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They'd been fighting with each other for five days straight when they cornered the fairy.

You'd think saving the world would lead to a little relaxation. But Dean's nightmares hadn't gone away, nor had the drinking. Aside from the apocalypse, the only thing that had gone away was Castiel, and Sam was beginning to miss the angel's steadying hand, because Sam had no idea how to get Dean under control.

Even Castiel's parting gift—the promise that Dean was no longer Hellbound, all debts erased—was jagged-edged. Dean had still done all those things in Hell, and he thought he deserved to be punished. If Heaven wasn't prepared, then Dean himself had to be the one to do it. He wouldn't listen and he wouldn't wait and he wouldn't let Sam help him. When he turned his back to Sam the line of his shoulders said 'no' and when he deigned to meet Sam's eyes the set of his mouth said the same. They went on hunts and plans disintegrated like bones going to ash when Dean charged on ahead.

Which was how Sam ended up pinioned by the fairy—fucker had to be hovering, because Sam had at least two feet on it—gasping for breath against the wall of the abandoned warehouse. The place was dark, but the fairy seemed to give off a glow that allowed Sam, too late, to see it clearly.

They'd found the hunt because something had stolen the memories of seven people in Ashton, Kentucky and looked to have settled in for more. They'd never hunted a fairy before, and Sam's flare of hope that Dean would express some glee about the new addition to their bestiary had been extinguished even before they'd found its trail. All Sam had wanted was to kill it without spilling more Winchester blood.

So much for that plan.

"Well, just look at you," the fairy said, tilting its head. Its straw-yellow hair spilled over its shoulders, fine as cornsilk but crackling with energy. Its eyes were dusk-violet, and would have been beautiful if they hadn't been slit-pupilled. "A hunter. I hate you people."

"Feeling's mutual, sweetheart," Dean said from ten feet away, over to the side. The fairy hissed and threw up its other hand. Dean groaned and was silent.

"But two of you," the fairy mused. "That ought to be good for some fun. How's this, hunter-boy: you pick which one of you I take."

Sam snarled and thrashed uselessly, not paying much attention to the threat. He heard Dean thump just out of his line of sight; alive, still alive.

"Choose, or I'll kill you both." The fairy leered at him, its cool fingers like snakes against his throat. "Three, two—"

Instinct, and an impulse he couldn't yet name, forced the answer from his mouth. "Dean!" he said again, different this time. "Take Dean. Not me. Please."

"Sammy—!" Now he was glad he couldn't see Dean's face.

The fairy chuckled. "You're all cowards, in the end, aren't you?" It swiveled its head towards Dean, eyes narrowing in concentration. "It's a good last memory, betrayal by your buddy."

Dean whimpered, a kicked-dog sound.

Sam wrapped his fingers around the handle of the thrice-blessed blade hidden in the back of his jeans and tugged it free. His vision was going to sparkles with oxygen deprivation.

Dean's breaths came loud and wet, like he was being squeezed to death.

Sam swung his arm in an abbreviated arc into the fairy's stomach. The fairy didn't even have time to look surprised before it collapsed into a heap, giving out a foul, choking smell as it died.

Sam pushed off of the wall and stumbled over to where Dean was sprawled on the ground. He was pale and his eyes were closed. Please, Sam thought, even though he knew better than any other human that there was no one in a mind to listen. Please.

"Hey," he said, kneeling to touch Dean's shoulder. "Hey, are you all right?"

Dean blinked, then stared. His usually-faint freckles stood out on his cheeks and his nose, like he'd lost a lot of blood. His eyes were the green of new leaves. "Who the hell are you?"

Two of the victims had been reduced to babyhood, not even toilet trained. The other five, though, had retained language and all their procedural memories, just nothing personal.

A new start, a blank slate, but with all the templates present and waiting to be filled.

Like that, fast as seeing the right angle to fire at or the weakness in an opponent's guard, Sam knew what he had to do.

"What do you remember?" Sam asked.

Dean scrunched his face, pushing himself up until he was sitting on the cold, dirty concrete. "Not a damn thing."

"I'm Sam Winchester," Sam said, his heart pounding harder than when the fairy had grabbed him. "I found you here." His vision was still going in and out, and it was a struggle to keep his balance, but he couldn't allow a moment's weakness.

He reached out and helped Dean to his feet, lifting his phone, his wallet, and the key to the Impala in the guise of brushing Dean off, getting it done before Dean could think to pat himself down for evidence of identity.

