and placing Dean’s hands on the warm roof of the car in front of him.

Dean instinctively shuffles forward, fingers spanning the metal—the Impala, he’d know his baby anywhere—in a restless caress. He waits there for Sam to open the door and baby him into the passenger seat (shotgun, backseat, doesn’t fucking matter anymore).

Instead, Sam steps close behind him, one hand resting low on Dean’s back.

“I know you can take care of yourself, Dean,” Sam murmurs, voice low as though he’s sharing a secret. “You just won’t.”

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

The place Sam finds for them is hours away—how many hours, Dean can’t tell. It’s hard to count minutes or miles when the only marker he has to work with is his brother’s breathing and a series of disorienting, stomach-turning loops as Sam turns the car right or left. It’s dark by the time they stop—no sensation of sun on his skin, a chill in the air—but Dean didn’t know what time it was when they left Bobby’s, so he can’t use that to judge either.

And he sure as shit isn’t going to ask Sam. Not when he’s fucking pissed at Sam for overreacting like this.

Sam’s quiet as he leads Dean across what feels like a gravel driveway and up onto a porch that squeaks with every step. Inside, the place smells funny—smells like someone else’s home, thick and cloying enough that Dean wants to throw up.

“I can’t stay here,” he says, trying to backpedal.

Sam grips his shoulder and marches him forward—black space rushing past him at a terrifying speed, could be anything there, anything at all, and with every fumbling step Dean winces at the anticipated impact. When it comes, it’s against his shins and not his nose (something padded and soft, doesn’t hurt at all) and then Sam turns him around—whirl of disorientation—and sits him down on what turns out to be a couch.

“Damn it, Sam,” Dean chokes, grasping after his brother as Sam starts to step back. “I said I can’t fucking stay here. It smells like—”

“We’ll open the windows and air it out,” Sam says, detaching himself from Dean’s grip with ease and moving out into the void where Dean can’t follow.

“I’m gonna strangle you in your sleep,” Dean threatens, fists opening and closing futilely at his side.

There’s a beat where he thinks he might have gotten through—and if that’s the case, his first demand is going to be that Sam take him back to Bobby’s—but when his brother’s voice comes, it’s pitiless and hard.

“If you can find my room, you’re welcome to try.”

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

Max Sidorov, a 28 year-old rafter and trail guide, was taking a family of five down the Yellowstone River when the sky above them exploded in a bloody flare of color. The burning pain in his eye sockets took him by surprise ten minutes after the display started, just as they were shooting into the third set of rapids.

Somehow, amidst the shrill screams coming from one of the kids and the hoarser shouts of O’Connor Sr., Max managed to keep the raft upright and talk Mrs. O’Connor into guiding them in for an emergency landing downstream. There wasn’t any question of rafting out, of course—not with the only experienced rafter (not to mention O’Connor Sr. and 12 year-old Cassidy) inexplicably blind—but Max was able to rig up some trail packs from their supplies and organize a blind-man’s train with Mrs. O’Connor (call me Shelly) up in front and Henry and Kelly bringing up the rear.

They lost O’Connor Sr. when they stopped for the night. Near as Max could figure, the man woke up in the early morning hours needing to take a piss and wandered off without telling anyone. He went over the side of the cliff with no more notice than a choked-off scream. After that, Max made sure everyone stayed roped together at all times—no use in some misplaced sense of shyness getting anyone else killed.

It was difficult going, not being able to see where he was putting his feet, and worse still when the headaches started, but four days after the Incident happened, they finally reached the launch site. Reached safety and salvation.

To Max Sidorov, a 28 year-old rafter, trail guide and survivor, the news that the blindness wasn’t exactly a localized phenomenon came as an unpleasant confirmation, but not much of a shock.

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

Those first few weeks, Dean gets turned around all the time.

On their third night in the house (still smells funky, no matter what Sam claims), he gets up in the early morning to take a piss and winds up in the kitchen, only figuring it out when he feels around for the toilet and knocks the coffee pot off the counter and onto the floor instead.

Sam finds Dean cursing under his breath as he tries to pick the shards up and takes him by shoulder without a word. He guides Dean through what feels like miles of blank space and relocates him in front of the bathroom sink, where he patiently and methodically rinses Dean’s bloodied fingertips clean and bandages the worst of the cuts.

Only then is Dean allowed to relieve himself—after Sam helps him aim. Even so, he can tell from the sound that he missed a little, and he should be used to it by now, but he isn’t. He’s never gonna get used to the humiliation of this—can’t even take a piss without someone cleaning up after him. At least Sam lets him shake on his own, and put his dick back in his sweats where it belongs.

The most embarrassing part of the entire incident, though, comes when Sam walks him back to his bed like a kid, counting off the steps the entire way in this really loud, overly clear voice that makes Dean want to punch him.

Sam counts all the time after that—fucking annoying habit, is what it is, and Dean’s even more annoyed when he realizes that his brother has him doing it too. The first day Dean counts his way across the living room and into the kitchen without running into anything—the first day he realizes how much this strange, unseen place has filled in with vague, blocky shadows—he hurls a beer bottle at his brother’s superior, nagging voice.

Sam ducks, of course—or Dean assumes he does, since the sound of the bottle breaking is a little too distant for a direct hit—and then says evenly, “You can punish yourself all you want, but you’re learning how to get around inside here. I’m sorry, Dean, but I can’t spend all day worrying about you when I go out.”

Dean’s mouth works—Sam’s full of crap, doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about—but he finally swallows the retort and blunders in the direction his brother isn’t. He deliberately doesn’t count, winds up smacking his head against a cabinet, and ignores the hot, vindictive rush of relief that accompanies the spill of blood down the side of his face.

He doesn’t feel the least bit guilty at the way Sam’s hands tremble as he stitches the cut closed.

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

Listening to movies, Dean discovers, isn’t so much entertaining as it is torturous.

If he hasn’t watched the film before, he only gets confused by all the different sound effects, and then frustrated by the knowledge that what he’s seeing in his head doesn’t—can’t—match whatever’s being projected on the TV screen.

If he has watched the film before, then the memory just focuses him on what it was like to be able to see, on how much he took it for granted, on what he used to be like before the Flare shut down his sight—shut him out of the world.

But Sam leaves a pile of DVDs in the living room every time he goes out—a job, Dean assumes, although he doesn’t bother asking—and Dean can’t seem to stop himself from putting them on.

He’s not punishing himself, though.

It just gets really fucking boring, trapped alone in the dark.

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

Sam finally loses his patience. There doesn’t seem to be anything in particular that sets him off. One moment Dean’s grunting his customary, disinterested response to his brother’s, “Aren’t you going to ask about my day?” and the next there’s an unexpected crash as Sam’s plate (presumably still filled with the pasta Sam made for dinner) smashes against the wall.

Dean tenses momentarily and then, grinning, tries to bluster through the tense moment. “It doesn’t taste that bad.”

“I can’t do this anymore,” Sam replies with an eerie calmness. “I thought I could wait you out, but I can’t.”

He’s leaving, Dean realizes, and is a little shocked when the understanding doesn’t bring the expected panic. Instead, a knot in Dean’s chest loosens.

Relief.

Then Sam says, “You have to stop punishing yourself.”

Now comes the panic, buried underneath a hot flare of anger. Dean bottles both up, keeping his smile steady as he says, “Dude, I don’t know what you’ve been smoking, but—”

“Cut the crap, Dean!” Sam yells, hitting the tabletop with his fist and making Dean flinch. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing? You think I don’t feel just as fucking guilty as you do about what happened? But we didn’t know. That text didn’t say one damned thing about the ritual having this kind of side effect.”

Dean’s stunned into silence.

After all these months of not talking about it, he thought he’d lucked out. Thought he’d made it clear to Sam that they weren’t going to talk about it. That this particular topic of conversation is off limits.

Looks like Sam didn’t get the memo after all.

“And you know what?” Sam adds belligerently. “If I had known? I would’ve done it anyway. So fuck you for shitting all over what we did. Fuck you for being the only person dumb enough to turn saving the world into something you should be crucified for.”

The chair squeals against the floor as he gets up, and a moment later a door slams and Dean’s alone.

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

Frank Garris, 69, had seen a good deal of action flying A-1 Skyraiders in ‘Nam. He’d seen more action than he would have liked, actually, but he survived, which was more than he could say for most of the guys who went through basic with him. These days, when he flew, it was in a smaller bird—little Cessna Skyhawk with a McCauley propeller and a 180 horsepower engine—and she purred just like a kitty cat instead of rattling his bones like the Flying Dumptruck used to. These days, flying wasn’t so much about testosterone and solid brass balls, as it was about cutting himself free from the earth.

It was about feeling like he had the whole world spread out in front of him, instead of a few short years.

When the sky exploded around him at 3,000 feet and climbing, Frank Garris thought—for a single, heart pounding second—that he was back in the jungle. His next thought, even as he started to tilt the Skyhawk’s nose groundward again, banking around to the left to come back toward the private runway his Wall Street hours had garnered him, was that it had finally happened. Some trigger happy, suicidal, extremist asshole had blown up the eastern seaboard.

But there weren’t any mushroom clouds in view—just a streak of black, way off in the distance—and Frank guessed he was going to be in for a bit of a story once he was back on the ground and could find out what in the devil had just happened to his sky.

The stabbing pain hit him mere moments before the darkness.

Thirty seconds after that, it was the ground’s turn.

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

It takes Dean a while to track Sam down.

The house isn’t huge, but it’s big enough and empty enough (Sam’s doing, he took out all but the essential furniture, pushed what was left against the walls) that loud sounds echo, which means that Dean can’t track his brother by the sound of the door Sam slammed. Finally, though, once he’s ruled everywhere else out, he finds his way onto the back porch.

It’s less any noise that Sam makes and more the absence of animal calls from the dark waste surrounding the house that tells him he isn’t alone out here. He pauses, one hand on the doorjamb, and turns his head one way and then the other. Waits for Sam to say something—to call out.

When nothing happens, Dean clears his throat and tries, “Sammy? You out here?”

The sigh that greets him comes from closer than he expects—less than two feet in front of him, and down around knee height—and Dean jumps. Then Sam says, tiredly, “Can we just ... Can we not tonight? I can’t argue with you right now, I—”

“You’re right.”

Sam’s silent for a moment and then, warily, he says, “I’m right?”

“About me. You mind if I join you?”

There’s another, longer pause where Dean thinks the answer is going to be no, and then the porch creaks as Sam gets up. Dean holds out his hand, waiting, and Sam ignores the show of trust to grasp Dean’s forearm and waist instead.

Dean stiffens momentarily and then, as Sam hesitates, forces himself to relax. Sam is still careful as he leads Dean forward, talking him through where to put his feet, wrapping his hand around one of the rungs in the stair railing to let him support himself as he sinks down onto the top step.

It’s the first time Dean’s been outside since Sam brought him here, and his heart is beating quickly despite his brother’s reassuring presence. Anything could be out there, watching him, and Dean wouldn’t know. He doesn’t even know what sort of terrain surrounds the house—forest, grassland, mountain, farm country, desert. The world has always felt like a big place to him—all those miles of highway—but nowadays it stretches out exponentially. Endless. Forever expanding and hostile.

Dean doesn’t think his fear shows on his face, but it must because Sam sits down close enough that their sides are touching and says, “It’s safe. I put up wards and protection lines before I brought you here.”

Dean turns his head at that, looking a question in Sam’s direction.

“I bought it a couple of weeks after the Flare,” Sam answers in a confessional tone. “When I figured out what was going on with you. I knew Bobby wouldn’t understand. He wasn’t ever going to get that you needed to—you weren’t feeling sorry for yourself. You just feel like you deserved it. Like you don’t deserve to get any better.”

Dean wants to let it go—mostly because Sam still sounds so goddamned weary—but now that he’s gone and sort of admitted it out loud, he can’t seem to shut up.

“I do deserve this, Sam,” he says. “We both do. You think I didn’t hear those reports? You think I don’t know how many people died because of what we did? How many more have to live like this?”

“At least they’re alive,” Sam argues with a little more energy in his voice. “That’s more than they would’ve gotten if the angels had their way. Or do you think Lucifer and Michael would have left anything behind but a pile of rubble?”

Dean lifts one shoulder to show what he thinks about that, knowing that his brother will feel the movement even if he isn’t looking at Dean.

“What about me?” Sam tries after a couple seconds. “Do you think I deserve to be blind?”

“No.”

“Why not?” Sam presses, sounding far more confident than he should that Dean’s been cornered. “I performed that ritual too. I’m just as culpable as you are, man.”

“I didn’t say you didn’t deserve to be punished. Just said you shouldn’t be blind.”

There’s a beat of silence and then Dean feels his brother’s body go stiff as Sam gets it.

When Sam speaks, his voice is flat. “Looking after you isn’t a punishment, Dean.”

“Sure seems like one from where I’m sitting.”

Sam laughs, dry and humorless. “Yeah, cause you’re being an asshole,” he agrees. Then he relaxes slightly, turning his body toward Dean, and Dean tenses as he feels his brother’s regard, heavy and suffocating.

“It doesn’t have to be a punishment,” Sam says, his voice lower and warmer than it has been since the Flare. His hand cups Dean’s cheek, fingers light and caressing across Dean’s hairline. His thumb brushes meaningfully over Dean’s lips.

Dean turns his face away. “Yeah, Sam. It does.”

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

 

The next day, Sam comes home early. Like, a lot early.

Dean frowns when he hears the car, and starts feeling around on the couch next to him for the remote. By the time he has the TV off, he’s schooled his expression into something more neutral, although Sam’s getting his goddamned head bitten off as soon as they’re alone.

Fucker brought someone with him.

Make that several someones. Goddamned kids.

The clamor of voices swells as Sam opens the door and Dean, pressing his lips tightly together to keep from swearing at his brother right now and impressionable ears be damned, turns his head toward the sound.

“Here he is!” Sam announces, his voice bright with false cheer. “Told you guys I wasn’t making him up.”

Dean has about three seconds to prepare himself as what sounds like a small herd of rhinoceros stampede toward him, and then there are kids hanging off of his arms and climbing into his lap. He grunts as one of them knees him in the balls—thank God the little shit’s light—and then forgets all about that minor pain as a small finger pokes his shoulder.

Should’ve put a fucking shirt on this morning.

“What’s that?” a young, male voice asks.

Dean grits his teeth—Sam’s a dead man—and then grunts, “Burned myself.”

“How come it looks like a hand?” the same voice prods.

Another finger pokes the scar. “Cool!” the voice that presumably belongs to the second finger says. “Did you get it hunting monsters?”

Sam told them. What a motherfucking moron.

“Sam?” Dean says, turning his head in an attempt to locate his brother. There’s enough warning in his voice to tell Sam that this is unacceptable, whatever it’s meant to illustrate, but all he gets for his trouble is another weight plopped into his lap and a pair of chubby arms flung around his neck.

“This here’s Mandy,” Sam says. “And the hooligans are Matt, Chris, Greg and Todd.”

Only five, then. Dean would’ve sworn there were about fifty of the suckers.

“Are you blinded?” That has to be Mandy asking—voice is coming from right in front of Dean’s face, and it’s higher than the boys’.

Dean’s about to tell her to mind her own goddamned business—fuck being nice; Sam never should’ve brought kids here in the first place—when one of the arms unhooks from his neck and clumsy fingers feel their way across his face.

Feel their way blindly across his face.

Dean’s breath catches.

“Your face is scratchy,” Mandy announces. “Can’t you shave without looking? My daddy can.”

“He can not,” one of the boys puts in. “I seen mommy helping him.”

It isn’t said maliciously—just as a statement of fact—but Dean’s insides twist anyway (fuck Sam for this, fuck him right to Hell) and he says, “I can shave. Just didn’t know I was going to have company.”

“We’re a prize!” Mandy declares, bouncing a little and kneeing Dean’s stomach in the process.

“That’s surprize, brainiac,” one of the boys announces.

“Are you gonna tell us a story?” another asks. “Sam said you know lots of stories from when you were a superhero.”

Dean snorts at that, bitterly, and Sam hastily corrects, “Hunter, Matt. We used to be hunters.”

“You killed monsters and saved people, right?”

“Well ...” Sam hedges.

“Superhero.” It’s said so decisively that there’s clearly no arguing with the kid.

“If you’re a superhero, can I be your sidekick?” Mandy wants to know, snuggling close to Dean’s chest.

If Dean makes it through today without ripping his brother a new asshole, it’ll be a miracle.

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

Over the next few hours, Dean learns way more than he wants to about the Booker family, which turns out to be more of a clan than anything else. The kids belong to three sets of parents—two brothers, a sister, and their respective spouses. Only two of the adults are sighted, but Mandy’s the only blind child on a block that houses sixteen.

“Apparently,” Sam says as the boys play tag in the backyard and Mandy sleeps curled up against Dean’s side. “The Flare mostly hit adults.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Dean demands. His voice is rough with how much he hates being here, how much he hates having his nose shoved in what he did.

“Doesn’t it?” Sam replies.

Dean clenches his jaw and doesn’t answer.

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

Billy Cunningham, age 4, was playing outside in the yard. He preferred playing outside these days, because it got him away from the scary darkness inside the house. Mommy never liked the lights on anymore—she yelled and screamed and cried all the time, demanding that Billy turn those fucking lights off. She screamed about it even when there weren’t any lights on.

Even though the dark was scary, though, Billy liked the lights off better too, cause then he didn’t have to look at the blood leaking out of Mommy’s eyes with her tears, or the deep grooves she tore in her own face when she clawed herself.

Billy’s stomach rumbled as he drove his red fire truck around in a circle. He and Mommy had eaten the last of the food in the house a few days ago, and Mommy refused to go out to the store. She refused to go outside at all, cause she was scared that it was still on fire.

Billy had told her it wasn’t, but she wouldn’t believe him.

As his stomach rumbled again, Billy got up, leaving his fire truck where it was, and wandered over to the corner of the yard. He’d noticed a clump of funny looking mushrooms springing up by the fence when he was outside playing yesterday. They were still there today, bigger than ever, and he glanced back at the dark house before looking down at the mushrooms again. After a few more moments of hesitation—Mommy told him not to eat anything growing outside, and these didn’t look quite like the small, white things Mommy used to put in his salad—he plopped down on the grass and started in on them.

