The witch raised her hand as they approached and called out something unintelligible.
Dean scowled at her harder and fired his gun. As she dropped, Sam gave a wordless howl of pain. Dean spun to see him scrabbling at his arm, pulling back his epic layers. Dean felt a weird tug, like a ripple running through the world, before the explosion knocked them both off their feet.
Even though he could barely see, it was easy to locate Sam from the yelling. “Dean! Dean!” Better than a location app, really. Dean stumbled over to him.
Sam was covered with dirt (Dean was no better), but the skin on his forearm was clear enough for Dean to recognize the Mark of Cain.
When he looked up, the space where the witch had been was a fifty-foot circle of char.
“What the hell,” Sam said, not for the first time.
Castiel turned back from his inspection of the blast zone. (Despite the stench—the circle of ex-witch smelled like something that had been rotting for years—they’d stayed near in order to investigate, and to call in backup.) “How do you feel?”
The epic bitchface Sam gave Castiel was somewhat unwarranted, in Dean’s opinion; Cas was just being friendly. “I feel like I have the Mark of Cain on my arm!”
“Yeah, but how kill-y do you feel?” Dean reiterated.
The bitchface was maintained in full force as Sam swung it around to Dean. “I don’t know, but keep asking me and you might find out.”
Dean chuckled—murderous Sam was always good for some fun. “You know, this might not be such a bad thing. Makes you stronger, hard to kill, and you got the stubbornness to keep the mass murder part under control. Could be a real upside.”
Sam shut his goofily-hanging-open mouth. “Castiel?” he called.
Which was how Dean found himself bruising in Sam’s vice-like grip with Cas shoving his arm in Dean’s chest (still not the fun kind of penetration) and diagnosing Dean with his own problem, in this case not an addition but a subtraction. Dean was still human; he just had no soul.
It figured that Sam would get the cool power.
“I’m calling Rowena,” Castiel announced.
“Well, boys,” and Dean was pretty convinced she was giving him the once-over. He’d always thought that she had a thing for Sam, only enhanced by the knowledge that Sam was going to kill her one day—who knows, maybe with his giant dick—but Dean thought she wouldn’t mind seeing what he could do in the sack without his soul. He could’ve told her that chances were it’d be a bit worse than standard, seeing as how it’d just be pride behind his performance and not the deep-seated desire to be worthy, but: no soul, so he didn’t care. She was definitely doable. Probably would even be into a threesome with Sam.
“Dean!” Sam sounded like the Mark was already affecting his (never as great as he thought) patience.
That got him three entirely separate exasperated looks, which was also kind of funny. “Did you hear what the witch said just before you shot her?” Sam repeated.
Dean shook his head. “Too far away.”
“I know what she must have tried to cast,” Rowena said sharply, continuing whatever debate she’d been having with Sam while Dean had been imagining them naked. “I don’t know why it did … this, instead of simply turning them back into babies where they’d be both vulnerable and extremely useful, ingredient-wise.” Sam’s face curled in disgust, though Dean couldn’t help but admire the practicality. “Nor do I know why the backlash turned her into a brisket. It’s a crude but usually effective spell.”
“I have an idea,” Castiel said. “Sam and Dean aren’t ordinary, especially when they are together. Their histories have twists and turns, each one imbued with magical and even theistic energies. And combat magic is inherently more unstable than a prepared hex bag like the one you’ve encountered before. She threw a Molotov cocktail into an arsenal filled with explosives. Combine that with their soulmate bond and she got … this.”
“Okay, but how do we un-get this?” Sam asked.
Rowena had her hands on her hips, inspecting the damaged land. “I don’t think the spell can be reversed in the usual sense. It obviously channeled so much more energy than it should have that it cooked her; it was never designed to hook into magics at the level of the Mark.”
“Also I shot her,” Dean pointed out.
Rowena didn’t deign to respond. “If we can find Dean’s soul, we may be able to put it back, but the Mark—well, I don’t have anyone else to slaughter for your benefit. Though it might not work at the same level of intensity if it’s not holding God’s sister back any more.”
Castiel immediately left in search of a cure. A week in, he called Dean to check in with him about whether his sociopathic tendencies had gotten out of control. Dean told him no and didn’t ask about the tinny sounds of battle he could hear in the background. He figured Cas would tell him if there was anything he needed to know.
Sam talked about trying to off himself precisely once before Dean shut that shit down, reminding him of what had happened when Dean had temporarily died. True, Cain had said that killing Dean with the First Blade would’ve been permanent, but Sam didn’t know about that and wasn’t going to hear it from Dean, not to mention that they had no idea whether the First Blade’s powers had been resurrected along with the Mark. Sam didn’t need any more bright ideas.
Being soulless was much more relaxing than Dean had assumed. Maybe because soulless Sam had taken such good care of his body, which couldn’t have been easy, but then again Sam had never minded the same things Dean had. Plus the kid built muscle as easy as breathing, which Dean had chosen to admire rather than resent. Anyway, Dean’s outsider take on soullessness had been missing a few things (was that ironic?), like how good it felt not to care about most things.
Dean wasn’t entirely sure what his soul had taken when it left, or why it was important. He still wanted things, and they were a lot of the same things he’d wanted before. He just didn’t care so much about, well, people, and their opinions about him. Being a demon hadn’t been exactly the same, because of the whole Knight of Hell/need-to-kill thing, but it was certainly kissing cousins to what he was now, without the useful physical and psychic powers. Sam had probably gotten the better end of the deal, regardless of how he said he felt about it.
(Sam said he was pissed at Dean because this was one more of Dean’s bad decisions coming back to bite Sam in the ass. Dean noted that if it hadn’t been the Mark, the witch’s curse could just as easily have brought back Dean being turned into a vampire, and they didn’t have the sire’s blood any more to fix Sam. Sam didn’t look any happier, but he stopped whining.)
Sam spent most of his days in research, locking himself down even though Dean kept telling him that he should probably kill some monsters. Dean could’ve found them some hunts on his own, but he couldn’t work up the energy. He was getting really fucking good in the kitchen, and though he didn’t want to get fat off of it, the exercise room in the Bunker was good enough to avoid that, with a lot less risk of career-ending injury.
After Sam broke a lamp and then a door in a single day, though, he figured he’d better give Sam a real outlet for his violence. Because he was good at the job, he found a nest of vamps only a ten-hour drive away.
Then he opened up a new tab and looked at plane tickets—it turned out that machetes and even dead man’s blood could be transported in checked baggage, and flying cut the travel time down by a lot.
Sam practically gave birth to his own incredulity when Dean told him to pack, and then he nattered on about government databases even though Castiel had taken care of that at least two years ago. Eventually he agreed, probably because Dean had brought both weapons and food to the conversation, the first as a reminder of the release to be had in bloodshed and the second as a mood sweetener. Sam didn’t like to admit how tetchy he could get when his blood sugar was low, but Dean would happily use it against him.
They took a Lyft to the airport (Sam had ethical objections to Uber) because Dean didn’t want to drive and Sam was likely to Hulk out if he had to deal with assholes trying to merge into his lane.
“This feels like a bad idea,” Sam said as they were standing in line to board, which aside from everything else was a mangling of a classic line.
“Tell me something that doesn’t feel like that and we can walk away,” Dean suggested.
Sam’s frown deepened, those I-want wrinkles in his forehead growing more exaggerated, but he didn’t come up with anything. Dean remembered how it had been for him when he’d been the one with the Mark: a constant pounding, like his heartbeat but more intense and irritating, that wanted him to fight and kill. A murmur just below the threshold of understanding, never silent, telling him that he’d feel so much better with blood on his hands. The hardest part had been how that promise was true: for a while, at least, the violence did clear out his head and dull the ache, better than alcohol or even sex ever had.
Man, Sam’s life really sucked right now.