"What in God's name is that?" Dean demanded, pointing at the remains of the fairy. Before Sam could stop him, he strode to it and turned over the corpse with the toe of his boot. It was quite obviously inhuman.

Sam could lie, but sticking close to the truth was usually the best way. He put on his best wide-eyed, sincere look, letting his shoulders round and spreading his hands a bit, projecting 'I'm just here to help' with every fiber. "I know this sounds crazy, but—it was a fairy. It's what took your memories."

"Took my memories?" Dean repeated, then paused, staring down at the fairy. "Hunh. I—I don't think I know my name. How long've I been here?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't know. I guess killing it didn't reverse what it had already done."

Dean turned his head and inspected Sam, head to toe. "How come it didn't get you, too?"

"Uh, you were—it was kind of distracted with you."

Dean knelt down and prodded at the corpse with one finger. "Fuck, that's ugly. I want my memories back, motherfucker." It took Sam a second to realize that Dean was directing his invective at the fairy.

"I don't know if that—I came here to kill it. I don't know if there's any way to fix it." He'd better find out, though, because he needed to get Dean settled, and he wasn't going to allow Dean to accidentally stumble right back into his recent spiral of despair and self-hatred.

"I bet I was here to kill it too," Dean said confidently. "I feel like a real bad-ass." Sam would have rolled his eyes, but Dean was carrying at least a knife and a gun, which was not going to help change his mind.

"Whatever you were, you don't remember." Sam thought hard about the next steps. If he handled this right, they could be free of the toxic waste that had been their lives so far. No more guilt, no more bondage to a life even Dean had admitted was terrible, locked into it because he couldn't see any alternatives. No more collapsing in on themselves like a double star slowly turning into a black hole, all their light and energy subverted to destruction.

But Dean was clearly going to be a pain in the ass to point in the right direction. No way could Sam let him wander off on his own at first. Even amnesiac, he was likely to attract trouble like a licked lollipop attracted dirt. "Listen, why don't you come back with me, we can try to find someone who knows who you are. Maybe there's even a way to reverse the fairy curse."

"Fairy curse," Dean said, making it into an obscenity. Ordinarily Sam would have agreed.

****

Two weeks before the fairy hunt began, Dean had taken a dive off a three-story building after a werefox. If it hadn't been for the truck of dirt miraculously waiting below, the werefox would have escaped and Dean would have been a chalk outline. But Dean had just bounced back up, stabbed the thing through the heart, and slid down the mound of dirt, grinning in a way that made Sam's heart lurch worse even than the fall had. It had been like seeing straight through to Dean's skull.

Ten days before the fairy hunt began, Dean had nearly had his arm torn off by a yeti, or anyway that was what they'd taken to calling it, though Sam had had his doubts that it was the classic yeti. He'd shoved himself between Sam and the creature, when Sam would have been perfectly able to protect himself if not for Dean knocking him off balance, and they'd been so furious with each other that it felt like being a kid again, stuffed to bursting with rage at Dad's orders and Dad's unwillingness to listen to reason.

Five days before the fairy hunt began, Dean had nearly gotten himself decapitated by a basic, everyday angry spirit. He'd begged off the gravedigging with the excuse of his arm and stayed back at the house with the endangered family. The mother had given Sam the story later, involving a samurai sword that had been the grandfather's prized heirloom. "I thought he wasn't going to get out of the way in time," she'd said. She'd been grateful, but she'd been worried when she looked at Dean, happy to have him out of her house and not just on account of her sixteen-year-old daughter.

The night before the fairy hunt began, Dean had used his eyes and his pool skills to taunt a frat boy into calling him a faggot. He hadn't even dodged the first punch, and when the frat boy's four friends had gotten involved, he'd thrown one of them into a table full of bikers. Sam wasn't sure that the aim hadn't been intentional. Matters had degenerated quickly and they'd been lucky to leave with nothing more than sore jaws and a few extra bruises.

Worst of all, there had been a moment before Sam waded into the fight when Sam had considered walking away, so sick of it all, and the guilt for putting Dean in danger was what had gotten him puking in their room the next morning, not the hangover. Dean had only grinned meanly at Sam when he'd raised his head from the toilet bowl and offered him the hair of the dog. Sam had snarled back that Dean was already drinking the whole dog, and Dean had stomped out to the car to wait for Sam to clean himself up.