While he watched the clouds drift by overhead, Billy scarfed down half the patch of destroying angels and then collected the rest and took them inside to his mommy. Because Billy was hungry, but he knew Mommy had to be hungry too, and good boys shared.

Neither of them would know for another seventeen hours, but the Cunninghams’ days of living in darkness were over.

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

That night, when Sam gets home from bringing the kids back to wherever they came from, Dean waits for his brother to get close enough and then puts everything he’s got in a right hook. He just manages to graze Sam’s nose before Sam catches him and manhandles him up against the nearest wall and pins him there.

“You son of a bitch,” Dean spits, struggling.

Sam leans forward, forcing Dean still with the weight of his body. “I’m not giving up, Dean. Not on you, not on myself, and not on us. Anything we might deserve for what happened, we already got.”

“Get off me,” Dean snarls. He heaves backward—an immense effort after what has to be months of inactivity—and gets a few inches of breathing room before Sam’s weight crashes right back down on top of him.

“Mom, Jess, Dad,” Sam lists relentlessly. “Jo, Ellen, Pam. Our childhoods. You went to Hell, Dean. For forty fucking years, you went to Hell and they left you there. We paid. We already paid.

And maybe Sam’s right on his own score—maybe Sam doesn’t deserve the crap Dean’s making him wade through. But Dean’s not done paying. Dean was still making installments on what he did those last ten years in Hell when the Flare hit. Now he’s buried beneath so much debt, he could pay and pay and pay until he’s a hundred and he won’t even have made a dent.

Sam can’t declare bankruptcy for him.

Not on this.

“I love you,” Sam breathes, dropping his forehead against the back of Dean’s skull and breathing down his neck. “I love you, damn it—isn’t that enough?”

Dean stares sightlessly down the length of whatever wall Sam has him up against and offers the only answer he can.

“No.”

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

Castiel comes the next day, while Sam’s out.

Dean’s first notice of the angel’s presence is the subtle rustling of fabric in the corner of the room and he almost pisses himself before Castiel makes this dry, hrmming noise in the back of his throat that Dean remembers from one too many unpleasant conversations.

“Cas,” he breathes, letting all the air in his lungs out on the word as though he’s been punched. His body flushes hot and then cold again, caught up in the aftershocks of an aborted adrenaline rush.

“Dean,” Castiel replies, sounding as unruffled as ever. Fifty-fifty odds as to whether or not he’s even noticed how badly he just freaked Dean out. “You’re looking well.”

Dean laughs unevenly, putting one hand up to his face and rubbing his stubbled cheeks. “Guess you finally learned how to lie.”

“I had a good teacher.”

Dean doesn’t like the depth of fondness he hears in the angel’s voice. Dropping his hand back to his side, he bluntly asks, “What do you want, Cas?”

“The world owes you a great debt of gratit—”

“Jesus Christ,” Dean moans, interrupting the spiel. His legs twitch, restless with the urge to get up from the couch and pace. “Did Sam send you? He did, didn’t he?”

The sound of footsteps announces Castiel’s approach. “I’m not here for Sam, Dean,” the angel says earnestly. “I’ve been meaning to make this trip. I’m just sorry it took so long. Things have been ... interesting ... in Heaven since Lucifer’s Fall.”

“Really?” Dean says caustically. “Been boring as hell down here.”

There’s a pause and then Castiel notes, “You’re angry with me.”

“Damn straight I’m angry!” The roar doesn’t come out as strong as Dean means it to, not sitting stiffly on the couch and unable to pin Castiel in place with his eyes the way he wants.

This time, the pause is longer.

“I’m not sure why.”

“Did you know all those people would go blind if we did the ritual?” Dean asks bluntly, speaking on the heels of the angel’s admission. There’s no point in beating around the bush, after all. Not when they’re going to end up heading down this road in the end regardless.

“No,” Castiel answers. There’s no delay, which means he’s telling the truth. “If it would help to have someone to blame, though, I would not have stopped you if I had.”

Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t help at all. It doesn’t let Dean off the hook.

His anger leaves him in a rush, though, taking what little strength he still has with it, and he slumps back against the couch.

“What do you want, Cas?” he repeats dully. He doesn’t actually care why the angel is here anymore, not now that his question has been answered. He just wants him to get whatever it is over with and then flap back to Heaven where he belongs.

Then Castiel says, “I came to restore your sight.”

Dean’s spine snaps straight. Panic curls in his throat. “What?”

“You don’t deserve to suffer for fulfilling God’s plan.” Castiel says it like it’s that simple—like he can just lift away Dean’s guilt on his own say-so—and through the icy panic stiffening his muscles, Dean feels his anger returning.

“Who the fuck are you to decide what I do or don’t deserve?” The low tension in his voice should be enough of a warning for Castiel, who has heard him use this same tone a thousand times before raining down hell on some demonic son of a bitch’s ass.

“I’m an angel of the Lord. And in this instance, I speak for Him.”

Looks like that tone is a little less impressive coming from a dude who can’t take more than a couple steps without tripping on something.

“God told you to come down here and forgive me,” Dean says slowly.

“You don’t need to be Forgiven, but yes.”

“What, you talk to Him now? You guys hang out, drink a few beers, play some poker?”

“Our conversations occur on more of a metaphysical level than that required to perform those activities, but you’re essentially correct. I am the Voice of God.”

Even as pissed off as Dean feels right now, that declaration comes out funny enough that he has to take a second to deal with just how huge the stick up Cas’ ass is. Then he moves on, anger solidifying in his chest and turning his voice hard.

“Then you give Him this message from me. Tell Him He can take His forgiveness and shove it.”

There’s a creak of the floorboards as Castiel shifts. Somehow, Dean’s bitterness—or maybe it’s his crassness—surprised him. Makes Dean wonder if the angel was paying any attention at all the last few years.

“You want me to tell the Father to ‘shove it’,” Castiel repeats, speaking slowly and with a greater amount of confusion than Dean remembers. Probably God rubbing the human mannerisms back off his new Number One Bitch.

The anger throbbing in Dean’s throat intensifies, and what Dean wants to say is ‘damn straight’. Cas used to be a friend, though, and shouldn’t have to pay just because he’s basically a slave to the biggest dick that ever lived.

Even knowing it’s not Cas’ fault he’s been picked to play errand boy, it still takes Dean a couple tries before he can throw the angel a bone by offering, “You can add ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ if it’ll make you feel better.”

“Dean, I know you’re hurting, but you have to—”

“I don’t have to do anything, Cas—and you touch me, Host of Heaven or not—friend or not—I swear to God I will dust your feathery ass.”

The prickling across Dean’s skin—warning of an impending touch—eases off again at the depth of hostility in Dean’s threat. It’s the absence of Cas’ claim to innocence more than anything else, though, that tells Dean his suspicion was right.

The angel was about to do some laying on of hands and screw what Dean wants.

That son of a bitch.

“If you won’t accept this gift, then what? Name it and it’s yours.” It’s the most human Castiel has ever sounded, his voice thick with an emotion that Dean’s all too familiar with.

Dean’s just pissed enough at the near betrayal to turn that familiarity into a weapon.

“Let me fill you in on a secret,” he says pitilessly. “That nagging pit just here?” —lifting one hand just to just beneath his heart, he taps his chest— “Maybe feels sorta like a bad case of indigestion? That’s guilt.”

“You’re right,” Castiel agrees. The words are halting, his voice rough. “I consider you a friend, Dean, and fate has not been kind to you. Also, there are things I have done, for the greater good, that have hurt you. I know they were necessary, but I—I confess I find myself wishing that I had not—”

“Forget it,” Dean interrupts. He’s bone weary suddenly and more than a little disgusted with himself. Getting that admission out of Cas was less satisfying than it was supposed to be. Whatever past crimes are bothering the angel, he was only doing his job. Just like he’s only trying to do his job now.

Tipping his head back against the couch and staring sightlessly up at the ceiling, Dean asks, “Anything I want, right? That’s what you said? My very own heavenly severance package?”

“Yes.” Castiel’s voice is eager now, almost pathetically desperate to please.

Dean has a feeling the angel will be less excited when Dean gives him his marching orders—and Sam’s gonna have kittens when he finds out—but he’s too exhausted to care.

“Okay, then. I know just what I want.”

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

True to Dean’s expectations, Sam practically kicks the door off its hinges when he gets home that night. He doesn’t bother shutting it again, either; just charges across the room and jerks Dean up from the couch.

“You asshole!” he spits. “You self-martyring son of a bitch.”

Dean feels his mouth stretch in a wide, shit-eating grin as he stands calmly with the back of his calves anchoring him against the couch and his brother’s anger burning hot against his front. “What’s wrong, Sammy?”

“Don’t!” Sam yells, giving him a shake. “Don’t lie to me! I saw Mandy and I know what you did.”

Yeah, okay. Looks like they’re going to do this. Might as well get it over with.

“She’s got eighty good years in front of her. I’ve got forty, maybe fifty if I’m lucky. It’s simple math.”

“Do I look like I give a shit about math?”

“I dunno,” Dean answers as innocently as possible. “Do you?”

Sam drops him then, with a muffled, hurt noise like he’s been burned, and all but runs into his room.

Dean can still hear his brother crying through the walls.

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

Later, when Sam reemerges, Dean is still sitting on the couch. He hears his brother go over to the front door and close it. Then Sam’s footsteps approach and the cushion sinks as Sam sits down beside him.

“You know the first thing I felt when I saw her?” Sam says after a moment. “Hate. That sweet, five-year-old little girl, and I hated her for taking something that should have been yours.”

“She didn’t take anything from me, Sam.”

“Oh, so Cas didn’t show up here offering to heal you.” Dean doesn’t say anything to that, and after a few moments, Sam exhales heavily. The couch cushion dips a little more as he moves—leaning forward, Dean guesses. He imagines Sam propping his elbows on his knees and holding his head in his hands.

“I thought you were a little less masochistic than this,” Sam says finally.

The urge to apologize is an almost physical surge moving from Dean’s stomach up through his chest and into his throat, but it gets caught there. He’s not used to bending, or maybe the problem is that he’s too used to taking pot shots at all of Sam’s weak points.

“Guess you thought wrong.” There’s no trace of remorse in his voice. No hint of the tension in his chest.

Used to be, that sort of flippancy would’ve stirred Sam to a fight. Now Sam just asks softly, “What’s it going to take, Dean? What do I have to do to get you to stop doing this to yourself?”

“How about you start by convincing me that blinding a couple billion people was the best way to go about the whole stopping-the-apocalypse thing?”

Sam doesn’t answer him, and after a few minutes of sitting in stilted silence, he gets up without another word and walks away.

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

Sam leaves Dean alone after that. For twelve glorious, pressure-free days.

Then, on the thirteenth day, Dean is woken from a deep, dreamless sleep by his brother’s hand on his shoulder.

“Get up,” Sam says shortly. “We’re going on a trip.”

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

Taylor Bridgeman, 40 years and one day old, woke up blind and hungover.

His house was quiet and empty after last night’s party, the floor strewn with beer bottles and paper plates and napkins.

The bottle that killed him was a Blue Ribbon, and Mandy White, Taylor’s best friend’s wife, drank it less than an hour before she went down on Taylor in the bathroom. He was the birthday boy, after all, and in the middle of a rough divorce, and she felt sorry for him.

Taylor was actually trying to remember just whom the mouth and throat belonged to when he stepped on the bottle and lost his balance. His head slammed into the bathroom doorframe on his way down and he was dead before he hit the floor.

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

“Damn, boy. It’s good to see you.”

Caught off guard by the unexpected voice, Dean starts to step backwards toward the car. Bobby catches him before he can make good on the retreat, pulling him into a hug and filling his nose with the familiar scents of gun oil and hot metal. Dean’s customary ‘wish I could say the same’ is caught on the tip of his tongue, stuck there amidst the ache running through his insides.

He didn’t realize how much he missed Bobby until now.

“Yeah,” he says haltingly, getting one hand up to pat the man on the back. “You too, Bobby.”

Bobby holds on for a few more seconds before letting Dean go and then moves back a step. He’s still holding onto Dean’s shoulder, though, and he squeezes it in a wordless attempt at communication. Whatever message he’s trying to convey gets lost, of course; Dean’s days of reading whole conversations in other people’s eyes and faces are over.

As the moment draws out and Dean doesn’t offer any sort of response, Bobby’s hand falls away and he coughs awkwardly. “I’m sorry,” he says aloud. “About what I said last time you were here. I was running my mouth about something I didn’t understand. Should’ve known you’d gone and twisted everything round in that thick skull of yours.”

An apology is the last thing Dean expected to hear, and now that it’s out there he’s left squirming inside with how uncomfortable it makes him. He’s never been great at handling this sort of thing, but it’s even worse when he knows that Bobby’s got nothing to apologize for.

Those first uneasy weeks, when Dean was freshly aware of the magnitude of his crime and the guilt sat new and sharp on his shoulders, needling Sam was less of a pastime and more of a survival tactic. Any energy he wasted cutting through Sam’s flimsy defenses was energy not spent tearing himself to pieces. Bobby was less of a casualty of Dean’s messy emotions—there wasn’t anything like hurting the one person he loved best to distract Dean from the fact that he accidentally fucked over the entire world—but the man caught enough shit to understand what it was doing to Sam.

Dean would’ve been pissed on his brother’s behalf if Bobby hadn’t said something.

“Don’t sweat it,” Dean says now.

It’s a little too belated for Bobby to take his words at face value, although he really should, but there’s no awkwardness in the way the man steps close and throws an arm over Dean’s shoulders. Dean imagines that he can feel Sam’s eyes on him—maybe watching him over the roof of the car, maybe standing in front of her with one hand resting on the hood. The Sam in Dean’s head is waiting for him to jerk away, or go stiff, or do any one of the hundred asshole things he always does when someone tries to lead him around the way Bobby’s doing.

But the guidance doesn’t feel as threatening as it does when it’s Sam’s hands on him—maybe because Sam always seems to be offering more than Dean’s willing to take. With Bobby, a hand into the house is just that. No strings attached.

“Come on in,” Bobby says as they go, Dean doing his best not to show how nervous he is about stepping into a dip in the drive and taking them both down. “I got some beers in the fridge, coupla steaks on the grill. Thought maybe we could make a night of it. Have some chow, listen to the game.”

The depth of the longing that idea stirs in Dean’s chest warns him that this is a bad idea. The cozy, domestic scene Bobby’s painting for him isn’t going to lift the darkness. It isn’t going to bring back all those people lost during the first few weeks after the Flare.

“Thanks, Bobby,” Dean says, finally dragging his steps and trying to duck out from under the man’s arm, “but we’ve got a ways to drive back, and—”

“We’re staying.” Sam’s hand closes on Dean’s arm at the same time as his voice registers. Then he moves in closer, blocking Dean’s line of escape (like he could run anyway) and pinning Dean against Bobby’s body. “Unless you think you can drive yourself home.”

The slight cheerfulness that snuck into Dean at the unexpected reunion is stripped away by the blunt reminder of his own helplessness and he feels his expression go flat and stiff. His chest aches with sudden freshness, as though the wound is recent instead of months distant.

Dean can already tell that this is gonna be a fantastic visit.

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

Dinner is as awkward of an affair as Dean can make it, which means there’s a lot of free-flowing beer to keep everyone distracted from the huge, blind elephant in the room. His tongue is sharp enough that he even cuts himself a few times by accident, but he’s willing to accept the pain if it’ll get Sam and Bobby off his back. Only problem is that Sam and Bobby are unflaggingly patient, and polite, and Sam even seems to be in a good mood for a change.

It doesn’t make any goddamn sense, not unless Sam’s become a better liar with his voice than he used to be. Fuck, what Dean wouldn’t give to be able to see his brother’s expression right now so that he could figure out what’s going on.

“So,” Bobby says in a casual tone of voice as Dean pushes pieces of steak around on (and occasionally off of) his plate. “Sam gave me a call a couple weeks ago. Asked me to do a little more research into that ritual of yours.”

“Bit late for that,” Dean comments, although there’s a cold pit of dread in his stomach that tells him the man isn’t going to be pushed off topic that easily. This is, after all, why Sam brought him here. It has to be.

It’s a motherfucking trap.

“There was a lot of mumbo jumbo about destined paths and turned fates that I had to wade through,” Bobby continues levelly, “But I found it. Can’t figure how your brother knew it was there.”

“I didn’t,” Sam puts in from his own side of the table. “But there had to be something, because Dean sure as hell can’t hear anything I’ve been saying.”

There’s a trickle of sweat running down the back of Dean’s neck and his stomach is tying itself in knots, but he plays it cool and, grinning, says, “Dude, I’m blind, not deaf.”

“You ever wonder why you’re blind?” Bobby asks.

Dean’s grin falters.

“Why you and not Sam? Or me?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

“It’s got nothing to do with luck, boy, and it’s time you know it.” From the sharpness of Bobby’s reply, the man doesn’t care at all for Dean’s sarcastic tone.

“Whatever,” Dean mumbles. He’s really sweating now—everywhere, not just down the back of his neck, and his mouth has gone dry. When he reaches for his beer, he misjudges where he left it and his knuckles collide solidly with the bottle instead. There’s a dull thunk as it falls over, and then a fizzing noise of the alcohol rushing out onto the table, and Dean swears, fumbling for his napkin.

He’s managed to knock a few more pieces of steak off his plate and his fork onto the floor before a hand—Sam’s, Dean’d know that oversized paw anywhere—lands on his and stills it. Dean expects his brother to tell him to relax, that he’s got this, but Sam doesn’t mention the beer at all.

Instead, in a soft, serious voice Sam says, “You would’ve been dead, Dean. You ... Mandy ... everyone who went blind after the Flare. If we hadn’t performed the ritual, if we hadn’t stopped Lucifer the way we did instead of the way the angels wanted us to, you all would have died.”

Dean’s head pulses—feels about two sizes too small, along with his chest. There’s spilled beer seeping around his fingers (isn’t anyone gonna clean that up?), but that isn’t what makes him jerk his hand out from underneath his brother’s. He can’t—he can’t have Sam touching him right now.