There was no backup. Castiel was off searching for solutions, so he didn’t accompany them. Dean wasn’t too worried. They had more than enough firepower for a nest of vampires.
The flight was kind of interesting; Dean had never been able to look out of an airplane window without getting nauseated before. He stared like a kid at the tiny roads and houses and trucks and swimming pools and whatnot below them until the clouds obscured them. The clouds themselves were also wild—towering, fluffy shapes that looked like they had real texture and weight but that admitted the plane with almost no discernable resistance. Up close, he could see how they trailed away to open air at the edges and how the light hit them to create areas of brightness and shadow.
Sam scoffed at him occasionally and pecked intermittently at his laptop, looking through the Bunker materials he’d digitized. They were shoulder to shoulder, not really fitting into the airplane seats despite Sam’s ridiculously slim hips. His animal warmth soaked into Dean, and it was better than the car because Sam was so close, even if he didn’t want to be.
Arrival was uneventful—the jolt of landing probably would’ve made Dean sick if he’d had his soul, but whatever—and they went straight to the motel on the edge of town that Dean had identified as closest to where the vamps were operating.
“Split up, try and find their hideout?” Dean suggested when they’d unpacked and geared up a bit (another thing that would’ve been more difficult for ensouled Dean would’ve been leaving all his weapons out of his reach for travel, but Dean had slipped a knife into his boot in the Lyft from the airport and that had been enough for the moment).
“Uh, if I recall correctly, I abandoned you to sleep with a girl in similar circumstances, and that was me. I don’t trust you to get fifty feet without losing focus.”
Dean considered that. It wasn’t a completely ridiculous concern, even if part of soulless Sam’s slutdom had been decades of repressed sexuality roaring up when no longer contained, which obviously wasn’t an issue for Dean. Even with the Bunker cramping his style a bit, he was still damn well fed. But convincing Sam of that would be exhausting and chances were they’d still end up together, so he shrugged. They’d find the vampires sooner or later, and there probably wouldn’t be a big difference in how many civilians got killed in the meantime.
Dean understood that Sam had never loved fighting. He did it, and he was good at it, but he didn’t enjoy it. Even when he’d been after Lilith’s head, the point had been getting rid of Lilith, not physically kicking her ass. Just another facet of him that Dean would never understand, soul or no.
That might’ve explained something about his ability to resist the Mark. Dean had been chosen; Dean had been suited for it, the violence of Cain already threaded through his soul.
Sam killing vampires wasn’t poetry in motion. More like a Transformers movie, all brutal, devastating violence happening too fast to fully process. He cut one of them apart diagonally, neck to opposite armpit, which seemed like a waste of effort to Dean but didn’t slow down Sam any. Another one had the bad fortune to hurl itself towards Sam, who ducked and let his machete open it up from neck to nuts. For a vampire, it wasn’t even a killing blow, which meant that they had to listen to it screaming for about thirty seconds, until Dean got irritated and whacked its head off.
Dean mostly stood back and cut down the ones who decided they’d rather unlive to fight another day. Even watching Sam was tiring. And then in the middle of the action, Dean saw through the windows flanking the front door that a duo had arrived with a new victim, vamphandling her up the walk—drugged, it looked like—and Dean realized that Sam might well kill her in all the confusion, which would lead to fucking endless self-recriminations. Not to mention freak out anybody eavesdropping on them on the flight back, another unanticipated consquence of leaving the car at home. He had to move fast.
One of the vamps took the victim’s full weight while the other opened the door—inward, which was good because it hid some of what was going on inside. “Hi,” Dean said to the gobsmacked vampire, who’d clearly been expecting someone less attractive than Dean. “I’m here to ask if you have a plan to vote in the next election.”
“What?” the vampire said, completely distracted, and Dean had his head off his shoulders. The second one was harder, because he shoved the civilian towards Dean to slow him down, but Dean managed to dodge her—she’d be more okay falling to the ground with no one to catch her than she’d be if she was dinner—and chase him down. He didn’t love doing the kill in the front yard, but there were a lot of trees around the edge of the property and he didn’t hear any screaming other than what the folks inside were doing, so it would probably be okay.
When he turned back to Sam and the house, it was all over. Sam was standing framed by the doorway like River Tam in Serenity, blood dripping from his blades, his back to Dean.
“Sam!” Dean called. Sam didn’t react. Dean wasn’t sure the Mark still had a special hate-on for the bearer’s brother, but he did not want to find out in a cutting way, so he yelled again. Still nothing.
“Sammy?” he tried, and all of a sudden Sam was in front of him, one pointy machete tip digging under his neck. Dean raised his hands, but he didn’t let go of his own blade, not sure whether the sound of it hitting the porch would set Sam off.
“You don’t get to call me that,” Sam said.
“Sure thing,” Dean said easily, because the fact of the matter was that he didn’t give a shit. He could see from Sam’s expression that his indifference somehow hurt worse, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that right now, and Sam did seem to realize that, dropping the blade to his side.
They went back to the Bunker. The return flight was uneventful, even though Sam brooded next to him like Dean’s willingness to enjoy flying was a personal betrayal. Cas was still incommunicado, and none of the remaining hunters could be trusted with information like “Sam and Dean Winchester are murderbombs now,” so there wasn’t anything else to do.
“It bugs me some that you’re handling the Mark so much better than I did,” Dean told Sam as he served up his latest creation—lasagna with truffled cheese, amazingly good. He should post some of these recipes online.
Sam gaped up at him with his usual slackjawed response to Dean’s openness, which Dean thought was silly—Sam knew that Dean wasn’t bothered by telling the truth any more. Who would’ve thought that having a soul was so confining? Okay, Dean guessed that a lot of people would’ve thought that, but he bet they didn’t think about all the lies and coverups caused by souls.
But Sam took a breath as if to calm himself and then snapped, “I’m not handling it!”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Dean said. “You haven’t killed anything that didn’t need killing—and you aren’t sneaking out on me to do it, I would’ve noticed. You barely even shoot more times than you need to be absolutely sure, which I know isn’t easy. I knew you had a freakish amount of self-control, but man, I gotta say, I’m as impressed as I am ticked off.”
“Dean,” Sam said, then stopped for a minute. Sam didn’t want to be talking to his soulless brother, but he didn’t have another one (Adam being in Hell and all that) and Dean watched him decide he could afford to be mad, and maybe couldn’t afford not to be. “Dean, I can’t sleep. Not like you can’t, but when I try, the things I dream—the things I dream about doing to you—I don’t want to do them. But I can feel my control disintegrating every day. It’s like having acid dripped on me, all the time. It’s not stopping. And I’m terrified that we’re out of ideas, that we can’t call on Death because even if she answers there’s no reason for her to help us any more. She’s just going to watch and I might end up hurting people, hurting you, for no more reason than some stupid witch getting mixed up in stuff she didn’t understand. I don’t—Dean, I don’t see a way out of this. And you’re not even really in it with me. Not as my brother. And I know—I know from the inside—that you can’t even understand that.”
Dean blinked at him a couple of times, then sat down and got back to finishing his meal. There was nothing he could say to Sam that would make a difference, and the food was getting cold.
Dean ate in silence, and eventually Sam picked up his fork and followed suit, which was what Dean had been waiting for—the Mark didn’t actually remove the need for calories, at least not pre-demon transition, which Dean had reasons not to want.
At long last, when Sam had eaten as much as he was going to, Dean looked him over, top to bottom, and even without his soul he could still get Sam’s attention that way. Sam opened his mouth to ask what the fuck was going on, and Dean preempted him: “Not to be all Eyes Wide Shut, but I think we should fuck.”
Sam knocked over his chair standing up, which Dean hadn’t known was a real thing—funny, though, and he didn’t bother to not laugh out loud.
