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Laws of silence don’t work… When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don’t work, it’s just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. But not facing a fire doesn’t put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant…

- Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


1

The night Dean picked Sam up from Stanford, he stood outside his dorm for hours, working up the courage to go inside.

He parked on the far edge of the lot, his hands shaking so badly as he cut the engine that he could barely trust himself to open the door, let alone make it all the way to the building. He took a breath to steady himself. And then a second. And a third.

Hey, Sammy, long time no see, huh?

Fuck. No. Brushing it off wasn’t going to get him anywhere. If anything, it’d just piss Sam off.

Sam, before you say anything, I just want to say…

Even more no. He couldn’t apologize even in his head; there was no way he’d be able to choke the words out when Sam was right there in front of him.

Fuck you, Sam, you owe me this, the way you took off and never picked up the goddamned phone for two years—

Dean sighed. That one was true enough, but was guaranteed to get him the opposite result of what he wanted. What he needed.

He needed his brother back, and his body was thrumming with a jittery nervous energy, his stomach a cold, leaden knot inside him, and no amount of deep breathing was doing anything to loosen it.

Sam, about the night you left...

Dean pushed himself out of the car, needing to shake the energy out of his limbs. He melded back into the darkness of the hedgerow lining the parking lot, putting himself in a position where he could see the windows of Sam’s apartment on the third floor. This wasn’t the first time he’d stood in this very spot over the past two years, just hoping for a glimpse of Sam (just checking-in, just making sure he was still alive); just the first time he intended to actually make contact.

All of the windows were dark, and Dean let out a breath of relief. At least he had some time to pull himself together.

Previous visits, in the back of his mind he’d maybe half-hoped he’d get caught. That Sam would wander through the parking lot at the exact wrong time, his arm slung around some girl’s shoulders, or glance out of his window, see the Impala, and maybe, maybe— but nothing. He wasn’t given that easy out. He didn’t know what had stopped him from manning up and making contact himself, other than pride, but the longer they’d gone with no contact, the harder it was to bridge that gap.

Sammy, Dad needs you.

Sammy, I need you.

Sammy, please, I don’t know how to do this alone.

He was terrified to admit that even to himself, but it didn’t make it any less true. But it didn’t matter what Dean said anyway. Sam, in all likelihood, was gonna tell him to get gone, or get dead.

He’d found his way out. He’d found his way to normal. Just like he’d always wanted.

Dean pressed himself back into the hedges and tried to breathe.

A light clicked on eventually, and Dean watched Sam’s head bob into view. He watched him shuck off his hoodie. He watched him cradle a blonde chick’s face in both of his large hands and tilt it up for a kiss.

Good for you, Sammy, Dean thought, ignoring the pang in his chest.

He watched, and asked himself over and over again what he was waiting for, but couldn’t get his feet to move. If he smoked, there’d be a tidy pile of crushed butts at his feet.

He watched until the lights clicked off again, and still he was paralyzed. He couldn’t take the not-knowing. But the fear of what Sam might say, the look on his face—of disgust or betrayal or, worst of all, indifference—was even worse. So he waited, stomach clenching, trying to force his feet to move.

It was just— he just needed Sam not to say no, that’s all. He needed his brother’s help for their father’s sake, for their family. He needed them to be a family again, and that was too important to accept a refusal.

This stomach-churning fear had nothing to do with—Sam’s eyes, glowing liquid bright with affection—had nothing to do with what had happened the night Sam left, and if the memory of that night was currently playing on a loop in his brain, well, that had nothing to do with anything.

He just needed Sam not to say no.




2

“Dude, so, check this out…”

Dean cracked one eye open from where he was lounging on the bed to glance over at Sam at the table by the window, laptop open in front of him.

After Sam had left for Stanford, when it had been just him and Dad, the few hunts they’d done together had been terse and full of secrets scribbled in journals. Dad took the job so goddamned seriously, was so full of brooding secrecy, Dean had almost forgotten it could be like this too. He’d almost forgotten the look of pure giddy enthusiasm on Sam’s face whenever he clicked the puzzle into place. Dean laughed softly under his breath, the affection suddenly welling up in his chest taking him completely by surprise.

Sam shot him a look of suspicion. “What?”

“Nothing, man. Just… we’ve been on the road barely a month together, and I already know what you’re gonna say.”

“Uh huh. You’ve magically figured out the case, what, while lying there sleeping?”

Dean shrugged one shoulder lazily. “You’ve got that manic just-caught-the-serial-killer look on your face is all. ’Bout to tell me that the disappearances are linked to, like, Mercury in retrograde and the sequencing of pi or something.”

Sam rolled his eyes and pulled a face. “Just get over here, check this out.”

Dean pushed himself off the bed and walked over to where Sam was pointing at his laptop, leaning over him with a hand on the back of his chair so he could see the screen.

“So, I did some digging, and I found that there weren’t a lot of bodies, but a lot of people do go missing in that park. Look at this. Park ranger back in ’97. A poacher in ’91. And on and on and on. I mean, I’ve only gone back to 1943, and I’ve already found 54 missing people. And, there’s a surge in eight-year intervals, always in early spring.”

Dean pushed himself upright and looked down at Sam. “Dude. What did I just say?”

“What?”

Sam’s face was a picture of innocence as he stared up at him, his eyes wide and soft like a goddamned Labrador, and Dean had a sudden impulse to ruffle his shaggy hair—too long, always too long —press a kiss onto his forehead. He swallowed hard, shoved the thoughts down. “You are a giant dork, you know that?”

Sam smirked, looking inordinately pleased with himself. “Whatever, jerk, you know this giant dork just saved our asses.”

“As if, bitch. Coulda solved this case just fine on my own.”

“Keep telling yourself that, lame brain. Admit it, you neee~d me.”

“Asswipe.”

“You looo~ve me.”

“Buttmunch.”

“Dickweed.”

“Spunktrumpet.”

“Wankpuffin.”

“Ouch, Sammy, that one hurt.”

Sam chuckled. “Got about fifty more in my back pocket, you wanna keep going.”

And this was nice. This was family. This was what having your brother back in your life should feel like. Like something finally settling in your chest. Like tension that you’ve carried for two straight years finally releasing. Like jagged broken pieces inside you finally slotting together with a click. Like home.