“Did you hear me, Dean?” Sam says, and both the creak of his chair and the sound of his voice tell Dean he’s leaning closer. “People died after the Flare, lots of them—I’m not denying that. But if we hadn’t done that ritual, it would have been a lot worse.”

Mandy’s face flashes through Dean’s head—not what she actually looks like, of course, but Dean’s never going to know any better, and he had to put some kind of image to the name. So he’s looking at some generic, little girl face in his head—a little girl with Mandy’s name who’s filled with guileless questions and has a high, open laugh—and in his head the little girl’s face is covered with blood. Her eyes are open, sightlessly staring.

Of course, minus the blood, they’d still be doing that if Dean hadn’t taken Cas up on God’s bribe.

“Better dead than this,” Dean spits. He means to push to his feet now—gonna fall on his face before he makes it out of the kitchen, probably, and that’ll be plenty humiliating, but he can’t sit here any longer.

Then Bobby says, “The rest of us woulda been meatsuits.”

The ripple of cold that goes through Dean’s body is painful in its intensity.

“No survivors,” Bobby continues. “Just the dead and the disposable party suits, and I don’t wanna hear any bullshit about us having been better off, cause I’ve had one of those bastards inside me and it ain’t a picnic.”

On Dean’s other side, there’s the scrape of chair against linoleum and then Sam’s hand lands on the back of Dean’s neck, kneading.

“Breathe,” Sam says. “C’mon, man. Breathe.”

Dean tries to protest that he is breathing, fuck Sam very much, but when he goes to speak he realizes that Sam’s right; there’s no air getting into his lungs. He gropes for the edge of the table as his head swims, hears a clatter as his knife joins his fork on the floor.

He’s making a mess. He should get that. He should—

“Oh, Christ,” Bobby gripes.

Dean almost falls out of his chair as it’s pulled backwards, and then Sam’s hand on his neck presses forward, urging him to bend over and getting his head between his legs. Sam crouches next to him, close enough for the shaggy fringe of his hair to brush across Dean’s cheek, and murmurs, “You’re okay. You’re okay, Dean, I’m right here, I’ve got you. Just let go.”

Dean’s shoulders shake once—more of a hitch than anything else—and Sam’s hand tightens on his neck.

“That’s it. C’mon, man. Let it out.”

The second shake is stronger, traveling through his entire torso and making his right leg twitch, and then Sam’s fingers card up through his hair and that’s it. Dean sucks in a breath, the oxygen flooding his lungs so fast it hurts, and then he’s crying with weak, pathetic gasps. Tear glands weren’t burnt out at all, turns out, because his face is getting sloppy and wet as he cries.

Sam eases Dean off the chair and down to the floor. The linoleum is cool against his knuckles as he leans forward, head bowed and back hunched. Now that he’s in a better position to get air, the sobs are wracking him harder—painful in their intensity—and he’s trembling all over.

When Sam lets go of his neck, it’s only to haul him into a tight hug. Dean’s mouth ends up squished against Sam’s collarbone; his forehead rests against the side of his brother’s throat.

Dean struggles a little—it’s reflex, after having spent so long pushing Sam away—and then, desperately, his arms come up and grip Sam back.

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

Eugena Clarence, a 28 year-old mother of two clocking in at just under 300 lbs, was making her slow, laborious way downstairs when the lights went out. It was the sudden blindness more than the pain that made her lose her balance, sending her down in a tumble.

She didn’t break anything, thank the Lord—thank her lard, her best girl Jade would have said—but once she was down on the bottom, she was shocked to the core to realize that she couldn’t get up.

Huffing, she rocked her body first one way and then the other as something—tears?—leaked out of her burning eyes. She strained to sit up, neck cording and muscles screaming, and moved not at all.

And then, deeper in the house, came the cry all mothers dread. A child’s yell of pain and fear.

Three hours later, after Jade showed up with her current beau and the two of them levered Eugena back to her feet—after Eugena had her crying Mercy in her arms, with Reggie clinging at her knees—she made herself a promise.

Whatever just happened—whether it was the final judgment as Jade claimed, or if it was some sort of terrorist attack—Eugena was done putting off that damned diet.

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

“Hey, man. You doing okay out here?”

Dean doesn’t startle—Sam made more than enough noise as he came out on the porch. He does shift over to make room: a wordless invitation for his brother to join him on the step.

Sam comes closer, then pauses behind Dean. A warm weight settles over Dean’s shoulders—gradually, Sam still being careful not to startle him—and when Dean reaches up, he grips the collar of what feels like a heavy, woolen coat.

“Thanks,” he says as he puts the coat on. He didn’t notice when he found his slow, unsteady way out here in the aftermath of Sam and Bobby’s ambush, but there’s more than a little chill to the air.

“Hey, don’t thank me,” Sam says as he settles himself in the space Dean made for him. “It’s self-preservation. If you got sick, I’d have to take care of you—and, dude, you suck as a patient.”

Laughing feels strange—the entire universe has a weird, surreal tint to it; side effect of adjusting his worldview—but Dean manages okay. Sam laughs with him—softer, but no less genuine—and it warms him up inside better than the coat ever could.

“What month is it, anyway?” Dean asks as he zips the coat up. “I’m freezing my ass off here.“

“It’s October 21st.”

Dean takes a moment to digest that—the last date he was consciously aware of was May 17th—and then says, “Huh.”

He guesses there are things he’ll have to catch up on now—shit he should know about what happened after Lucifer Fell, what the other hunters are doing, what Sam’s been doing aside from babysitting those kids—but right now he doesn’t feel any particular urge to ask. He’s already processing enough new information.

“So,” Sam says after a few minutes of companionable quiet. “Are you actually going to learn how to use that cane now?”

Dean doesn’t even know where the damned thing is, but it’s a sure bet that Sam does. Sam has probably been keeping it polished in his eternal optimism that the day would come when Dean would run out of excuses not to bother.

“Guess I’m gonna have to try, anyway.”

Sam’s silent, but it isn’t difficult to follow his train of thought. It isn’t difficult to guess that he’s thinking about how maybe Dean wouldn’t have had to learn, if he’d been a little less determined to pay for mistakes he didn’t actually make.

“I don’t regret it, just so we’re clear,” Dean announces, hoping to head off that argument before it starts. “If I’d known, I still would’ve told Cas to heal her instead.”

“I know.” The evenness of Sam’s answer surprises Dean, although he supposes it shouldn’t. Sam has had two weeks to work through Dean’s decision, and there are times—like now—that Dean gets the uncomfortable impression that his brother knows him better than he knows himself.

Sam’s hand is warm when he slides it into Dean’s and twines their fingers together. Dean snorts, trying to pull his hand free, and Sam uses his grip to tug Dean closer.

“Sam,” Dean warns.

Sam noses at his jaw, lips brushing the side of Dean’s neck and sending minute shivers down his back. “God, I missed you.”

This time, it’s less a brush of Sam’s lips and more a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss on the underside of his jaw.

Dean moves his head away with a sharp movement. “Sam, stop.”

“Why?” Sam asks, pursuing him and pressing another kiss to Dean’s earlobe. “Bobby went into town to give us some privacy. He’s not gonna see anything.”

“That’s not the point,” Dean insists as he slips his hand free from his brother’s. Getting his newly freed hand up between them, he uses it to push against Sam’s chest and get some space. “It’s not that easy for me, dude.”

“Why not?” Sam demands, radiating hurt. “Is it—Ruby? Because I thought we were past that.”

“No—I mean, we are.” Christ, Dean hates how much he sounds like a girl right now. Huffing out a breath, he finishes, “It’s complicated.”

There’s a beat of silence where he can practically hear Sam thinking about this and then his brother suggests, “So uncomplicate it.”

“I can’t be what you want.”

“What I want is my brother. I’m pretty sure you fit the bill, Dean.”

The bitch is actually going to make him say it.

“I’m blind, Sam.”

“You can’t possibly think I care about that!”

“No, but I do care. Things are pretty fubar right now, Sammy, and I’m not fucking them up more by throwing sex into the mix.”

“You sound just like you did after Stanford,” Sam accuses sourly.

“Yeah, well, this whole ‘screw the consequences, let’s get horizontal’ attitude of yours ain’t all that unfamiliar either, dude,” Dean shoots back. Almost immediately, he grimaces—having this fight for what feels like the hundredth time isn’t going to do either of them any good—and temporizes, “Look, I’m not saying never. I’m saying give me some time, all right? Let me get my legs under me again before you kick them open.”

“So you’re saying take it slow.”

“I’m saying that you’ve gotta let me deal with the fact that I’m never gonna be able to fucking see anything again,” Dean snaps. “You know what I see in my head whenever I look up? I see that sky. It looked like the whole fucking world was exploding, remember? Lucifer’s grace bleeding all over the place and fucking shit up—that’s the image I get to carry around with me. Last fucking thing I ever saw.”

“Dean, it—it doesn’t look like that anymore.”

“You think I don’t know that? Doesn’t change what I’m stuck with in here.” Turning his head in his brother’s direction, Dean taps his temple. “And that’s just—that part doesn’t even fucking matter as much as the other stuff. I can’t—Dude, I can’t drive. I can’t cook. I can’t even take a piss without making a goddamn mess. No offense, Sammy, but this thing with us is a hassle I don’t need right now.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not you, man, I just ... Wait, what?”

“Okay,” Sam repeats. His hand finds Dean’s again and squeezes. “I can wait. Take as long as you need, man. Just don’t expect me to get tired and find someone else while you’re figuring things out, because that’s never going to happen.”

For the first time—since Hell, since this messy thing started between them, since Sam ditched him for Stanford—Dean believes him.

Chapter Text

Forcing himself to take that first step off the porch is kind of like gearing up to jump out of a plane. Without Sam lashing the world down with a reassuring touch, the earth has slid out from underneath the porch and left a chasm in its place. It’s a stupid illusion, but it isn’t helped by the hours it seems to take for Dean’s foot to hit the ground. When it comes, he lurches at the contact, startled despite the rational assurance that the ground had to be there.

Dean is certain that it’s taking all of Sam’s willpower to stay silent and three feet behind like they agreed, but to his brother’s credit, he doesn’t come sprinting to the rescue. If Sam doesn’t control his mother hen instincts, Dean’s never going to learn to do this on his own.

Okay, he tells himself as he pauses to catch his breath at the base of the stairs. This is gonna be a piece of cake. You’ve got this.

But when he starts forward again, right hand extended and fingertips brushing along the porch railing, Dean’s palms are sweaty. His breath comes light and fast, as though he’s been running for a couple miles, and the skin at the back of his neck won’t stop prickling. Sam’s behind him, ready to dart in if Dean is in any kind of real danger, but Dean still felt less frightened facing Lucifer than he does feeling his way around the periphery of the house like this.

Every snapped twig is a gunshot. Each rustled leaf is a stalker edging closer. Demon, maybe. Could be. Dean sure as fuck would never know. He’ll never be able to stop the attack if (when) it comes.

Then Dean’s frantic mind shifts gears and the weeds lightly tapping his legs with each shuffling step aren’t weeds at all, but strands of tendons. He’s back in Hell, cracking bones beneath his heels. When some sort of (spider, fucking spider, one of Alistair’s pets) bug skitters across the back of his outstretched hand, Dean jerks away with a strangled cry of disgust and is surprised when there’s no accompanying burn of decomposing skin.

Dean’s never needed to open his eyes so much before, never needed so much reassurance that he’s out, he’s free. But his eyes are open, they’re wide and staring, and he could be. He could be there again after all. Alistair’s going to be so pleased to have him back, and so disappointed in the things he did when he was gone ...

Alistair’s dead. Sam killed him.

The words come from some deep, buried place beneath the terror. They’re difficult to hear at first, but as Dean hesitates, hand pressed securely against his stomach, the voice speaks again, louder and disdainful.

You’re not in Hell, asshole. You’re outside the house and Sam is three feet behind you, and if you’re too much of a pussy to walk sixty feet outside on your own, you can turn around and tell him to take you back. Goddamned coward.

Dean’s mouth is a confusing mix of acidic fear and bitter anger, and he squeezes his hands into fists as he pushes the memories of Hell away and focuses on what his senses are telling him.

The slight warmth on his face and the backs of his forearms announces the sun’s presence above, although that warmth is all but completely countered by the chill autumn breeze blowing past him. Beneath his feet the ground is uneven—rocks and tiny dips in the earth that are noticeable when he shifts his weight. Cautiously lowering a hand, he fingers one of the long, slender tendrils slapping his legs in the breeze and finds it waxy and cool. Dry, not blood soaked.

He can smell leaves, and dirt, and a faint trace of smoke from someone’s fire. But there’s no hint of sulfur, no clear reek of death or blood. Pain has a smell—something low and aching that gets in your mouth and throat and lingers there—and there’s none of that here.

There are birdcalls—distant and dim—and the birds are crows, an identification which makes Dean’s heart beat faster, but crows never sounded like this in Hell. In Hell, they spoke with human voices, rough and blood-scraped, as they scavenged among the endless fields of racks. These calls are harsh, but they can’t compare with the sound of their larger, crueler counterparts.

And then, behind Dean, there’s a subtle, quiet cough.

Hell falls away, replaced by a dark, featureless world and Sam. Sam, whom Dean’s gonna yell at later for breaking his promise. Right now, he’s too relieved to do anything but smile.

Good thing Sam’s behind him and can’t see the sign of weakness.

Putting his hand back on the railing—Dean’s never thought so highly of wraparound porches—still takes a lot of conscious effort, but after an intense inner struggle with himself, Dean manages it. The bug that pushed him over the edge into panic is gone, nothing there but rough wood and chipped paint, and Dean grips the rail a little more firmly.

Moving forward again takes a little more work, though, and even though his mind never again comes so close to slipping into the Pit, by the time Dean finds his way back to the front door thirty minutes later, he’s covered in sweat.

“Well,” he pants as he hurries back inside, where he knows the layout and there are four walls to keep him safe. “That was fun.”

“It’ll get better,” Sam promises, reappearing out of the isolating darkness with the words. “And once you learn how to use the cane, you’ll be able to move around faster. There’s a trail in the woods that doesn’t look too hard. We could try that too, when you’re ready.”

Some of the featureless void that surrounds Dean’s admittedly sketchy mental conception of their house fills in at Sam’s words. Not that the dark, threatening forest his mind conjures up to surround the yard and cut them off from the outside world is any better.

Still, Sam sounds so hopeful that Dean can’t bear to disappoint him.

“Yeah,” he rasps as he reaches the couch and drops down on it in a weary sprawl. “Sounds like a blast.”

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

“So, this is your first meeting with a Flare counselor.”

“Wow. Those’re some stellar powers of observation you’ve got there, Lady.”

“Any particular reason you waited so long?”

“Had better things to do. Those doilies don’t crochet themselves, you know.”

“It says here that your brother made this appointment for you. Do you want to be here, Dean?”

“If I say no, are you going to send me home?”

“Counseling only works if you want help. I think you would really benefit from talking to someone about what you’re going through, but there are plenty of other people who want to come to terms with their situation that I could be spending this time with.”

“So go ahead and have your circle jerk with them. No skin off my back—no, don’t bother getting up, I can find the door.”

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

The cane is more trouble than it’s worth.

Dean can’t get the hang of reading the vibrations; he can’t manage the trick of keeping it at a constant distance from his feet. When Sam brings him to a nearby town for a test drive, Dean trips over every single goddamned curb in the place. Rips the knee on his jeans when he runs into what feels like a wire-rimmed trash can. And he’s going hoarse from the amount of times he’s had to apologize for knocking into someone.

That kind of pathetic clumsiness might have been a common sight even a few months ago, but now Dean’s behind the learning curve and he can feel people staring. The weight of their eyes hunches his shoulders. Their pity makes his skin break out in a light, clammy sweat.

“It’s okay, Dean,” Sam says, coming in close and taking Dean by the elbow after he manages to trip over a dip in the sidewalk. “No one’s looking.”

It burns that he can’t even call his brother on the lie.

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

On top of everything else, Sam wants him to learn Braille. Fucking Braille. Because Dean was so quick on the uptake when he was learning to read the first time around.

“What do I need to know that for when I’ve got you?” he smarms, reaching for his cane so that he can get up from the kitchen table and avoid the conversation altogether.

There’s a knocking noise that makes Dean’s head jerk to one side—Sam wouldn’t have, would he? Except when Dean’s hand closes on air where the head of his cane should be, he understands with a hot, resentful rush that Sam would.

“Give me the cane, Sam.”

“After we talk.”

Putting his hands flat on the tabletop and resisting the urge to swear, Dean growls, “I’m not learning Braille. End of discussion.”

A sliding scrape signals Sam setting the cane down—on the counter, if Dean is judging the distance and direction correctly—and then Sam comes back to the table and sits down in the chair to Dean’s right.

“There’ve been a lot of changes since the Flare,” he says, reopening the conversation with maddening evenness. “Manufacturers are putting Braille labels on pretty much everything. All the restaurants and bars have Braille menus. Even those muscle car mags you like are coming out with Braille versions.”

“You do all the shopping, I don’t need to read a menu to order a burger, and why the fuck would I want to read a car magazine, huh? The goddamned pictures are the whole point—or did they figure out how to put those in Braille too?”

“Are you honestly telling me that you don’t want to be able to tell the difference between sugar and salt when you’re looking through the cabinets?” Sam counters.

“Sugar comes in a bag, salt comes in a canister,” Dean replies, not thinking about the peanut butter and mayo sandwich he made himself by mistake the other day. That was his own fault for not giving the glass jar a sniff before scooping its contents out onto the bread, and isn’t anything that needs to be fixed by puzzling out the meaning behind a bunch of stupid bumps.

“Okay, what if you have to do the shopping? Like, what if I get sick and really can’t go?”

“We’ll order pizza for a few days. This isn’t that hard to figure out, dude. I mean, it’s not like I can drive myself to the store anyway, remember?”

“The newspaper,” Sam maintains, although he’s clearly groping after straws at this point. “You used to read the newspaper every morn—”

“Yeah, to look for jobs,” Dean points out.

It’s the closest they’ve ever come to talking about this—about hunting, and how firmly benched Dean is—and for a moment the loss burns in Dean’s gut. It turns the saliva in his mouth sour and clenches his hands into firsts where they’re resting on the table.

