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Second Map of the World

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Second Map of the World
By Candle Beck

 

Sam and Dean came through Texas riding a three-month high.

Good days had piled up behind them, all these small courtesies from the world: well-paved roads and diners with two-for-one deals and motels with excellent water pressure. Sam kept finding money on the sidewalk. The job had taken a distinct turn for the heroic; Dean had actually saved a bunch of honest-to-god nuns a little while ago. Nobody had gotten close to killing them for weeks and weeks.

So it was when they dug up a human skull outside of Lubbock, soaked it and the thin gray soil in accelerant, and lit a match. The midsummer sun on the back of Sam's neck was absolutely worse than the licking flames heating his face. Dean was leaning on his shovel as if it were a cane, watching the fire with a gleeful expression on his face that made him look kind of dim.

"So easy," Sam remarked, because they had been all of three days on this case, and most of yesterday they'd spent half-drunk in the motel room (the Back to the Future marathon on TNT had snared them early).

"Yeah, we're pretty awesome."

"Like you even helped. You fell asleep at the library."

Dean snorted derisively, not taking his gaze away from the fire. "Whatever, you shouldn't make me go to the library when I'm buzzed. Totally ruins it."

Sam rolled his eyes. He looked at his brother for a long moment because Dean wasn't looking at him. Dean's face was flushed, shiny with sweat, and he licked across his top lip, swiped his shirtsleeve across his forehead.

The skull burned away to lumpy ash, and Dean scattered it with his shovel before refilling the hole. He was whistling, as happy at his task as a mailman in a sitcom from the fifties. Sam kept an eye on the highway, the stultifying expanse of North Texas unrolling past the horizon.

Back at the car, Dean poured water over a rag and scrubbed his face and hands and arms clean. Sam felt drugged from the heat, which seemed animate, some feverish panting invisible beast. He imagined he could hear the loose water hissing as it pattered on the stove-top of the asphalt.

Dean ran his wet hands through his hair a few times. Sam became momentarily lightheaded and leaned into the Impala to steady himself. That was poorly planned, overbearing sunlight and solid black metal being what they are, and Sam yelped, jerked away.

Dean grinned. "That's gonna scar."

"Is not," Sam said, scowling at him. The side of his hand hurt like a motherfucker, the burned spot shiny and swiftly too pink. Sam clutched his wrist, thinking maybe if he restricted the flow of blood it wouldn't sting so bad.

"Lemme see, stupid," and Dean took hold of Sam's arm and emptied the rest of the water bottle over his hand.

It worked shockingly well, the pain absolutely gone for a stretch of blissful seconds, and then gathering again at half-strength. Dean wrapped the damp cloth around Sam's hand and whacked him upside the head.

"Try not to hurt yourself in really lame ways," Dean told him. "It's embarrassing."

Sam pressed his bound hand to his stomach, feeling the cool damp seep through his shirt. He was irritated, but in a vague secondhand kind of way, as if only for appearance's sake. Sam had found it difficult of late to maintain a satisfying level of annoyance with regard to Dean being a jackass. He blamed this lucky streak they were on. He figured there was no way it would last.

They got in the car. All the chrome and metal was gleaming just beautifully, a hundred melted pieces of mirror. The highway ran as far as Sam could see in either direction.

Dean started her up, and down went the windows, up went the volume on the tape deck. His hair was still wet, spiny and goldish and sticking straight up. Damp patches on the back of his neck, on the front of his shirt where he'd rubbed his hands dry.

Sam turned his gaze forward, sighing under his breath and happy, still pretty happy. He asked his brother, "Where to?"

Dean answered him by gunning the engine, and heading north.

*

A day or two later, up near Topeka, they went broke.

They'd been getting careless, and lazy. Dean kept making friends with waitresses and overtipping them hugely with their sparse cash resources. Their last working credit card had been cut up by a gas station attendant back in Oklahoma, and since then it had been Vienna sausage and Ramen from the emergency stash, Powerbars for breakfast and no stopping for burgers anymore. Sam couldn't live like that for very long.

So they went hustling.

Same old scam they'd been running since they were teenagers and Sam finally got tall enough for a fake ID to be plausible. They came in separately, Dean first because Dean tended to attract more attention just by breathing and walking and stuff, and then Sam slouching in ten or fifteen minutes later. There was an obscure ballet performed, the two of them easing around each other at the bar, sidling up to different sides of the pool table, casual, oblivious, certainly not related by blood to anyone here, no sir.

Then, the challenge. Sam liked this part particularly well, although he avoided dwelling on why.

Dean caught his eye, just a glance over the rim of his beer as he took a drink. Dean was really good at this--no recognition in his eyes, no hint at all that he was looking at the last surviving member of his family. They were perfect strangers, and it made something judder wildly in Sam's chest for a second, before he squashed it down.

Condescension curled Dean's lip. He said something that was mostly a sneer--"you play, kid?"--and Sam straightened his shoulders as if offended. He took up a cue with a vengeful stomp in his step. They bet the last two twenties they had to their name, sad wrinkled bills pinned under a sweating beer on the side of the pool table.

Sam's job was to take a dive in the first game. It was a very specific kind of loss he was meant to suffer, one designed to show that Dean was good but not that good, and certainly cockier than was warranted. Clustered around the three pool tables at the back of the bar, the regulars watched, calculating and interested. Dean played his part to the hilt, flashy with the cue and taunting whenever Sam muffed a shot, a default smirk twisted across his face. Dean was effortlessly good at this, arrogant and obtuse and just begging for a comeuppance.

Once Sam had been dispatched, Dean looked to the wall of regulars and said, "Which of you chumps wants to get beat next?"

Blood in the water. Dean had someone on the hook immediately, a rangy black-nailed ectomorph wearing a battered Carhartt hat, and took fifty dollars off him. The next victim lost a hundred, and there was a gleam in Dean's eye--he was feeling it now. No one could beat him when he was like this. Sam sat near the busted pinball machine and drank a few beers, watching his brother demolish the competition.

It was all going off without a hitch, pool balls clacking and Dean noting, "Damn I'm good," every few minutes, and then 'Turn the Page' came on the juke.

The guy Dean was playing (who might as well have had no thumbs, considering the success he was having) leaned on his cue, bobbing his head to the music.

"Good song, huh?" the guy said to Dean, who barely grunted before sinking another ball. "Bob Seger."

Without thought, both Sam and Dean replied, "Metallica cover."

Then they froze, glancing at each other reflexively.

Stupid, really stupid. The moment of unison could have been explained away easily enough--they weren't the only two Metallica fans in the room, surely--but the moment that followed it, the instinctive collision of Sam's gaze into Dean's, quick and conspiratorial and obvious, ridiculously obvious, that was a bridge too far.

One of the bruisers Dean had just fleeced asked in an ominously low voice, "You boys know each other?"

"No," Dean said, and Sam winced internally because that was way too quick. Dean never did have a feel for these things.

A few guys stood up, chairs scraping back on the floor. Suspicion and malice spiked the air, sharp metal taste on Sam's tongue.

"We don't take much to being hustled in our own fuckin' bar," the bruiser said, wood-colored teeth bared in a snarl.

Sam thought wildly. He really didn't want to get beaten with pool cues tonight. Dean kept flicking him nervy little glances, his back tense and braced for attack. Sam didn't particularly want to see his brother beaten with pool cues tonight either.

In his head, his dad told him, when outnumbered, act crazier than everyone else.

Sam shot up from his seat, stretching out to his full height and getting his shoulders into it too. Blood rushed to his head and the beer too, dizzy as hell all of a sudden.

"Wait, you fuckin' hustled me?" Sam said, and then, louder, "Did you fuckin' hustle me, motherfucker?"

Crazy, Sam was crazy now, so he lunged for Dean. Lost his balance on the way, and crashed into his brother fist-first, but that was okay, that was definitely good enough. His heart was pounding like it was a real fight, real damage to be done. Sam got Dean into a clinch, cursing up a storm and snarling and finding a moment in there to lean close and say between gritted teeth into Dean's ear: "Bail."

Then Sam reared back and punched his brother in the face.

He split Dean's lip. He broke the skin of his own knuckle against Dean's teeth. A slash of blood, terribly bright, brought a collective inhale from the hostile crowd, and then Dean was falling backwards, tumbling away from Sam. He got his hands on the floor, scrambled up and bolted for the door. Sam howled "motherfucker!" again, bouldered his way through the men and chased his brother right out of the bar.