“Compete with the walking encyclopedia of weird? Yeah, think I’ll take my chances somewhere else,” Dean said, grinning. His hand was ruffling Sam’s hair—how did his hand end up in Sam’s hair?—and he yanked it back as though he’d been burned.

Sam stared up at him curiously, his lips quirking into a fond smile, then he turned back to his laptop. “Gonna miss this when I go back to school.”

Dean’s heart froze, bile rising in the back of his throat. School. Because, yes. School. Of course that was— of course that was Sam’s priority, just doing Dean a goddamned favor by helping him look for Dad, and he shouldn’t’ve— fuck. He was such a fucking idiot, and this was obviously temporary, and why the hell he’d let himself think that this meant as much to Sam as it did to him—being together again, being a family again—but then, Sam had never cared about family. Not as much as he cared about being normal.

Dean shoved it away. If he could barely breathe, if his eyes were burning, if something was suddenly strangling his throat, it was only because he’d misjudged the situation so badly, that was all. Because he’d let himself hope… no. Because he’d forgotten.

He’d forgotten that Sam was his responsibility. Not his— his playmate, his companion, his— fuck, what was Sam? Not his brother-in-arms. His brother. Dean needed to remember that, and tried to shove down the selfishness threatening to overtake him. Tried to get himself used to the idea that once they found their father, Sam would be gone.




3

When Sam was fifteen, he took a knife to the back. It was some psychotic werewolf, halfway through turning and crazed as the three of them were closing in, and it managed to get behind Sam, thrust a knife in his back, and Dean’s world ground to a halt as he watched Sam fall to his knees in slow motion.

The werewolf went down a heartbeat later as John took it out, but Dean didn’t have eyes for that—his sole focus was Sam. He stripped off his flannel without thinking and was at Sam’s side before he even hit the ground, pushing his shirt firmly into the wound to sop up blood as he rucked Sam’s shirt up in front with his other hand, checking for an exit wound.

Only, only the back, and that was good, that was—

“Dean,” Sam choked out brokenly, his head lolling forwards onto Dean’s shoulder as his weight collapsed onto him.

“Sammy, hey, hey, stay with me, Sammy, s’not that bad, it’s not—” Steady, reassuring patter as he leaned over Sam’s shoulder, tried to get a proper look at the wound. “Get you all stitched up, don’t worry. Don’t worry, Sammy, I’mma take care-a you.”

Panic was flooding through him and he tried to shove it down, tried to keep calm. For Sammy, he reminded himself. For Sammy.

The wound was more on his side than his back, and Dean prayed that the knife had missed any vital organs, but he couldn’t tell, couldn’t get a good look from this angle and the blood was soaking through his flannel.

And then Dad was crouching beside them, his voice steady military precision as he snapped Dean back to reality. “Get him up, let’s go. Get him in the car.”

Between the two of them, they hauled Sam to his feet and managed to drag him, stumbling, half-conscious and bleary, the hundred yards or so to the Impala, Sam slung between them with one arm around each of their necks, Dean keeping a firm press on his wound.

“Dad, I think— think he might need a hospital,” Dean choked out, letting himself be scared now that they’d reached the car and Sam was propped up against it.

“He needs stitches,” John said, voice firm, leaving no room for argument. “Get him back to the motel. Be fine.”

They eased Sam into the back seat, Sam hissing in pain, Dean climbing in awkwardly after him, then climbing over him, his hand never leaving Sam’s side.

“Dean, g’off me,” Sam slurred, trying to push his hand away.

“Need to keep the pressure on, Sammy. C’mon, lie down, need to lower your heart,” Dean said, trying to pull Sam’s head down onto his lap. Sam only put up a token resistance before giving in and collapsing onto him, which terrified Dean beyond measure. Sam’s stubbornness was the stuff of legends; if even that was giving way so easily, maybe Dean’s panic was fully justified.

He ran his free hand through Sam’s hair as John drove at a breakneck pace, murmuring consoling nothings as he tried to shove the fear down. A flash of light from the headlights of a passing car revealed blood all over Sam’s forehead and hair and Dean’s panic went full throttle for a split second before he realized the blood was from him, his hands—they were both dripping with Sam’s blood. A wave of nausea tore through him, mingling with rising hysteria, and he— he wanted to laugh, to cry, to throw up. All of them, all at once.

If Sam died… fuck, no, he couldn’t even— he refused. He refused to even imagine it. Such a possibility was beyond comprehension. His world did not exist without Sam in it.

“Not gonna die, Dean,” Sam protested, reading his mind? Or— what the hell had he said out loud?

“An’ even if I was…” Sam continued, slurry, “my fault. All my fault. Shouldn’t’a— should’a been better. Faster. More— something. Always tellin’ me to watch my six. Guess— guess now I know why.”

“Jesus, Sammy, no. Your six is my responsibility. Mine. This is my fuckup, and I swear to god…”

Never again, he vowed. Shallow wound or no, too serious to consider or something that would heal in a week, it didn’t matter—he would never, never let this happen again.

Sam was his. His responsibility. And, so help him, he would never let him come to injury like this again. He would die first.




4

Sam was only eleven, the first time he and Dad left him alone for an extended stay. At the time, it didn’t seem like that big a deal, didn’t even occur to him that maybe they oughta drop Sammy off with Bobby or Pastor Jim for the week or two (or three, as it turned out) they’d be gone. But the hunt was just in the next state over, and why drive all the way to South Dakota when Sammy could take care of himself just fine, wild, impetuous thing that he was. And Dean himself was fifteen, so, practically an adult. But, later, looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, Dean’s heart ached at the image of eleven-year-old Sam in that house alone, with the meager rations of cereal and mac-n-cheese they’d left him.

They were heading out at dawn, him and Dad, and Dean couldn’t sleep. He’d lain awake until the small hours of the night, hand propped behind his head, staring blankly at the shadows of the tree branches swaying on the ceiling.

He wasn’t all that surprised when his door creaked slowly open, Sam popping his head inside. He stood with his head in the doorway for a long moment, just waiting (for a ‘no’, maybe, for a ‘go back to sleep’) while Dean just stared back silently. Eventually Sam nodded once to himself, then came into the room and closed the door softly behind him.