After a pause, Sam offers, “You could still do that, Dean. I know research isn’t really your favorite part, but you were always really good at spotting hunts. Bobby knows a lot of people. We could set up some kind of system, maybe. You find the hunts, I’ll help organize the data, Bobby could—”

“No,” Dean interrupts. He can’t listen to any more of Sam’s plan, which feels like being humored and pitied and coddled, all rolled up into one fan-fucking-tastic package. It hurts, imagining himself reduced to the pathetic schmuck that Sam’s suggesting he become. It makes him ache deep in his chest, where his ribs suddenly seem more constricting than usual.

The worst part is that Sam’s offer really is the closest Dean can come to hunting. He isn’t ever going to sprint through a graveyard after a zombie again. He isn’t going to fire a gun, or dig up a grave, or play Agent Ford to Sam’s Hamel. He isn’t ever going to feel his blood pounding through his body after a fight, isn’t going to get the rush of adrenaline that a successful hunt brings.

All those endless, sun drenched highways have shrunken down to six rooms and a porch, his body gradually weakening as his old life slips away from him one dark day after another.

If he isn’t a hunter anymore, then who the fuck is he? What’s left?

Dean’s eyes prickle in a familiar way and he blinks once, trying to flounder his way out of the shattering realization he just inadvertently blundered into.

“Why are you being so difficult about this?” Sam demands. He doesn’t sound so calm anymore himself, frustration clearly evident in his voice, but Dean doesn’t really give a shit right now.

“Because,” he answers shortly, and then clenches his jaw shut on all the scornful, self-loathing words that want to follow.

Of course, that one word isn’t going to be enough for Sam.

“Because why?” Sam presses, and Dean hears the chair creak as his brother leans forward.

Because,” Dean hisses, pushing up to his feet. He doesn’t actually need the cane to get around inside anyway. Sam’s not using it to blackmail Dean into staying here any longer.

Except Sam’s hand closes around Dean’s wrist almost immediately, tugging him to a stop.

“Let go,” Dean warns, hating the quiver in his voice that broadcasts how close he is to breaking.

“Give me a reason,” Sam replies earnestly. “One good reason why you won’t learn Braille, and I’ll drop it.”

Dean struggles with himself for a heartbeat, fighting against the words that are threatening to spill out, but in the end it’s just too much pressure to contain.

Jerking his hand free from his brother’s grasp, he spits, “Because I can’t, okay? I barely figured out my A B Cs, and I’ve always fucking sucked at that school stuff. You might as well teach a chimp to do taxes, cause you’ll manage that before I figure out how to read those goddamned bumps.”

He runs out of steam, winds down like a machine with no gas, and stands there, chest rising and falling as he tries to slow his heart back down. There’s more, of course—even the attempt to learn Braille would feel too final, too much like the acceptance he hasn’t been able (hasn’t wanted) to manage yet. But Sam only asked for one good reason. Dean’s held up his end of the bargain. Anything more is his to keep, and none of Sam’s fucking business.

For long, quiet minutes, Sam doesn’t say anything. Dean can feel his brother looking at him, though, and he hasn’t heard Sam move away, so he knows that Sam is within touching distance. The steady, silent regard makes his skin prickle.

Finally, he can’t take it any more and snaps, “Dude, what?”

In a soft, sad voice, Sam says, “You’re not a chimp, Dean.”

Dean’s insides twist—he knows that, what the fuck is Sam saying that kind of shit for?—and the uncomfortable prickle beneath his skin goads him into sneering, “Gee, thanks for the newsflash.”

Refusing to rise to the bait, Sam offers, “I think you can do it.”

“Well, then, I guess I’ll just get right to it. Anything else you want me to do while I’m at it? Got some water I can turn into wine? Or maybe I should just get out there and heal some lepers, huh?”

“You can,” Sam repeats with more confidence. The way he’s continuing to ignore Dean’s attempts to pick a fight leaves Dean more unsettled than ever and he turns away, hands held out in front of him, and starts moving toward the place he thinks the kitchen door is located.

“Not gonna happen,” he tosses over his shoulder as he goes. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Sam’s hand closes over his shoulder at the same moment Dean’s outstretched fingertips hit the wall—looks like he was off in his calculations. He expects Sam to try turning him around, to push and prod at all of those awkward, painful spots he finds so easily—but instead Sam presses something into his hand and then releases him. Dean adjusts his grip on the cane, opening and closing each finger in turn, and then wets his lips.

Giving the wall a few quick taps, he locates the opening he wants and angles his body in that direction to make good his escape.

“You’ve never disappointed me, Dean,” Sam says softly as he leaves. “Not once.”

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

“So, here we are again.”

“Looks like.”

“Your brother—Sam. He must mean a great deal to you.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You came back.”

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

Dean notices, finally, when he’s in the shower. It isn’t as though he’s put on weight, exactly—if anything, he’s lost some bulk. His body just feels different when he soaps it up; stomach slightly rounded instead of flat, biceps softer, thighs flabby around the edges.

It shouldn’t come as a shock, considering how sedentary his lifestyle has become, but somehow it does. He stops lathering and starts exploring, with a sinking, nauseous sensation in his stomach as he catalogues the changes. Now that he’s noticing, it seems painfully obvious—surely Sam has seen, but then again Sam doesn’t comment on how he looks anymore. He hasn’t since Dean lost the ability to see for himself.

Dean’s first, instinctive reaction is self-disgust. It’s all well and good for Joe Schmoe Civilian to have love handles, but he’s a soldier, damn it, he—

But of course, he’s not a soldier. Not anymore.

And all of the fixes Dean was running through in his brain—step up PT a little, throw in a couple more miles on his daily jog—are out of the question. Of course they are. How is Dean supposed to run anywhere like this? How is he supposed to get through Dad’s complex PT routine without breaking his neck, or at least an ankle?

As the water spills over his back, Dean puts his arm up against the wall and leans his forehead against his tensed wrist. His eyes sting, watering, and he clenches his jaw as though he can fight the tears off that way. They come anyway—reluctantly, each sob dragged out of his chest and making the soft flesh of his body jiggle a little from the force.

There’s a good deal of shame in his tears—if Dad saw him now, Dean knows just what he’d say—but truthfully it’s more the sense of loss that’s getting to him. His body is just another item on the list, just another thing ripped away from him, but it’s somehow more terrifying than the rest.

He doesn’t know what he looks like anymore.

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

Dean wakes up to the sound of banging in the kitchen. He tries to ignore it and go back to sleep—it seems ungodly early to his sleep-muddled brain—but it’s tough to ignore the intermittent thunks and thuds. Finally, after a couple attempts at burying his head under his pillow, he throws off the covers and counts his way into the kitchen doorway.

“What the hell are you doing?” Dean demands when he gets there.

“Reorganizing,” Sam grunts, and then there’s a crash of cans tumbling off one of the counters and onto the floor. “Shit.”

“You couldn’t have waited?”

From the sound of things, Sam has bent over and is busy picking up the mess. “What for?”

“Oh, I don’t know ... the sun to come up?”

“It’s one in the afternoon, man,” Sam answers, sounding far too amused as he restacks cans. “Not my fault your sleep habits are screwed up.”

“Yeah, well. Always dark, y’know? Doesn’t seem to matter when I’m up anymore,” Dean mutters.

It’s just something to say—and the honest reason why his internal clock is nonexistent—but he realizes from the tense quality of the silence that follows in the wake of his words how it sounded.

Wincing, he mutters, “I didn’t mean—”

“No, I know. I guess, uh. I guess it must be difficult keeping track of time.”

Attempting a smile, Dean lifts his shoulders in a shrug. “Not like I have anywhere to be, or anything.” Then he moves—careful of where he’s putting his feet—in the direction of his brother’s voice. “You want help?”

“Um, yeah,” Sam says, sounding pleasantly surprised by the offer. “Actually, this whole thing will work better if you help out.”

“What whole thing?” Dean asks. His toes come in contact with something hard and he stops, crouching low to get his hand on the object—a can. He picks it up, holding it out above his head, and Sam lifts it out of his grasp after only a few moment’s delay.

“They told me at the, y’know, those orientation meetings I went to? They said it was important to keep kitchen cabinets organized. I set everything up before we moved in, but you were kind of, uh …”

“You can say it,” Dean tells his brother as his searching hand finds another can. “I was being an asshole.”

Sam clears his throat in that awkward, prissy way he has sometimes and then says, “Anyway, I never really got a chance to explain the layout, and then I kind of slacked off on keeping everything where it was supposed to go, and—”

“And you turned our kitchen into one of Bobby’s junk drawers, is what you’re telling me.”

“Basically,” Sam agrees, and then lightly touches the side of Dean’s face with his fingertips. “We got them all.”

That simple touch shouldn’t affect Dean as strongly as it does, shooting warmth through his whole body and making his groin tingle. But there’s been too much tension between them for too long, and he isn’t used to this sort of casual intimacy anymore.

“Great,” he says. The word comes out heartier than it needs to as he pushes to his feet, ducking his face away from Sam’s hand at the same time.

Sam doesn’t say anything, but Dean knows his brother well enough to know that he’s probably wearing his dejected, lost puppy dog look. It’s the same expression he always used to wear whenever Dean shied away from the overwhelming, uncomfortable thing building between them. Dean’s reasons for dragging his feet are different this time around, but they aren’t any less valid.

Still, that doesn’t mean he feels any less guilty as he rubs his hand against the back of his neck and asks, “So, uh, what now?”

“Now you can tell me what works for you. You want to organize by type of packaging? Alphabetical? Food group?”

“Food group?” Dean repeats skeptically, and then shakes his head with a dismissive wave. “I changed my mind. Do whatever you want in here.”

“I just think you’ll be able to remember easier if you help me decide—”

“I’ve been doing fine so far, dude,” Dean interrupts. “Look, I appreciate you trying to do this, but I’ve never been good at memorizing this kind of organizational shit.”

“You wouldn’t have to if you’d learn Braille.”

And just like that, they’re back to picking at the same, half-healed scab.

“Goddamn it, Sam,” Dean sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“I’m not apologizing for pushing you on this one, Dean,” Sam replies stubbornly. “And I’m not giving up.”

Good for him. He can have fun talking to the air.

“I’m going back to bed,” Dean mutters, already turning around. “Wake me when you figure out how to get your head out of your ass.”

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

“So, Dean, let’s talk about your career.”

“My career?”

“You indicated in your initial interview that you were a ... Bible salesman ... before the Flare?”

“That’s right. Hey, have you been saved yet, lady? Because we have a really sweet leather-bound edition with your name on it. I drew the pictures myself.”

“I see. And what did you really do?”

“Okay, you caught me. I’m in insurance. You should really think about investing in something for this beauty of a couch, actually. What’s it made of, suede?”

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

Dean trips over the machine on his way to the kitchen. He heard Sam talking to some delivery guys when he was taking his shower, heard a lot of heavy lifting going on, but it didn’t completely register until now, when he’s hunched over on the floor rubbing his right knee.

Sam, of course, comes running instantly.

“Dean! Oh shit, man, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. Should’ve watched where I was going.”

But Sam crouches close anyway—Dean hears his brother’s clothes rustle—and a moment later his hands are on Dean’s leg, trying to pull his fingers away from his knee. “Let me see.”

“I’m fine. Christ.” Dean shakes his brother off with some difficulty and then gets to his feet. He has to favor his right leg a little, but it isn’t the worst fall he’s had. “What the hell did I trip over, anyway?”

Putting one hand out blindly, he grasps a metal bar and traces it down to what feels like a handgrip of some sort.

“It’s uh, a treadmill,” Sam says, standing as well. “It’s a present. From me and Bobby. There’s a weight bench too—should be coming sometime next week. I thought maybe we could turn the spare room into a gym.”

Dean’s first reaction is betrayed panic.

Sam knows about that morning, the day Dean realized what had happened to him and cried himself sick in the shower. He listened in—fuck, maybe he was even in the bathroom watching; Dean would never know the difference.

Then rationality filters in—Dean would’ve heard the door open when Sam snuck in, and anyway Sam never would have been able to keep his mouth shut this long. If Sam knew what sorts of things were going through Dean’s head, he’d be tossing out condolences and reassurances every other second.

But he suspects, and that’s bad enough.

Dean grins broadly to hide his unease and jokes, “You calling me fat, Sammy?”

“Actually, I was hoping this would help get your weight back up,” Sam answers seriously. “And you can’t tell me that just sitting around all day isn’t driving you nuts.”

Dean could say just that, but they both know it isn’t true, so he ignores the comment to whine, “Come on, man. You know how I feel about these hamster wheels.”

“Yeah, I do,” Sam replies.

Dean catches a hint of strain in his brother’s voice, like the conversation isn’t going the way he wanted it to. Well, boo fucking hoo for him. Dean’s life isn’t going the way he wanted it to.

“But you know what, Dean?” Sam continues. “You want to go running, you’re going to have to make some concessions.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m sick and fucking tired of making concessions.”

“Oh right. Because you’ve made so many of those.”

His brother’s scathing words draw Dean up short. Sam sounds—for the first time since their trip to Bobby’s, Sam sounds angry.

It’s all too easy to let his own frustration and anger swell up in return.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” he bites out.

“You spend your counseling sessions jerking Katie around, you won’t go to any of the support groups I’ve found, you refuse to use your cane unless I browbeat you into it, you never want to go anywhere—I have to beg to get you to come with me to the damned grocery store—and you won’t even try learning Braille—”

Face flushed with guilty resentment—none of that is untrue, but Christ, what the fuck else does Sam expect—Dean bristles, “Well I’m sorry I’m having a little trouble adjusting to being blind.”

“Being blind isn’t your problem, Dean,” Sam snaps. “Your problem is you’re scared. You’re scared that if you put any effort into dealing with the fact that you can’t see, you’re going to be stuck like this. Well guess what, man—you are stuck like this. It’s not going away. You aren’t magically going to wake up one day and be able to see again.”

Sam’s words make Dean’s stomach ache, and it’s out of self-defense rather than from any real anger that he counters, “You think I don’t know that?”

“I think you’re too busy being a self-pitying, bullheaded asshole to accept it!”

Dean sucks in a sharp breath, twitching in a hopefully unnoticeable response to his brother’s furious words. Across from him, Sam is silent, either fuming or shocked by his own vehemence.

Dean’s jaw works, but it’s a few moments before he can say, “Go ahead, Sammy. Tell me how you really feel. Don’t hold back.”

He thinks, for a long, tense moment, that Sam’s going to. Sam is going to open his mouth and spew out all of the things that Dean’s been thinking about himself for the past however many months but hasn’t been able to openly acknowledge. Sam is going to tear into him, and then Dean’s going to be able to springboard from that attack into an attack of his own.

And he’s finally—fucking finally—going to have a target for all of the useless, futile rage and pain locked up inside him.

Except Sam doesn’t.

Instead, in a tightly restrained voice, he announces, “I’m going for a walk.”

“Oh great,” Dean says, speaking loudly to be heard over the heavy thud of his brother’s footsteps. “Go ahead and run away—it’s what you’re good at!”

He works up to shouting the final words in a last ditch attempt to make Sam turn around and fight, damn it, but instead the door slams and he’s left alone.

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

“You need to think about what you’re going to do with your life now.”

“I thought maybe I’d work on perfecting my blind man’s stare. How’m I doing so far?”

“If you’re interested, I can sign you up for an aptitude test and we can get you matched up with a mentor.”

“Cause, gosh darn, that laundry’s not gonna fold itself.”

“There are a number of career options opening up for those affected by the Flare, Dean, and in a variety of fields. Sam tells me you’re good with children. Have you ever thought of youth group work?”

“Not really my style, but hey. If they’re looking for a hands-only kind of guy to oil up those exotic dancers before they go on stage, you’ve got your man.”

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

It only takes Dean about twenty minutes or so to sort through the bottled up mess of emotions in his chest and figure out that he’s being the asshole Sam accused him of. His first move after that is to find his phone and use the speed dial function to call his brother. When he hears Sam’s cell ringing in another part of the house—Sam’s bedroom, probably—he swears and throws his own phone down in the direction of the couch. There’s no loud clunk or sound of something breaking, so he figures his aim was good for once.

Turning in a short circle, Dean scrubs his hands through his hair and then laces his fingers together behind his head. It isn’t like he can’t just wait for Sam to get back and apologize then—Sam will be more likely to forgive him once he’s had his walk and cooled off—but Dean’s heart is pounding with fierce demand and his whole body is thrumming with urgency. The sooner he and Sam talk this out, the sooner things can get back to being okay between them—and Dean has to admit, now that he’s been forced to it, that things haven’t been okay between them for a while now.

Besides, going to Sam is the best way to prove that the apology he means to offer is sincere.

“Okay, so think,” he mutters, flexing his fingers without unlocking them. “Where’d he go?”

It occurs to him that he didn’t hear the Impala’s engine start up. Then he remembers that Sam said ‘walk’, which seems to indicate his brother is somewhere nearby. Sam might have gone along the main driveway, but Dean thinks that he was a little too pissed off to make it that easy for Dean to follow him along the crunch of gravel and stone.

Then he remembers what his brother said after that first, endless walk around the outside of the house.

There’s a trail in the woods that doesn’t look too hard.

Great. Now all Dean has to do is find it.

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

“Son of a bitch!”

Gritting his teeth, Dean resists the urge to hurl his cane as far away from him as he can. He’s not sure why he’s bothering with it at all, considering the fact that this is the fourth dip he’s tripped over—except that seeing him trying with the stupid thing might put Sam in a more forgiving mood. Inhaling deeply, Dean gets a better grip on the cane and starts again, this time taking more care to tap in a small arc rather than a straight line.

It’s difficult to concentrate on the signals that the cane is sending him, though, when his brain keeps telling him that his next step is going to send him plunging over the edge of a cliff. There aren’t any cliffs within miles, he knows that—Sam wouldn’t ever have bought this place if there were any dangerous geographical features—but that doesn’t stop him from constantly cringing anyway.

This is exactly why he doesn’t like coming outside, damn it.