So it wasn't a matter of when (soon) or even how (painfully) Dean was going to go.

Sam had tried a thousand times to talk or just to hug Dean, both of which ended in shoves and Dean driving off in a huff, often to go after the latest bad thing on his own. Counterproductive.

A month back, Sam had even made up a hunt at the Grand Canyon. Dean's eyes had shimmied over the view like he was looking at a sinkful of dirty dishes, and when the so-called hunt had proven to be a bust he'd given Sam the silent treatment for three days. Sam wouldn't have thought Dean could be silent for three minutes, which was more evidence that Sam was so far out of his depth that he was practically in orbit.

****

As they drove back to the motel, Dean asked questions about Sam. Sam, squirming in the driver's seat, explained hunting as simply as he could, but unfortunately Dean got excited by the whole concept, confident that he was out on the same hunt as Sam. "I guess you weren't very good at it," Sam snapped at last, which made Dean go quiet, forehead wrinkled and eyes tight, not much different from how he'd been that morning.

Sam ended up distracting him by asking a bunch of questions, testing out the edges of his memories.

Dean remembered a lot (how to tie his shoes, that he liked pancakes, his opinions on Brazilian waxes) despite all that was gone (name, education or lack thereof, family matters, profession). "That's fucked up," he opined. "How could a fairy take just parts like that?"

Sam shrugged uneasily. "It's magic. Also, I think amnesia can sometimes work that way, though naturally occuring amnesia usually clears up over time, unless there's permanent damage to short-term memory. But the fairy's victims, they were mainly like you."

"Mainly?" Dean asked warily.

"A couple were worse off," Sam admitted. It had been a horrific risk to take, but Sam had been the one with the weapon and the position. And the payoff—Dean was freaked out, and rightly so, but he was also sprawling in the passenger seat, taking up space automatically, more relaxed than he'd been in the absence of alcohol since Lilith's defeat.

If Sam had told him they were brothers, Dean would immediately have started reconstructing the narrative of their lives. Dean being Dean, he would have determined that it was his job to protect Sam, and they'd start all over again. That way only led back to the crossroads.

Now, Dean could get a chance to want something for himself, instead of submerging everything into hunting and family. And then Sam could stop, and do the same.

****

Back at the motel, Sam almost forgot to swing by the front office and get a new room. There was no way he could take Dean back to where their stuff was spread out over both beds. Once he got Dean settled, he dashed out to scoop up his duffel and move it, pretending he'd just been back out to the car. He'd return to the old room for Dean's belongings once he had a better idea of what to do with Dean himself.

When he returned to their new location, Dean was flipping through TV channels. "Seinfeld sucks," Dean announced, "and I kinda want to make the cheese thing on the Food Channel. Maybe I'm a chef. A chef who carries a gun."

"Could be," Sam said after a minute. "I, uh, once I set up my computer we can start looking for missing persons reports matching your description."

Dean nodded, his eyes still fixed on the women in bikinis jiggling across the screen. It figured that Dean's horndog nature was more fixed than anything else about him. "What kinda guy goes hunting fairies without ID?" he complained. "Friggin' poor planning, you ask me."

Sam winced. "If you are a hunter, and I'm not saying you are—it's kind of a below-the-radar occupation." It was weird, thinking of how to explain all this stuff to a novice. Sam could do the 'yeah, ghosts are real, vampires too, not so sure about unicorns' speech to a civilian caught up in a single hunt. But laying out the whole lifestyle was hard, especially when all Sam could hear in his head was the echo of teenaged Dean, telling him the facts like they'd come direct from Mt. Sinai.

"Anyway," he said, when Dean didn't react, "I'll get started searching."

Sam didn't have to do anything to jigger the missing persons records, of course, though he wasn't about to let Dean start searching criminal records with his own description. The main FBI file had been purged after their 'deaths' in custody, but there were places that didn't always update their records, so Sam still needed to worry that Dean might accidentally find his own extremely misleading criminal record. But even that wasn't a huge concern, since Dean wandered away from the computer to play with his newly discovered gun (not a euphemism). He could still break the Colt 1911 down faster than Sam—he didn't even watch his hands, instead grinning at Sam like he was proving something, which Sam supposed he was.

When Dean found the knife strapped to his ankle, he nearly speared himself before he determined that no, he was not much of an artist with a blade. He still had the grip right, so Sam figured that was going to be okay.