He slunk over to the bed and just stood there hovering for so long that Dean huffed out a quiet laugh. “Gettin’ too old for this, Sammy,” he murmured, but he pulled back the covers and scooched over to the edge of the bed to make room.

Sam climbed onto the bed and pulled the covers tight around himself, curled up on his side facing Dean.

“Don’t go, Dean,” he whispered.

Dean blinked up at the ceiling and let out a heavy breath. “You know I’ve got to. Dad needs me on this one.”

I need you,” Sam pleaded quietly. “Dean… what if you die?”

“Not gonna happen,” he said, turning to look at Sam.

“But—”

“Not happening,” he repeated firmly.

“But Dean. What if.

Dean sighed, unable to really accept it as a possibility, but needing, bone-deep, to reassure Sam against it all the same. “Then… I’ll come back and haunt your ass.”

Sam snorted softly. “Dad’ll salt ’n burn your bones…”

“Yeah, but look, see this?” Dean lifted his hands out of the covers and pointed to the ring he always wore on his right hand, inspiration hitting him suddenly. “Ghosts can attach themselves to objects, so… y’know. Just grab this and I promise I’ll make my way to it, ’kay?”

Sam eyed him, skeptical. “What if you can’t figure it out?”

“Hey, I’m me. ’Course I’m gonna figure it out,” Dean said with false bravado, as if he had a freaking clue, as if the offer of living his life as a ghost by Sam’s side was supposed to be somehow comforting. Then, quietly, “Ain’t gonna leave you, Sammy. Promise.”

Sam snickered. “‘’Til death do us part’?”

Dean rolled his eyes, chuckling. “Don’t give me none of that chick-flick b.s., dude. We’re brothers. This goes way beyond that crap.”

He stretched his arm towards the ceiling, watching the moonlight glinting off the silver of his ring, then let his arm drop onto his chest. “’Til death and beyond. Ain’t nothin’ gonna take me away from you, Sammy. Not now, not ever.”

He brushed Sam’s floppy bangs aside and pressed a soft kiss onto his forehead, then watched until Sam’s eyes fluttered closed in sleep.

Brothers. They were brothers. And that trumped everything.




5

The night Sam left for Stanford, Dean watched, helpless and frozen, as Sam stormed out the door without a glance back.

“Gonna get himself killed,” John slurred.

It was enough to break Dean out of his shocked disbelief, edges of panic rising sharp within him. “Yeah? Well maybe you shouldn’t’ve chased him off then!”

“You raisin’ your voice at me, boy?” John growled, his voice low and dangerous. “Gonna lead the rebellion now that little Sammy’s out of the picture?”

“Fuck off,” Dean muttered, then felt the fury and panic inside him build to something molten. “You know this is all your fault. If you weren’t on his case all the goddamned time…” He tore a hand through his hair, then turned and stabbed a finger at his father. “I swear to god, if he gets hurt because of this… if he ends up… I will—”

“You’ll what? Son.” John crowded into his space and stared him down, breath sour with whiskey.

Dean could only hold his gaze for a heartbeat before he faltered. “Fuck off,” he muttered again, pushing himself forcibly away, frozen with indecision for a suspended moment before he grabbed his jacket and stormed out the door after Sam.

He caught up with him in the Impala, rolling slowly down the tree-lined street and matching Sam’s pace as he strode forward, duffel slung over one shoulder, purposefully not glancing in Dean’s direction.

“Sammy, c’mon,” Dean called out the passenger window. “Please get in.”

“Fuck off, Dean, I’m not going back.”

“I know. Look, I’ll— I’ll drive you to the station, alright?”

Sam paused, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Please, Sam? Don’t… don’t leave like this, man, please.”

Sam chewed on his lip for a long moment, considering, then in a rush of movement opened the door, threw his bag in the back and himself in the front, slamming the door closed and staring resolutely forward.

“Time’s your bus?”

“Five.”

“So, what? You were just gonna spend all night in the station?”

“What’s it to you?”

Dean’s hands gripped tight on the steering wheel. There were a million things he could say to that—

What were other kids, what were normal kids doing on this night? This once-in-a-lifetime, life-defining night—the night before they left for college? Tearful, heartfelt goodbye dinners with family? Partying with friends they’d grown up with their entire lives and now maybe wouldn’t see again for a year, if ever? Dean pictured his brother, alone, in a deserted bus station overnight as he left their family for good, and felt his heart tear in two.

The way they’d grown up was so fucked-up, and Sam had never deserved that. And Dean— he should’ve known this day would come. He wasn't an idiot. Or heartless. He'd only ever wanted Sam to have the ‘normal’ he so desperately craved. In another universe, maybe. Another life. But he didn’t understand— how did Sam not get that that just wasn't in the cards for them? How did he think he could just ignore everything he knew about the real terrors of the world and play pretend at ‘normal’?

Maybe Sam just needed to get away for a while to realize the truth of it. He'd come around. He'd realize that he could be happy with his family. With the life. With him. And Dean wanted… he wanted…

“S’a bar right by the station. C’mon, lemme send you off in style,” he offered lightly.

Sam looked at him finally, gaze assessing, then his mask cracked, something tentative and hopeful flitting over his face.

“Yeah?”

“’Course. What kinda big brother would I be, I didn’t send my little bro off to college totally wasted?”

*        *        *

The bar was run down and mostly deserted, this being a Tuesday night in this deadbeat town, but it did offer a battered pool table and an ancient jukebox and was open ’til one, so Dean called it a win. Sam had his fake ID ready to go, but the grizzled bartender didn’t so much as glance at him, so they spent the remaining hours shooting pool and drinking beer and ribbing each other and singing loudly off-key to hair metal until they got kicked out at closing, and Sam’s eyes were liquid bright and his grin was soft and wide, and Dean could almost pretend that this was just another normal night.

They bribed the bartender for a bottle of vodka on their way out, and spent the next hour wandering through town on foot in search of an all-night fast-food place or convenience store, passing the bottle back and forth between them, shoulders brushing as they walked.

Dean nudged into Sam’s shoulder with his own, taking a swig from the bottle. “Hey, you ’member that time… you were five and you got dressed up as Batman and you jumped off the shed ’cause you thought you could fly?”

Sam grinned back at him. “After you jumped first.”

“Hey, I was nine, and I was dressed up like Superman, okay? Everybody knows that Batman can’t fly.”