They hit fresh air and kept running. Quiet little town in the middle of the cornfields, nobody out on the streets this late at night, just brick walls and dark glass-front shops and slow streetlights. Sam threw a look back over his shoulder, and for once they weren't even being chased. There was a leaping rise in his chest--triumph!

Sam caught up with Dean and grabbed his arm, indicating a short alley for them to duck down. Once out of sight from the street, they fell against the wall, bent over their knees, panting and coughing for air.

"Fucker," Dean managed. His mouth was vivid with blood. "Fuckin' sucker punch."

Sam grinned, adrenaline whirring, hands shaking. "Absolutely necessary."

"See what happens, gonna kick your ass while you're asleep," and Dean pounded his fist into Sam's shoulder twice, pretty hard but it didn't hurt.

"Worked, didn't it? I'm not hearing a whole lotta gratitude out of you, Dean."

Dean moved to punch him again, and Sam danced away, laughing. Dean swiped his hand across his mouth and it came away painted as bright as an accusation.

"Kiss my ass, gratitude," Dean said, and he was smiling without seeming to realize it. There was red on his teeth, his eyes lit up like huge fires burning very far away, looking better than anything else in the world for approximately the fifth time that week.

Something broke in Sam's brain. He put his hand up on the rough wall next to Dean's head, leaned in and licked the blood off his brother's lower lip.

And then Sam jerked away so hard he almost fell over.

Copper taste in his mouth, and Dean was staring at him with an ideal expression of shock on his face, eyes enormous and frozen and blank. Sam was horrified.

"Jesus, Dean, I'm sorry," he said on a rushed breath. He wrenched his hands together in front of him. "That. I didn't mean that. Obviously."

Dean stared at him dumbly for a few seconds. His lip was hardly bleeding anymore. It was smeared a bit where Sam had licked him. Sam had licked him. He was finding it unimaginably difficult to tear his eyes away from Dean's mouth.

"You. What?" Dean said, sounding massively confused.

"Nothing, it was nothing. Stupid adrenaline thing. Don't--don't worry about it."

Dean stared at him for awhile longer, weirdly guileless. Sam balled his hands into fists and stared helplessly back at him. He was unable to believe that after half a lifetime of unending vigilance, he'd given away his worst secret so swiftly, with so little care. It was insane. Unforgivable.

Sam swallowed hard. "Look, let's just, let's get the car. I'll go, you just, stay here and I'll come get you," and then he was turning blindly from Dean and striding towards the mouth of the alley, his mind chanting away get away.

He thought Dean might stop him, half sure of it, but he'd evidently disabled his brother. When Sam glanced back over his shoulder (couldn't help it), Dean was still standing there, as mute and petrified as any marble statue, any heartless piece of stone.

Sam didn't even have the keys. He got to the Impala before he realized, and then sat down on the ground with his back to the tire and his head in his hands, utterly aghast, trying not to think of anything at all.

*

For as long as Sam had wanted to fuck anyone, he had wanted to fuck his brother.

At thirteen years old, that had meant the world was ending.

They'd been out in the desert states, all over the West Coast, different places that all felt the same. Sam remembered sun, endless incapacitating sun everywhere they went, that one long summer. He remembered spending hours in motel swimming pools with Dean, sitting on the steps in the shallow end with a pile of books and magazines and comic books on the baked concrete, sweating cans of Coke near at hand, white wrinkled toes. Their dad off somewhere, always off somewhere, disappeared down the highway, haunting cemeteries. Sam had been too hot all the time, sweating through his shirts and itchy inside his shorts, sleeping on a mess of towels and blankets on the floor of the bathroom where it was at least superficially cooler. He kept having stunning dreams, woke up gasping and damp.

Long long summer. They probably traveled a thousand miles, a dozen little towns--Dean would know the specifics. Dean always remembered that kind of stuff. It had gotten worse for Sam by the day. Dean was always there, always. Only half his shirts had sleeves, because some girl a few months back had told him he had nice arms, and since then Dean had been lifting small weights and inviting Sam to the gun show like it was the best joke he'd ever come up with, that killer grin of his. Sam wanted to crawl on top of Dean on the couch and rub up against him until this knot inside him came apart. He couldn't get the thought out of his mind.

Sam holed up in small neighborhood libraries to get away from his brother. He ate dinner out of vending machines, loitered in convenient store parking lots, wasting all the time he could before finally slinking back to the latest motel room or cheap apartment, where he would get hollered at by Dean for disappearing again.

Sam was all messed up about it. He liked making his brother mad, or at least, he liked seeing that he could, but then once Dean was yelling at him, Sam wanted to yell back. Anger always played a part in it, frustration and resentment and the weird reverse cabin fever of their existence, something. Their arguments kept veering into the unexpectedly vicious. All sorts of things were starting to go wrong.

They went to bed and the bathroom floor not speaking to each other, and tomorrow they'd do it again.

That was how Sam's life looked back then.

He survived it, which was as good as anyone could ever do. When fall came around, they settled down for a few months and Sam buried himself in school, pretty much his only option. There was always a book in his hand; he tried to stop looking at Dean so much.

It never went away, not like Sam had hoped it might. High school was something just short of agonizing. Dean grew into his shoulders. He let his hair grow out a little when he saw how the girls liked it (Dean and his increasingly beautiful girls, which was a whole other thing that Sam barely had energy to deal with), and Sam couldn't help but concur.

He couldn't understand it. Nobody got to Sam like Dean did, that instant dry-mouth feeling, that slow thick twist in his stomach when Dean was lounging around in pajama pants and nothing else. Sam was ninety-five percent sure he wasn't gay (the girls again), and maybe sixty percent sure he wasn't a sick fuck, so what the hell.

But lamenting the facts of the situation hadn't gotten him anywhere, and so he wised up. Sam went on the offensive, which was another thing his dad had taught him. Smartass comments and long sullen periods and an intense focus on Dean's worst traits, his constant needling and obtuseness and basic intractability, and in this way Sam was able to create some space between them in his mind. He managed to classify his attraction to his brother as one of the things Dean did that annoyed the fuck out of him (not super fair, but what could you do), and it was a little easier then.

Time passed. Time passing, as it turned out, was the twist in the plot. A person could get used to almost anything. By the time Sam left for Stanford, it was just another piece of background information that he was never going to tell anyone ever.

College had changed him in any number of ways. There were long stretches when Sam wasn't sure if he would ever see Dean again. He accustomed himself to visualizing his future without his brother in it--it just seemed psychologically safer to plan that way.

Not to mention, he fell in love with two dark-haired girls and then there was Jessica. Sam fell for her hard enough that he decided that he had actually never been in love with anyone else before, not Dean or the other two girls or anybody who wasn't Jess. It didn't count if you hadn't touched every part of the person and seen them every way and woken up next to them each morning for a whole year of your life. That was Sam's new definition.

So.

By the time Sam was obliged to go back on the road with his brother, his priorities had shifted rather dramatically. Grief and rage and a coring desire for revenge preoccupied him entirely for a very long time. Sam came out of it different again, a third person living in the same skin.

And still, there was Dean. Dean was what Sam had brought with him, his one common thread. It had become a central tenet of Sam's worldview: as long as Dean still recognized him, he couldn't be too far gone.

Now, this. This inexcusable, inexplicable thing that Sam had done, the taste of blood off his brother's mouth, the poleaxed look on Dean's face, the infrastructure of a decade crashing at Sam's feet, his whole life--

It was difficult to keep from panicking.

It was impossible to know what to do next.

*

They didn't talk for the first hour.

Dean drove out of Topeka as if trying to outrun the shock wave of a nuclear explosion. Ninety, a hundred, a hundred and ten miles an hour, blowing past strings of red taillights, huge rattling trucks like dinosaurs with loose bones. Dean had the tape turned up loud enough that the speakers fuzzed. His hands were locked on the wheel.

Sam stared straight ahead. His muscles were as tight as guitar strings, his skin as taut as a drum's. He was shaking underneath, not showing it, no idea how to stop.

Dean wouldn't even look at him. Miles clipped by. The tension built like nerve gas being pumped into a tank, invisible but eventually deadly. There were moments when Sam could hardly breathe.

He was in some kind of shock; probably they both were. Sam's mind was jammed, his signals blocked. He couldn't get past the simple memory of it, leaning in, hand against the bricks, the brief taste of blood on Dean's warm mouth. It was self-defense, most likely, sparing him from thinking about what would happen next, what would happen now. Sam squeezed his hands into fists, biting hard on the inside of the lip.