“Are you—no, I know what’s wrong with you. Why would you say that?”
“Uh, because we’ve had the hots for each other for years, and because I know for a fact that a good hard fuck helps take the edge off with the Mark? It’s not as good as taking out a couple of monsters that’re really fighting you, but it helps. I know you wouldn’t try it on some sweet young thing, the way you are now—you’d be too scared to hurt ‘em—and frankly I don’t want to hear you and Rowena, plus I wouldn’t mind getting some at home either.”
Sam was plainly aware that he looked silly being outraged given how well he understood their circumstances, so he struggled with his expression (there was that self-control again) and managed to settle on pissed off. “I have not ‘had the hots’ for you for years!” he protested.
Dean scoffed. “Maybe not continuously, but you and I both know we ain’t normal, but we are smokin’. You didn’t bother to ask when you were RoboSam because even then you knew I was gonna say no as long as I had a soul, but you thought about it. You think I don’t know when somebody wants to tap this?” He gestured in the general direction of his still-fine ass. “But now I’m not all emo and you definitely need to let off steam.”
His brother slumped forward and covered his face with his hands, which not-so-coincidentally let him hide his expression from Dean, as if that was how Dean knew what the kid was thinking.
“Or,” Dean said magnanimously, “we could just spar. Wouldn’t be nearly as good, but knocking me around would make you feel a little better.” And with Sam’s blood up, he’d be more likely to say yes to the rest of it, but Dean didn’t need to roll out the whole plan all at once.
“Oh my God,” Sam said, which wasn’t a no.
In the end, he at least got a workout out of the proposition. He could’ve taken Sam down decisively, no question, but only by inflicting serious damage. So instead he let Sam pin him three times, only wriggling his hips suggestively the once—Sam springing back in horror was good for a few laughs. He managed two good flips of his own, even though he wasn’t getting any younger and it meant he had to be careful about stretching that night. Good thing he didn’t need sleep any more; it left him a lot more time for the other maintenance of the body.
Sam was, at least, exhausted by the end of their session, which had to be a good thing. Dean wasn’t sure how long he could keep from going full black-eyed—Dean’s prior experience in Hell hadn’t been enough to turn him until he’d been physically killed, which suggested that Sam’s own far less culpable demon blood exposure was also not going to speed things up too much. But he had to admit, he was getting frustrated too. Having some time before Sam turned was no good if they had no leads.
Which was why they were probably more receptive to the three demons who showed up the next morning than they might otherwise have been. One of them rang the bell—burning her hand on the warded door—and they stood there in front of the security cameras, not hiding the black eyes. “We want to parley,” the shortest one said.
“What are we, pirates?” Dean said, but Sam was always curious and insisted on having a listen.
They set up a protective circle and allowed the demons inside, Dean watching with skepticism as the three stood in a line facing them. “Okay, nasty, brutish, and short, what do you want?” Sam shot him a look, which was probably shock that Dean had read a book.
The middle demon (Brutish) scowled, but the others didn’t even look over at Dean. “We want you to assume your responsibilities,” Nasty said to Sam.
“You’re the King of Hell,” Nasty said, as if explaining the way the world worked to a child. “You said anyone else who wanted the job would have to come through you. There’s nobody else with enough rank to take the job, mostly because you and your friends killed the contenders. And we hear you’ve got the Mark of Cain. You’re the King, and you need to get around to business.”
“And what exactly would that be?” Dean asked, because Sam on his own would just have ranted about demons and Hell.
After a short, resentful pause, Nasty answered: “Telling us what to do. No one knows who’s supposed to be making deals, who’s allowed to go topside, who’s in charge of allocating torturers to sinners—it’s chaos.”
Short cleared her throat. “And the pressure is building up. If somebody doesn’t step up—and nobody else will, because you said you’d kill them and you obviously have the chops to do it—then you’re going to start seeing possessions more often than Trump tweets something stupid.”
Sam was frowning, and Dean wasn’t thrilled either. The only thing that kept the general public basically ignorant, and basically protected from the supernatural, was the rarity of monsters compared to humanity. A couple of demons a year was survivable. But if those assholes started streaming towards the exits just because they could—well, that wasn’t going to be good for hunters and it definitely wasn’t going to be good for Dean, who would rather just make a nice pot of chili than do an exorcism.
“You got a phone number we can reach you at?” he asked Brutish, who seemed in charge-ish. “Sam and I gotta talk, and we’re not gonna do it in front of company.”
Brutish blinked with an entirely human blink of surprise, then rattled off some digits. “Don’t wait too long to call,” he warned unnecessarily. Then they left.
Wordlessly, Dean and Sam worked to reset the wards, and add a few new ones while they were at it. Dean went and got a couple of beers, popped the tops off, and handed one to Sam. They sat at the map table, looking across the continents at each other.
Dean took a long drink, and Sam mirrored him.
“Well, fuck,” Dean said at last, to prod Sam into talking. “You think there’s any way around this?”
“I’m not gonna say I miss Crowley, but—I almost miss Crowley. If I tell them to pick someone else, I’m responsible for whatever that demon does.” Dean might’ve disputed that, but Sam wasn’t going to hear it, especially not with Dean down a soul. “I mean, if you think about it, I was in charge of a group of hunters and I got almost all of them killed, but with demons, would that be such a bad thing?”
Sam wallowing was going to be counterproductive, and silence was not an option. “Dude, your shoulders are enormous, but they’re not big enough to carry all of that. If it’s one of us, I got ‘em killed by saying yes to Michael knowing what he thought of humans. But the real bad guy is Lucifer, which you oughta remember. Seems to me the only question is whether you think Hell’s better with a King, or with a civil war.”
“It’s not that easy,” Sam said heavily, staring into the blank eye of his bottle. “There’s something wrong with me. I’ve tried to be happy with my life. I’ve made myself happy, because I’m strong and I’m stubborn and so I decided to be okay with all this. But the hits just keep on coming, and every time it’s some new reason I’m fundamentally … corrupt. Angels say it, monsters say it, demons say it.”
Okay, that was enough. “You ever notice how humans don’t?” Dean snapped. “Specifically this human, but I never heard any person who was worth shit say that there was anything wrong with you that a haircut and a good hard fuck wouldn’t take care of.”
Sam chuckled, low and wet. “But you did. You said I was a monster.”
“I never,” Dean said, hoping that he hadn’t forgotten some alcoholic rant, because soulless clarity wasn’t the same thing as a photographic memory.
“When I went off with Ruby, before Lucifer rose the first time. You called and said that Dad was right, that you were going to kill me. You left a voicemail, that’s how much you thought I was a monster.”
What the actual fuck? “I did not!” Dean insisted. “I said as close to what I was thinking as I could make myself—I was mad, but we were gonna work it out.” He would’ve remembered something as cruel as what Sam had recounted, the way he remembered telling Sam that it should’ve been him on the pyre when Charlie had died. Right now, that memory didn’t sting, but it had been on the list of things he’d recited to himself late at night when his sins wouldn’t leave him alone, and telling Sam he was a monster would definitely have made the cut. “Wait. What if—Ruby or Fuckariah or one of those other assholes, what if they changed the message on you, to make sure you didn’t know I was still on your side?” Now it was Dean’s turn to chuckle, with no more real humor. “Ten years you’ve been sitting on this shit, and you say I don’t talk.”
Sam wasn’t meeting his eyes, but then he didn’t do that a lot now that Dean was soul-impaired. He was blinking fast, turning his bottle in his hands like it could protect him from evil. “I didn’t know,” Sam said softly.
Dean sighed. No wonder Sam hadn’t wanted his soul back when it had been his turn. This whole business was exhausting. Still, no point in denying what he knew to be true (and didn’t currently care about): “You’re the best person I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a fuck-ton of people.”
Sam raised his head, eyes wet. “Are you lying?”