Meanwhile, Sam continued to pretend to search for information, his mind racing with plans. The world was thick with possibility, brighter than it had been in years.

He'd held Dean back—they'd held each other back, conjoined twins in the freakshow that was hunting. The fairy curse was a surgeon's knife, letting them breathe separately. Every bad thing that had happened to them had come from the serpent in the family tree, going back to Mom's deal and for all Sam knew even further, back to her parents, the hunters who'd gone around attracting evil attention. Dean didn't need to be contorted around all that pain any more, and maybe if he wasn't, then Sam could free himself as well.

Bored with knifeplay, Dean stood and grinned at himself in the mirror, running his hands through his hair and shooting himself coy glances through his lashes. As Sam watched out of the corner of his eye, Dean tilted his head and pursed his lips like he was posing for an ad, that pouty look that always made people stop talking and stare. Then he bit his lips deliberately, teeth neatly digging into the flesh of first the lower, then the upper, so that they swelled a little, pink and shining. If Sam hadn't been present he would have sworn Dean was freshly fucked.

Sonofabitch, Sam thought. He should have known Dean did that shit deliberately.

"Okay, there is no way somebody isn't looking for me," Dean told his reflection. "I'm just too damn pretty, am I right or am I right?"

Sam didn't respond, figuring that pretending not to hear him was a reasonable reaction even for someone who wasn't related to him.

Dean started unbuttoning his shirt. "Dude!" Sam objected. "If you're gonna perv out on yourself, try the bathroom." Even without his memories, Dean knew how to make himself a distraction.

Dean shrugged, unrepentant, and ambled out of Sam's view.

"Fuck me!" Dean yelped a minute later, and Sam nearly broke the doorknob off getting inside the bathroom, where Dean was stripped to his boxer-briefs and looking at his shoulder. Dean was thinner than he should be, drawn in like his skeleton could barely hold on to his flesh.

Sam was doing the right thing.

"Whoa," he said, as if he hadn't gotten over the sight of Castiel's cicatrix long ago. "That's ... quite a scar."

"You think?" Dean had his head twisted, trying to see the whole thing. "Plus there's the ink."

Shit. He'd have to remember to keep covered until he could get Dean set up somewhere safe. "Let me see?"

Dean turned, giving Sam a full-on view of the anti-possession tattoo. "Do you recognize it?"

This was a failure point. The symbol was well-known enough that even a novice could probably find it, and then Dean might wonder why a supposedly experienced hunter had lied to him. Sam had to decide quickly. "It's a protective symbol, guarding against possession by demons."

"Hunh." Dean looked at Sam's reflection in the mirror; his face was almost Dean's standard I-told-you-so-Sammy, but not quite as brash. "Score another one for the 'hunter' theory."

"I guess so," Sam said.

"And the scar, you know anything that could leave a scar like that?"

Sam shook his head. They'd never come up with any accounts resembling what had happened to Dean, probably because angels didn't reach down and raise sinners from the Pit all that often. He thought about offering the fairy as a possible explanation, then remembered that none of the other victims had anything like that, and Dean might well go and check.

****

When Sam had been a senior in high school, he'd rented a PO Box in Blue Earth, using the allowance Dean gave him for clothes and food. He remembered resenting the charges for converting cash to money orders, because you couldn't just stuff a couple of twenties into a college application.

The thing was, he hadn't ever sat down and thought the matter through. He'd just filled out the forms and rented the box, and then right before early admissions came out he'd casually reminded Dad about some things Pastor Jim had mentioned, so that Dad decided that a trip to Minnesota was in order after they finished the latest hunt.

He'd chosen Stanford because it was famous and far, a golden land they'd rarely approached—there were too many hunts in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where the cold seemed to make ghosts cling to their histories. He'd wanted to go west, like every striving pioneer seeking to remake himself.

But he hadn't admitted to himself that it was really happening, not when he'd filled out the financial aid forms and not when he'd stuffed the letter into the bottom of his pack and not even when he'd bought the bus ticket. It was easier to pretend that college was all a dream for someone else, when Dad and Dean might figure out a way to crush his future if he asserted that he had one.

He hadn't thought that he'd decided to go for sure until the night before he left, reasoning that none of the outlay was huge just yet and that he was only keeping his options open, the way Dad always ordered him to make sure he had a fast exit available. Until junior year at Stanford, he'd told himself that he wouldn't really have gone through with it if Dad hadn't been such an asshole that last night.

