Sam came back from the library as the sun sank low over the trees. He crossed the motel parking lot without watching where he was going, head bent over his printout, and almost took a header on the two-inch-high sidewalk that ran in front of the door to their room.
He regained his balance and let out a sigh. The Impala was parked right next to him, covered in a thin layer of road dust, and what were the odds Dean hadn't seen that? The way Dean had been watching him lately, probably about as good as the odds that Sam would grow a third head overnight.
Sam paused, and mentally took that back. The way their lives tended to go? That was definitely not the kind of thing you wanted to think lightly.
He steeled himself to be mocked as he walked through the door, so it caught him by surprise to find Dean sitting at the table staring into space with something clasped between his hands, a look on his face that was anything but mocking.
* * *
"Hey," Sam said, a question in his voice as he stopped on the threshold. Dean blinked, for what might have been the first time in a while. He'd been zoned out, going dark places in his head for long enough that the sun was almost down, and he was sitting in the near-dark.
"Hey," Dean said, his voice hoarse from disuse. He swallowed. "Picked up your new phone," he said.
"Thanks," Sam said, but hesitated. Dean could tell he knew something was wrong, but he hadn't figured out what; he stood inside the door, holding himself like he might have to defend himself, but from what, he wasn't sure. It broke Dean a little further, made him want to put his head between his knees and scream, or punch himself in the forehead, or something drastic.
"Think I got something on how we can find her," Sam said, testing the waters. It was the queen bitch of all that was evil in the world he was talking about, but at the moment, Dean couldn't bring himself to care.
Dean's eyes fell to the brand new smart phone in his hands. It was state-of-the-art, all the bells and whistles. His geek brother was probably going to have a nerdgasm over it. Dean could picture it; it was the main thing he'd been thinking about the whole time he pretended to listen to the sales guy give him the spiel. Sam's old phone was past due for an upgrade, anyway, and by the time they got Samuel Colt's care package, it had been a hundred and fifty years out of contract.
* * *
"Good news," the guy had told him, while Dean half-listened and smiled at a cute brunette he'd seen checking him out from across the store. "Looks like your brother backed everything up recently. I can restore his contacts and voicemails, text messages—"
"Awesome," Dean told him, thinking that Sam only had two numbers in there that mattered, three if you counted Dean's backup phone, and it wasn't like his brother was getting a lot of texts from hot chicks these days. But whatever, Sam would probably be thrilled not to lose the half a hundred numbers of victims who'd helped them out and friends from Stanford he was never gonna call.
That thought put Dean off flirting for a minute or two, and by the time he looked up again, the brunette had left. Too bad, Dean thought without much regret, and left with Sam's new phone, all loaded up and ready to go.
He'd wandered the mall for a few minutes, half hoping to see the girl again, but his heart wasn't in it. Malls were to Dean Winchester the way the desert was to a shark—which was to say, alien and suffocating after more than three minutes or so. He felt about a hundred percent better when he got back to his car, the afternoon sun streaming in as he slid behind the wheel.
That was when Sam's phone had chimed, syncing up to his account and doing its thing. Dean glanced at it, a thought half-formed about loading the thing up with dozens of ridiculous ring tones before he handed it over. It was what he would have done, before, and lately he'd been realizing that there was nothing stopping them from getting as much of that back as they were willing to try for. Anything seemed possible, now, for the first time in longer than Dean cared to remember.
That's what he'd been thinking about when his eyes fell on the alert that had popped up on the screen: one voicemail. Play?
Dean put the key in the ignition. But for some reason, his eyes stayed on the phone. He reached out and turned it toward him, so he could read the screen better.
The number looked familiar. Dean frowned a little, trying to place it. Wasn't Bobby's number, not with that area code. Wasn't Dean's either—except, yeah, that was it. It had been one of Dean's, but a couple years back. Before Lisa and Ben. Before everything.
That was weird. Dean sat still, staring at it. His heart had started to beat heavily in his chest, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up for no good reason.
He thought back to what the sales guy had said. They'd restored everything from a server somewhere, some account Sam kept to back everything up to because he was just that OCD. Which meant Sam had saved this on purpose, whatever it was. Not just once, but every time he'd done a backup in the last—what? At least two years? Dean had lost that phone some time after he and Sam had hooked up again in Missouri, after Dean spent three months trying to pretend they were any good to anyone apart.
Why would Sam keep a voicemail from Dean from back then? he wondered. Dean had thought about calling him a hundred times during those months they were separated, but he'd never done it. He remembered that much. He would have gnawed his hands off before he'd have dialed Sam's number in those days, no matter how bad he wanted to. Because of how bad he'd wanted to.