They rocketed past Kansas City and its suburbs, and then Missouri with its thick forests and accusatory moon. Because it felt like his head was going to explode if he didn't, Sam gathered up his strength and asked:

"Where are we going?"

Trying for casual, a regular everyday kind of question, but he overshot trying to be heard over the music and it came out too loud, weirdly off-key. Sam flinched to hear it, saw the twitch of the muscle in Dean's cheek.

Dean was silent for just long enough that Sam despaired, and then he said, "Chicago."

"Any. Any particular reason?"

Silence from Dean again, that same bone-chilling wait, and Sam wondered if Dean was making this up as he went along. "I want a meatball sub from that place near Wrigley Field."

They'd driven hundreds of miles for less. Sam screwed his knuckles into his leg, resolutely watching the road and not his brother. He tried to think of something else to say, but then Dean reached out and flicked the volume even louder, distortion creeping in at the edges. Sam took the hint, and kept his mouth shut. He pressed his fingertips against one of his ears, his thumb hard against his jaw.

There was a time lapse, through one county and deep into another. Under ordinary circumstances, Sam would ball up his hoodie for a pillow and try to get some sleep against the window, but obviously that was out. He'd sooner be able to fall asleep in a room full of vampires.

The tape came to an end, and Dean punched it out of the deck. "Get me that Thin Lizzy tape with the red writing on the liner."

Sam started slightly. He got the box from under the seat and commenced rummaging, stupidly grateful to have such a regular task.

It was quiet without the music, road-quiet, the rush of the highway and the engine relegated to white noise. Sam couldn't find the tape. It kept being quieter and quieter and quieter.

"What the hell?" Dean asked eventually.

"I can't find it, are you sure it's here?"

"Yeah I'm sure. C'mon, it can't be that hard."

Sam tipped the box into the sparse highway light, tapes clicking against each other. All the tapes were labeled in Dean's hurried peaked handwriting, tracklists and all. There was no Thin Lizzy in there, he was sure of it.

"Dude," Sam said, and Dean blew out a percussive breath.

"Just, just put in something, fuckin' anything." Dean snatched blindly at the box, almost knocking it over. He fumbled a tape free of its case one-handed and shoved it into the deck. Johnny Cash burst out of the speakers, convicts roaring behind him, so loud that Sam jerked, and spilled the box of tapes all over everything.

"Jesus, Sam," Dean snapped, and twisted the volume down to a more reasonable level.

Sam cursed himself, scooping tapes off the floor and jamming them back into the box. The panic returned on a wave, making him clumsy and jittery and incompetent. One of the cassettes cracked under the abuse, a sudden white scar across Axl Rose's face, and Sam was so frustrated he wanted to cry.

"Put it down, for Christ's sake," Dean said, too angry for such a minor offense, but of course Dean wasn't only angry about the cracked cassette.

Sam set the box down on the floor, wove his hands together so they wouldn't do any more damage. He swallowed hard. "Sorry. I. I'm sorry, man."

Dean's lip curled in a disbelieving sneer. He rubbed his hand across his mouth and didn't say anything at all.

*

They stopped for the night in Hannibal. Highway signs near the penitentiary warned against picking up hitchhikers. There was a fire road that ran behind their motel, and kids were racing cars out there, gun-shot mufflers and prehistoric engines screaming.

It was late, almost two in the morning, and Sam felt like a tube that had been squeezed flat, his eyes gritty and oversensitive to the anemic parking lot lights. He followed his brother into the room, which was exactly the same as every other motel room he'd ever been in. He let Dean have first choice of bed without a word--it seemed like the very least he could do.

They weren't talking, hadn't been talking since that awkward mess with the tapes a hundred miles back. Sam stole glances at Dean, his heart thick and tangible in his throat.

Dean stood by the window watching the local kids drag racing, head cocked slightly. Usually he'd be identifying make and model, commenting on how they'd been souped up, picking his favorite. But he was quiet tonight. Sam had muted him.

Sam brushed his teeth and took off his jeans. He smoothed one nervous hand down the back of his head, standing disjointed and too-tall in the little bathroom, studying his own face in the mirror.

Dean was in the same place when Sam re-emerged.

"Aren't you tired?" Sam asked. His voice was mostly normal.

Dean moved one shoulder, half a shrug. "Little."

"So, um. Are you gonna sleep?"

"Yeah probably."

Not looking at Sam, Dean wasn't at all interested in this conversation. Sam stared at him unabashedly for a few seconds, the cut-off angle of Dean's face and the tension in his shoulders that seemed part of his basic design, built into his body alongside muscle and blood.

Sam dragged his eyes away. He got into bed and kicked the sheets loose, settling in. The ceiling was yellowish-white and wholly unhelpful.

Sam thought about saying 'good night, Dean.' He turned it over in his mind, mouthed the words noiselessly to himself. He considered that Dean might not say anything back, and imagined how that would go. That hanging silence. That crippling moment of mortification, red-faced and stricken and rejected, all of it.

There was too much at stake. Sam rolled over to put his back to Dean, and said, "Turn off the light, huh?" before resolutely shutting his eyes.

He wasn't really expecting to be able to sleep, but it had been a long night, a long long drive. Sam went limp as he slipped sideways from gnawing emotional terror into a more garden-variety nightmare, something about ocean monsters, kraakens and giant octopuses. It came as a pure relief. He would much rather fight something that he could put his hands on. Hours and decades passed with him triumphantly lost at sea.

And then when he woke up, the room was empty.

It was the single worst moment of Sam's life to date.

Alone in the room, murky colors of dawn coming in through the window where Dean was no longer standing, and Sam's whole body went cold. His mind stuck in place, gone gone gone, which was the only word to call it, the only word that fit.

It was really only a moment. There was a note on the bedside table, a little hand-drawn map to a nearby diner. It was written in Dean's hand, and felt like a letter from beyond the grave. Sam crumpled the bit of paper against his face, leaned forward and put his head between his knees until his breathing evened out.

Then he got up and got dressed, and went to find his brother.

*

The diner was one of those places catering specifically to long-haul truckers. The coffee could strip paint and came free with the purchase of at least five gallons of diesel. The supply was never-ending, the small thoughtless motion of the waitresses topping someone up enacted over and over again in the background. The special was steak and eggs for $6.99, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Dean was seated at the counter, way down at the end by the jukebox. There was a small stack of quarters at his elbow, a half-finished plate of fries and white-mugged coffee pushed out of the way for the newspaper that he had spread out but wasn't reading. Dean's back was defensively braced, as if expecting to be shot from behind. Sam watched him from the doorway, feeling mournful and yearning and hopeless and other annoying things. He didn't know what he was going to do if it turned out that he'd fucked things up too badly to be put right.

Dredging up every last shred of his courage, Sam made the trip down the length of the diner, and took the stool next to his brother.

Dean's face was angled down, but Sam caught the flick of his eyes, awareness of Sam's presence shimmering over him. Dean curled his fingers into the handle of his coffee mug, didn't pick it up.

Sam pulled a menu out of the metal holder. It was just for something to do, something to look at that wasn't Dean. A minute passed. Maybe a little bit more.

A waitress with tiered amber hair and bright pink nails came over to take Sam's order of coffee and apple pie. Sam did his best to keep from glancing at Dean when he asked her to put a slice of cheddar on it.

Then it was quiet again. Sam had this awful feeling that the rest of his life might be spent sitting beside Dean in various states of torturously awkward quiet. And that was only if he got to keep sitting beside Dean at all.

Sam twisted his hands together under the table. Probably stupid to come here, no matter how heart-stopping the empty motel room had been when he'd woken up, no matter that it had felt like Dean had taken Sam's skin with him when he left. Just seeing Dean should have been enough, he didn't need to sit down next to him and order pie too.

Dean sighed, and pushed a hand through his hair. He looked at Sam, weary and still-baffled and pissed off and everything else. There were brand-new lines on Dean's face.

"You're a pain in my ass, Sam, you know that?"

Sam wrapped both hands around his coffee, staring down. The cheap ceramic was hot enough that he could feel his palms turning red.

"Yeah, think I've heard it before," Sam said.

A moment passed, now that the ice was broken. Sam had never really understood that expression. Broken ice was bad, in his experience. It meant you were about to fall into a freezing lake and be nearly drowned by the clothes you were wearing.

"It didn't mean anything," Sam told him in a very low voice.