Dean shook his head judiciously. “No reason to. I’ve done plenty of stupid shit to you. And you’ve made plenty of dumbass decisions. But there’s nobody who cares more about getting it right. If you do this, you’ll do it right.”
“But I don’t know what to do,” Sam said, mostly to himself.
“Fucking’s still on the table,” Dean pointed out. “Or on the bed, that’s easier. Get your mind off your other problems.”
Dean rolled his eyes, which still made Sam look kind of shocked—he obviously had no idea how much Dean had tolerated from him on a regular basis. “Dude. We’ve now discussed our mutual desire to fuck. Even if we get my soul back, do you think it’s gonna be less awkward because you said no?”
Sam was silent for almost a minute, which had to be a record. “Good point,” he said, and stood.
“My room,” Dean said, before Sam could get any funny ideas. He wasn’t going to fuck on Sam’s pitiful mattress.
Dean was already undressing as he cleared the door to his room. The faster he got things going, the less likely Sam was to change his mind. He toed off his shoes and shed his top layers; the jeans would take more work, so he turned to make sure he hadn’t lost Sam.
Sam was staring at him, which was understandable. The look in his eyes was soft and lost and desiring all braided together. Dean wouldn’t have been able to stand the pressure of that regard if he hadn’t been soulless. Dean cleared his throat and gestured at Sam’s own clothing. “Wanna get this party started?”
Spots of color deepened on Sam’s cheeks. He shook his head like a dog throwing off water—damn, his hair moved like a girl’s in a movie, all flowy and bouncy. Dean wanted to bunch it in his fist and tug, not hard, just enough to make Sam feel it. Then, interrupting that pleasant image, Sam’s head was obscured by his own dozen or so shirts coming off.
He wasn’t as ripped as he’d been at his peak, but Dean liked guys (and girls) who looked like they ate more than protein bars, so it was all good. Sam’s shoulders were wide and well-curved, his biceps and pecs were rounded with muscle, and he had a line of curly black hair down his belly, disappearing into his as-yet-unopened jeans. He’d dipped his eyes a bit, as if he had to peek to see Dean’s reaction, but his small smile said that he was picking up on the approval Dean was giving off.
Dean unbuckled his belt, letting the leather slide through his hands in a way that clearly suggested what else he might soon be touching. Then it was his jeans and shorts, puddled around his feet just long enough to get his socks off—there was nothing elegant about that, but he hoped his getting-interested dick was holding Sam’s attention.
Given how Sam stared, he didn’t have anything to worry about.
Dean spread his hands. “So?”
“Why are you acting like I need to impress you?” Sam grumped.
“’Cause we both know how good I am,” Dean said. It was true: Sam had seen enough mornings after to be sure of that, and Dean was reasonably certain he’d also seen some evenings in progress, whether deliberately or accidentally-on-purpose. This thing between them was not new, was his point.
Sam growled and surged forward, catching him in a vicious kiss. It was weird to have to tilt his head up, Dean noted. Also: Sam had really big hands.
It was hot to be naked when Sam was only halfway there, Dean’s bare thighs brushing up against Sam’s denim but his hands grasping the hot skin of Sam’s broad back. Dean used his earlier bright idea and palmed Sam’s skull, then took a silky handful of hair and pulled, hard enough to make Sam gasp and tighten his own fingers around Dean’s jaw. His other hand was already busy squeezing Dean’s ass.
Without warning, Sam broke the kiss and shoved him onto the bed. There was a vicious satisfaction in his eyes as Dean’s breath whooshed out of him. Ah, Dean thought. If there was one thing he was good at other than ganking monsters, it was figuring out what his fucks liked, and Sam wasn’t exactly playing hard to get. Sam didn’t want to wear a ball gag or get a pedicure (not that Dean wouldn’t have done either)—he wanted to use his strength and he wanted Dean to know that he was using it. Dean could work with that.
Sam stripped off his jeans and fell on Dean like a starving man, his tongue invading Dean’s mouth as his hands closed like steel clamps around Dean’s biceps. Dean kissed him back and then, when Sam pulled back to take a breath, flipped them, so that Dean was grinning down at him and their groins were pressed together, Sam’s dick already hardening under his boxers. Sam grunted with mingled arousal and outrage and reversed their positions again, leaning down to bite at Dean’s neck. Dean groaned, pained pleasure, and Sam froze.
“Is this okay? What am I doing asking you, you don’t have the first idea what’s okay.”
Dean clamped his hand around Sam’s neck, keeping his face pressed to Dean’s shoulder. It wouldn’t work if Sam decided to fight hard, but Sam hadn’t decided anything yet. “’m not a kid and I’m not a bad guy. I just don’t give a shit about some things, and I don’t think you really do either.” He relaxed his hold a bit, just enough to pet Sam in short strokes, like he was soothing a big cat. “C’mon, make me feel good. Mess me up.”
Sam made a sound that was half pleasure, half anger, just the way Dean liked it. His mouth opened on Dean’s skin, maybe meaning to protest more, but Dean pressed down again and insead Sam sucked Dean’s flesh into his mouth, a patch of heat and wetness above his tattoo and nearly the same size—even here, Sam was just so fucking big. Sam’s teeth nipped at him and Dean’s fingers clutched involuntarily, his back arching and pressing his chest further into Sam’s hungry mouth. Sam chuckled, not quite meanly, and continued his assault, sucking and licking like Dean had real tits.
He kept one hand in Sam’s hair, not for any real direction but because he liked the feel of it sliding between his fingers, while the other pawed at Sam’s shoulders, grasping and then releasing handfuls of ridiculously velvety skin over thick muscle. Sam’s back was mostly smooth, interrupted only by the dots of moles like distant constellations. His knees were splayed out on either side of Sam’s torso, and he was humping his erection up against Sam’s chest.
“Wish I had more hands,” he sighed, letting his head thunk back against his pillow. “Feel you up all over.”
Sam bit down harder on his pec, which was not the punishment Sam might’ve intended. Dean’s dick jerked—damn, he might’ve drawn blood—and Sam pulled back to look at him. Dean had to let go of his hair, which was sad, but he got a good hold on Sam’s thick bicep, feeling the flex of the muscle as Sam held himself up, so it wasn’t tragic.
Deliberately, Dean let go and reached out to the side table, still watching Sam’s face. He hadn’t been a prude even before the soul-ectomy, so the lube was waiting for him without any awkward scramblings in drawers. He flipped the cap with his thumb and brought it around so he could give himself a generous dollop before tossing it over the side of the bed. Sam’s gaze followed his hands like Dean was teaching him the secrets of the universe.
Dean was getting a little old for this, but he wasn’t going to let Sam down; he used his empty hand to pull one leg up towards his chest, enjoying the pain of the stretch, while he opened himself with lube-slick fingers. Sam’s eyes were dilated as black as a human’s could get, only the thinnest ring of brown-amber-yellow around his pupils. He was panting like they’d just escaped from the cops and his boxers were stretched so far with his hard-on that the waistband had almost been tugged away from his abs.
Apparently, they didn’t need Dean’s soul to communicate without words, because Sam reached down and pushed the boxers off his hips. His dick only looked a little ridiculous—as non-ridiculous as a dick could get—as it wobbled free, big and beautiful like the rest of him. The head was as pink as the inside of his mouth, shiny just at the tip, and the rest was as golden as all that other skin he hid beneath his thousand layers. There were even a few moles scattered across the veined length of him.
Dean pulled his fingers out of himself as Sam kicked off his boxers, and then Sam swooped down, catching Dean’s legs over his arms. Dean didn’t think that he was going to get inside without some further assistance, but he’d underestimated Sam’s aim and stubbornness both. After one aborted thrust, Sam found the right angle and pushed himself in like he’d been doing it for years.