Tilting his head to the left, Dean listens for anything that will tell him where the fuck he is in relation to the house. There’s no shift in the 360-degree surround-sound of birdsong, though; no sign he’s anywhere near the house, although he’s sure it has to be there. Somewhere. But that last stumble turned him around enough that he’s lost what little remains of his bearings. He might as well be on Mars, for fuck’s sake.

In his head, Dean alternates visualizing himself as lost in the middle of some featureless, grey plain and seeing himself stumbling around within reach of the porch railing. That last image strengthens, becoming less of an imagining and more of a certainty until Dean turns, one hand out in front of him.

When his fingers brush nothing but air, it actually comes as a minor surprise.

Right about then is when he loses all interest in finding the trail. Fuck going after Sam. Sam’ll come back. Dean just wants to get back to the goddamned house.

He turns again, trying to judge from the way the winter-stiff grass feels underneath his feet which way he’s facing, and strikes out for about five or six steady steps before pausing with an uncertain frown. There should have been a small bush by now, same one he accidentally kicked when he was headed outbound.

Would have been a bush if he’d been going in the right direction.

Okay, don’t panic, he tells himself, ignoring the trickle of sweat that has begun to work its way down the back of his neck despite the chill of the mid-March weather. You’re just a little off. It’s more to the left.

Making the necessary adjustment, Dean starts forward again.

This time, he goes all of three steps before stopping with a grunt of anxious frustration as his cane taps on something large and solid—a rock, maybe, but it doesn’t actually matter what the obstruction is because he didn’t pass anything like it on his way out.

The really maddening thing is the possibility that he might be facing the house, even if he didn’t come this way before. He could have been moving in slow, looping spirals this whole time—it’s difficult to walk in a straight line when he can’t see where he’s going and the ground keeps switching things up on him. Maybe if he had more practice with this sort of thing he’d be able to keep his bearings, but he’s been pretty much housebound since the Flare.

For all the time he’s spent dwelling in the darkness—for all the ‘adjusting’ he thought he’d been doing—as he stands next to the rock now, Dean realizes that he’s still thinking like a sighted person. He hasn’t retrained his brain to think in terms of his remaining four senses—he’s actively been resisting, actually—and even though he’s hearing all sorts of shit and felt the topography of the land beneath his feet as he walked away from the house, none of that matters. He has the information he needs to get back inside, but he doesn’t have the means to process it so that he can put it to use.

So fucking stupid, leaving himself helpless.

For a moment, the sense of shame is so strong it roots Dean to the spot. And really, what’s the point in trying when he’s only going to get himself more disoriented and lost than he is right now?

Then he thinks of Sam coming back and finding him like this.

“Goddamn it,” Dean mutters, and then carefully rounds the obstruction in front of him.

The tension in his gut and chest ratchet up with every step he takes, keeping pace with the near-certainty that he’s about to walk into a pricker bush or something equally nasty, but he perseveres anyway. He isn’t going to get anywhere at all if he keeps changing directions every three feet, and eventually he’s bound to hit a recognizable landmark of some sort.

Still, by the time Dean finally walks into the branch, his overshirt is stuck to the small of his back by a thick sheen of sweat. Startled by the unexpected collision, he swears and drops the cane. His hands come up immediately to protect his face and swipe at the skeletal bough as he backs up again, heart hammering in his chest.

It takes Dean four or five endless minutes to relocate the cane, crawling on his hands and knees and pausing every so often to wipe a streak of blood off his face where the branch’s mostly-bare twigs scratched him. The feel of the cane’s smooth surface beneath his searching fingertips comes as a relief—and then he realizes that he still has no fucking clue where he is.

This time, the moisture gathering at the corners of his eyes is from frustration and anger. He’s gone past panic, pushed into a throbbing, red void of resentful fury by the monumental failure this foray outside has become. He’s not angry with Sam for storming off on him, though. He’s angry with himself.

If he’d tried harder before, he wouldn’t be in this mess. If he’d actually worked with Sam on the cane thing, if he’d paid attention to the ins and outs of its use and practiced more than the half hour or so a week that Sam could bully out of him, then he probably wouldn’t have gotten lost in the first place. If he’d come outside more often—with Sam there to keep an eye on him—he could have mapped out the yard the same way he’s managed to map out the house.

He could have been halfway down the trail and with his brother by now, if he hadn’t been so goddamned determined not to make it work.

Well, fuck this shit. Dean’s not going to be wandering around like an idiot when Sam gets back, and he isn’t going to be kneeling here with tears in his eyes either. He’s going to be waiting for Sammy on the porch with a cold beer in hand if it kills him.

Pushing to his feet, Dean feels carefully around his head for the branch he ran into before and then follows it in to the tree’s trunk. Then, turning to his right, he starts moving along the treeline, always careful to keep his feet on grass rather than the carpet of twigs and dried leaves he assumes marks the forest proper.

It takes a while, and Dean’s pretty sure his pants are an unsalvageable mess—turns out there are pricker bushes out here, quite a few of them—but finally he brings the cane down and feels it make a grating slide instead of a solid hit. Two more shuffling steps bring his feet onto the gravel drive and he lets out a long, slow breath of relief at having his plan pay off.

It had been a good bet that the driveway would bisect the woods like this at some point, but not by any means a certainty.

From there, it’s almost child’s play to navigate back to the house, although Dean is winded when he gets to the steps. His thighs and calves ache. Some of it’s from nervous adrenaline—he’s been in fight or flight mode ever since he stepped off the porch—but mostly it’s just because he isn’t used to so much physical exertion.

Getting back into shape using the machines Sam and Bobby bought for him is going to be a bitch.

“Dean?”

That’s Sam’s voice, coming from somewhere off to Dean’s left, and he does his best to smooth his breathing out before straightening to offer what he hopes looks like a carefree wave. Nothing he can do about the whole drenched in sweat thing.

Apparently he doesn’t do as great of a job covering as he would have liked, because a few seconds later there’s the sound of Sam decelerating out of a sprint and then his brother’s breath catches.

“Shit, man, what happened?”

Dean flinches back from the curious fingers poking at his face and then winces at the reawakened sting where the branch scratched him. Oh yeah. Forgot about that.

“I walked into a tree.”

“You what?”

“You heard me,” Dean mumbles, picking at his shirt and averting his face. He isn’t sure how much control he has over his expressions anymore: difficult to tell when he can’t really remember what his nose and mouth look like.

“Jesus, your pants are filthy. Are those burrs?”

“Probably.”

“What the hell were you doing?”

Giving up the hope of retaining any dignity at all in this situation, Dean sighs and gingerly starts to sink down on the steps. Sam catches his elbow before he can, strong-arming him up the stairs and, surprisingly, along the porch away from the front door. Dean can’t help tensing up a little—he’s never been down this way—but he goes along unhesitatingly. It’s Sam, after all, and if Dean’s not willing to trust his brother to keep him in one piece by now, then he might as well shoot himself, because this is never going to work.

Turns out, Sam’s destination is some sort of chair. ‘Some sort’, because it sways back and forth when Dean sits in it, making him clamp his hands down on the arms and suck in a startled breath.

“Relax,” Sam says, setting his hands over Dean’s forearms and rubbing his thumbs back and forth reassuringly. “It’s a slider. You’re not going anywhere.”

What the fuck is a slider? Dean wants to demand, except it’s actually pretty self-evident. When he gives a little twitch and pays attention to the resulting movement, he can feel the chair slide forward on some sort of mechanism. It’s actually kind of cool, now that he knows what to expect.

“Stay there, okay?” Sam tells him. “I’m going to get something to clean your face off.”

Dean does his best to sit quietly while Sam goes inside—he’s certainly exhausted enough to take a nap—but he’s strangely keyed up as well. Part of it is lingering adrenaline from his little stroll, but mostly he thinks he’s nervous about having this conversation with Sam. It’s been a while since he’s had to be so honest with anyone—and yeah, it’s Sam, but in a lot of ways that makes this even harder.

Where’s that stupid Flare counselor when he needs her?

The screen door bangs as Sam reemerges and Dean’s head comes up. He turns his face away again immediately in a reflexive urge to hide himself, which works for all of the thirty seconds it takes for Sam to cross the porch and nudge his knee with one leg.

“Move over.”

Dean does, awkwardly—it’s going to take a bit to get used to this slider thing—and Sam drops down next to him, making the slider move wildly for a few moments before Sam steadies it again.

“I need you to look at me, dude,” Sam says then.

Dean considers refusing—maybe pointing out that he can’t look at anything—but it’s a half-hearted thought and he pushes it away quickly enough that there isn’t any lag between Sam’s request and his own compliance. Sam catches his chin in a gentle but firm grip and tilts his head back. The first swipe of a wet cloth against Dean’s cheek stings more than it should—peroxide, not water—and he hisses, trying to jerk away.

“Hold still,” Sam scolds, hanging on tighter and wiping Dean’s face a second time.

“Fucking sadist,” Dean mutters, but now that he’s prepared for the sting, he’s able to sit calmly. It should be embarrassing, having Sam baby him like this, and it is a little. Mostly, though, Dean’s stomach is tying itself up in knots for a different reason.

He’s suddenly aware that it’s been almost nine months since Sam last touched him with more than brotherly intent.

“So what happened?” Sam asks, his voice carefully modulated as he continues to wipe Dean’s face clean.

“I was trying to find the trail. Got a little turned around.”

Sam’s hands hesitate. “Why were you looking for the trail?”

“Figured you were on it,” Dean admits, and then hastens to clarify, “I knew you were coming back, man. I just didn’t want to wait.”

“Yeah,” Sam says after a moment, his voice warmer than it has been all week. “I remember you having a bit of a self-control problem.”

Dean’s cheeks warm. “Shut up,” he says, but the order lacks any sort of bite and he can practically feel Sam’s smirk.

“Thought you liked my mouth open,” Sam replies. There’s a degree of tension in his tone, as though he isn’t quite sure this sort of teasing is okay, but can’t help himself either.

Dean’s face heats further—tips of his ears, too—as he remembers Sam on his knees between his legs. Sam’s eyes focused up on Dean’s face, tracking every faintest response Dean made to the hot, wet pressure around his cock. Fuck, Sam had looked ... he’d ...

“Sorry,” Sam says softly, releasing Dean’s face, and Dean comes out of his head with a jolt.

“I’m not pissed at you, dude,” Dean promises. “I was just, uh, a little distracted.”

“In a good way?” The hesitating quality to the hope in that question hurts—Christ, has Dean really been so much of a prick these last few months that Sam could think otherwise?

“I don’t really have any bad memories of your mouth, Sam,” he says. It’s probably not the most reassuring thing he could say, but it’s the best he can do right now. And, from the hand Sam rests on Dean’s knee, it’s enough.
“Then maybe, uh, maybe we could relive the moment?”

Dean’s tempted. He’d have to be dead not to be tempted. But when he thinks of laying a new memory over the old—darkness over Sam’s teasing eyes and wet, wide mouth—his stomach turns over and the warmth that was building in his crotch vanishes.

“Maybe we should talk,” he counters.

Beside him, Sam laughs softly as he takes his hand away from Dean’s knee. “That’s usually my line.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m growing up,” Dean replies, and then, after a pause, adds, “Just because we’re talking doesn’t mean you have to stop touching me.”

“Do you want me to touch you?” Sam asks, sounding startled—but tentatively pleased—by the prospect.

“It doesn’t suck.”

Sam laughs again at that—more warmly, this time, with less of the bitter trace Dean heard in the sound a moment ago—but he deserves the truth. And if this conversation is going to fix anything between them, then Dean has to start fessing up to things, no matter how embarrassing they are.

As Sam’s hand creeps back into place—slightly higher on his thigh, but still low enough to keep things mostly platonic—Dean adds, “I like knowing where you are. It calms me down when I can feel you.”

Sam is silent and still for a moment, and then his hand lifts again. Before Dean can protest the loss, Sam tugs at his shoulders. The slider jostles underneath them as Sam pulls Dean up against his side, turning both of their bodies until Dean’s back is resting against Sam’s chest. One of Sam’s legs is up and bent, caught between the back of the slider and Dean’s left side. The other is braced on the porch, pressed up close against Dean’s right hip and keeping them steady.

“Is this okay?” Sam asks as he carefully slides his arms around Dean’s waist and rests his chin lightly on Dean’s shoulder.

Dean gives it a beat and then, deadpan, asks, “How come I’m playing the girl here?”

It startles a laugh out of his brother—a full on, belly guffaw, which is what Dean was going for—and then Sam pulls him even closer. “Cause you’re the pretty one,” he answers, nuzzling Dean’s ear.

“Am I?”

Sam huffs softly in amusement. “Dude, you know you’re gorgeous.”

There it is, right in front of Dean. It maybe isn’t the place he was planning on starting the conversation, but it’s as perfect of an opening as he’s going to get. And he can’t get the words out of his mouth.

“Dean?” Sam prods, pressing his hands more solidly against Dean’s stomach.

The softness registers—used to be, Sam traced planes of muscle when he touched Dean like this—and it’s enough to goad Dean into saying, “I don’t know. I don’t—I don’t know what I look like anymore.”

Behind him, Sam is silent and still.

Dean licks his lips and barrels forward. “I mean, I know there’s no scarring on my face, because I can’t feel it, but I don’t—my eyes, I don’t know—”

“They look the same,” Sam says. All of the light-hearted teasing has gone out of his voice, but as much as there’s a part of Dean that mourns the loss, mostly he’s grateful to hear his brother taking this so seriously. Dean’s eyelids flutter closed as Sam reaches up and brushes his fingertips over his lashes. “Green. They’re green, and so goddamned beautiful, and I—I hate it when you hide them from me.”

“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“You don’t,” Sam hastens to assure him. “God, Dean, you—you’re my brother, man. I don’t care if you can’t focus on me, or whatever. I just—I hate it when you hide,” he finishes helplessly.

Dean spares a moment to gather himself and then confesses, “It’s not easy for me. I don’t—I don’t know who the hell I am anymore, Sammy.” His voice breaks on the words and he hates it, he hates the way his chest is hitching, hates how fucking easy it is to break down.

“You’re my brother,” Sam answers. He doesn’t mention the struggle Dean’s having with himself out loud, but the brush of his forehead against the side of Dean’s temple is a pretty clear acknowledgment. Dean takes in a sharp breath and holds it, fighting back the tears that want to come. His chest twinges in painful constriction at the brush of his brother’s lips against his cheek.

“I want to help,” Sam adds, steadfastly ignoring the way Dean is slowly shaking apart in his arms. “I want to be here for you, man, but you have to let me in.”

Dean nods, grimacing at the trickle of moisture on his cheeks. “I know,” he rasps. “I know.”

Sam kisses him again, a chaste reminder of solidarity pressed against the curve of his throat, and Dean gropes for his brother’s forearm where it’s draped across his stomach. Digging his fingers into Sam’s skin, he clings and waits for the pain in his chest to subside enough to haul in a breath. His brother’s mouth moves on his skin, slow and tender, and Dean shakes as he turns his face to the side, not sure if he’s giving Sam more room to work or trying to pull away from the moment. It’s too much, too fast, but his chest isn’t working well enough to get the words out.

“I love you,” Sam breathes. “I love you, Dean.”

The tension in Dean’s chest breaks at that, spilling loose with the rest of his tears, and he cries silently, half turning into his brother’s chest so that he can hang onto Sam’s arm. Sam holds him quietly, using the leg he has propped on the floor to rock them both back and forth on the slider, and that’s how Dean falls asleep, with the cold wind drying tears on his face and Sam holding him tight.

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

 

“Tell me about your brother.”

“Sam? What do you want to know about him?”

“I don’t know ... what’s your relationship like?”

“Fine.”

“Just fine?”

“He’s my kid brother, Lady. What else do you want?”

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

Dean wakes some time later, feeling headachy and more than a little ashamed.

“Hey,” Sam says almost immediately—probably felt Dean stiffen in his arms.

“Hey.”

“You going to push me away now?” Sam asks. Except the way he says it, it’s less of a question and more of a challenge.

Dean hesitates—fuck, it’d be easier if he did—but of course nothing has changed since his embarrassing breakdown. Avoidance isn’t working. As terrifying as it might be to admit, he can’t do this on his own.

“Ask me again when it’s warmer,” he says, pulling Sam’s arm closer around himself and burrowing as close as he can to his brother’s chest. “Whose idea was it to do this outside in the middle of March, anyway?”

“You haven’t seen your jeans,” Sam answers, sounding more relaxed now that Dean is very clearly not running. “Like I’m letting you track that crap in the house.”

Dean snorts but doesn’t respond. The side of him not pressed up against Sam is a little cold, but mostly he’s pretty comfortable here. And there’s a dull, exhausted quality to his legs that tells him he’s going to be in a world of pain when he finally stands up.

After a brief delay, Sam’s torso shifts beneath him as Sam moves his arm. Before Dean can complain, Sam is rubbing his back in slow, easy strokes that make Dean grin and nuzzle his face against his brother’s shoulder.

“Mmm. You’ve got about a hundred years to stop that.”

Sam’s only response is to continue stroking, and Dean sinks into a low-key, almost-doze as he listens to the wind moving through the woods. The birds are still calling out, noisy bastards, and he imagines them as starlings, puffed into balls with their feathers ruffled. He’s probably as wrong about that as he was about where the house was earlier, but whatever.

“Hey, Dean?” Sam says eventually. His voice rumbles pleasantly against Dean’s cheek.

“Mmm?”

“Does it bother you, not knowing what things look like?”

That’s a pretty stupid question, so Dean doesn’t waste his energy on more than a grunt.

Sam leaves it alone for all of a minute before offering, “I could describe things, if you want.”

That gets Dean’s attention. He opens his eyes and sits up straighter, twisting around to look in his brother’s direction. It’s reflex, born from years of gauging Sam’s sincerity from his expression, but for once Dean doesn’t turn away again when he realizes the futility of what he’s doing.

Instead, he furrows his brow and checks, “Are you serious?”

“I don’t know whether I’ll be any good at it, but yeah.” Sam’s hand stills at the base of Dean’s back. “I would have offered before, but I didn’t think of it.”

“I didn’t ask,” Dean points out—mostly because he didn’t think of it either. It never occurred to him that Sam’s eyes were still good, that maybe Sam could fill in some of the grey spaces in his head for him.