The phone was in Dean's hand, his thumb hovering over the button. Sam would be pissed, if he knew what Dean was about to do, and it was probably nothing. Dean told himself that, and tried to believe it.
But Dean knew Sam, knew this was one of his little secrets, and he'd lived a lifetime of knowing when Sam was keeping something from him. It didn't matter how trivial it was, he couldn't take it, not now. Not when things had been good between them for the first time in so damn long.
Alone in the car, sweating in his jacket, he pressed the button, and held the phone to his ear.
"First saved message," a recorded voice said. And then Dean heard his own voice, so harsh and unforgiving, he almost didn't recognize it. "Listen to me, you bloodsucking freak. Dad always said I'd either have to save you or kill you. Well, I'm giving you fair warning. I'm done trying to save you. You're a monster, Sam. A vampire. You're not you anymore. And there's no going back."
A beep sounded. Dean found himself staring at the phone as if it were poisonous, as if he'd somehow picked up a snake by accident. Or a grenade.
Save? Delete? it asked him.
"What the hell?" Dean said aloud. But staring at the phone didn't make things any clearer.
He'd never said that. Never. Not even at their worst would he have—
Dean's stomach heaved. He pressed the back of one fist to his mouth, breathing deep through his nose to keep from losing it. He was shaking.
"You gotta be kidding me," Dean said, but as much as he wanted to believe this was some kind of a sick joke, the screen stared back at him in calm black and white. "You gotta be fucking kidding me—" Every instinct he had told him to hit Delete, but he had to know. He chose Save, and then touched the icon that would show him the date of the message: May 1st, 2009.
Dean stared at the date for a moment, then closed his hand around the phone in a fist and slammed it into the steering wheel in futile, impotent fury, three years too late. "Fucking angels," he swore, and at the moment it was the worst profanity he could think of. If he could have, he would have killed Zachariah all over again, fed him piece by piece to a pack of Hellhounds, or worse.
* * *
Dean came back to himself with a dull jolt, realizing he'd been staring at the phone in his hands for far too long.
"Dude, you're scaring me. What is it?" Sam came a step closer, but didn't turn on the light. He moved like Dean was a wild animal he was afraid to spook—a rabid dog who might turn on him at any moment. How many times? Dean wondered, the same thing he'd been asking himself for two hours, now. How many times had Sam played that message and believed it was real? How many days had they sat beside each other in the car from morning to night, bitched at each other and eaten every meal together, joked together, hunted together, had each other's backs—and then spent the night in some motel where Sam had sat ten feet from him and listened to Dean threatening to kill him? Calling him a monster and a freak with nothing but loathing and disgust in his voice?
Dean didn't know how to fix this. It was damage three years done, scored over and over into Sam's psyche, and somehow Sam had reconciled it with the fact that he had to keep going, keep hunting, keep watching Dean's back like it was some kind of freaking penance—
"It wasn't me," Dean said, and his voice came out stilted, as alien-sounding as the recording.
Dean reached out without looking at him, offering him the phone like it was burning him, and all he wanted was for Sam to take it out of his hand. Sam took it. And finally Dean looked up, suddenly needing to make Sam understand this one thing more than he needed air to breathe. "Sammy. It wasn't me. I know—" His voice betrayed him, but he rushed ahead because he had to get this out. "I know you got no reason to believe me, after all this time, but you have to, okay? You have to."
Sam got it. Dean saw when it happened, when Sam took the phone and made the leap of understanding. Of course he did. He was a smart guy, and this was his thing, getting his geek on for technology and the way it made life so easy these days. The way it made sure you never lost anything important, even if you left your phone in 1861 and had to replace it a hundred and fifty years after the fact. The way it made sure you could save a recording of the one family member you had left threatening to kill you—for all eternity, if you wanted to. If you were Sam, and you thought you deserved that.
Dean was on his feet, then, because he couldn't sit still for this. He couldn't. "Sam. Look at me."
And Sam did, but Dean could hardly stand the look on his face. "Dean, you don't have to—"
"Shut up, okay?" Dean said, and he thought he might break apart if Sam didn't believe him. He took a breath, and it felt like there were shards of glass in his chest. "It was a trick. That voicemail, that wasn't me." Sam shook his head, falling back a step, like he'd rather be anywhere but here, but Dean moved with him and grabbed hold of him, holding him still. "No. You look at me. If you ever trusted me, if you only ever believe one thing I tell you again, then believe this much. I could never say something like that. Never. Okay? Not even when I was so pissed at you I couldn't see straight. You're still my brother. You always will be."