They were both panting as Sam fed him what seemed like yards of dick. All Dean could do was breathe shallowly and hold on. He brought both hands up to curl around Sam’s neck, his thumbs rubbing against the corded tendons of Sam’s throat, feeling Sam’s efforts in Sam’s body as well as in his own. Their eyes locked as Sam came to a halt, so deep inside that Dean felt like he was inches away from being split in two. Sam’s eyes were shocked, lust-wide and almost unblinking. His cheeks were flushed. Dean could feel sweat forming all over his body, mingling every place they touched, slipping down his thighs and dewing on his belly, stinging on his chest where Sam had abraded the skin. He could smell them, salt-dark and animal.
“Fuck me,” he ordered.
Sam closed his eyes and grabbed Dean’s wrists, stretching his arms over his head until they were almost as strained as his legs. He fucked like there was going to be a test later, and Sam never got less than eleven out of ten. Pulling back so that Dean felt the tug of his cock halfway leaving, then pushing in twice as fast as he’d left, each time shocking the breath out of Dean. Dean’s own dick was getting only the near-random friction of Sam’s torso brushing against him, but Dean hardly needed more yet. He pushed against Sam’s hands around his wrists, just for fun, and Sam tightened up further, his worries about Dean’s willingness gone now that the slightly littler head was in charge.
Too soon, Sam’s rhythm stuttered. His whole body seized up as he came with a series of ahs and uhs that would’ve been funny if Dean hadn’t been so close himself. As Sam slumped onto him and his grip slackened, Dean managed to wrest a hand free and wriggle it between them so he could jerk himself off with a sweat-slicked palm before Sam pulled out. Three tugs and he was there, orgasm sweet and reliable as ever, blotting out the rest of the world.
When he got the rest of his senses back, Sam had managed to separate himself and turn so that he had an arm and a leg draped over Dean. He was already mostly asleep. Dean sighed to himself and waited until mostly became all the way before he slipped out of Sam’s grasp. It was just practical not to set off Sam’s sadness at his soulless disregard for the cuddle (because let’s face it, he definitely would’ve cuddled if he’d been Original Recipe Dean); he didn’t want Sam’s endorphin high to disappear right away.
On the plus side, they now had a new, fun activity that dampened the Mark’s effects and didn’t risk life or limb. (Well, other than the risks inherent in, say, a slippery shower stall and two pretty large guys, but Dean was good at repairing tile.) On the minus, Sam just would not stop talking about it, and not in the fun way. Sam probably would’ve been good at dirty talk—the nicest girls always were the nastiest when you got them wound up right—but instead he balked every time. So Dean had to be the creepy boyfriend pressuring his date for more than he wanted to give, even though once Sam got on board he was more enthusiastic than when he had to research a serial killer.
If the sex hadn’t been so very good, he’d have found a different hobby.
Case in point: he’d offered after dinner, Sam had screwed up his face like Dean had shoved a decayed rabbit in front of it. Dean had gone to the trouble of preparing a speech (preparation saved time in more things than just hunting and lube).
“Don’t feel bad about it, Sam. You like to give it, I like to take it, everybody’s happy.” (He never said it was a long speech.)
Sam regarded him with an intensity that souled-Dean would’ve cringed at and loved with equal force. After a pause long enough for Dean to mentally review what was up on HBO that night, Sam said, “But it’s wrong,” with puzzlingly real conviction.
“It’s wrong if you make me, but that’s not happening,” Dean said. “Look, I know I’m not exactly a moral authority right now, but I guarantee you I’d tell you the same thing with my soul attached. It’s hot that you’re a caveman in the sack. It’s hot that you like to leave marks. Just like I said before: there’s nothing wrong with you except your hair.”
“It’s not the—” Sam began, and then stopped. He closed his eyes. “It helps, but it doesn’t help enough. I think we have to do it.”
“Yeah, what I’ve been saying—”
Sam was already shaking his head. His fists clenched on the table. “We have to go take over Hell.”
“Okay,” Dean said. “Wanna fuck first?”
Dean would’ve been so scared to go back to Hell if he’d had his soul. He wouldn’t have talked about it—wouldn’t have wanted to make the decision harder for Sam, wouldn’t want to admit that his bones went almost liquid with fear at the thought. But none of that was necessary. He didn’t have anything they could take from him any more, and regardless his brother was the King.
That last part didn’t keep him as safe as he might’ve expected. Turned out, Hell had a lot of politics that he’d never encountered when Alastair was busy breaking him for his glorious future. There were factions upon factions. Dean didn’t give a shit; he killed demons when they got boring, and there was nothing he found more boring than one demon explaining why its brand of demonicness was more consistent with King Sam’s view of the world than the other, competing brands that were exactly the same except run by different demons. Eventually the brighter ones noticed not to waste his time, but there were still a few who thought they could destabilize Sam by taking him out. Which was probably true but not likely to end well for the demons involved—seriously, did nobody ever study their recent history before deciding ‘hey, let’s try and kill a Winchester, that’ll solve our problems’?
Then there were the ones who thought they could intimidate him. Maybe they hadn’t gotten the memo about Dean being soulless, or maybe they just lacked transferrable skills. One time, a particularly dumb one sidled up to Dean while Sam was off yelling at higher-level demons and said slyly, “I remember you. We heard all about you, how you screamed and begged. After a while, you begged Alistair for more.”
“Really,” Dean said. “I never heard anything about you.” Then he stabbed the demon with his handy demon-killing knife, which turned out to work fine even in Hell.
He turned back to Steve—one good thing about Steve, he didn’t fuck with stupid demon names—and they went back to rejiggering the duty roster. Even with Sam’s suspension of torture, there were jobs to do in Hell.
The big one, of course, was releasing those tormented souls who wanted to be released to the Empty. Dean was pretty sure Sam didn’t fully understand how it was done: he’d delegated that to Dean, and the process looked a lot like sacrificing a person, though all that was left at the end was a puff of ash. If Sam had known, he’d have worried about how Dean supervising was going to end up with Dean feeling like a mass murderer once he got his soul back. Of course, Dean was a mass murderer, so nothing new there, but Sam did get obsessed about these things.
Also, Sam had the idea that they could keep their incestuous relationship a secret from the minions of Hell. Dean wasn’t exactly writing Dear Demon Abby about it, but neither did he have any illusions about that. A few weeks in, Steve had confessed that the scuttlebutt had them fucking since Sam’s teen years, which was creepy, and also: nobody remembered what Sam had looked like before Stanford. Dean had standards.
Oddly, Steve had apparently taken Dean’s disgust at the idea as a general denial, and from what Dean could tell he spent his off hours defending Dean and Sam’s honor, which was the weirdest thing a demon had ever done for them. So maybe Sam was right and plausible deniability was possible, even though Sam was super grabby in the few hours a week they managed to snatch together.
“Do you remember what it was like, having no soul?” Dean asked one time, after they’d finished and he wasn’t antsy enough to leave yet.
Sam’s face twitched as he thought, staring down at the pillow instead of looking over at Dean. “I was always hungry for something. Didn’t matter what. I could fill up on food, sex, exercise, hunting, and it was like there was a hole in the bottom. I’d just drain right out and want something again. In a lot of ways, it was like being a junkie—I knew what I was supposed to do and mostly I did it, but really I was spending most of my time waiting for the next hit, except I didn’t know what that was going to be.” He paused and turned his head to meet Dean’s eyes, something he rarely did at this point. “It feels like being a demon is going to be different. Is it?”
Dean’s own experience of soullessness involved a lot less in the way of wanting, he thought. Maybe most of his own wanting had come from his soul instead of whatever it was that was left. “Needing to kill makes it different,” he said. “Demons—we mostly met the ambitious ones, right? But there isn’t much that a demon has to do if there isn’t some bigger demon making ‘em do it. They just don’t care, most of the time. Makes ‘em pretty lazy overall.”