There’s a beat of silence and then Sam says, awkwardly, “Okay. Uh. We’re on the porch. It’s a wraparound, runs all the way around the house—which is painted blue, by the way. The porch is white.”

“Aw, how quaint.”

“You want to hear this or what?” Sam replies, but Dean’s sarcasm has relaxed him the way it was supposed to and his hand starts moving on Dean’s back again as he continues, “We’re in a clearing at the end of a gravel road. The clearing’s a little rough—which I guess you found out for yourself. I think this used to be a farm, maybe. There’s a few tree stumps leftover, and on one side of the clearing up against the woods there’s an old fence ...”

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

“It’s okay to feel angry with him, you know.”

“I’m not angry. I’m a little pissed at the man upstairs, maybe, but Sam and I are cool.”

“You don’t resent him? Because it would be a completely normal, understandable response if you did.”

“He’s my brother, lady. He’s the only one who’s ever really had my back. He’s been bending over backwards ever since the Flare, trying to look out for me. Why the hell would I resent him?”

“Because he can still see.”

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

Dean wonders about that one. He spends more time in general turning over Katie’s observations these days—he basically promised Sam he’d try harder, and he’s determined to keep his word. But that particular insight bothers him more than usual, lodging under his skin and chaffing like a stuck burr. He finds himself cross-examining his conversations with his brother; inspecting the roots of his anger whenever he loses his temper and explodes, an occurrence that’s still all too common.

The counselor’s words nag at him until, during breakfast one morning, Dean finally says, “You don’t think I resent you or anything, do you?”

“What?” Sam replies. There’s the clink of him setting his spoon down in his cereal and then he says, sounding confused, “No. Why would you resent me?”

“Good,” Dean says, ignoring the question. “Because I don’t.”

It’s true, he realizes with a rush of relief. Maybe it’s because he knows that the only reason Sam isn’t blind is that he would have been playing the part of Lucifer’s prom dress if things had been different, maybe it’s because he just doesn’t have it in him. Not when it comes to Sam.

“That’s ... good?” Sam offers. “Thanks?”

Dean nods and busies himself with his breakfast. “You’re welcome.”

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

Working with the cane and getting back into shape are easy fixes—that’s physical stuff, and Dean’s always been pretty good at that sort of thing when he puts his mind to it. Oh sure, the treadmill takes some getting used to, and his legs are pretty much solid bruises after his first week of steady cane-work, but he notices improvements right off the bat.

His legs stop feeling like pulverized meat the day after a run, and he manages to push through more and more of Appetite For Destruction, which makes for some kick ass exercise music. Sam keeps having to add more weights on the bench, and when Dean runs his hands over his body assessingly in the shower, he can practically feel everything firming back up again.

Over a series of Sam-supervised excursions, Dean maps out the clearing around the house (which is apparently blue with white trim and porch, yellow walls inside, white cabinets, checkerboard pattern on the kitchen floor). He finds the trail, gets familiar with its twists and bends, and adds a hike to his daily routine. Sam buys him a talking watch and he learns how to orient himself in the wider world by comparing the direction of the sun’s warmth on his face with the time of day.

Sam carefully and grudgingly teaches him how to use the stove, and more enthusiastically offers lessons on the laundry machine and the dishwasher.

But Dean still can’t respond to his brother’s increasingly frequent attempts to shift their relationship into something a little less platonic. He’s too afraid the darkness of the new memories is going to blot out everything that came before, too afraid that it isn’t going to work now, for whatever reason. That Sam’s going to handle him differently, that it will ruin everything they had.

What he can’t accept during the day, though, Dean embraces at night. His heart pounds eagerly as he lies in bed and listens to his brother move around the room next door. His breathing shallows as he listens to Sam finally climbing into his own bed, and then he licks his lips and carefully arranges his hand around his cock and waits. Like clockwork, Sam starts up less than five minutes later, all muffled groans and harsh panting.

Dean gets that Sam thinks he’s being stealthy—thinks Dean can’t possibly hear with all that plaster and wood between them—but as he listens to the bitten-off cry that might or might not be his name, stroking himself to completion as well, Dean knows that he isn’t going to tell his brother otherwise.

He’s too afraid Sam will stop if he does.

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

“Do you think you deserve what happened to you?”

“I did for a while. Now I figure it’s just God dicking me around some more.”

“So you’re a believer.”

“Lady, not by choice, believe me.”

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

They’re putting away the groceries when Dean finally pushes himself into taking the last step—or rather, Sam is putting away groceries while Dean sits at the kitchen table fingering a can of soup. He thinks it’s a can of soup, anyway, because of the way that it sloshes when he turns it over.

Then Sam comes over and asks, “Hey, man, can I have the corn, or do you want to fondle it some more?”

Dean barely ever gets frustrated or annoyed these days, but he feels a hot flash of both emotions now, and his jaw tightens as he holds the can out. Sam doesn’t take it.

“What’s wrong?” he asks instead.

“Nothing. Do you want the damned can or not?”

“Dean,” Sam sighs. “I thought we weren’t doing this anymore.”

“I’m not doing anything, Sam. You’re the one being a little bitch.”

“Right. You’re the one doing the name-calling, but I’m the bitch. Okay. Glad we cleared that up.”

Dean clenches his jaw shut on the string of swears that want to come out, and then twitches as Sam pulls out the chair next to him and sits down.

“So spill,” Sam says evenly. “What’s wrong?”

Dean chews his anger over on one side of his mouth—it’d feel so fucking good to unleash on Sam right about now—but in the end he gets that hurting Sam isn’t going to fix anything and shoves the can of corn across the table at his brother instead.

“I thought it was soup,” he mutters.

“You what?”

“I thought it was soup, okay?” Dean repeats more loudly. “I don’t know what anything is, and I’m bored out of my fucking skull when you’re gone during the day, and it pisses me off.”

“Okay,” Sam replies, still way too calm for Dean’s peace of mind. “So what do we do about it? Do you want to get a job? Or—I guess the agency won’t mind if I bring you with me, and you know the kids would love to see you.”

“Don’t you already take care of enough blind people during the day without adding another?”

“I dunno. Everyone’s getting pretty self-sufficient, actually. I’ll probably be out of a job soon.”

“I’m not coming with you.”

“Okay. So give me a counter offer.”

And that’s when Dean realizes that Sam already knows. The son of a bitch knows what Dean’s been trying to ask for and unable to get out for the last three weeks, and now he’s trying to make him say it.

“Go screw yourself, Sam. That’s my counter offer.”

“I don’t think that’s physically possible, and I’m pretty sure it’s not going to keep you entertained during the day.”

“Goddamn it, Sam, you know what I want.”

“I do?”

Oh, for fuck’s sake ...

“Look, are you going to teach me how to read Braille or what?”

Blind or not, Dean’s sure he can see his brother’s smile.

“All you had to do was ask.”

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

Dean throws the Braille reader Sam buys as a teaching aid across the room more times than he can count. Once, the beer he’s nursing follows it.

Sam never gets upset. He never raises his voice.

He just gets up, moving quietly and calmly, retrieves the reader and puts it back down in front of Dean.

“Okay, so. You feel this?” Gripping Dean’s hand, he unfolds his finger and drags it over the surface of the reader. “This, right here. What letter is that?”

“This is stupid.”

“C’mon, man. Play along for a few more minutes and you get a treat.”

“I’m not a fucking do—hey. Wait a second.” Frowning, Dean runs his finger over the reader again. “D ... o ... g. Dog.”

“Woof,” Sam huffs in his ear.

It’s stupid to get excited over one little word—a preschooler’s word, at that—but Dean’s pulse rises anyway and a grin slips onto his face. He runs his pointer finger over the tiny, raised dots a third time, feeling the patterns that form the word, and then slaps his hand down triumphantly. It’s still a hell of a long way from here to reading a newspaper or a book, but it’s a victory he was beginning to think wasn’t going to happen, no matter how much he struggled to put things together.

“Goddamn,” he crows.

Sam’s head bumps his—fond knock of congratulation—and Dean turns his own head around, letting his brother get a better look at his face and not trying to hide the pride bursting in his chest.

“Told you you could do it,” Sam says, clearly grinning himself—Dean can hear it in his voice.

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean snorts. He casually waves the vote of confidence off with one hand, but can’t do anything about the pride still radiating from his unschooled expression. “It’s one word. Not like I’m rocketing through War and Peace over here.”

“Maybe tomorrow,” Sam replies with that unabashed enthusiasm that always makes Dean snort and shake his head.

“Maybe next year,” Dean counters, and then, before Sam can reply, adds, “Now didn’t you say something about a treat?”

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

“Sam tells me you’re learning Braille.”

“Sam has a big mouth.”

“How’s that going for you?”

“Okay.”

“Just okay?”

“Slow, all right? It’s—I’m not great with that stuff.”

“With what stuff?”

“Brain stuff. I’m not—I’m not smart like Sam is.”

“Who told you that?”

“No one had to tell me, I just—I never did great in school. Doesn’t it tell you this sort of stuff in the file?”

“Your file is just a stack of paper, Dean. Grades are just numbers. What I’m interested in is the young man sitting across from me, and he seems perfectly intelligent and capable, in my opinion.”

“You sound like Sammy.”

“Sammy’s a wise man.”

….

“Dean?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess he’s not a complete moron.”

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

It turns out that the word ‘treat’ is highly subjective, because Dean can think of a lot of ways to describe a long, grueling walk down the path—further than Dean has ever made it on his own—and that sure as hell isn’t one of them. Good thing he’s back in shape, more or less, because the last fifty feet or so were fucking brutal, involving a lot of hauling himself up from one man-sized boulder to another. He’s not sure how he’s going to get back down now that he’s here, actually, although he’s got no compunctions making that Sam’s problem when they come to it.

“Fuck me,” he pants as he hauls himself up the highest obstacle yet—hopefully, the dirt under his fingers signals that it was the last as well.

“Too tired,” Sam groans from a little in front of him and to the right. He sounds just as exhausted as Dean feels, which is a little bit of an ego boost, anyway, and Dean uses up the last of his reserves to find a small rock and lob it in his brother’s direction.

“Ow!” Sam complains, and there’s a slight scuffle as he shifts where he’s also sprawled out.

“Serves you right,” Dean tells him, squirming a little himself as sweat trickles down the small of his back. “I know this great place,” he mimics as his breathing starts to come back under control. “It’ll be awesome.”

“It will,” Sam protests.

“Nothing is this awesome.”

Sam snorts. “Come on, man. We’re almost there. And the hard part’s over now.”

A hand closes around Dean’s bicep and hauls him up while he groans reluctantly.

“You want a description?” Sam offers as Dean takes a moment to brush himself off where assorted dirt and twigs are sticking to his shirt and jeans.

“What, of this place? Let me guess. Tree, tree, rock, shrub, more trees—ah, screw it.”

Leaving off his own—spot-on, he’s sure—description, Dean grabs his t-shirt with both hands and hauls it over his head. There’s not much of a breeze this far into the woods, even as high as he senses they’ve climbed, but it still feels cooler without it on. Shoving the shirt deep enough into his back jean pocket to be sure he won’t lose it, Dean holds out his hand in his brother’s direction expectantly.

When nothing happens, he prods, “Dude, my cane?” Sam better still have it. If not, he’s going back down to get the damn thing.

“Uh, sorry,” Sam says. He sounds distracted, and Dean’s brow furrows as his brother finally passes over the cane.

“You doing okay there?”

“Yeah,” Sam answers, his voice vibrating a little as they both start moving forward again. “I just—you haven’t been here before.”

“And?”

“You’re not—uh, you seem okay with it.”

Dean stops, tilting his head in his brother’s direction. “Well sure, aside from the insane climbing part. Why wouldn’t I be?”

As soon as the question is out of his mouth, though, he remembers what it was like just a few short months ago. He remembers how panicked he got in their own back yard, just a few feet from the house. Even with Sam with him, in new territory he never could master the trick of relaxing.

So what changed?

Part of it’s the cane—knowing how to use the cane. And he’s on a clearly marked trail, as far as his senses are concerned; the trail isn’t used often, but there’s enough of a difference between the groomed conditions here and the thickness of the brush even a few feet to one side. If Sam vanished right now, he might have a bitch of a time getting down the rocks they just climbed up, but he doesn’t doubt that he’d be able to make it back to the house.

And really, that’s the difference right there, when Dean thinks about it.

Confidence.

Been a while since he had this much faith in his own abilities.

His throat closes up for a second with the force of the unexpected realization, but he shoves the confused knot of emotions away almost immediately. Looking away from Sam, he taps his way forward along the trail with renewed determination.

“Whatever,” he says as he goes, brushing his brother’s observation away. “This place better be close.”

He can’t hear Sam following him at first, which makes him worry Sam isn’t going to drop it that easily, but then there’s a crunch of a breaking twig and the brush of his brother’s shoulder against his own.

“It is,” Sam promises, and Dean’s really grateful he can’t see anything right now, because he can tell from his brother’s voice that Sam’s face is all twisted up with the kind of emotions—love, pride, relief—that would make him embarrassed if he could see them. It’s easier to ignore that sort of thing if he doesn’t have to look at it.

There’s an awkward few minutes anyway, when he can tell from the quality of Sam’s breathing that his brother is crying a little, but then they both ease back into the rhythm of the hike. A couple of times, Sam does make him pause—once to describe a funky looking beetle crawling across the trail, and then again to make Dean touch a fuzzy growth of moss on a downed tree. Dean scoffs and rolls his eyes, but privately he has to admit that the moss feels pretty cool—soft, almost like velvet.

When Sam grips his elbow and brings him to a third stop, Dean’s pretty sure it has something to do with the sudden rush of wind that blows past his face and chest, drying the thin layer of sweat on his skin. There’s more light here, too—Dean can feel the sun on his shoulders—and he tilts his face up toward it as he waits for his brother to describe whatever clearing they’ve come to.

But all Sam says is, “We’re here,” and then there’s the sound of Sam’s knapsack hitting the ground.

“And here is ...” Dean says. Sam has released him, but some instinct keeps Dean standing where his brother halted him.

“Well, what can you tell me?” Sam counters.

It’s a stupid game—training exercise, really—but it’s harmless enough and Sam’s always amused by the things Dean comes up with, so Dean humors him and tilts his face into the wind and says, “Okay. I can feel the sun and it’s windy, which means we’re somewhere exposed—and not just a clearing. It wouldn’t get so windy unless there was some space.”

“You’re right,” Sam agrees. From the sound of his voice, he’s crouched down by his bag, and Dean hears one of the compartments being unzipped.

“It’s still hot as hell, so we’re not up too high, even if we did climb up Mt. Everest back there.”

“Ha ha. Anything else?”

“I can smell flowers. Um. Evergreen. And, uh ... water?”

“You can smell that?” Sam asks, sounding surprised but pleased.

Dean hitches his shoulders in a shrug. “Sure. How do you think I always manage to get inside before it rains?”

He counts down in his head, waiting for Sam to connect the dots, and right on schedule, Sam complains, “Wait a minute. You mean last week, when I asked if you wanted to go for a walk and you told me to go ahead without you, you knew it was going to pour?”

Grinning, Dean looks down toward his brother’s voice. “It was just a little water, dude.”

“You asshole.”

“Hey, it’s not like I have a whole lot of options when it comes to pranks these days. Gotta get my jabs in where I can.”

There’s a beat of silence and Dean sighs.

“Don’t turn that into a thing, Sam.”

“I’m not,” Sam argues, a little too soft and late for it to be completely believable. To his credit, though, he clears his throat and immediately adds, “Anyway, you’re right on all counts. I thought you might want to go swimming.”

“Swimming?” Dean checks, turning his head back into the wind as his heart speeds. “How much water are we talking about here?”

“It’s a lake. I can just about make out the other side from here.” Sam’s voice lifts as he stands and then arms wrap around Dean’s waist. “There’s a little beach about ten feet in front of you,” he announces, resting his chin on Dean’s bare shoulder.

Dean’s stomach does a tight flip and he shakes his head. “I don’t know, Sam ...”

“I’ll be right here, Dean,” he promises. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“What?” Dean twists his head back in surprise before shaking it with a snort. “I know you won’t, dude; that’s not the problem.”

“Then what is?”

“I’m not exactly into the whole public nudity thing, Sam,” Dean answers dryly, his skin prickling with the illusionary sensation of eyes.

Sam laughs, which makes Dean’s shoulders hunch a little in annoyance.

“Dude, we’re on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Unless you’re concerned about offending some beavers or something, you don’t have to worry.”

“And I’m supposed to just take your word for it.”

“Yeah. Don’t you trust me?”

Dean does, actually. This is becoming more and more a problem of not trusting himself.

Naked and alone with Sam, also naked, in some kind of mountain top lake.

Like that isn’t a recipe for disaster.

“Please?” Sam urges, hugging Dean tighter around the waist. “The water’s cool, and I brought towels and some sandwiches for lunch. And I know how much you love swimming, man.”

Dean can feel his resolve weakening and doesn’t like it one bit. Down this road leads unfortunate decisions and stupid impulses he can’t take back. Impulses it’s getting harder and harder to fight down when he lies in bed at night listening to Sam in the next room.

“Please?” Sam begs again, his mouth brushing Dean’s ear and making him shiver.

Dean means to tell Sam to back the fuck off, but when he opens his mouth, what comes out is, “Okay.”

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

“You know what I miss most?”

“What?”

“Driving. We used to take a lot of road trips, me and my brother, and there’s just something about the open road, you know? Lots of sky, windows rolled down, radio blasting. Me and Sam, we’d drive for hours at a time, and he’s—he’s a real talker, Sammy. I mean, you’ve met him, right?”

“I have.”

“Yeah, so you know what he’s like. But when we were driving he used to—I dunno, it zenned him out or something. Hours of just sitting together, nothing but the music. Peaceful, y’know? And man, we had the sweetest ride. Best goddamn car on the road.”

“What kind of car are we talking about?”

“67 Chevy Impala.”

“Sounds nice.”

“Fucking A, she’s nice.”

“And you can’t do that anymore?”

“You’re shitting me, right?”