Sam stared at him for a long, awful moment that felt like being under the knife. It still happened like that sometimes. Not nearly as bad as when it was Robo-Sam looking back at him, but the wall in Sam's head wasn't just a metaphor. Sometimes Dean looked in his eyes and was reminded all over again that there was so much Sam didn't remember. Sometimes, he thought it didn't stop at the moment Sam stepped into the Pit. He'd more or less accepted that, because it was so goddamned worth it to have the real Sam back, whole and alive and at his side, but that didn't mean it didn't squeeze at his guts sometimes, knowing Sam could slip away from him at any moment. That Dean might never know just how much of himself Sam had sacrificed that day. That maybe it was, like Cas had warned him, too good to be true.
This was one of those moments. Dean laid the truth out for him and Sam looked at him like he was possessed, like this was the trick, and he couldn't let himself believe it because if he did—
Sam's eyes shone suddenly, in a way Dean hadn't seen since that year after Dean made his deal. "Really?" Sam said in a small voice.
Dean wanted to shake him. Like it wasn't enough that he'd thrown himself into Hell to save the world—or that Dean had sold his soul for him, that he'd made a wager with Death to get him back, that he would walk through Hell and Heaven and every place in between to keep Sam with him, Sam still couldn't believe he deserved to have anything good. To have anyone love him.
"Really," Dean told him, putting all of his conviction into it, every mile of the hard road he'd taken to be able to say that and mean it without reservation. "And if you think otherwise, then you're as stupid as I always said you were."
He meant it to come out pissed, to let Sam know he didn't appreciate his brother being so goddamned thick in the head, so Sam wouldn't ever believe some bullshit trick like that again. But the small, desperate, hopeful look on Sam's face undid him. It'd been so long since he'd seen Sam want anything like that, never mind something for himself. Sam had been honest to a fault since he'd gotten his soul back, and he'd been trying, God knew, to be there in every way that mattered. Dean knew he had. It counted for a lot. With Dean, who would have been happy to have him back even if he lied and faked it till the cows came home, it counted for almost everything.
But it wasn't the same as having Sam look at him like Dean was everything he'd ever wanted, like hearing Dean tell him they were still brothers was some kind of miracle he could barely believe in.
"Jesus Christ, Sammy," Dean heard himself say, and before he knew he meant to, he reached out and pulled Sam into his arms. "Don't look at me like that. Seriously. You're gonna piss me off."
Sam didn't fight it. He bowed his head and held on tight, a sob breaking out of him that gutted Dean to the quick. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice soft and high with feeling.
"And don't say you're sorry, for fuck's sake."
Dean shut up, then, because if he kept talking, Sam wasn't gonna be the only one making a mess of things. There's nothing you could do that would make me not love you, he wanted to say, and he wished like hell he was the kind of guy who could say things like that.
Instead, he let Sam do his thing, let him hold on like a freaking giant octopus getting Dean's neck and shoulder wet, until it was long past the point of embarrassing and well into unmanly, in a permanently ego-damaging sense.
The last of the day faded out of the sky. It was getting dark in their motel room, the shadows deepening, but the thought that came into Dean's head wasn't that this was weird, or that they should stop, but that no one could see them, here, in this nondescript room in the middle of nowhere. It was just him and Sam, like it always had been, and as many times as they'd clung to each other literally and figuratively when there was nothing and nobody else to hold on to, this didn't feel like that. It felt instead like all those other times were practice for this, for the moment when they were allowed to acknowledge everything they were to each other, everything they'd been through and everything they'd fought for, and believe it was real. It felt like the start of something.
That was what he was thinking, when Sam pulled away and looked at him, his face wet. And maybe that was why it wasn't a shock, when Sam got a hand around the back of Dean's neck and leaned down a little ways, the last few inches he needed to be able to fit their mouths together in a soft, slow kiss that was barely a kiss at all.
And, oh, Dean caught himself thinking, as he closed his eyes. Oh. He held his breath, his heart beating fast and desperate in his chest.
"Still your brother?" Sam asked when they broke apart, a murmur that was half teasing and half uncertain, heavy with a lifetime of longing Dean only now understood. It broke open inside him, small and quiet and so sure. So goddamned sure it hurt.
"Always were too smart for your own good," Dean said, and stared up at him with his hands on Sam's neck and every part of him realizing what he should have known a long time ago. What Lisa had tried to tell him, and half a dozen angels besides. There'd never been anyone else for him, and there never would be, and he was okay with that. He was really, deeply okay.