Dean didn't give any indication that he'd heard. He was fiddling with his fork, constructing an idle log cabin out of cold french fries. Sam stared at Dean's hands, scuffed white scars and nicks, freshly ragged thumbnail. He wondered how many days of their lives he could reconstruct given only Dean's hands as a map.

"Didja see that semi in the parking lot with the naked chick mudflaps?" Dean said. "I thought those were all extinct."

Sam blinked very slowly. There was something thick in his throat.

"No, I, uh. I missed it."

"I'll show you when we leave. Are you eating that pie or what?"

Without waiting for an answer, Dean leaned over and forked the point off Sam's piece of pie. He chewed through a pleased grin, and Sam pushed the plate over to him because it was pretty obvious that was where it was going to end up regardless. Dean tucked in, thumping Sam on the arm instead of saying thanks.

The waitress came by to fill up Sam's coffee again. He burned his tongue on the first sip, busy watching Dean covertly, relief flaring so hot and bright that he could feel his face coloring. It was like waking from a dream where he had been about to die. Sam was honestly shaking with it, and he gripped his hands together under the counter until the worst had passed.

So, okay, Sam thought, it will be okay, because Dean was pretending it hadn't happened and that was the right thing, that was for the best. It was like fixing the timeline, going back to erase the moments that would prove unsustainable. It was almost exactly like being forgiven.

Dean mumbled, "Good pie," and Sam nodded helplessly in dumb response, gazing at his brother as if he were the world's last working source of light.

*

They went to Chicago and Dean got his meatball sub from the place near Wrigley Field. They took almost two grand out of a strip of bars and pool halls in Lakeview, dirty neon beer signs bleeding color on every scene, cocky red-faced frat boys in backwards baseball caps, and then they were rich, back in the high life again. They drove along the coast of the lake as far north as they could without crossing the Canadian border, and then turned around and came back.

It was an aimless unspecific kind of driving. They flipped a coin to figure out which highways they should take.

Sam ran daily searches on the internet for a case, kinda torn about it. He was sick of the flatland and sick of not having a direction, unbearably useless right now, but he didn't think it would be entirely helpful to add the life-or-death tension of the job to everything else they were already dealing with. Staying on the road was like retreating to a favorite place, all those thousands of hometowns they'd known.

It was still a little weird.

Dean hadn't started changing in the bathroom or some shit like that; it was more subtle than that. He didn't shoulder in next to Sam to brush his teeth in the morning, but instead actually waited his turn like a reasonable human being. He brought Sam the cream and sugar for his coffee, but didn't fix it up when he was fixing his own. Like it meant something, knowing how Sam took his coffee and fixing it up for him, like some kind of secret gay code.

There was an edge on their moments of silence now, a gnawing over-awareness of each other. Sam found himself apologizing when he bumped into Dean in doorways and narrow hallways, shying away. Dean kept fiddling with his ring, twisting it on and off--he noticed what he was doing and visibly stopped himself, but then half a minute later he was back at it again, thoughtlessly anxious. There was an undercurrent of suspense, an electricity in the air. Sam figured it was the potential for disaster, stalking them as diligently as any demon.

He was ignoring that stuff for now, like a man with terminal cancer still going to work every day. As long as Sam could pretend things were all right, he intended to do just that.

In a motel room somewhere in Indiana, Sam and Dean were playing Mystery Science Theatre 3000 with a horrible late-night HBO movie turned down low. Dean made Sam dub for the heroine, which Sam agreed to only because he was kinda drunk and Dean kept giggling like an idiot every time Sam went into a falsetto.

They were sitting on their separate beds, the little table between them crowded with tapped bottles and Coke cans. Two empty pizza boxes were stacked on the carpet. They had been stuck inside all day, rain slashing at the windows and puddling ankle-deep in the alcove where the vending machines were.

Dean had lost the coin flip and had to go for sodas the last time, and still his T-shirt was a bit damp at the shoulders, his hair glistening. Sam wasn't looking, though. He was watching the movie.

The hero was running through a dockyard (a ship of munitions having been highjacked by evil drug smugglers, of course), a black gun stuck to his hand. Villains leapt out at him from behind blocky cargo containers, huge coils of rope, and the hero belted them one after another, a single blow and they'd crumple, vanquished.

"Dastards!" Dean said in the robust goofy hero's voice he had adopted. "I got pistol-whippings enough for all of you fuckers! Hi-yah!"

The shot flipped to the kidnapped heroine, bound to a chair in a warehouse, her eyes bugged as she tipped away from her leering captors.

"Eek," Sam said in his girl's voice, and Dean chortled happily into his beer. "Save me! Oh hurry, you brave man!"

"Ka-pow!" Dean shouted as the hero almost kicked a bad guy's head off his body. "That'll teach you to sign up as an extra in an action movie."

Sam snickered. He was just drunk enough that he felt like he was glowing inside, and everything Dean said was hilarious. Just exactly drunk enough that Sam could forget for whole minutes at a time that thing that had happened back in Topeka.

It was working out pretty well, until the hero inevitably battled his way to the girl, dispatched the last few evil drug-smuggling henchmen in a flurry of martial arts and strategically non-fatal gunshot wounds. Dean provided more exaggerated fight noises, like reading a comic book aloud, and Sam chirped the heroine's relief, and there was a great series of explosions, orange-blossoming fire raking across the docks. Then the girl was cut free and swept up into the hero's embrace, and both Sam and Dean went perfectly quiet.

The hero bent his arm behind the girl's back and kissed her, one of those epic life-saving kisses that you only ever saw in the movies. Sam stole a glance at Dean and Dean was watching the scene with his face impassive, showing nothing at all.

It was such an idiotic thing to be derailed by, and after they'd been doing so well. Sam's face was hot and obvious, his hands twisted in the bedcovers. Difficult to stomach it, so fucking difficult all the time, and it felt like Sam's blood was going to vibrate right out from under his skin. His teeth dug hard into the inside of his cheek, a sharp bright point of pain that held him in place.

The hero released the heroine and they beamed at each other for a second, the dockyards burning around them. Sam swallowed, sick to his stomach and wishing they had just stuck with cartoons.

The volume was too low to hear what the hero said that made the girl throw her arms around him and bury her face in his neck. Sam crossed his fingers for luck and said hoarsely, "Think that was your line, Dean."

It was a gamble, a dreadful risk. It was something that might have been played off as a joke a month or two from now, but not this close, this raw and recent. Dean took a drink of his beer, slow and considering.

"Holy awkward, Batman," Dean said.

Sam snorted, a weird little bark of a laugh chipped off. He chanced a look at Dean and found Dean looking back, a sardonic curl to his lip, his eyebrows tipped upwards. Very old look on Dean's face, well-known and blatant: funny, Sam, it's pretty funny, right?

It was; it always had been patently ridiculous. A breath fell out of Sam that felt like it weighed a thousand pounds, huge and sudden because it was so stupid. Every other curse they had to contend with, every black fraction of the famed Winchester luck, every ghost tacked to their heels, and on top of it all, Sam had been infatuated with his brother for a dozen years. It was a comic degree of overkill.

Sam gave Dean half a smile, yeah pretty funny Dean, his face still bright red, heart still pounding. Dean smirked at him and settled back.

On screen, the hero and the heroine were in a helicopter being lifted away from the firebombed wharf, ash smudged on their faces, clothing artfully torn just so. She was tucked under his arm, both wearing solemn we-have-survived expressions.

The heroine murmured something unintelligible. Sam offered in his girly voice, only a little unsteady, "Heavens, what an adventure."

The hero smiled and hugged her tight. Dean spoke for him, victorious and cocky as all hell, "Just another day in the life, honey."

A hard grin broke unexpectedly on Sam's face. He didn't dare look over at Dean, not sure if he didn't want Dean to see his face or the other way around. The whole thing was very precarious. It was card house built on sand, and the wind was picking up.

*

Nothing was ever going to be like it was supposed to be, Sam decided as they rolled on down the road.

He was driving; he'd had to pick Dean's pocket to get the keys, unable to face another day in the shotgun seat with nothing to distract him but the other cars on the highway and the sideways angle he had on Dean's hands. Dean had bitched about Sam's underhanded tactics, but only for ten minutes or so before he slouched down and took a nap against the door, so Sam figured he wasn't actually mad.

Driving was so wonderful and mindless. Sam went just fast enough to pass everyone else, and no faster. He was in that road-trance place, highway hypnosis better than a drug, fuzzing out the forefront of his brain like a half-completed lobotomy.