“Well, I didn’t know that,” Sam chuckled. “I broke my arm.”

Dean laughed. “Know you did, man, I drove you to the E.R. on my handlebars.” He took another swig of vodka and passed the bottle to Sam. “Hm, good times.”

Sam’s face clouded over, and he looked off into the distance. “Yeah, they were.”

*        *        *

Loaded down with bags of Combos and Doritos and gummy worms from a 24-hour 7-Eleven, they made their way slowly back to the car. The station was open, but bleeding bright with fluorescent light, so they collapsed onto the trunk of the Impala instead, parked in a pool of darkness in a corner of the lot, overlooking the train tracks.

An hour later, food demolished and vodka mostly drained, they were sprawled against the back windshield, legs dangling over the trunk, shoulders pressed close as Sam murmured, “Don’t lemme fall asleep.”

“I could drive you, y’know,” Dean offered. “Skip the bus. Cross-country trip, just you ’n me and the road, whaddaya say?”

“Dad would kill you.”

“Maybe.”

Sam looked at him then, rolling his head against the windshield. Dean chanced a glance back, and Sam’s eyes were swimming with so much emotion that Dean had to look away, blinking sightlessly up at the black, moonless sky above them.

“Dean… I just, I wanna tell you…”

“Don’t, Sammy.”

“What?”

“Just— don’t. Don’t want the goodbye speech, okay? Don’t do that to me.”

Sam huffed out a frustrated breath, and Dean looked over at that, helpless not to, sucked in by the blue-gold glow of Sam’s eyes in the weak amber lights of the parking lot, and the expression of annoyed fondness on his face was so familiar, so known, so unexpectedly welcome, that Dean softened and grinned at him with unadulterated affection before he could check himself and rein it in.

And suddenly Sam’s lips were on his, sloppy and wet and vodka-flavored.

Dean froze, his heart racing, then managed somehow to get his hands up, push Sam back by the shoulders. His head was screaming. “Sammy, what— what the hell?”

Sam sat up and turned away, his back vibrating with tension. “Forget it,” he choked out, his voice cracking. “Just—” and then he leapt off the car, going for the door and his bag in the backseat.

“Sam, wait!” Dean scrambled off the car and managed to grab Sam’s wrist, door still hanging open. “Wait, Sam, c’mon. Please. Just… sit back down, alright? It’s forgotten, okay? Just… nerves, or… whatever.”

His own nerves were shot—frayed and over-sensitized. He could barely hear over the blood thundering in his ears. He realized suddenly that he still had hold of Sam’s wrist, and dropped it like a branding iron.

His heart was hammering in his chest, his skin felt like it was about to fly off him from all the pressure building inside. But none of that mattered. All he knew was that Sam could not— he could not let Sam leave in this moment.

Sam stared at the ground, motionless for an endless moment. Then he threw his bag back in the car and closed the door, and Dean nearly sobbed in relief.

They climbed slowly onto the trunk in silence, easing themselves back, careful distance between their shoulders now, the gulf between them feeling a mile wide. After a minute or two of tense silence, Dean started, just trying to fill the air, “Hey, you remember that time—”

“Don’t, Dean,” Sam interrupted quietly, his voice fragile. “Just don’t.”

They spent the rest of the night in silence, and when Sam’s bus finally arrived, Dean peeled out of the parking lot as it was still loading up, his eyes burning.

It was confusion, that was all. Sam was confused, normal emotional response due to leaving for college—to leaving the family—all tangled up and twisted with… well. With normal, healthy, teenaged emotions of a normal, healthy teenager. And Dean— he was only a wreck because Sam was. Didn’t want to send him off that way. Wanted him to have a good night. Didn’t want to send him off at all. That was normal.

Totally, utterly, heartbreakingly normal.




+1

It takes Sam almost dying (again) before it finally sinks in—the extent to which Dean is willing to go for his brother. And willing to go without him. The extent to which ‘normal’ is even an option.

It takes another three days after the Croatoan fiasco for Sam to finally bring it up.

There’s nothing on TV, but that doesn’t stop Dean from endlessly scrolling through the motel’s limited selection of channels as he tries to distract himself from the memories pinballing in his head. He must’ve cycled through at least a dozen times by now.

At most, ten percent of Dean’s attention is on the images blinking into and out of existence on screen. Another ten percent is taken up by the series of frustrated sighs and groans emanating from the other bed where Sam is holed up with his laptop. If Dean didn’t know any better, he’d think his little brother was looking at something salacious.

“Dean…?”

Click. “...this is why the liberal media is out to get us. Because we’re not afraid to tell the tr—”

“Dean.”

Click. “...the majestic lion feeds her young—”

Dean.

Click. “...amazing how I can feel so bad and look so good?”

A huff and a lurch from the other bed, and suddenly Sam is looming over him, the remote snatched from his hand. Dean crosses his arms over his chest and looks up at Sam blandly. “What?”

That gets him an eyeroll and a bare huff of a laugh before Sam is nudging into him bodily. “C’mon, scoot over.”

“Got your own bed, Sammy,” Dean grumbles half-heartedly, but scooches over a few inches all the same.

“Yeah, well. Don’t wanna crane my neck. And if we’re gonna watch something, let’s, y’know, watch something? All this channel flipping’s driving me crazy.”

Dean glances back at the TV, where Blanche and Rose are currently in histrionics over something or other. “You wanted to watch the Golden Girls, all you had to do was ask, Samantha.”

“Pfft, don’t even. You know you love it. Don’t act like we didn’t watch this all the time when we were kids.”

Dean shrugs. “What can I say, daytime TV options were limited back then. Was either this or endless reruns of Matlock. Hand me my beer, wouldya?”

“Think you just had a thing for Blanche,” Sam says, reaching over to the bedside table and passing Dean his beer, then pushing himself off the bed to snag the rest of the six-pack from the dresser in front of them. He bounces back on the bed with a huff, jostling Dean, bedsprings groaning under the weight.

Sam sets the six-pack on the floor beside him, then hands a new one to Dean. Dean raises a brow at that, but wordlessly pops the cap off with his ring and passes it back to Sam. “Thought you were gonna find us something to watch.”