Sam took a deep breath. “Can demons love?” Even surrounded by them every day, there was only one he ever would’ve trusted for the answer—and it wasn’t that skank Ruby.
“No question,” Dean said. Even if you discounted Crowley for being weird, he’d seen that chick Casey, all those years ago. She’d loved her demon partner.
Sam’s stupid face and wobbly lip, though, said that he thought Dean was talking about himself, back when he’d been the one with the Mark. Dean wasn’t going to disabuse him of the notion. Maybe Sam wasn’t even wrong.
Dean shifted himself over to cup Sam’s jaw in his hand and kiss him. They’d had enough of a break for Sam to recover and going again would be good for Sam’s mood.
Suspending all involuntary torture had been mostly popular in Hell; Sam’s decree barring possession of humans—living or recently departed—was less so. It meant that no one could go topside. Dean overheard a delegation of go-getters making their case to Sam. The demon speaking was a super-hottie, which was no surprise. A higher demon had total control over its self-presentation Below, and speaking to Sam as a suppurating razor-clawed monster would have been less likely to convince. She’d given herself dark hair, medium height (probably so that Sam wouldn’t immediately know he was being manipulated, given his usual type), and a rack that Dean wouldn’t have minded being tortured on. She was launching into a new argument as Dean approached: “You know that there are humans who’ll happily consent to possession. It can be a win-win. A lot of times we could get them what they want that way, and without even making a soul deal.”
Sam was already shaking his head. “Still not happening,” Sam said. “Nobody understands a deal until it’s way too late. Nobody understands possession until they’ve lived through it, or more likely not.”
Dean came up behind him, mostly to see which of the demons would shift focus to him. “Yeah, but humans do shit they can’t take back all the time. Get pregnant, get drunk and drive, hell, even decide to get a stupid shitty neck tattoo. Aren’t we supposed to be Team Free Will?”
Hottie McDemon looked like she wasn’t sure whether he was, heh, playing devil’s advocate or legitimately on her side, and she wasn’t sure which she wanted it to be. Dean grinned at her, giving nothing up.
Sam frowned at him, not the soulless-Dean-is-terrible frown but the Dean-is-annoying frown. That one was nicer. “There’s supporting free will, and then there’s being a drug dealer. We’re not giving people extra chances to destroy themselves.”
Hottie gestured around her—the dank grey walls, the blood that still bubbled up through cracks in the floor, the mold that made everything smell like a gas station toilet. “So what are we supposed to do? Not all of us want to give up and die.”
“Not that,” Sam said, and turned away. Nice power move, Dean thought, though he kept an eye on the delegation in case anyone got any stupid ideas.
He followed on Sam’s heels as Sam stalked towards his quarters, which were substantially nicer than the public areas of Hell even if they couldn’t ever get lighting bright enough to let Sam read in comfort. (Even for the King, it was still Hell.) Sam moved fast enough that Dean knew he was still agitated.
“What’s the big hurry?” he asked, dodging out of the way as Sam moved to slam and lock the door. He checked the wards, ignoring Dean because King or not he was also a little prick, and then produced a knife from a hidden pocket, sliced across the back of his arm, and added another sigil.
Dean raised his eyebrows. Sam didn’t look over, but he could still sense Dean’s question. “We need to talk in private.”
“Awesome,” Dean said flatly. “What, did that demon get you worried about a rebellion or something?”
“No,” Sam said. He turned to face Dean and unbuttoned the cuff of his flannel, pushing the sleeve up to his elbow, revealing—
A Mark that seemed to be fading. It was less of a brand and more of a really strange mole, barely lifted off of the skin, lighter in color than Dean remembered from the last time he’d seen it. Which, come to think of it, had been a while, given Sam’s preference for staying in control, up to and including keeping his clothes mostly on. Dean hadn’t even thought it was weird, but Sam might’ve been concealing this for a while.
“What the fuck, Sam.”
Sam’s expression was mingled fear and relief; he’d been carrying this for a while before he decided to trust his incomplete brother. “I think—King of Hell and Knight of Hell might be incompatible. And you’d think the Mark would win out, because of how it was put in place by God—” Dean wouldn’t have thought any such thing, but ok—“but Amara doesn’t need containing any more. Plus, God’s not answering his mail and there’s a full house in Hell of demons demanding somebody order them around. What if—institutions have a weight of their own, especially when a charismatic founder has left a power vacuum behind.”
“Did you just call Lucifer a charismatic founder?” Dean asked, disgusted.
Sam grimaced. “Not really the point. But if I don’t have the Mark—then I don’t have the need to kill, either. We could just close up Hell. We could go back—we could find your soul, Dean.”
“Slow your roll, tiger,” Dean said, and watched as Sam pretty obviously took that as Dean saying that he didn’t want his soul back and that he’d fight as hard as Sam had done in the same situation, minus attempted murder of Bobby because there was no more Bobby to attempt to murder. “Not saying no,” he clarified. “But you still have some of the Mark. A Marklet. If being King is what’s getting rid of it, then the last thing we should do is have you abdicate.” (What? He’d watched enough BBC royalty dramas to know the word.) “Plus, there are a lot of demons who still need dealing with if you want to leave the place empty.”
Sam clenched his jaw, but Dean wasn’t wrong and Sam knew it. “Okay, then you work on clearing the backlog of demons who don’t want to be demons any more. I’m going to find your soul.”
Was Dean completely convinced he needed his soul back? Not fucking likely. But he also didn’t see a scenario where he successfully fought Sam and his eighteen thousand tons of stubbornness, and if he wasn’t miserable most of the time, he also wasn’t satisfied. Fucking Sam was fun, and was unlikely to outlast the return of his soul, but the rest of it was just. So. Boring.
Speaking of which—“Well, all right,” he said, and began stripping off. “How about we use that extra ward while it’s still up?”
The more souls Dean released into the Empty, the more wanted to follow. Even tormented souls could get lonely, Dean guessed. Good for Sam’s shut-it-down plan, though they probably couldn’t stop living humans from repopulating the place via ordinary evildoing.
None of them was Dean’s soul, though. He’d vaguely assumed he’d encounter it eventually, though how that would go was unclear—some sort of mirrorverse version of him, all squishy and guilty?
But they couldn’t find it. Not in the Cage, not in the dusty cobwebbed corners of the Pit, not hidden in some high-ranking demon’s quarters like a trophy. Checking those out required some serious fights, which themselves hurried the exodus of souls, especially after Sam relaxed his no-torture policy for the demon who nearly took Dean’s arm off in Hottie McDemon’s attempted coup. That was a wild few days, but they ended, as did the demons involved.
Even Steve eventually volunteered to go. “I mean, we don’t really know what comes next,” he pointed out. “Maybe we get to start again. I wouldn’t mind that.”
“You don’t need to explain,” Dean pointed out. After all, Dean didn’t care. Steve was a co-worker; the annoying part would be finding some other demon to take care of the administrivia. Dean definitely wasn’t going to point out that the Empty could just as easily be a worse Hell, if it wasn’t nothingness. “You do you.”
“Kinda the opposite of the point, Dean-O,” Steve told him. Steve was, after all, a demon, and so he did enjoy seeing what nicknames would bug Dean.
“Whatever,” Dean said. And if Steve looked a little hurt, that just got him through the door to the Empty faster.
“I found your soul,” Sam said, a few days after they’d cleaned the rest of the place out. His tone made it sound like he’d discovered Dean’s soul and it was raping kittens.
“Okay,” Dean said, given that an explanation was clearly forthcoming.
“It’s not in Hell at all.” Sam took a breath. “It’s in Heaven.”
“Really,” Dean said. “Hunh.” Take that, authority figures, he thought. Though honestly very few people who knew them would’ve laid any bets on that one.