Sam rubbed his chin on his shoulder, sneaking a look over at his brother. Dean had his arms crossed over his chest, his mouth cocked open slightly. He was slumped in such a way that Sam knew he would wake up sore and irritable.

Nothing would ever be anything like what it was supposed to be.

Sam had spent years of his life petrified that Dean would figure him out. There would be a slip, a moment of weakness, Sam leaning in too close--pretty much exactly what had happened, actually.

And Dean would see it (wide-eyed, frozen, bloody-mouthed), and the struts of the world would snap and it would all come tumbling down. Sam had lived the confrontation a thousand times, a hundred different ways. Dean would be stunned and horrified. He wouldn't be able to look at Sam. He would stammer and blink a lot and try not to freak out but it wouldn't work. He would be betrayed and repulsed and guilt-stricken (because everything that happened to Sam was eventually Dean's fault), and Sam would have to watch it all.

That was how Sam had always expected it would go. That was what had kept him so tense and unlovable back in high school, that permanent snarl on his face. The sure knowledge that if Dean ever found out how Sam felt about him, 'hate' would not be the right word, not by half.

Sam glanced at his brother. Dean was snuffling in his sleep, pushing the back of his hand across his nose. Sam had underestimated Dean's general devotion, or possibly overestimated his moral code. Sam had forgotten that the list of Dean's priorities was brutally short, and keeping Sam with him was at the top, in bold and underlined and circled a dozen times. Dean would tolerate almost anything to maintain the fragile remains of his family, and there was the operative word, family--it had come to mean different things to the two of them. Different definitions.

It wasn't a new piece of knowledge, Sam's awareness that Dean was and always had been a much better person than he was. Always a step behind, Sam was, always keeping one eye out for himself. There was a lovely kind of self-absorbed self-destruction in wanting only the things he couldn't have. He was trying to do better, though.

Sam still wanted to get his hands on Dean, still drifted there when his mind was wandering. That was only habit. It ached in the core of him, but it was different now, weathered and nostalgic. Less fear and more resignation. Less visceral. Now it was just another thing that was never going to happen.

For the best, Sam thought, and blew past a just-married Cadillac with congratulations written in soap on the window, strings flying back from the bumper, the cans knocked off miles ago.

There was a sign that read, KENTUCKY AND POINTS SOUTH. Sam pressed the pedal to the floor, watching Dean's body jolt slightly in his seat as the car leapt forward. Dean muttered something, shifting around and unconsciously sucking on his lower lip.

Sam pushed a weary hand through his hair, and kept driving.

*

A Boy Scout troop camping in the backwoods of Tennessee had stumbled on a mass grave. The twenty-four hour news channels stampeded, supplying the nation with breathlessly morbid updates and gruesome reenactments.

Sam and Dean headed in that direction, because disturbing a large number of violently murdered corpses seemed like asking for trouble ("Fuckheads bastards and idiots," Dean remarked as they watched the feds in their dark yellow-writ windbreakers swarming the scene on television).

Once they got there, there wasn't much to do but sit around waiting to see if weird shit would start happening. The town was in a suspended state of hostile shock, hatches battened down. They stayed in a motel down the highway aways; there were too many cops around for Sam and Dean to be comfortable showing their faces in town much.

Bad TV and food that came in cardboard boxes, grease-spotted brown paper bags. Lightning outside, wicked purplish lightning all day long but never any rain. Sam went stir-crazy and started getting really into the competitive ballroom dancing show on PBS, which Dean allowed for about ten minutes, and then announced unilaterally that they were going to a bar before their balls shriveled up and fell off.

Sam agreed without argument. Sometimes the room got too small, and Dean's proximity became overbearing. A change of venue was exactly what he needed

Dean sniffed out some rat trap roadhouse surrounded by well-traveled pick-up trucks that had been dented and gnawed at by rust. Inside it was all post-modern cowboys and bright-smiling women in snakeskin boots. The air was blue from smoke, smearing the neon of the beer signs.

They found a booth near the chime and clang of the pinball machine. There was a special on Natty Light, a redneck touch that seemed just about right, and Dean ordered three for himself right off the bat. Feeling that he'd been implicitly dared, Sam matched him beer for beer.

Too long doing nothing, and now Sam got drunk really fast. Only an hour or two in, and he slumped forward, leaning hard on his elbow on the table. His forehead felt hot to the touch.

"Think I'm runnin' a fever," Sam told his brother, and was vaguely pleased because that was marginally less slurred than he had feared.

Dean grinned, cutting affectionate grin, ah-what-an-idiot-you-are. "I think that you are a ridiculous lightweight."

"Hardly relevant," Sam mumbled. He took another long drink of beer, because Dean was at least two inches deeper into his, and made a face. "This stuff is awful."

"It's Natty Light, awful is part of the appeal."

"That. That does not make any sense at all."

Dean waved that away. "You're just delirious from the fever."

Sam laughed, because that was pretty good. "That was pretty good, Dean."

"Don't sound so surprised." Dean leaned back, tipped his chin at a particularly self-impressed angle. He was smiling at Sam, or not really, the corner of his mouth tugged up into a smirk as if fishhooked, but smiling was how Sam wanted to think about it.

He realized he was gazing. Immediately, he hopped his eyes past Dean and on to something else, anything else. The pinball machine with its bells and whistles. The waitress in her short denim skirt. The neon on the walls. Anything at all.

They drank a little more. Dean's features softened and blurred, and Sam kept wanting to touch him to confirm that he wasn't dissolving. He caught one hand in the other, and kept them both under the table.

Sam went to the bathroom, broke the seal, and then scrubbed his face with cold water and rough brown paper towels. If he could just get past the first layer of skin, just strip off the dangerous ill-fit man that he had become--Sam didn't even know what he was really expecting to come after that. He stared at himself in the mirror and mostly just looked tired.

The waitress was at their table when he got back. Dean was grinning up at her, such a charmer. Sam took his seat and Dean spared him the briefest of glances.

"Edie's got dollar shots, you want a dollar shot, dontcha Sam?"

"Uh, sure," Sam said, his skin prickling. He smiled up at the waitress, who was youngish if not quite young, too much eye makeup and bronze-colored hair. She was giving Dean the particular look of waitresses the world 'round, vaguely intrigued and jaded and impatient.

"Bring us four, would ya darling?" Dean said, all smiles. "It's my brother's birthday."

That was news to Sam, and he waited until the waitress was out of earshot before saying, "Why couldn't it be your birthday?"

"Because then it looks like I'm trying to get a free drink for myself."

"But--you are trying to get a free drink for yourself."

"Yeah, but she doesn't know that." Dean watched the waitress going back behind the bar, smiling at a good-natured proposition from one of the regulars. "Pretty cute, huh?"

Sam was only looking at Dean. "Yeah."

Something in his tone caught Dean's attention, and he cut a quick look at Sam.

"What, you don't like girls anymore?" Dean asked.

Sam flinched, jarred. For a moment he was caught out, wide-eyed and probably very obvious. Dean looked kinda surprised too, like he hadn't expected his question or Sam's reaction or any of it.

"Course I do," Sam managed. "Don't be a jerk."

Something twisting and dark went through Dean's eyes. "You like it when I'm a jerk."

Another flinch, but Sam covered better this time. He trained his gaze somewhere to the left of Dean.

"No, that's just what you tell yourself," Sam said. "Doesn't make it true, dude."

Dean snorted. He leaned forward, eyes drunk and glassy, the shape of his mouth gone careless, and Sam's pulse kicked up a few notches because what was Dean going to say, what was he going to do now?

Then the waitress returned with their shots, and the moment broke. Dean shut his mouth up around another hey-baby smile. Sam curled his hand around a shot glass, fingertips overlapping.

The shots they took one after another in a short sequence, right hook, uppercut. Sam gasped, his eyes watering, and clapped the glass back down. Dean gnashed and banged his fist on the table and spat out, "Goddamn," as his throat was flayed open.

And five minutes later Sam was worse than drunk. He had lost all feeling in the skin of his face and it felt like his brain was melting. He sank back into the booth, his arms loose and boneless, an unsteady grin smeared on his face.

Dean was less than impressed. "Can't take you anywhere."

Sam attempted a scowl. "'m fine."

"Yeah, and you look it too."

Dean was making fun of him, Sam was distantly aware. He didn't really mind, happy to have Dean across from him, making fun or whatever he wanted to be doing.