Sam chuckles and takes a swig of his beer, then resettles himself on the bed, shoulder pressing firmly into Dean’s. “Still waitin’ on you to declare your undying love for Blanche.”

Dean knows his role here, knows he oughta be making some crude remark about cougars and the healthy sexual appetite of older women, but his heart isn’t in it; suddenly he can’t summon up the energy and just shrugs with a noncommittal sound.

Sam looks at him askance, considering, but after a moment takes the remote and starts flipping through the channels without a word. He lands on Marty being hit on by his teenaged mother in a darkened bedroom in 1955 and settles back against the headboard with a contented sigh. “Back to the Future, perfect.”

Dean chuckles under his breath, remembering Sammy as a kid carting their pirated VHS copy from one temporary accommodation to the next over a period of years before the tape finally gave up the ghost through overuse, one tired machine eating it whole and spitting out tangled black ribbon.

“Used to have this entire movie memorized, remember? You’d recite the whole damn thing start-to-finish on the drives between one nowheresville and the next.”

“Used to?” Sam says simply.

“Geek,” Dean says, fond. Sam switches off the bedside light and his face glows blue-green-pink from the flickering light of the TV as he mouths the dialogue in sync with the characters.

“Hits kinda different now, as an adult,” Dean says mildly. “Mother pervin’ on her kid?” He shudders exaggeratedly. “Can’t believe they got away with this in a mainstream blockbuster.”

“It’s actually a common phenomenon, y’know. Genetic sexual attraction. There’ve been studies. Recent ones. Apparently, fear of incest evolved as more of a societal taboo for genetic protection. But the attraction is real. Where’d you think the Oedipus complex comes from?”

Sam sounds defensive, but who or what he’s supposed to be defending is not something Dean wants to unpick right now, and when he glances over, Sam’s staring resolutely forwards at the screen, so instead he says, bland as he can make it, “Had that one just stashed in your back pocket, did you?”

And he’s watching for it, out of the corner of his eye, otherwise he wouldn’t have seen Sam’s immediate flush before he wrestles it under control a heartbeat later.

“Never understood why you were so obsessed with this movie,” Dean continues, trying to give Sam some reprieve, even though he does know. Of course he knows. The comment alone gets him a skeptical, sidelong look.

“Yes you do,” Sam says like Dean’s just confessed he doesn’t know that two and two make four. But then his voice goes soft, like he needs to say it anyway, out loud. “Just… not many people have that moment, you know? The one they can look back on and go, ‘if only this changed, everything would be different.’”

Dean picks at the label on his beer; takes a swig. He can feel where this conversation is heading, has been heading for the past three days, and all he knows is that he doesn’t want to have it without a good amount of alcohol in his system. He clears his throat. “You, uh, still wonder? Where we’d be?”

The question feels like it’s hanging off a knife’s edge, the air choked with it. Because, wherever they would’ve ended up without that moment, the moment that had tilted their entire lives inexorably towards the dark underbelly of the world, it wouldn’t have involved Sam running from monsters his entire freaking life, left alone so many times at such a young age it was a wonder he didn’t die from starvation or predators or a million other terrors of the normal world, monsters notwithstanding, and Sam running away from the family just to try and find some sense of normal, and it certainly wouldn’t have led to Sam nearly dying from a demon virus and Dean ready to jump off the cliff right after him.

Somehow it had gotten lost in the shuffle—buried under the revelations of Dad’s deathbed secrets, swamped beneath more urgent priorities as Sam took off to go searching for other psychic kids on his own—the bone-chilling realization that had slammed into Dean when they were holed up back at the clinic: if Sam died, Dean died.

That’s it. End of. Absolute and definitive.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Dean had always known that to be true, so obvious it hadn’t even needed to be made conscious. But the violent force with which that conviction had reared up in the clinic, that had solidified in him with bone-deep certainty, had completely blindsided him.

Sammy, begging him, crying and begging him to leave. And there was nothing Dean wouldn’t do for Sam. Except that. It hadn’t even been a question.

There was no force on earth, in heaven or hell either if they existed, that could’ve moved him from that spot and let his brother die alone.

There is no Dean without Sam.

And even now, still— somehow even now, Dean is struggling to wrap his mind around the enormity of that fact.

And Sam is here, warm and living and pressed solidly against him and taking entirely too long to answer what should be a simple question, so Dean nudges into him with his shoulder, feeling his stomach clench around cold lead.

“I mean, sometimes?” Sam says finally, ducking his head and glancing over at him sidelong, having the decency to at least look a little embarrassed. He turns down the volume on the TV until it’s barely a murmur. “Sometimes I still wonder. But, you know, it’s misleading. Because I wouldn’t be me. It’s like killing off a version of yourself so that another one can take its place.”

Dean stares at Sam’s bare feet, crossed at the ankles and almost fragile-looking on the gaudy motel bedspread. His toes are too long, too thin—like the rest of him—second and third ones on his left foot misshapen from when he broke them running from a rugaru at thirteen. The skin stretches so thin over the delicate bones of his feet they look almost translucent in the flickering light, and Dean imagines he can see the network of veins, nerves, muscles threading straight through them. A memory plays vivid in his mind—one of his first—blowing raspberries into the sole of a chubby baby foot, baby Sammy squealing in laughter—but he can’t reconcile it with the long limbs currently pressed up against him, radiating heat. Baby Sammy, the thirteen-year-old who broke his toes, this long-limbed man pressed against him—how is it possible they’re all the same person?

“You woulda, uh, been some hotshot lawyer by now, probably…” Dean says, trying for light.

Beside him, Sam frowns. He doesn’t even need to look over to know. Can feel it in the minute shifting of his body, the way his shoulder tenses.

Truth is, Dean wouldn’t trade it. Any of it. Not the broken limbs and the near-deaths, not even Sam running away for two years—he wouldn’t trade any of it against the risk that it might lead to Sam not being here, now, as close as they are. And that maybe makes him a bad person, a terrible brother, but the thought that Sam might be some lawyer, somewhere, that they might be strangers to one another— it’s incomprehensible. The guilt of it settles in his stomach like nausea, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

He was never capable of giving Sam any kind of ‘normal’. That’s not love. It’s not family. He doesn’t know what—

“I’m not— I mean, I know our lives are beyond fucked-up,” Sam says, quiet, frowning like he’s trying to work out a puzzle, “but I’m not… I mean, I still… I want to see how this one plays out.”