“That’s it?” Sam asked incredulously, pushing his hair off his forehead with one grumpy hand. Then he obviously remembered who—or what—he was dealing with and deflated. “So … I mean. It’s Heaven. Maybe we should leave it—you—there.”
Dean gave him a look. “Don’t be a fucking idiot, Sam.” Frankly, he was sort of surprised his soul hadn’t broken out of Heaven and come down to Hell to claim Sam for itself.
Sam laughed, not very happily. “Yeah,” he said. “Guess not.”
Sam demanded an audience with whoever was presently in charge of Heaven. This was apparently something the King of Hell could do.
Dean didn’t bother to get the name of the angel who showed up to the meeting, who had the standard gorgeous meatsuit. He was Chinese, with bone structure that made Dean’s features look crude and an outfit that had just stepped out of a GQ shoot. Demons and angels were both vain motherfuckers, was Dean’s point.
“I want my brother’s soul back,” Sam said, without any preliminaries. Sexual style did tell you something about a person’s negotiating style, Dean guessed.
“I should smite you, Abomination,” the angel said.
“You could try,” Sam said, which was quite the contrast to his long-ago awe of angels. “Why don’t you ask the angels who’ve fought us how well that worked out for them?”
Dean snorted. The angel—Dean was just going to call him El—glowered a little more, but didn’t exactly have a rebuttal.
“Put his soul back,” Sam said, “and we’ll stay out of your way. If I have to come up there myself to get it, I guarantee we’ll be redecorating.”
El sneered, but it was the feeble sneer of the defeated. “I’ll send someone, but only because it’s appalling to consider Dean Winchester somehow meriting Heaven.”
Dean shrugged modestly. “Must suck not to make the rules for the place you supposedly run.” Also, didn’t that mean he and Sam would go there when they died for real, if they ever did manage to die for real? Given what they’d seen of Heaven, it was a depressing thought, so he ignored it.
El blinked gorgeously and angrily, then disappeared. Rude.
Not even Sam was sentimental enough to look back when they finally closed the doors to Hell. They warded it as best they could, though neither of them had any confidence that the place would stay empty. Dean had wondered whether Sam’s Kingship would last long enough to get them back to Earth—he wouldn’t put it past the place to know somehow that Sam had given it up—but Sam’s powers worked fine in terms of transporting them topside.
Cas joined them at the playground where the main U.S. entrance to Heaven had been hanging out.
“Hey,” Dean said. Castiel ignored him, like he’d been doing this whole time. Couldn’t bear to see the meatsuit without the soul he’d gone through so many difficulties to save, Dean guessed. If he were the sensitive type, he’d be offended.
Cas and Sam hugged, of course, Cas nearly disappearing inside Sam’s giant-armed embrace. When that was over, Sam took hold of the angel’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes, serious as a werewolf attack. “How are you?”
Cas’s mouth twitched like he’d bitten into something sour. “Heaven’s politics these days are exceptionally unpleasant. I have been advocating against attacking Hell and a number of equally stupid ideas. It hasn’t been easy.”
Sam huffed. Dean might’ve said that ruling Hell wasn’t a thousand year picnic either, but Sam didn’t seem inclined to measure dicks, or anything else. “But you convinced them—they’re going to hand over Dean’s soul.”
“Yes,” he said, sounding disgruntled. Dean had kind of missed his whole pissed-off, put-upon act. “My role is not completely different from the role I played in retrieving Dean from Hell, though this time I hope I am not a pawn in a larger plot to destroy humanity.”
“I hope so too,” Sam said, obviously a bit rattled.
The Heaven-portal flashed and El was back, surrounded by a handful of other good-looking angels. He held out a jar. Unlike the usual angelic mystic paraphernalia, this one looked like it was for a urine sample, blue plastic screw-top and everything. If it was a deliberate insult, Dean had to admit that they’d done better than usual in that department.
Sam’s eyes locked onto the thing like he was back to being a junkie and this was the only demon blood left in the world. Dean looked over at Cas, who noticed the attention and nodded: yes, that was Dean’s soul. Cas would know, so Dean stepped up and plucked the jar out of El’s hand. “Pleasure doing business,” he said, and winked at the cutest of El’s companions just to see the horrified expression.
El made a noise that sounded like “ugh,” but with a little more dignity, and the whole group zipped quickly back through the portal.
“Can we not do this here?” Dean said as Sam lunged towards him, eyes still on the prize. “You know they’re watching.”
Sam eyed Dean suspiciously—still thinking Dean was going to try to run—and Dean handed him his soul, just for reassurance. Sam’s massive paw almost swallowed the jar up, and the look on his face was so full of tenderness and wonder that it completely made Dean’s point about going somewhere private. Those assholes didn’t deserve to see Sam like this.
“Come on,” Dean said. “Back to the Bunker it is.” With the wards up, Sam could emote to his heart’s content.
Sam barely blinked the entire way back, eyes locked to Dean. “You should spend some time checking out the other scenery,” Dean advised him at last. “It’s a hell of a lot better than Hell.” He smirked but kept his eyes on the road.
Sam thunked his head back on the headrest, but not hard enough to make Dean lecture him about respecting the car. “I just—I don’t get it, Dean. I nearly killed Bobby to avoid this exact thing, and you’re treating it like, like a haircut!”
Dean considered the matter. “I don’t know, Sam. Maybe it’s that my soul hasn’t been ripped into shreds by Lucifer and Michael, so what I get back is gonna be more use than yours.”
Sam shifted in his seat. “It’s not just that. Even before we knew for sure your soul was in Heaven, you didn’t seem to care. I cared, even if it wasn’t the right kind of caring.”
“What do you want me to say?” Dean asked, pretty reasonably in his opinion. “We aren’t the same. You took the Mark and used it to save every tortured soul in Hell, so if we’re doin’ ‘Who wore it better’ then I think you’re gonna win.”
His brother’s offended silence at Dean’s suggestion that he might be a worthwhile human being was all the answer Dean was going to get. Typical. “You gotta work on that self-esteem,” he told Sam, on the theory that souled Dean was almost certainly going to be less honest, even if Dean’s efforts were going to be wasted.
They hit the turnoff to the Bunker, and Dean stopped talking.
Re-ensoulment was somewhere between resetting a dislocated shoulder and getting his entire skin peeled off, painwise. When the white agony cleared, he had about five seconds before all the rest of it hit him: how he’d been in Hell. How he’d been with Sam.
He paused just long enough for the now-traditional hey-not-dead hug with Sam—cut short when he realized that his recent body memories of being close to Sam were now very different—and then he hit his room. He left the keys to the Impala on the table, right between Sam and Cas, so that Sam would know he was going into his shell and not running.
Sam’s sigh as he left was unsurprised and unsurprising.
Cas knocked late that night and said that he was getting back to Heaven. More drama with his brothers and sisters. He stood in the doorway to Dean’s room, not trying to come in, already halfway on his way. “Are you … all right?” He said it like he was sounding out the letters in a foreign alphabet. Affection rolled through Dean like a riptide, and because he’d grown unused to that and to self-censoring, he grabbed Cas into a hug of his own. Cas grunted in surprise but soon enough got on board, raising his arms around Dean’s back and slowly increasing the pressure until Dean pulled back enough to take the angel’s shoulders in his hands.
“It’s gonna be weird,” Dean admitted to him. “It’s all so loud. There’s so much to—” aw, fuck it, “care about. There’s so much I care about.” He looked into Cas’s eyes. “Including you. So you take care of yourself, and let us know if you need help.”
Cas blinked, a shadow of his old uncanny self behind his iceflame-blue eyes. “Thank you, Dean. I don’t believe your kind of help will be necessary, but I appreciate the sentiment.”
“Good,” Dean said, then repeated the word just in case Cas didn’t get it.