They didn't stay much longer after that. Dean said he was embarrassed to even be seen with Sam in the state Sam was in, but that was just more idle trash-talking, and not meant to be taken seriously. Sam was pretty sure, anyway.

Coming out of the bar, Sam's footing was precarious. Uneven bits of concrete spurred out from the ground and tripped him up, and he might have fallen if Dean hadn't been there to grab his elbow.

"Fuckin' mess, aren't you?" Dean said cheerfully.

Sam put his arm around Dean's shoulders, leaning heavily on him to regain his balance. It wasn't strange for a moment, just Dean's regular solid form under his arm, Dean's body beating warmth against Sam's side.

Then Sam realized that Dean was tense, the back of his neck like stone. Sam remembered what had happened in Topeka suddenly, like a slash of ice water, and he yanked himself away from his brother.

Stumbling again, falling steeply, and nothing was going to go right ever again, and then Dean had hold of the back of Sam's shirt and he was hauling him upright.

"For fuck's sake," Dean muttered. His face might have been flushed; it was too dark to tell. "Get it the hell together, Sam."

Sam shook his brother off. He stood on his own but unsteady, swallowing fast. "I'm all right, I told you."

Dean scoffed, shooting Sam an unreadable look, all foggy eyes and hunched eyebrows. Sam followed him to the Impala, only weaving a little bit.

It wasn't until they were sitting in the car that Dean said conversationally, "Goddamn it. I'm drunk."

"Yep," Sam agreed. He spread his fingers out in front of him on the dash, counting them to make sure they still added up to ten.

"Too drunk for driving," Dean said insistently, as if Sam were arguing with him.

"Then don't drive," Sam said, feeling that this was only logical.

Dean gave him a baleful look that snagged and lingered. Sam shifted under the scrutiny, blinking back even though he had a vague sense that it wasn't the right move.

Dean scowled. "I could be making out with that waitress right now."

Easy now, Sam had done this a thousand times. He blew out a disbelieving huff of air. "You wish."

"Just 'cause you, you, you don't like girls anymore."

Sam started, inching his fingers around the door handle in case he needed to flee. "Shut up about that stuff."

A quick shake of Dean's head--he was angry for some reason, and Sam's blood ran hot at the idea of it. Dean fisted his hand on the steering wheel, glaring at his brother with this dark impossible thing growing in his eyes. Sam bit the inside of his lip, telling himself it was only the shadows on Dean's face.

"You don't even look at them anymore, you only look at me-"

"Shut up," Sam said, old panic cracking in his voice.

Dean looked like he'd been slapped, but only for an instant, a split second before he was lunging forward. His hand fumbled at Sam's face and then Dean's mouth was on his--Dean was kissing him, clumsy and off-center and unpracticed, like he'd never done this before, like Sam was the very first.

Sam gasped, and shoved his brother away.

"What?" Sam said, a choked breath caught up in it.

Still too close, his leg a long warm press against Sam's own, Dean blinked fast. He licked his lips unconsciously, and visibly forced a smirk.

"Turnabout," Dean said. "'s fair play."

Sam shook his head, short of breath and certain that he must be getting something wrong. His brain was humming, buzzing like there were ricocheting insects inside his skull. His lips felt scalded.

"Don't, don't screw around with me, Dean." It came out hoarse and pleading, and Sam watched a bit of light flash in his brother's eyes, a wild maddening thing.

"You lied," Dean said, rushed and muffled with slurs. "You said it didn't mean anything, but that was a fuckin' lie."

Terrified, Sam shook his head some more, pressed back against the door of the car with his heart a great steel hammer in his chest.

"It's not like that," Sam told him desperately.

Dean's hands slammed into Sam, wrenched in his shirt and jerked him forward.

"Yes it is," Dean insisted, and then he kissed his brother again.

Only being human, Sam kissed him back. He fell into Dean like a pebble into a well, down and down and down. One of Dean's hands slid into his hair, tugged him to a better angle and licked into his mouth. Unbelievable heat rose up from the base of Sam's spine, his body shuddering hard as he clutched at Dean's collar, felt Dean's teeth scrape over his lower lip.

Sam was dizzy, lack of oxygen and the full force of the drunk coming viciously down on him. He wanted to shove Dean back and push his shirt up, get his mouth on him. Sam could picture it so perfectly, lying half-twisted between Dean's legs and mouthing him through his boxer shorts, jeans open just far enough.

He broke away, gasping for breath. Dean pulled Sam's head back with that devastating hand still buried in his hair, and ran his tongue up the line of Sam's throat. Sam moaned, and the ragged sound of it almost shocked him sober.

"Hang on, hang on," Sam said, his hands as weak as fishes on Dean's shoulders.

"What? Don't be lame now." Dean immediately returned to his appointed task of bruising Sam's neck with his mouth. Sam tipped his head back, panting and lost to it for a few seconds.

He dragged Dean away again, half a foot of space separating them and it felt like the distance between stars. Dean's eyes were lidded and dark and annoyed. He kept twitching towards Sam, his mouth a heavy wanting thing, fingers curled around the back of Sam's neck.

"Just, we're really drunk," Sam barely got out. He wanted to bite Dean's lower lip. The muscles in his arms were tense, holding his brother back. "Think we're too drunk for this."

"Oh my god, so lame," Dean breathed out, rocking forward again and Sam (stupid drunken idiot Sam) let him come, let him press their mouths together again, quick snatching kiss. He couldn't help it, no more than a man being violently drowned could hold his breath for the fraction of a second he was allowed above the water.

Sam pushed Dean away once more, hysteria starting to creep along his edges, his stomach roiling and his brain on fire. This wasn't right--it was all going to go to hell.

"Wait, would you just wait a second," Sam said, the words thick on his tongue, tinged with sudden rising nausea.

"For what?" Dean demanded. "I, I'm telling you it's okay. You and your fuckin'--you put it in my head, you fucker, it was always your fault. Now come here."

But Sam went the other way. His stomach reared up, and he only just got the car door open and tumbled out onto his knees, and then he was getting sick on the asphalt, agonizing burn in his throat, his body turning inside out. The palms of his hands scraped against the ground, sharp-edged pieces of gravel breaking the skin so now there was blood too, now everybody would be able to see.

In the background, behind the debilitating fuzz in Sam's ears, he could just hear Dean hollering, "Goddamn it, Sam!" and that was actually good, that was better than Dean saying it was always your fault, anything would be better than that, and Sam wrapped his arms around his heaving stomach, closed his eyes. He wished himself away to a distant desert star, someplace where no one else had ever been and no one would ever come looking.

*

Sam woke up at dawn.

He was stretched across the backseat of the Impala. His legs were sticking out the open car door, the blocky end of a seat belt jammed under the small of his back. There was a tiny man with a jackhammer inside his frontal lobe. His mouth tasted like something dead that had laid out all summer.

Sam pushed himself slowly up on an elbow. Pain rolled through his body, his empty stomach seizing. He felt like he'd been trampled by horses.

Dean was asleep in the front seat, slumped in his leather jacket against the door. He looked tense and upset, bad dreams probably, probably Sam's fault, but Dean was there, right there on the other side of the seat. Sam couldn't quite recall why, but he knew that was a miracle.

It was just beginning to be morning, gauzy vagueish green light coming in through the trees. The parking lot was deserted but for the Impala and a heap of a Dodge that looked fused with the land, as if human hands hadn't touched it for years. The roadhouse looked grimy and rundown in that specific bar-in-the-daylight way.

Sam lay back down, resting his arm across his face, nose fit into the soft inside bend of his elbow. He breathed slow and careful, remembering everything that had happened last night.

They'd made a mess of things, and that was clear enough. Sam remembered Dean's mouth on his, Dean's hand in his hair. Dean pressing forward every time Sam pushed him back. Dean so drunk, rubbing his face with his hands, slurring and mashing his words together. Anxiety chewed away at Sam, got in under his skin. He scratched compulsively at the abraded places on the palm of his hand, breathing in shallow little huffs.

"Magoo," Dean said from the front seat, and Sam levered up on his elbow again to see his brother stirring, his shoulders shifting and making the leather creak.

Dean's eyes came open and he was looking right at Sam. A breath caught in Sam's throat. They just stared at each other for a second, and then Dean turned his head to the side and groaned, stretching his arms out in front of him and working out the kinks in his neck and back.

Sam sat up, feeling precarious. He leaned forward over his knees and scraped his hands through his hair.