“It’s a fair question, Dean. It sounds like you enjoyed those trips. I’m just asking whether it really matters who’s driving.”

“Why the fuck would I want to spend hours in a car if I’m not behind the wheel?”

“I don’t know, Dean, but I have to say, from what you’ve told me, it doesn’t sound like it’s the driving you miss.”

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

The cool, clean water is refreshing after the long hike, and Dean feels his muscles unknotting as he walks forward, Sam’s big hands on his shoulders keeping him steady. He also feels his brother’s eyes taking in the view.

Sam squeals behind him suddenly, jumping. It’s a surprisingly girly noise, and Dean finds himself fighting not to grin even as he tenses. “What? Dude, what?”

“I stepped on a fish,” Sam admits, sounding sheepish.

Dean’s startled into a laugh. “Dude, seriously?” he asks, turning around. It’s safe enough now, with the lake water lapping up around his belly button. At least, he hopes it’s safe enough.

He should have asked Sam if the lake was clear or not.

Ignoring his sudden uncertainty, Dean grins and accuses, “You scream like a little girl.”

“I do not.”

Dean’s grin widens. “Any rocks behind me?” he asks.

There’s a pause while Sam checks and then his brother answers. “No. Why—Dean, wait!”

But Dean has already turned and pushed off, stroking out with steady, smooth motions of his arms and legs. The water is comforting, empty of the obstacles that piss him off so much when he’s land-bound, and he doesn’t even hesitate before taking a deep breath and ducking under.

Water enfolds him, covering his ears and blocking out the sound of anything but the blood pounding in his veins. For one heartbeat ... two ... three ... He really is lost in the world, blind and deaf and smothered by the sameness of the lake pressing in all around. Then his feet touch bottom—muck and some slime-coated plants—and he pushes up again.

The world comes back in a rush as his head breaks the surface—press of the sun, the wind, sound of Sam splashing gracelessly in his direction.

Dean’s never felt less blind.

“Dean! Jesus Christ, what the fuck do you think you’re doing? What if I missed something, huh? What if you got disoriented down there and couldn’t figure out which way was up? What if—”

Grinning, Dean grabs his brother as he comes into reach and hauls him into a kiss.

He’s a little off-center on his first try—okay, a lot off center, since he gets mostly hair and a graze of Sam’s ear. But he corrects the error easily enough now that he has a reference point, and the second time he pushes forward it’s the corner of Sam’s mouth he finds. Another, slight adjustment, and he has hold of Sam’s lips, is parting them with his tongue and pushing forward.

Sam has been stunned into stillness, and Dean presses his advantage by wrapping both of his arms around his brother’s neck and sliding their chests together. Unresponsive as Sam’s mouth is right now, there’s nothing wrong with the parts of him below water, and Dean can’t resist grinding against him a little, still treading water to keep them both afloat. He revels in the spike of arousal that tightens his own balls as his cock rubs against his brother’s.

Right about then is when Sam’s brain comes back on line enough for his mouth to move against Dean’s. He lets out a soft, helpless groan and gets a hold of Dean’s hair, overbalancing them both with the movement and dropping them below the surface. He compensates before Dean can even consider pulling away, and then starts easing them backwards to shallower waters.

The lake bottom is kind of disgusting where Dean’s feet find it again, but he’s too busy remapping his brother’s mouth to care.

He doesn’t know why he’s been so scared of this.

Dean thought it would be different, kissing Sam without being able to look at him, and it is—it’s completely different. But the memories of all the kisses that came before aren’t fading away. They haven’t been eclipsed by the darkness surrounding the moment now.

And Dean didn’t realize how sensitive his other senses have become—or rather, he knew, but he didn’t understand how much they would change this one, simple thing.

But he can taste Sam—taste traces of Sam’s sweat, and lake water, and some sweet, nutty flavor that he hasn’t ever noticed before.

He can smell Sam—salt and honey and roses—which has to be the shampoo he uses, and Dean’s teasing the crap out of him for that one later.

He can feel Sam. Sam’s wet skin slick against his fingertips, his back muscles flexing against Dean’s palm where one of his hands has slipped lower. Sam’s mouth, all soft lips and demanding push, and the slightly rough brush of his tongue rubbing against Dean’s as he opens his mouth and lets his brother in.

He can hear Sam—breath shallow and fast, heart pounding in counterpoint to Dean’s rapid pulse. He can hear the wet, soft noise that’s their mouths meeting, the scrape of Sam’s nails over the back of Dean’s skull as Sam draws his head more firmly into the kiss.

And overlaying everything is the knowledge that Sam is with him, that Sam has him, that Sam isn’t going to let him fall—not now, not ever—and the sensation of being loved and protected swells to such a staggering, overwhelming magnitude that Dean’s head spins.

For the first time in his life, Dean can finally see.

Chapter Text

They get back to the house late that evening, just before sunset. The return trip takes over two hours—that series of boulders was as problematic as Dean knew it would be—but Dean’s body is still flushed and singing when he emerges from the woods and steps back into the open area of the yard. They haven’t actually done much yet—nothing but a lot of kissing and some tentative, above-the-waist petting—but Dean’s looking forward to spending tonight in his brother’s bed. Or maybe Sam can come join Dean in his—he’s not picky.

God, he hopes Sam has condoms. And lube. But mostly condoms. They’ve made it work like that before.

Sam catches Dean around the waist as he bounds up the steps, pulling him to a halt. Dean stops easily, letting his brother pull him back against his body and twisting his head around for the kiss he’s sure is coming. Sam doesn’t disappoint, mouth eager and hands roving restlessly over Dean’s bare chest.

“God, I want to fuck you,” Sam breathes into the kiss.

“Not if I fuck you first,” Dean answers, although damned if he cares which one of them comes out on top. There’ll be plenty of time to play around the other way later, once the fire isn’t burning quite so hot in their blood.

The playful nip Sam gives his bottom lip tells Dean his brother is up for letting a tussle decide who gets first go, and then he nudges Dean forward, still hanging on to his waist.

“Making it kind of tough to walk here,” Dean points out, the second time he almost trips over Sam’s feet.

“Yeah?” But Sam sounds really unrepentant, and now he’s mouthing at the back of Dean’s neck, and Dean gives up trying to get inside with any sort of decorum.

“Just get us to the fucking bed,” he mutters, reaching behind his head and sliding his hand over the side of his brother’s face.

“Yes, sir,” Sam agrees. His voice is muffled by Dean’s skin, and Dean laughs as Sam reaches around his body and somehow pulls the door open.

They enter the house entwined in each other, Sam more than a little occupied with Dean’s throat and rubbing his stomach with absent possessiveness. It’s distracting, but not quite distracting enough for Dean to miss the fact that they have company—something in the quality of the air.

“Sam,” he says urgently, gripping his brother’s wrist and stilling the hand on his stomach.

Sam stiffens behind him, frozen and caught out, and Dean can tell from the way his brother is breathing that he’s stuck fielding this one alone for the time being.

“Hey, Cas,” he says as casually as he can manage with his brother wrapped around him. “What’s shaking.”

“Hello, Dean. How did you know it was me?”

“You smell like church,” Dean answers. It’s the only way he can think of to describe that ruffling, feathery dust-and-candle-and-incense scent.

Sam is finally thawing behind him, and now he separates himself from Dean with a little cough. “This, uh, isn’t what you think,” he tries.

“I’m not concerned with your illicit fornications, Sam.”

“Oh. Uh. Okay, then,” Sam says, and they all stand there silently.

Dean lets the moment drag out for almost a minute before shifting and clearing his throat. “Not that I’m not thrilled we rated this little visit, but you’re kind of cock blocking me right now—”

“Dean!” Sam hisses, scandalized.

“—so if you could get to the point, Sam and I would really appreciate it.”

“Oh. Yes, I—I apologize,” Castiel says, and then there’s the sound of his snappy dress shoes clicking on the floor as he moves closer. “I spoke with my Father on your behalf, Sam, and He agreed that you also deserve a blessing for your part in averting the Apocalypse. Anything you want, Sam. Anything.”

Dean can feel Castiel’s eyes on him—and Sam’s eyes—and he can’t move. He knows what Cas is offering, and the weight of it is terrible. It drops his stomach and shortens his breath, like watching a speeding train coming straight for him and being completely unable to get out of the way.

There’s no question what Sam’s going to demand. Dean can’t open his mouth fast enough to protest, and he can tell from the tone of Castiel’s voice that it wouldn’t matter anyway. What he wants—and fuck, but Dean would really like to be having a cohesive emotional response right about now—doesn’t matter.

But Sam doesn’t say anything.

“Sam,” Castiel urges. “You understand what I’m offering. What I can do.”

“I—” Sam stammers, sounding dazed. “Yeah, I—Yes. No!”

His voice is sharp suddenly, forbidding, but Dean can’t make his shoulders relax. His entire body is thrumming in the wake of the church-scented breeze that wafted forward to surround him at what Cas clearly took for permission. The angel’s hand is close enough to Dean’s forehead that he can feel Cas’ fingers brushing his mussed hair.

Oh fuck, he’s going to be sick.

“I meant I understood,” Sam says shakily.

Castiel doesn’t move. “I need your permission, Sam,” he says tightly—desperately.

Dean thinks again about the depth of guilt he saw in the angel the last time Cas was here, thinks about what Castiel blames himself for—Hell, he guesses, and the dark couple of years that followed, and other crimes Dean doesn’t know about. Things he doesn’t want to know about.

A nod from Sam—anything that smacks of assent at all—and Cas will do it. Cas desperately wants to do it.

“Dean,” Sam rasps instead—God only knows why he’s still stalling, but that almost sounded like a question. “Dean,” Sam says again, more strongly this time. “What do you want me to do?”

The realization that his destiny is back in his own hands punches Dean’s breath out. He shakes his head, swallowing, and it’s not a ‘no’ so much as it is a confused attempt to quiet the sudden clamor of thoughts and impulses in his head.

But Castiel makes a broken noise anyway, as though Dean just stabbed him, and whispers, “Dean, please.”

“Dean,” Sam says a third time, his voice cutting through the confusion and getting Dean’s attention. “You have to give me some kind of sign here, man.”

“I don’t know,” Dean manages finally.

He expects Sam to yell at him—what the hell does that mean, ‘you don’t know’—but instead Sam just says, quietly, “Can we have some time, Cas?”

“I don’t understand,” Castiel says, plaintively confused. “This is what you want, Sam. This is what you’ve prayed for.”

Dean can’t help feeling a little betrayed at that revelation—Sam’s been pushing Dean to adapt and promising him that he’s the same person now as he was before, that he isn’t any less, and that type of prayer seems to indicate that none of it was true—but he doesn’t outwardly react. He’s too conscious of Sam’s gaze locked on his face.

“I don’t want it if Dean doesn’t,” Sam announces. “I won’t do that to him without his consent.”

There’s a pause and then, in a lost, little boy voice, Castiel repeats, “I don’t understand.”

“I know,” Sam responds. “I can’t—I don’t think I can explain it. It’s a human thing.”

There’s a pause where Dean thinks maybe Cas will press for an answer now—and if he does, Dean has no clue what he’s going to say, what Sam will do when he can’t respond—and then Castiel says, “You know how to reach me when you’ve decided.”

The fluttering noise of Castiel’s passage is more like thunder to Dean’s sensitive ears, and he ducks behind one arm as the wind buffets him. In the quiet after, Dean doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know how to explain himself—his response.

There’s nothing to explain why Cas’ departure makes him feel like a prisoner whose sentence has just been reprieved.

“We should,” Sam starts, and then has to clear his throat. “We should talk.”

Oh God. Talking.

Giving his head a single, sharp shake, Dean manages, “I can’t. I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“You—Dean, are you saying no?”

“No. Not. I don’t—I need to wrap my head around this, Sammy.”

“So we’ll talk it out and—”

Dean has no trouble interpreting the surge of refusal that lurches through his stomach at that prospect and immediately refuses, “No. I can’t do this with you. It’s too—you muck everything up in my head, Sammy. You make it so—you’re too damned loud, and I. I can’t get a thought in edgewise. I gotta. I gotta go. Somewhere.”

The room has gone cold and hurt, and as he makes his way for his room—get his cell phone, call Bobby, get out—Dean hastens to apologize, “I’m sorry.”

Sam doesn’t reply.

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

There are some things Dean wishes he’d never smelt.

Week-old fish at the bottom of a dumpster. Shifter guck. Wendigo shit. The sulfur and burnt flesh reek of the Pit.
Recent death—blood and shit and piss and the foul, low reek of a person’s final, fear-filled moments—is on the top of his list.

That smell isn’t as strong or as stomach turning as the ripe, fruity scents he gets from a freshly opened coffin—the gases of decomp, contained and compressed in that lead-lined box, are enough to make him hurl. He did, first couple of salt and burns with Dad. When Dad heaved the lid off the box and that sweet, rotten wave swept up and over him, Dean turned and puked until there was nothing but queasiness left in his stomach.

Recent death doesn’t smell as bad as old death does.

Then again, old death doesn’t leave bloodstains on Dean’s hands.

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

Bobby picks him up the next morning.

Sam isn’t in obvious attendance, but Dean knows his brother is there anyway, silently watching from the slider on the porch. No rhyme or reason to the certainty, but there it is. Dean doesn’t have to hear Sam to point him out. He just has to breathe.

“This it?” Bobby checks, carrying Dean’s second bag down the steps after him.

“Yeah,” Dean agrees. He doesn’t look toward the slider.

It’s easier not to say goodbye when he can pretend he doesn’t know where Sam is.

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

There are some things Dean wishes he’d never heard.

Sam’s singing. The awful roar of a semi crashing into the Impala. Angel voices. The begging, wet pleading of the damned beneath his knife.

Two gunshots are on the top of his list.

Madison. Madison with her sloe-eyes, and her twitching, smirk-smile, and the way she never even glanced Dean’s way with Sam in the room. Madison, who could have been good for Sammy, could’ve made him a different man.

And did.

Sammy never was the same after that.

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

“Alright, spill it.”

The demand is accompanied by a bottle—beer, likely—being firmly plunked on the porch railing in front of where Dean is sitting on one of Bobby’s worn wicker chairs. He isn’t surprised by the confrontation—not when he’s been here for three days already.

“What do you want me to say?” he asks, reaching out and getting his hand on what turns out to be a smooth, pale ale. He takes a longer pull on the bottle the second time out, tilting his head back and enjoying the complex swirl of nutty flavors that flood his mouth along with the alcohol.

“Are you boys fighting?” Bobby asks, pulling up another chair with a scrape and sitting down beside him.

“No.”

“You’re doing a damned good impersonation of it,” Bobby snorts. “You want to tell me what the hell you’re doing putzing around here, then? Or why I had to drive five hours to pick your sorry ass up?”

Dean tilts the bottle in his hands—feeling the condensation on his palms, a sliding tear in the moisture-saturated label—and considers all the ways he could respond. But he’s been here three days already, and he’s no closer to understanding what’s going on in his head than he was when he first picked up his phone. Sam’s got to be going nuts back at the house, and Dean owes it to his brother to do whatever he can to sort things out. If that involves picking Bobby’s brain, then so be it.

So after a few moments, he says, “Cas offered to heal me.”

Bobby’s dead silent next to him.

“Bobby?” Dean checks, turning his head toward the man. It isn’t as though facing Bobby is going to get him any more information—not now—but there’s a lifetime of ingrained habit in the motion, and Dean doesn’t think he’ll ever break himself of it. Regardless of what answer he gives to Cas.

“And you said no?”

“I didn’t say yes.”

“Why the hell not?” Bobby sounds almost offended, and Dean can’t help smiling a little at the thought that the man is probably wearing one of his annoyed, ‘why do I put up with these morons’ expressions.

“That’s kind of the problem,” Dean admits with a rueful shrug, and then takes another sip of his ale.

“I’m surprised Sam didn’t kick your ass for being a stubborn idjit,” Bobby mutters, and then asks, “This ain’t about you thinking you deserve it anymore, is it?”

Dean shakes his head, swallowing, and says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Bobby. I mean, I should be jumping for this chance, and I’m—I’m not.”

Bobby’s silent for a few minutes at that, brain turning over the problem now that he’s over his initial surprise. Then he says, “When I lost my legs, there wasn’t one second that passed that I wouldn’t have done anything to get them back.”

“I remember.”

“But Dean, I never got anything outta being paralyzed except a whole hell of a lot of frustration and pain. So what you’ve gotta ask yourself is, what are you so afraid to lose?”

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

There are some things Dean wishes he’d never tasted.

Double bacon burger on a glazed donut, specialty of Al’s Diner in Greenville, Il. His own blood. That protective hoodoo paste Dad made him down before he ditched Dean in New Orleans. The tears of the newly damned.

That red-eyed crossroad bitch’s lips have got to be number one, though.

Bitch grabbed him and held on, tasted like sorrow and bleached out bone and degradation, only it didn’t bother Dean so much at the time. Not with Sam’s slow, graceless fall to his knees playing out over and over in his head—she could’ve tasted like anything and he would’ve clung back, just as needy and desperate as a two-dollar whore.

It wasn’t until after, as the days ticked away and the taste lingered, strengthening until he couldn’t distinguish any other flavors—couldn’t taste Sam, even, when he took his brother in his mouth and drank him down—that he began to hate it. His final days, lived out with the taste of damnation and never-ending pain lying thick on his tongue.

Fucking awesome.

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

Sam isn’t there when Bobby drops him back off the next afternoon, but Dean runs his hands over the Impala on his way inside, so Dean figures his brother will be back soon. He uses the extra time to unpack and then wanders around the house, following his hands.

He feels the worn, smooth surface of the kitchen table, and the rougher plaster of the walls, and the soft cotton of the curtains. He thinks about the way Sam’s voice sounded when he walked Dean from room to room, describing things for him—putting colors and patterns to the textures Dean found beneath his fingertips. He remembers the steady, concerned pressure of Sam’s hand at his elbow those first few months; the constant, debilitating shame and guilt and anger mingled with the certainty that Sam would always be there, that no matter how many times Dean fell, his brother would always help him back up. He turns over the more recent months in his head—Sam’s unwavering support and nagging and confidence.

Sam has never had so much obvious faith in him before. He’s never pushed so hard for Dean to make something of himself. He’s never been quite this vocal about how he feels about Dean.