“That’s idiotic, Sam, you almost died.” It comes out harsher than he means it to and he can see Sam’s eyes tighten, but he can’t stop, it’s— “You almost died, twice in the past week, you’ve got some psycho demon after you, you’re halfway to full-on Sith lord, and you— fuck, Sam, why would you choose this? Why would anyone—” he cuts himself off, knocks back another swig of beer, shakes his head.

Sam stiffens, then lets out a heavy breath. “Dean, you… the other day, you—” He seems to gather himself, his voice firming. “You wanna tell me what was up with you the other day?”

“Gonna have to be a bit more specific,” Dean says blandly.

Sam rolls his eyes. He doesn’t have to look to see that one either. He could be on the other side of the planet, and he’d still know Sam was rolling his eyes.

“I almost died, yeah,” Sam says slowly, deliberately, “or at least, we thought— whatever, that’s not— I almost died, but you were ready to throw your life away. What the hell, Dean?”

He shrugs. “S’no life,” he says eventually. There’s a plastic loop of thread poking out of the cheap comforter in the scant space between them, and Dean pulls on the loop, watches the stitches come undone one by one.

Sam grabs his hand, pulls it away, covers his fist in his larger one, lets them both fall to the space between their thighs, gap bridged. “Dean. What the hell?” he repeats, squeezing.

Dean’s fist clenches inside Sam’s. He wants to pull away, but… “We’ve had this conversation already, Sammy.” When Sam remains silent, he gives a half-hearted tug, and Sam’s hand tightens around his. He chews the inside of his cheek, looks over helplessly, finally meeting Sam’s eyes. “What do you want me to say?”

“What do I want you to say?” Sam echoes incredulously. “Are you serious?”

Dean shrugs, stares him down. Screw Sam, anyway. Like hell he’s going to say it out loud. Sam’s fist has tightened so much around his, his nails are digging painfully into his palm. He tugs again, fruitlessly.

“Want you to say I’m not going to come back to the motel someday to find your bloody corpse in the bed like we just found Ava’s fiancé’s, or find you missing with just your ring left behind, just because you suddenly decided you were too tired to keep fighting.”

Dean scoffs at that; the pure righteous outrage in Sam’s voice is freaking hilarious. As if he has any room to talk.

“You find that funny?” Sam asks, his voice dangerously low, too serious.

Dean does yank his hand back then, sets his empty bottle between his thighs and massages out the nail marks embedded in his palm. “Jesus, Sammy, chill. I’m not suicidal. Thought you knew me better than that.”

“Then what—”

“Just think you’ve got no right to say anything on that score, is all.”

Sam’s brow furrows, then clears, like it does when the mysteries of a case have just clicked into place. “Told you,” he says quietly. “I’m done running.”

Dean lets his head fall back against the headboard, stares up at the water-stained ceiling.

“Dean,” Sam says, insistent, and he’s… he’s always— Sam grabs the bottle between Dean’s legs and sets it and his own on the nightstand beside him, then tugs Dean’s hand back, and starts massaging the palm with both of his large thumbs. Dean’s eyes fall closed and a shaky breath escapes his lips. Fuck.

“I said I’m done running,” Sam repeats firmly, thumbs digging in.

Dean sighs, keeps his eyes closed. “Heard you the first time, Sammy,” he says, resigned.

“And?”

A soft puff of a laugh escapes before he can rein it back and he can’t stop his lips from twitching upwards. Jesus, Sam. Stubborn little shit. He rolls his head against the headboard, opens his eyes and meets Sam’s gaze, steady. “And I said I heard you.”

He licks his lips, swallows, watches Sam’s eyes track the movement then return to his, questioning. Dean gives him a little half-shrug, rueful smile, tiny shake of his head. I don’t know any better than you do.

Sam holds his gaze for an endless, suspended moment, then nods once, decided, leans in and presses his lips to Dean’s, and Dean holds himself still, lets himself feel it.

A soft press, firm, then pulled back, and Dean could almost call it chaste if not for the shuddering heat behind it. He meets Sam’s eyes, almost too close to focus on now, and licks his lips, tastes nothing. Himself. And it was— fine. Not world-ending, no lightning bolts raining from the sky to strike them down, and suddenly he has no idea why he was so—

“Dean—” Sam says, squeezing his hand, squeezing his eyes shut tight. “This isn’t— this doesn’t have to be— you know we can just—”

“Sam,” Dean interrupts, cutting him off. “Shut up.” He pulls his hand out of Sam’s grip, grabs onto Sam’s arm instead, and reaches over with his other hand to nudge Sam’s jaw up, leans back in for another kiss. He catches Sam’s lower lip between his, licks out enough to taste… and when he pulls back, Sam makes a faint sound of protest, and… well. At least they’re both guilty now.

The angle’s all wrong, his head craned unnaturally, and oh god, a laugh bubbles up from nowhere, and he can’t— Sam didn’t want to crane his neck. Is that how this whole thing started?

“Dean—?” Sam’s voice, so uncertain, and Dean shoves the blooming hysteria down, steeling himself. Well. In for a penny… He twists himself around and slings a leg over Sam’s, straddling him and sitting back on his heels.

Sam’s eyes have gone saucer-wide, and Dean has a moment of panic, wants to keep the momentum and push himself all the way off, pace, flee, something—but even the walls of the room are closing in, this space too damn small to breathe, and he claws his fingers into both of Sam’s shoulders and holds on like they’ll keep him from drowning, and Sam’s hands come to his hips and hold him there, in place.

Sam is looking up at him with such open trust, his head tilted back, and this is so simultaneously familiar and disorienting—his little brother looking up at him—and he can’t, he can’t— he closes his eyes and tips their foreheads together, tries to breathe. Stupid, stupid, “this is so stupid,” he says helplessly, pressing his forehead so hard against Sam’s it’s as if he wants to meld their heads together. Maybe he does.

“Dean. Tell me,” Sam says. Insists.

“Told you to shut up, Sammy,” he says quietly, then sighs, relaxes, kneads into the muscle of Sam’s shoulders. “M’not running away either.”

“You were ready to throw your life away,” Sam says again, so softly, almost forlorn.

“Yeah, well. Not much of a life without you in it.”