"Feel like hell," he said to the asphalt, deadpan in the way of a massive understatement.

There was a pause. Sam's fingers tightened on his head, elbows on his knees. Dean cleared his throat.

"That sounds like a personal problem," he said, mostly a croak.

Sam smiled, momentary and hidden by his bent arm. That had been an absolutely normal thing for Dean to say.

"You don't look any better, pally," Sam told him.

"You don't know about me," Dean mumbled grumpily. "Is there any fucking water in this car?"

"No, you used the last of the emergency stash to top up the coolant back in Nevada, remember?"

"Dude, we were a hundred miles from anywhere, and it was like a million degrees that day. Get your own damn car if you want to fuck it up that badly."

Sam snorted a laugh, not because it was particularly funny, but just because it was all so regular. He and Dean were only separated by the width of the seat. They were facing different directions.

"There might still be those Gatorades in the trunk," Sam said.

"So what the hell are you waiting for?" Dean reached his elbow over and jammed it into Sam's back. "Fetch, doggy."

"Quit it."

Sam knocked Dean's arm back to his side, and then stood up out of the car, stretching his arms over his head and twisting his back.. There was Gatorade in the trunk, one blue and one orange, as warm as soup but it was wet and it tasted like something other than sick and death, so Sam wasn't about to complain.

He drank the blue one leaning against the hood of the car, watching the sun slip beyond the barbed wire of the tree line. Dean rolled down his window and tipped his head back out of it. Sam snuck glances at Dean out of the corner of his eye, watching the move of his throat, the miserable lines etched across his forehead.

A flash, a consumingly vivid memory--Dean pulling Sam's head back and dragging his tongue up his neck. Goosebumps broke out on Sam's arms, a precursor to real heat curling in his stomach.

Dean finished his Gatorade and tossed the bottle out the window to bounce crazily like a football on the asphalt.

"Litterbug," Sam said.

"People who save lives as their job are allowed to," Dean answered, shameless.

"Where the hell did you hear that?"

"Common Sense, America," Dean retorted, and then snickered, amused with himself.

Sam rolled his eyes, and went to pick up Dean's Gatorade bottle. Dean was back behind the wheel when he turned around, and Sam took the shotgun seat, tossing the two empties into the backseat.

"Food?" Sam asked, though his stomach felt withered and off-center somehow, off-kilter. It was a regular thing to say.

"Fuck that, I need a shower first. My shorts have been stuck to my balls for like three days now."

To everyone's surprise, that made Sam laugh out loud, and then the whole thing kind of collapsed in on him and the laughter took him over like a sudden possession, filling his chest and punching out of his body in gusts. Last night he had made out with his brother a little bit. This morning they had Gatorade for breakfast and Dean was talking about his balls. Mundane things and the impossible all mixed up together, and Sam didn't know what to expect next.

Dean called him a fucking nutjob, and started the car. Sam put both hands over his face, and he couldn't really breathe but for some reason it was okay.

*

Back at the motel, Sam brushed his teeth and tongue for about ten minutes, and then lay back on the bed listening to the water running in the shower and Dean singing AC/DC too fast, mouth guitar and all.

Sam was feeling battered and out of sorts, like he'd just got off a twenty-hour flight and his legs barely worked. The hangover was a thick sweaty fist closed around him. Last night Dean had kissed him. It stuck in Sam's head better than a song; he kept playing it over and over.

It was only the physical, just the sense memories and Dean's hand snagging in his hair, Dean's tongue against his own, his body breathing heat into Sam's. Sam didn't want to think about what this was going to mean, because what if it meant something completely different? Sam wouldn't survive being wrong about this stuff.

The shower snapped off. Sam tensed, and then forcibly relaxed himself. He scowled at the ceiling, not appreciating how like a teenager the whole thing made him feel.

Dean emerged from the bathroom with steam and soap smell. He rummaged around in his bag for clothes, and Sam kept his eyes locked on the ceiling until he heard the snick of Dean zipping his jeans.

"All right, Sammy, hup hup," Dean said, and a pillow came flying out of the air to whump Sam in the face.

Sam knocked it off the bed, and sat up, shooting his brother a mild glare. Dean was wearing a plain black undershirt. There were scattered patches of damp that had bled through the fabric, blacker than black over Dean's collarbone and the curve of his shoulder.

"What?" Sam asked, his mouth very dry.

Dean grinned, but it was his fake one, his conman grin. Apprehension curled around the base of Sam's spine at the sight of it.

"Wild time last night, huh?" Dean said.

Sam stood up immediately, his bad knee popping. "Yeah, I think I'ma take a shower too."

"Sit the fuck down, dude."

The tone in Dean's voice arrested Sam, and he sank back down on the bed. He clasped his hands together between his knees and stared at the thin carpet. It seemed important that he didn't look at Dean, the reasons why not a hundred percent clear.

"Jesus, how bad are you at this?" Dean asked, annoyed more than anything else. "It's not a freakin' Inquisition."

Sam shot him a glare, not interested in hearing Dean mock his perfectly rational lifelong terror of this moment.

"I've never done this before, first of all. Second of all, shut up."

"You're the one who always wants to talk about shit," Dean said. He was lit up, adrenaline plainly running hot under his skin, his eyes a staggering color. "So let's fuckin' talk."

Sam swallowed. "I don't--I don't know what to say."

"Kinda feeble, aren't you," Dean said on a sigh, and sat down on the other bed, rubbing at the back of his neck. "I mean. Fuck, Sam."

That pretty much summed it up, and Sam nodded, looking down at his fingers all twisted together. He didn't say anything, because all the stuff he considered sounded stupid even inside his own head.

"And for the record, I wasn't even that drunk," Dean said.

Sam jerked his head up. "You didn't want to drive."

"Too drunk to drive and too drunk to fuck around are completely different things."

"It wasn't gonna be regular fucking around, Dean, c'mon."

"Who knows what kinda fucking around it would have been?" Dean replied, a sharp note in it. "Your chicken ass stopped us before we got anywhere."

Sam shook his head, still convinced that this was wrong, this wasn't how it was supposed to go. He was supposed to be begging Dean's forgiveness for screwing things up, for not pushing him away fast enough, for letting this start--

"Did you mean it?" Sam asked, and Dean looked confused so he continued hurriedly, "You, you said I put the idea in your head. Is that--did you ever even think about it before?"

Dean's eyes narrowed, and he studied Sam for a brief second, that tight concentrating look he got when he was deciding whether to tell the truth or lie. Sam didn't know what he wanted to hear from Dean, anyway.

"There were," and Dean cut himself off, looked away. A flush rose on his neck, reddened his ears. "Weird dreams. Just after you left for college. I thought it was just--I was drunk a lot, I don't know what I thought. It was weird. It went away pretty fast, it wasn't some big thing."

Sam stared, because as it turned out he had never expected Dean to say something like that, and he couldn't help imagining what his eighteen year old runaway self would have done if he'd known that Dean was dreaming about him back in the highway world where Sam had left him. Always a reckless little fucker, Sam might have hitchhiked all the way back across the country just for the chance to sleep in the same room as his brother again. And then what would his life look like now?

Dean affected a crooked half-smile. "Foreshadowing, right?"

A silent nod would have to do. Sam was still processing. It was starting to sound like Dean had kissed him on purpose last night.

"Don't get me wrong, it's still definitely your fault," Dean said when Sam didn't speak up. His voice was kinda frayed underneath--with something very much like awe, Sam realized that Dean was dying of nerves too. "I was never gonna do anything, obviously. Who the fuck would? Besides you, I mean."

"Dean," Sam said, his headache rearing back up suddenly. "Why doesn't it bother you?"

"It did," and Dean looked a bit surprised at that himself. "First couple of weeks after Topeka, I, I couldn't--everything was all fucked up."

Sam was back to nodding again. He remembered that feeling pretty well.

Dean cut him a look out of the corner of his eye. "I got over it."

How, Sam wanted to ask, but he didn't. He didn't want to make it seem like he didn't believe Dean. He wanted very much to actually believe Dean.

"And you keep looking at me," Dean said. "You're really, you're kinda terrible about being subtle with that shit, man."

"Only if you're looking for it," Sam said, mostly just as a parry, but Dean sorta smirked and rubbed at his chin, casting his eyes down and to the side.

"I've been looking for it. All the goddamn time, fuckin'--I don't even know anymore, dude."