And these walls, these floors, this place that smelled so funky when Sam first brought him here. It smells like them now—it’s filling up with memories and belongings and it isn’t just some house Sam bought so that Dean could have a little space.

It’s home.

Their home.

Cane in hand in case Sam left his shoes lying around or something, Dean makes his way out onto the porch and over to the slider. Then he sets the cane down on the warm, splintering wood of the porch and settles in to wait.

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

There are some things Dean wishes he’d never touched.

His kid brother’s cock. Sammy’s lips. The dusky cleft of Sam’s ass.

Forbidden, forbidden, forbidden.

The only thing he regretted for years, the only thing he wished he could take back.

And then he picked up Alistair’s knife.

It was like carving himself up, that first time. He felt each slice mirrored on his own body, heard each scream rip from his own damaged, ruined throat. He tasted blood on his lips, smelled the stink of his own fear.

Alistair held him through it, curled up against Dean’s back like a lover and stroking his arms and stomach. He fucking narrated, moaning between descriptions like they were making love instead of cutting tendon from bone, and the knife was the only cool thing in Dean’s world. It was smooth ice against his palm, nestled there like it was a part of him—like it belonged to him even then, even before Alistair made it a present for his prized, star pupil.

The knife. First Alistair’s, then his.

Dean can still feel it, sometimes—the easy weight of it in his hand—and not even the smooth lines of Sam’s body can chase the sensation away.

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

Dean notices his brother before Sam sees him.

He hears Sam coming across the yard—breathing a little harder than Dean expected, so maybe he was jogging the trail instead of walking it like Dean thought. Then he hears Sam start to bound up the stairs. Hears his brother’s steps falter as he finally notices Dean sitting at the far end of the porch.

There’s a moment of silent hesitation and then Sam makes his slow way over and sits down to Dean’s right.

“Hey,” Dean says after a moment. He can smell Sam’s sweat—strong and pungent, but not necessarily unpleasant—but it’s all he can do not to reach out and touch him anyway, make sure he’s really there.

Sam clears his throat. “Hey,” he replies. “Bobby drop you off?”

“Yeah.”

“I, uh, went for a swim.”

“You smell like you need a shower,” Dean points out.

“Yeah, I ran back. It looked like rain.”

Dean tilts his head, considering, and then shrugs. “Maybe later.” Then he leans against the slider’s back and heaves out a breath. “We should talk,” he admits.

“Can I shower first?”

“Well, I’d appreciate it.”

“Jerk,” Sam answers, but the hint of smile in his voice tells Dean that his own attempt at humor didn’t go unnoticed.

One corner of his mouth turns up as he keeps his face turned out toward the gravel driveway. “Bitch.”

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

There are some things Dean wishes he’d never seen.

Donkey show in some podunk town in Mexico—for a hunt, and they better be real happy to be rid of that chupacabra, because Dean’s scarred for life from that shit. The inside of his own coffin. Death, too many times. Mom, Jess, Dad, Sam. Sam again. And again.

Heaven.

Hell.

The way Sam looks when he comes.

List’s too long to pick a winner.

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

It’s raining by the time Sam gets out of the shower.

Dean used to hate the rain, the first few times he heard it after the Flare, but somewhere along the way the steady pound of water on the roof became soothing instead of distracting. The rain muffles all of the external sounds of the woods, becoming a liquid cocoon enclosing the house—isolating them, cutting them off from the rest of the world. Cozy.

Dean’s standing by one of the windows, listening as the rain occasionally blows drops against the glass in a patter, when Sam shuffles over to join him.

“It’s really coming down,” Sam observes. That roses and honey scent of his shampoo is almost overpowering, and Dean wrinkles his nose as he turns to face his brother. Before Sam can protest, he leans over, burying his nose in the center of his brother’s collarbone, and inhales.

Sam’s skin. Aw, fuck, that’s better.

“Are you smelling me?” Sam asks, tone hovering between amused and uncomfortable.

Dean straightens, keeping his expression blank, and lies, “No.” Then he strolls past his brother, counting steps across the room, and sits down on the couch.

After a brief pause, Sam follows him over and then they both sit there, listening to the storm. Dean’s certain that Sam is studying him—looking for clues as to how this conversation is going to go—but he puts that out of his own mind, letting his head fall back and shutting his eyes.

“I keep forgetting how beautiful you are,” Sam says softly.

“Yeah, Miss America, that’s me,” Dean grunts without moving.

“But you never had a problem in that department,” Sam continues. “You know you’re gorgeous. It’s everything else that’s the problem.”

Dean shifts a little, uncomfortable with the direction his brother is heading but not quite alarmed enough to stop him.

After a pause, Sam says, “Just tell me this isn’t some stupid self-worth issue. Tell me it’s not about you thinking you don’t deserve to be healed.”

“It isn’t.”

“Then what? Why didn’t you—why didn’t you tell me yes?”

“How come you stopped to ask?” Dean counters, and can tell from the momentary, stunned silence that greets his question that Sam never bothered to consider that question.

“I don’t know,” Sam says finally.

Dean lifts his head again at that, and then tilts it down as though looking at his hands where they’re resting on the top of his thighs. “I don’t want to lose you,” he announces. It’s surprisingly easy to say, now that the moment is before him—easier, perhaps, because he doesn’t have to struggle not to meet his brother’s eyes.

“You won’t,” Sam promises, shifting on the couch and bringing his leg up so that his knee digs into the side of Dean’s thigh. “Whatever you want, I’ll—I can’t promise I won’t be pissed about it for a while, but if you say no, it’s no. And you’re still going to be stuck with me.”

“I know,” Dean admits. “And that’s—that’s why it’s hard. For me.”

Christ, even safe inside the dark blankness of his head, he can’t get it out. Grimacing, Dean falls silent and drums his fingers nervously on his thigh.

When it has become clear that Dean isn’t going to continue without prodding, Sam nudges him with his knee and asks, “What’s hard?”

Frowning, Dean forces his fingers to still—grips his thigh instead—and then takes a deep breath and makes himself say it. “I know you won’t ever leave me like this. Not when I need you. But if I get my eyes back, then we’re right back to—”

“Dean,” Sam interrupts, his voice strained with a tender mix of pain and patience. “I’m not leaving either way, you moron. You want to get rid of me, you’d better be ready with a wood box and a shovel, because putting me in the ground is the only way you’ll manage it.”

Just the thought is enough to suck the air from Dean’s lungs, forcing him back to those horrible, nightmarish days when it looked like it was going to come down to him against Sam, nothing either of them could do about it. Those endless, sweat-soaked nights where he dreamed about Michael closing his hands around Sam’s throat, or using his body to drive one of those three foot long silver stakes through his brother’s chest. In his dreams, Michael always released him after, left him emptied out and holding Sam’s body—discarded, like a used condom.

“Don’t joke about that,” he gets out, throat tight with the same horrified panic that always gripped him when he woke up, that held on until he saw Sam the next morning. Until he watched his brother’s chest rise and fall with steady breaths.

“Hey,” Sam whispers now, apologetic, and fingertips brush Dean’s hair.

Dean chokes a little on the lump of emotion in his throat, starts to pull away, and then Sam’s hand slides more firmly into place. Getting a firm grip on Dean’s hair, Sam pulls him closer instead, knocking their temples together.

“I’m sorry,” Sam tells him, the warm weight of his head resting against Dean’s. His hold on Dean’s hair eases, fingers stroking and massaging his scalp. “But I mean it, dude. I don’t know how the hell we managed to pull it off, but we stopped the apocalypse and we survived, and we—”

Sam’s hand slips down to hold the back of Dean’s neck, tilting his face over so that he can feel his brother’s breath ghosting into his mouth.

“We get to have this now,” Sam finishes.

The kiss doesn’t come as a surprise. What shocks Dean is the painful, clenching want that blooms in his chest, like a rosebush grown wild and bristling with thorns. He opens his mouth wide on a noiseless gasp, then presses forward against his brother’s mouth.

Sam only meant it to be a light brush of lips, Dean could tell from the gentleness of his brother’s touch, but it’s easy to mould the kiss into a stronger, more desperate beast. Mouths wide and working together, Sam’s breath tangled with his, and it’s still not enough. There’s nowhere for the emotions throbbing in his chest to go—this kiss, which is rapidly disintegrating into a makeout session, isn’t anywhere near enough of an outlet—and before Dean knows what he’s doing, he’s rolled over and climbed into his brother’s lap.

Sam shifts to accommodate him, moving his hips until their crotches line up and Dean can feel exactly what his weight is doing to his brother. His hands come up to catch and frame Dean’s face, tilting it so that he can work his tongue deeper, get the angle he likes. Chest throbbing with a deep-seated ache, Dean shakes the hands off and then—before Sam can react—dives in lower, getting his own mouth on the sensitive skin of his brother’s throat.

Sam hisses when Dean bites down, jerking in an instinctive attempt to get away, but Dean just bites down harder and grabs his brother’s arms to hold him in place. Sam stills after that, uttering a soft, “Fuck,” as Dean stops biting and starts sucking. He’s writhing a little, too—tiny, helpless movements—but Dean doesn’t let up until there’s more pain than passion in the noises coming out of Sam’s mouth. Then, reluctantly, he draws off far enough to give the wet patch of skin a quick swipe of his tongue.

“Ow,” Sam complains, and brings a hand up to knock Dean’s mouth away—and, Dean suspects, to feel at what Dean did to him. “What’s gotten into y—”

“I love you.” Dean spits the words out before they can get locked behind his teeth the way they usually do, and the reactionary shiver of terror that washes through him calms the wild desperation in his chest a little.

Beneath him, Sam has gone still and quiet, with only the hard press of his cock against Dean’s to tell Dean that his brother is still paying attention.

“Loved you since Mom and Dad brought you home,” Dean makes himself say, gripping Sam tighter in an effort to distract himself from how tightly the words are winding up his insides. “And then you—fuck, Sammy, you had to grow up, and I tried not to, I really fucking tried, but I fell in love with you.”

Terrifying, saying it out loud like this. Exhilarating. Feels like flying and like freefall all at once.

Dean’s shaking a little—he realizes it only as Sam’s hands come up to rub reassuringly along his arm and lower back, and then pushes it out of his mind to repeat, “I tried. I tried so damn hard, Sammy.”

“I know,” Sam agrees, voice low and soothing. “I know you did, man. But, Dean, I never asked you to. I never wanted you to do that.”

Dean remembers that. He remembers how sure Sam was, even at the beginning, even before Stanford when everything else was turning to shit. Sam never, not for one minute, wavered in what he wanted. In them.

Dean’s the one who could never say the words, who always shoved away from what they’d done—from what he felt. It was like a car wreck in his head, like something terrible that had happened to them when they were fumbling for another cassette for the tape deck. It wasn’t ever anything he’d done, was nothing he’d chased after and everything he’d run from.

All this time, and Sam’s been the one trying to hold him down, to keep him there.

Sam’s been running, all right. Running right after Dean.

“I love you too, you know,” Sam says, drawing Dean out of his stunned shock a little. His hands run upward along Dean’s body until they come to rest again, Sam’s big palms cupping either side of Dean’s face while Sam’s thumbs stroke over his cheekbones. “Been in love with you my whole life, I think.”

Even now, Dean can’t say it back. It can be a confession, apparently, but not a response, so instead he lets Sam draw him slowly in for a kiss. Sam controls this one, beginning to end, and it’s soft and sweet and everything Dean’s never had from his brother before. It’s everything he’s claimed he hasn’t wanted—self defense, mostly, because he knew that if he let Sam do this to him, there’d be no going back.

But Sam is kissing him like that now—like Dean’s made of priceless, fragile crystal instead of flesh and blood. His mouth moves slow and sure, tongue swiping just across Dean’s lips as though they’ve been frosted with almond and sugar. Dean’s instinct is to surge forward and change the game to something rougher—safer—but instead he lets Sam’s hands and lips coax him into relaxing.

When Sam finally breaks the kiss, he doesn’t move away, leaving their mouths just brushing together as he combs his fingers through Dean’s short hair. He’s smiling—Dean can feel it in the twitch of his brother’s mouth.

“I don’t want to hunt anymore,” Dean says, and then holds his breath.

“Okay,” Sam answers. His fingers continue to toy with Dean’s hair.

Dean gives it a few minutes—maybe Sam needs some time to process—and then says, “‘Okay?’ That’s all you’ve got?”

“Well, what do you want me to say?”

It’s so anticlimactic, it’s maddening—Dean’s stomach has been tied up in knots about this all fucking day, and Sam’s acting as though he expected as much, as though it were a foregone conclusion that that part of their lives is over. Jittery with nerves and apprehension that suddenly lacks a target, Dean shoves his way off of Sam’s lap and takes a step back from the couch.

“I don’t know, something!” he snaps, raking his fingers through his hair as though he can rid himself of Sam’s gentleness. “This is a big fucking deal for me, Sam. I just—I dunno, I was hoping for a little more than ‘okay.’”

The couch springs creak and then Sam is there, getting his arms back around Dean and holding him still. Pressing his face against the side of Dean’s head, he says, “Dean, I don’t care what we do. Stay here, get back to hunting, move somewhere else—as long as it’s us? I don’t give a shit. And you shouldn’t—Christ, man, you’ve been through enough crap. We both have. Retirement sounds pretty good.”

“You make it sound like we should be applying for our AARP memberships,” Dean mutters.

“Look, man,” Sam answers in less intimate tones as he lifts his head. “If you want to talk about this, we can. But you sounded pretty definite about not wanting to hunt, and you know I never had a problem with that.”

“You don’t think it’s weird?” Dean checks, and then adds, “I think it’s weird.”

“I think it’s time to take your honorable discharge, man. There’s plenty of new hunters to take up the slack—the Flare opened up a lot of eyes.”

“Pretty ironic, huh?”

Sam snorts—a little quality of surprise to the sound tells Dean that his brother didn’t realize how that came out until Dean told him. Then, giving Dean’s shoulders a little jostle, Sam promises, “So whatever you want to do, I’m right there with you.”

Dean considers for a moment—it’s still really fucking weird to think in terms of not wanting to hunt anymore as opposed to having been shut out of it by his eyes. Somehow, though, having the choice makes all the difference.
And if they ever get bored, it isn’t like they can’t do a couple of weekend jobs, just to keep themselves sharp.

“Honorable discharge has a really nice ring to it,” he says finally.

“And the house?” The tension in Sam’s voice tells Dean what his brother wants, at any rate, even if Sam isn’t willing to come right out and say it.

Dean can’t resist fucking with him a little.

“Depends on whether or not I get to repaint the place if it’s fugly.”

“I described it to you already,” Sam says, clearly torn between relief at Dean’s roundabout approval and annoyance at Dean’s teasing tone.

“Oh please,” Dean scoffs. “Like I know what Turkish Tile means.”

“Grey-blue,” Sam informs him dryly.

“Why the hell didn’t you say ‘grey-blue’, then?”

“So we stay,” Sam says, giving up the argument in the face of Dean’s clearly superior argument.

“Guess so,” Dean agrees, and then can’t help adding, “We’re paving the driveway, though. That gravel shit’s hell on my baby’s wheels.”

“Always worried about the damn car,” Sam mutters, and then kisses the corner of Dean’s jaw, tilting his face up. “We about done here?” he adds, taking a step back and drawing Dean with him.

The teasing warmth in his voice tells Dean exactly what his brother has in mind, but much as Dean would love to take Sam up on the offer, he drags his feet.

“What’s wrong?” Sam asks, stopping.

Dean licks his lips, like that’s going to help him get the words out, and then blurts, “I’m scared.”

There’s a beat of silence and then Sam starts, “Dean, what—”

“I’m fucking petrified, okay?” Dean continues, pulling out of Sam’s grasp. “Cause we can say fucking anything right now, Sammy. But that’s now. And if Cas—if he does his thing, everything’s gonna change.”

“It doesn’t have to.”

“Yeah, but it’s gonna. You really think I’m gonna sit down and have heart-to-hearts with you when I’ve got my eyes back? You think either of us is gonna be able to turn down a job if Bobby tosses one our way? Christ, you think I’m gonna be able to stay here? Huh? I’m in a town more’n a week and my feet get itchy. This whole fucking thing—”

“Dean,” Sam interrupts.

His hands close on Dean’s arms again, stern and steadying, and despite the panic flooding his veins, Dean finds himself allowing the touch.

“You’re right,” Sam tells him. “It wouldn’t be perfect. You say yes, and we—we’re going to have to renegotiate some stuff. But we’ll figure it out, dude. I mean, Jesus. We averted the apocalypse, Dean. I think we can handle whatever you getting your eyesight back is going to dish out.”

Put like that, Dean feels a bit like an idiot. He screws up his courage, takes a breath, and says, “Okay.”

“Gre—wait.” Sam’s hands tighten where they’re fastened around Dean’s biceps. “Okay, okay?”

Dean’s mouth is dry and his heart is pounding, but that’s just leftover adrenaline. Deep inside, down where it matters, he’s calm and sure.

With a smile that’s still a little shaky, he nods.

“Yeah, Sammy. Okay.”

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

There are so many moments Dean wishes he didn’t have to see.

But.

But then.

But then there’s the way the sunrise turns everything soft and surreal, all pinks and oranges to contrast the purple twilight. There’s the silver of moonlight, and the aching black of midnight shadows.

There’s the glimmer of light on leaves, and the black, steaming tarmac of summer—road upon road, stretching out into an infinite, never-ending horizon. There’s the flurried, fluttering array of autumn leaves—gold of the harvested wheat drying in the field. There’s winter’s white-capped mountains, and the glitter of ice storms. There’s spring’s energetic burst of color—pinks and blues and whites and green, green everywhere.

And there’s the way Sam looks when he comes. There’s the dimpling of Sam’s face when he grins real wide, bright enough to outshine the sun. There’s Sam’s eyes, which were always too expressive for the kid’s own good, and for Dean’s self-control.

Dean can’t unsee the things he’s seen any more than he can give back scents or tastes or sounds or sensations.

But sometimes, like in the moment Castiel’s fingertips brush his forehead, he thinks the yesterdays don’t matter as much as the tomorrows.