Sam’s shoulders tense underneath his hands and he pulls back, his head thunking hard against the headboard. “Dammit, Dean. That is the stupidest thing you’ve ever said.”

“Dunno, I thought it was kinda romantic?” he deflects, joking, trying to regain his footing even though he knows how that’s gonna go down, and yeah, Sam is still frowning, so he knocks his head into his again, gives him the tiniest of headbutts, suddenly wanting… if he can’t be honest now, then— “May be stupid. Doesn’t make it not true,” he says.

He pulls back, searching Sam’s face for some sign of acknowledgement, some confirmation. Eventually Sam rolls his eyes, huffs out a tiny, frustrated laugh. “You make a shitty Juliet.”

He grins helplessly, that giddy mania swelling in his chest again. “Dunno, Sammy, always thought we were more the Sid-and-Nancy type. Bonnie ’n Clyde.”

“Thelma and Louise?”

“Now you’re gettin’ it.” He gets a hand on Sam’s jaw, angling his head where he wants it, coaxes him open.

Sam’s tongue meets his, and it’s— fuck. Floodgates opened, helpless sounds coming from deep in Sam’s throat as he tilts his head back further, his hands digging hard into Dean’s hips—

Dean scrapes his lips over the rough stubble of Sam’s jaw, feels the burn and tingle of it, feels his pulse under his tongue, tastes the salt of his sweat, and it shouldn’t be— it should be—

The meat of Sam’s shoulders. Sam’s face. The long cords of his neck. The shape of his jaw. That spot just behind his ear where the skin goes baby-soft. Dean is intimately familiar with all of it. How many times has he held Sam’s face exactly like this, checking for cuts, searched his eyes at this close distance, checking for cognizance? Dean is intimately familiar with Sam’s body. Just not— like this. And it shouldn’t be different, and it is different. Sam’s body. Under his hands and under his lips.

Sam’s hands. His impossibly large hands, spread wide, spanning his entire lower back. He’s had Sam’s hands all over him before, careful and steady, stitching wounds, checking for broken bones. It shouldn’t be different and it is different. Never touching him before with this… intent. This need.

He grinds his hips down, feels Sam’s erection through his jeans, and—jesus, that’s new too—Sam moans into his mouth.

The proof of Sam’s arousal. For him. Sam is turned on by him.

He slides a hand through Sam’s hair and gives an experimental tug and Sam makes a helpless sound of want and that’s— that’s good to know. And Sam’s hands are clawing at the back of his shirt, pulling it out of his jeans, then sliding underneath, over the skin of his back, digging into muscles, and he—fuck—arches into that overheated touch, helpless not to.

He pulls back enough to see, Sam leaning forwards to chase the kiss, and god, he looks dazed, eyes barely slits, his face that all-over flush he gets when he’s overheated or angry, his lips bitten deep red—

And Sam’s hands are splayed so wide and firm over his back, Dean feels like he could lean all the way back and Sam would just take all of his weight, easy, and the thought is so, it’s so— he wasn’t expecting this. Well. He wasn’t expecting any of this, but for sure he wasn’t expecting to be so… turned on by the strength and power of his baby brother. By the sheer physicality of him. Because Sam’s hands are insistent and all over him, and he kisses like he’s half a beat away from devouring him whole. And Dean’s seen— he knows what those hands are capable of, knows that if Sam really wanted to, he could overpower Dean completely, and that thought is, is—

He grinds his hips down again, watches Sam’s eyes fall closed, watches him bite his lip, feels his hands clench into the skin of his back, and that is too much, he can’t— Dean reaches down to tug at the waistband of Sam’s jeans, slides a finger between to stroke over the soft skin of his belly, feels Sam suck in a breath.

“Yeah?” he breathes into Sam’s mouth.

“Dean, yeah, c’mon.” And Sam slides his hands so far up under his shirt that Dean is forced to raise his arms, shuck the shirt off, and then they’re both fumbling at each other’s jeans, rushed and awkward, and Dean gets his mouth back on Sam’s, which doesn’t exactly speed the process up any, but does make it a lot more heated. More urgent.

And the position is so damn awkward, not exactly one he’s been in before—splay-legged, straddling a dude—and whatever, not important except for the fact that it makes getting his jeans off impossible—not willing to entirely remove himself from Sam’s lap to do it—and Sam manages to tug his zipper down but then just palms his cock hard through his jeans and that’s—

Nn—

His brain short-circuits, and for a second he just grinds himself mindlessly into that firm grip. When he regains a sliver of consciousness, he raises himself up on his knees, shoves his jeans down far as they’ll go around his splayed legs and pulls himself out, giving himself a stroke or two and watching Sam’s face, jaw dropped open, god, looking up at him with some kind of fucking awe, and fuck, that is satisfying.

Dean smirks down at him, strokes himself slow, watches Sam lick his fucking lips, the bastard, and Sam tangles his hand around his so they’re holding him together… and as raised up as he is, with Sam slouched down as far as he is, Sam only has to duck his head a bit to swipe his tongue wide and wet up the length of his cock, his tongue firming to a point at the end as his flicks it over that bundle of nerves at the tip like he knows exactly what he’s doing, and fuck, fuck, he probably does— and Dean’s hips stutter forwards as he sucks in a sharp breath, and Sam glances up through heavy lashes as if he’s asking belated permission, then ducks his head, but Dean can see the smirk, ornery little shit, the expression on Sam’s face entirely too self-satisfied, but then he takes Dean’s head into his mouth, suckling gently with wet heat and—fuck, okay, all is forgiven—Dean’s hips stutter forwards again before he can stop them, mind whitewashed reeling blind, and he rakes a hand back through Sam’s hair, pushing it off his face and fisting around the tangled strands, thrusts into his mouth, and Sam takes it. He just— takes it.

It’s a minute before Dean can rein it back, stop himself, and christ, has to yank hard on Sam’s hair to stop him following as he pulls back, and Sam looks so fucked out, so wrecked already just from this—from sucking Dean’s cock—that Dean tugs again, forces Sam’s neck to crane all the way back, Adam’s apple bobbing helplessly, then dives in to taste himself on Sam’s tongue and Sam moans into his mouth—

“Jeans off, Sam, c’mon,” he breathes, and Sam snaps into action, arching his hips off the bed enough to shove down jeans and boxers both, shimmies enough to get them trapped somewhere around his knees, and, whatever, good enough.