There was a moment where Sam couldn't quite breathe, which seemed excessive considering the put-upon resignation in Dean's voice, the overwhelming sense that Dean was more annoyed by these strange new feelings than anything else. It shouldn't have affected Sam so intensely.

Sam waited until his lungs were working again, and then said carefully, "It's kind of a bad idea, though, right?"

"Yeah, probably. Why do you keep trying to talk me out of it?"

"Why don't you care that it's a bad idea?" Sam demanded, steamrolling over Dean's question.

"I don't fuckin' know," Dean said, exasperated. "There's something wrong with me--there's something wrong with you. We're cracked in the head. Shit just happens sometimes, Sam."

"And that's cool with you? Just like that?" Sam was aiming for skeptical, but he had a terrible feeling that he'd missed wide into hopeful by about a mile.

Dean shrugged casual-like, but his eyes were hot on Sam, something tense and eager in the green because he knew that he was winning. Sam dug a thumbnail into the inside of his wrist, crystalline point of pain to keep his mind focused.

"I fight actual monsters all day, I'm not gonna fight my own dick too. Man's gotta have some downtime."

Sam smiled involuntarily. He almost covered his mouth with his hand, going to fake a yawn or something because he couldn't be caught beaming soppily at Dean, but that was only instinct. Dean was grinning back at him, never happier than when he'd amused Sam in some way, earned a reluctant smile, and Sam thought that it had always been that way, always that very particular grin on Dean's face, and maybe Sam was kinda dumb.

"Meanwhile," Dean said. "Why the hell are you against it all of a sudden?"

"I'm not," Sam answered swiftly. "I just--I could see it ending really badly."

"The whole world is going to end badly," Dean said, sounding absolutely certain, almost looking forward to it. "What's one more thing?"

They were both so ridiculously fucked up--Dean saying that was what won Sam over at last.

It felt like a bomb the size of a marble going off under his ribs. Sam said hoarsely, "This is crazy."

Dean's eyebrows ticked up, the tip of his tongue darting across his lips. "Yeah, what's your point?"

"No point," Sam said, and then because he couldn't help it, "Come here," and in the space of a breath, Dean had crossed the distance, sinking one knee into the bed and covering Sam's mouth with his own.

Sam tipped his head back and slid his hands inside Dean's T-shirt. Warm smooth skin under his palms and Dean making a low needful sound into their kiss, and Sam pulled his brother closer, wanting to feel all of his weight and never breathe easily again.

*

The first time they tried to have actual sex, it was a complete farce.

Two weeks they'd been necking in front of reruns and rubbing each other off inside their shorts at the end of the night, hidden under one sheet with the lights off, breathing hot and close together. Screwing around like middle schoolers drunk on cooking sherry, and it was surreal, never less than surreal, details so specific that they occurred dreamlike: the hard metal line of Dean's ring catching on the underside of Sam's cock, the whitish taste of the scar on his chest from that time Sam had almost killed him, the shape of a collarbone that had been broken a dozen years ago in a fall from a tree, a fall that Sam had been there to witness.

It shouldn't have been so astonishing to realize that Dean's body could serve as such a good history of Sam's own life, this second map of the world. Sam kept thinking that he'd never get lost now, but that was probably only the endorphins talking.

They were heading west. Dean was obnoxious by day, stealing half of Sam's candy bar in one bite, pouring salt in his Coke, stupid kid stuff, all the same dumb little pranks he'd been pulling for twenty years now. Sam was giddy and irritated and kinda freaked out, but that was only his default setting at this point, a mild overlay of freaked out like wax on supermarket fruit. He was mostly doing okay.

Somewhere outside Albuquerque, Dean turned off the lights and slid into bed beside his brother. Sam moved towards him, but Dean put a hand on his hip and kept him turned away, pressed up against Sam's back and set his mouth as a brand on the side of his neck.

Sam curled his hand under the pillow, feeling his pulse run thick and fast under Dean's lips. Dean breathed out, his chest rolling against Sam's back.

"Think it's time to kick it up a notch, what do you say," Dean said, soft rough ruined voice.

His hand slipped from Sam's hip into his shorts, just kinda checking out the situation. Sam shivered, pushing back against him.

"Yeah all right," Sam said, having a pretty good idea what Dean was suggesting. Sparks in his stomach, heat spreading out to the tips of his fingers, the flush on his face.

Dean grinned tangibly against Sam's neck, and mouthed the edge of his jaw until Sam was breathing raggedly and only vaguely aware of his shorts being tugged down. Dean's hand went away for a moment, and came back wet. He wasn't breathing so great either, uneven and shocky and too-excited, pressing up against Sam like he couldn't wait.

And then, with two of Dean's fingers inside of him, as Sam gasped and hid his face in the pillow, cotton against his teeth, he thought with perfect clarity, your brother is going to fuck you now, and then Sam was laughing.

He couldn't have said why. It was just that particular moment, that particular neon thought lighting up his mind. It was funny for no good reason, a dirty joke in church or a knock-knock joke in the middle of an orgy, and Sam's whole body shook with it.

Dean's fingers came out, leaving a space behind. "What the fuck?" he said, understandably miffed.

"It, it's okay, Dean," Sam managed through hiccuping laughter. He reached back for Dean's hand, tugging at him. "C'mon, fuck me."

Dean twisted his hand free and pushed Sam into the bed, huffing angrily against his neck. "Dude, what the hell is so funny?"

Sam couldn't properly explain it, it was like stars exploding in his chest, and he buried his face in the pillow, his shoulders trembling. Dean bit the back of Sam's neck, and Sam kinda groaned in the middle of his laughing.

"Whole fuckin' thing," Sam said, muffled and broken up. "Everything."

"Not so helpful," Dean muttered. He sounded irritated and raspy and turned on, the line of his body flush to his brother's.

"Sorry," Sam said, grinning into the dark. "You can try again, I'll behave."

"Like hell."

Dean turned Sam onto his back, sticky hand tight around the slope of his hipbone, and straddled his chest. Sam's hands latched onto Dean's thighs, looking up at him with a breath caught in his throat, his heart stopped. Dean had his cock held in one hand and he touched the tip carefully to Sam's cheek, his jaw, his lower lip, watching raptly.

"Not laughing now, are ya," Dean said, impossibly low, and a moan vibrated through Sam, but he stoppered it just long enough to say, "Ha," before Dean was cupping the back of his head and pressing forward, and Sam opened his mouth, let him in.

That worked really well for both of them, as it turned out. Dean fucked Sam's mouth in quick shallow thrusts, gasps snatched out of him. He stared down the line of his body to Sam's face, a revelatory expression and a hiss in the shape of his brother's name. Sam had never had anyone look at him like that before, like he knew every answer, every next right thing.

It was kind of amazing. Afterwards, they lay in a sprawl, breathing heavily at the ceiling. Euphoria hummed under Sam's skin, his mouth swollen and his jaw sore and his head aching a little bit where Dean had yanked his hair at the end. He kept thinking that he'd never been this happy, and that couldn't be right, but it still sounded so good. It got stuck in his head.

"So's you know," Dean said into the hyperventilative quiet. "It's pretty rude to laugh when somebody's trying to fuck you."

Sam smiled. He wrapped his hand around Dean's wrist. "Yeah, sorry about that."

"Try to keep your shit together next time, huh?" Dean twisted his arm in Sam's loose grip, but didn't pull away. His pulse was skimming along under Sam's fingertips, the needle hovering somewhere near one hundred.

"No promises," Sam said, and rolled to touch his head to Dean's shoulder, their legs together. He slung an arm across Dean's stomach, dragged him closer.

Dean huffed. "Fuckin' spider monkey."

"Yeah," Sam said contentedly. Dean wouldn't put up with this for very long, maybe five minutes at the outside, and Sam would probably start to get self-conscious around then too, but for now it was all right.

Outside, trucks were passing and the moon was on the rise. Tomorrow they'd drive to California, as far as they could go. Sam closed his eyes and imagined black roads and blue ocean, a place somewhere out there in the highway world that would look like home.

"Hey, Sam?" Dean touched Sam's arm, fingertips inside his elbow.

"Mm."

There was a pause, an indrawn breath that Dean never seemed to let out. Sam shifted the half an inch required to set his mouth on his brother's skin, exhaling against his body as if oxygen could travel that way.

"Don't fall asleep yet," Dean told him, his voice hushed and solemn so that it sounded like something else entirely.

Sam pressed his smile into Dean's shoulder. "I won't," he said, and then, "I swear," because that meant something else too.

THE END