Cas twitched a little under his hands. Dean dropped them and took a half-step back. Why was having a soul so fucking awkward? He swallowed.
“Sam fears that you won’t want to stay with him,” Cas said.
The spike of fear and hurt that went through him at the thought of being without Sam was a ton worse because it hadn’t happened in a while. Or, not worse, but Dean had lost the ability to handle it. “Because of the Mark?” he asked, knowing that wasn’t it.
Sure enough, Cas gave him the special ‘Dean, stop being deliberately obtuse’ look.
Dean turned away, hiding his face and slumping his shoulders, just for a moment. Then he straightened, though he still didn’t look back at Cas. “I’ll talk to him. I will,” he said before Cas could express well-founded doubts. “But if I start—if I don’t get myself back to more like me first, he’ll just be more convinced we’re broken.” Shit, and there went the waterworks. He could feel the tears streaming down his face, stinging his eyes, but he refused to let his face collapse. Real men might cry, but there wouldn’t be snot on Dean Winchester’s watch.
“Dean?” Cas asked, understandably concerned.
Dean went miserably to his bed and sat down on the edge. Hesitantly, Cas joined him, their legs not quite touching. Cas had his arms draped over his knees, his tie dragging down like a leash, waiting for Dean to say more.
“I love the Bunker,” was the first thing that came out. “I mean, I love it. It’s our home. I love Mom, and Dad, and Bobby and Charlie and Jo and Ellen and Lisa and Ben and everybody else we lost.” He gave up and reached for a tissue from the shelf over the bed, trying to buy time. “I love my car, and I love making dinner for Sam, and I love every girl I ever fucked, at least a little bit. I didn’t know.” Now he was close to full-on sobbing, because that was the core of it. He hadn’t understood that what he felt, even when it was bad, had been love. Being soulless hadn’t been boring. It had been empty.
Cas’s arm came tentatively around his shoulders. Dean leaned in, helpless to do otherwise. “It’s all right,” Cas said, though it was really more of a question the way he said it.
“I love you too, you know,” Dean admitted, and there was a noise outside in the hallway.
Dean looked up. There was nothing to see, but he heard footsteps moving quickly away.
He blew his nose, because that really needed to be done, then tossed the tissue on the end table and stood. “Uh, I better go find him.”
“Yes,” Cas said. “I will see you soon.”
Having a soul was very fucking complicated, Dean decided as he searched the obvious places for Sam and didn’t find him. He considered praying to get Cas back to help, but then he checked the armory and there Sam was, poking with feigned interest at a German gun that was probably some Man of Letters’s trophy from World War II.
“So how much of that did you hear?” Dean asked. His voice was still thick from the tears, and his nose was probably puffy.
“Enough,” Sam said bitchily and super unhelpfully, refusing to look up and instead moving a package of bullets from one shelf to another. “You should probably close the door for something like that. And leave a sock on the doorknob.”
Dean barked a laugh, because he understood now and the relief was like breaking through the surface of the water after getting held down by a ghost. “I wasn’t hitting on him. I was just trying to explain what it was like, getting my soul back. I know it wasn’t anything like it was for you, because I didn’t spend hundreds of years as Satan’s chew toy, but it was kinda a shock to the system, you know?”
Sam stopped fiddling with the guns, but he didn’t turn to meet Dean’s eyes. “You didn’t—” Sam’s voice hitched, something close to a self-deprecating chuckle. “You named all those people you love, but not me. I know our life is just the job, but I thought—”
Dean didn’t think, just strode forward so that they were close enough to touch. He grabbed Sam’s chin and squeezed, forcing Sam to look at him. “Don’t be a fucking idiot,” he said. Sam flinched, but he didn’t let go. He took a deep breath, because Sam had earned his insecurities, not least on account of Dean working hard to create them. “Sam—those were the things that were small enough that I could see ‘em when I looked around.”
Sam’s brows scrunched in uncharacteristic confusion. Dean let go of his chin but made sure to grab his shoulders to keep him in place. “Everything I do, everywhere I go, everyone I meet—they only matter because of you. What I got back was how I feel about you. Turns out, that’s what my soul is.”
They stood like that, Sam breathing through his nose like a spooked horse, Dean feeling stupid and exposed, until Sam grabbed him and crushed him into a hug. Dean could feel Sam’s chest heaving, and he was probably sniveling into Dean’s hair, but Dean was willing to give that a pass under the circumstances. If you wanted to be strictly truthful, Dean was sniveling into Sam’s shoulder just as much.
When Sam released him, Dean stepped back just enough to look up into Sam’s stained-glass eyes. “Lemme see it,” he said. “The Mark.”
Sam had always been hesitant about showing his body, even the parts that didn’t count, so it wasn’t a bad sign that he frowned and shook his head before thinking through the reasons he needed to show Dean the facts of the situation. He backed away further, which Dean tried not to feel bad about, while he unbuttoned the cuff of his overshirt and pushed it and the henley he was wearing underneath out of the way.
There was only the barest trace of a flush on Sam’s skin, a dying echo of the Mark, more like he’d been leaning weirdly against a carving of the symbol than anything else.
“Good,” Dean said, tasting the bitterness of his past, all the stupid shit he’d done when he was under the influence of the thing, though he couldn’t blame the Mark really. “I’m good, you’re good, we are ready to get back to kicking ass and taking names.” He paused. “Why taking names?”
“What?” Sam asked, not because he hadn’t heard but because he had.
“Taking names,” he repeated. “Why would you stop and take names while you were kicking ass? What’s the point of taking names?”
Sam opened his mouth, closed it again, then laughed. “Dude, we are literally living in the bunker of guys who took names when they kicked ass.”
It was a decent point, and Dean conceded it with a shrug.
Sam stared at him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Pretty sure,” Dean told him, annoyed. Okay, maybe he was overdoing the casual banter. He’d done some things—primarily Sam—without his soul that he didn’t want to think too much about. But trying to push all that to the side made him feel uncomfortably like the guy he’d been without a soul, the one who didn’t feel bad about anything. Repression wasn’t the same thing as indifference, was it? Even if it looked the same from the outside, to Sam? “Look,” he said, deciding to go with the easiest thing, “I’m just impressed how under control you’ve been this whole time. I couldn’t even tell the Mark was going because you were the same either way. I wish I’d been able to handle it like that.”
Sam’s face softened and Dean twitched; there was almost nothing worse than Sam’s pity. Sam sighed. “For what it’s worth, screwing like rabbits really did help—” Dean was impressed that Sam managed to say it without self-immolating— “and also the Mark might’ve lost a bunch of its punch without Amara, like Rowena said.”
Dean nodded. They needed this conversation, he knew, but he really wanted to skip to the part where they drank beer in companionable silence, and not stay in the part where they talked about the totally-over incest.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Sam continued. “Having the Mark sucked. Maybe you can keep that in mind the next time you think about doing something stupid that you think will only hurt you and not me. But we found out some things about us, and I—I’m not sorry.”
Oh. Dean had drifted closer to Sam—not necessarily that anyone else could’ve seen it, but Dean had always been aware of the distance between them, down to the millimeter. “Do you miss him?” Dean asked, not wanting to hear the answer.
“He was you,” Sam said, as if that was all that was necessary. “But not all of you, and so he wasn’t really what I wanted. He was what I could get.”
Slowly, giving Dean all the time he would’ve needed to jerk back and let both of them pretend that there had never been any chance, Sam raised his hands. One landed on Dean’s shoulder and the other wrapped around the side of his neck, the thumb stroking up to catch his jaw. Sam pulled him close, bracing Dean as he leaned into Sam’s grip.
“Now,” Sam said, “I can get more. I can get it all.”
“Yeah, Sammy,” Dean told him, his blood pounding inside him like the open road at ninety miles an hour. “You definitely can.”