He settles back onto Sam’s thighs, gets his hand around Sam’s cock, and—fuck, he’s big—learns the heft of it, gives it a solid squeeze, and Sam, god, all these noises he’s making— they should be unfamiliar too, and they’re not. They are and they’re not, noises of pleasure all mixed up with noises of pain—the grunting and the moaning and the fucking whimpers, and it shouldn’t be hot, probably, he shouldn’t be turned on by the sounds he knows Sam makes when he’s in pain, except that it is fucking hot, nothing he can do about it, those wires are now crossed irrevocably.

He drops Sam’s cock in favor of shoving his shirt up and off, wanting, needing to see if that’s different now too and—

Right. Okay.

Sam’s torso. That stupid, all-over olive tan he has, dusky brown nipples, cock jutting out angry red from the thatch of brown hair, and that’s— it should be weirder than it is to see Sam like this, chest heaving, half-naked, eyes blown wide with lust, hair wild. He’s already got marks blooming up and down the side of his neck and Dean doesn’t even remember making them.

And he can see the same kind of disoriented wonder mirrored back at him in Sam’s eyes… and it… it should be weird.

“Dean—”

It’s barely audible, Sam’s voice raspy soft and choked with emotion, and Dean shakes his head, reaches for Sam again, scoots as close as he can up the bed, close enough that he can fist them both together.

“I know, Sammy. I know.”

They’re too big for Dean to be able to get much of a grip around them, but Sam tangles his hand with Dean’s to form a tight channel, and Dean gives a tiny experimental thrust into their joined hands, his cock sliding slick against Sam’s, and— fuck, that is—

Sam is so wet, he’s been leaking precome like mad and Dean smears a hand quickly over the head to gather more, slides it down their lengths, then picks up a rhythm, his hand forcing Sam’s to the speed he likes, the grip he likes, and god, he can’t stop watching, can’t stop staring at their joined cocks as their hands slide faster together, his head tilted against Sam’s, looking down and panting opened-mouthed, and Sam seems to be having the same problem, unable to look away, and he’s making these helpless aborted thrusts upwards, so Dean grinds his hips down, wraps his other hand around his back, grips his shoulder underhanded, tries to hold him in place.

And Sam, god, he’s got his other hand on Dean’s lower back again and sliding it lower, edging under the waistband of his boxers, digging those strong fingers into the flesh of his ass, pulling his asscheeks apart and sliding even lower, and nngh, fuck, fuck—

He crushes his lips to Sam’s, bites down hard on his lower lip, forces Sam’s hand to work faster, squeeze tighter around them both—

And everything is spiraling so tight, so hot, and he can barely— and he needs to hang on, just until— “C’mon,” he gets out through gritted teeth. “C’mon, Sammy, c’mon.”

And Sam makes another of those helpless whimpering noises and then immediately spills, moaning, like he was waiting— like he was fucking waiting— and the come lands on Dean’s chest, on Sam’s, slides hot and wet and messy over both their hands and cocks, making everything impossibly slick, and Dean squeezes his hand around Sam’s, milking him through it until Sam goes limp, shuddery and over-sensitized, and then Dean drops Sam’s cock and strokes himself fast and rough. And god, this is too— Sammy, his brother, god, his brother— Sam bites hard on the junction of his neck and shoulder, his hand still loosely covering Dean’s on his cock, his other hand digging hard into his ass, and then pressing in— and fuck, that’s it— Dean topples over the edge.

When he comes to, breathing hard, his face pressed into Sam’s neck, their hands are still tangled around his softening cock. Sam gives him a soft squeeze, then swipes a finger up through their combined mess and… sucks it into his mouth.

Dean reels back, half-stunned, but not really having the energy to sustain the full shock that action deserves. “Gross, Sammy,” he manages, kind of breathless.

Sam’s lips quirk up—damn him—and he chuckles under his breath. “Guess that means you never want me to do it again…?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves now,” Dean grumbles. Damn him. He pulls his hand away and grabs Sam’s crumpled T-shirt and tries to mop up the mess as best he can, then tosses it on the floor.

He examines his hand and—seriously, gross—there is come practically embedded in his ring, so he works it off his finger with a grunt. Before he can so much as toss it on the bedside table, Sam snatches it from his hand and pops it into his mouth, sucks on it for a second then pulls it out clean, lets it dangle from the tip of his forefinger.

“Disgusting,” Dean breathes. “Totally unhygienic.”

He doesn’t want to see Sam smirk again, so he lets his head collapse onto Sam’s shoulders and just breathes. In a minute he’ll have to move. In a minute.

Sam is mouthing wetly at his neck and humming contentedly, his movements soft and languid, like he’d be happy to stay here all night, stickiness or no.

He’s still fidgeting with Dean’s ring though, in between their bodies, turning it over and over between forefinger and thumb. “Kinda can’t believe you still wear this thing,” Sam murmurs into his neck. “You remember—”

“We were kids, Sammy,” Dean interrupts. “It was ridiculous.”

“Not to me,” Sam says softly. “It wasn’t ridiculous to me.”

A promise made when they were kids—to stay together ’til death and beyond. Made when he had no clue what that meant.

“Give me that,” he says tiredly, snatching the ring from Sam’s hand and trying to work it back onto his ring finger one-handed.

Sam grabs his hand and pushes the ring back down into place, and that is, that’s—

He swallows convulsively, trying to force down the thing swelling in his chest that threatens to overtake him, then lets out a shaky breath, cups Sam’s jaw and leans back in for a soft kiss. And the broken sound of longing, acceptance, want that emanates— well. He can’t honestly say which one of them made it.

He pulls back enough to tilt his head into Sam’s again (where it belongs, where it belongs) and lets his eyes fall closed.

“Fuck, Sam,” he breathes, shuddering.

“I know, Dean. I know.”

He still doesn’t know what it means, what this thing between them is, has no freaking clue how to label it, and it hits him suddenly that he doesn’t have to, and he feels all the shuddery uncertainty settle, finally. Love, family, whatever it is— he’s done trying to parse it.

They’re brothers.

He doesn’t need more of a label than that.

*            *            *            *            *