He had never deliberately planned on leaving them flat like that, shock as bright and wet in Dean's eyes as a jigger of whiskey. He just hadn't been able to acknowledge, even to himself, that he intended to go.

So it was possible that he'd meant the fairy hunt to end like this all along.

****

When Dean dozed off—his body was always exhausted now, getting so little sleep, it had only been a matter of suggesting that he rest his eyes for a few minutes—Sam snuck out to pack up Dean's possessions from the other room and stick them in the trunk. After that, he called Bobby. Sam explained what had happened; Bobby sighed and Sam could imagine him tugging at his cap. "You boys—trouble's your third brother, ain't it? I'll start looking for a fix—"

"No!" Sam took a breath. "No, Bobby. This is—he's done. He's fine, he just doesn't remember anything. He doesn't remember Hell. The memories were killing him, and now they're not. Giving them back would be a curse, not a fix."

"Sam," Bobby said, a kind of broken disappointment in his voice, softer than Dad's disapproval ever had been but more powerful, "did you even tell him he's your brother?"

Bobby knew him too well. "No, I didn't," he said defiantly, clutching the phone so hard his bones hurt. "He's already got some ideas about hunting, and I don't want him thinking he has to do this. The family business is bankrupt, Bobby. We're getting out."

Bobby chuffed disagreement. "You can't just take away his whole life, your father, saving people, you. He chose Hell for you before."

"Yeah? You ask him about that trade since he got back?" Sam kind of did mean to sound that angry. "What I need from you is some way to set him up: a new life, a job, a place to stay."

The silence was long enough that Sam almost wondered if Bobby had hung up on him. "You're not thinking right. I know—" Bobby sputtered to a halt.

Yeah, Bobby, tell me how much you know, Sam thought, but he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. And fuck if he wasn't entitled to be a little bit damaged after everything that had been done to him, from the demon blood at six months down to the fairy throttling a couple of hours back. Dean was lucky. Dean deserved it more, but with Dean safe Sam wanted the blessing of forgetfulness too, Esau envying beautiful, careless Jacob.

He swallowed. He did need Bobby's help. Bobby would see reason eventually. "I'll call you later, okay?"

Bobby let him go, grumbling. If there was a way to restore Dean's lost memories, Bobby would find it, and then Sam would know what he was up against. So it was smarter to let Bobby search through his books while Sam figured out how to convince him that this was one supernatural phenomenon that was all for the best.

****

When Dean finished his nap, Sam got him to the nearby diner with the promise of pie. Once there, Dean smiled at the waitresses with exactly the same gleam in his eye as he'd had when he was eighteen and full of hormones, and Sam felt one of the bands around his chest loosen.

"So what are we gonna call me?" Dean asked as he scooped another forkful of macaroni and cheese. "John's kinda classic, I guess."

"No!" Sam yelped, horrified by the thought.

Dean froze, his mouth hanging open, fork poised to enter. Sam could hear the noises of the other patrons, silverware scraping plates, ice rattling in glasses, idle chatter about weekend plans. It was a thousand different diners, all the places they'd passed through together, constant only because of constant change, and the only fixed point had ever been Dean.

Sam had just been extremely stupid. He didn't even know why his reaction had been so violent. Dean had always wanted to be Dad anyway. But it was done, and he had to explain himself. "John was my brother's name," he said slowly, leaning forward and shutting out the rest of the world. "I—I used to hunt with him," he continued, and didn't need to feign the terrible sadness in his voice. "Not too long ago, he. Well. Hunting's not a job that needs a retirement plan."

"I'm real sorry," Dean said, and he was, Sam could tell. He put his fork down and fiddled with his ring.

Sam needed to start steering, or this whole thing was going to careen into a ditch. "How about Dean?" Sam asked. "Like Dean Moriarty, from On the Road."

"Uh, I think that mighta gotten erased," Dean said, and took a drink of his coffee, still not meeting Sam's eyes.

"It's a good book. And he's a tough customer, you'd like him."

Dean smiled, almost shy. "Yeah? You think?"

Sam shrugged, trying to radiate reassurance. Dean wouldn't have read Kerouac unless he'd been fooled into thinking it was necessary to some ritual, but it was as good a source of the name as any, and would cut down on the number of things Sam needed to remember.

"Okay," Dean said, starting in on his mac and cheese again, "Dean it is."

Sam watched him eat. Dean worked his way through the center of the mini casserole dish first, then around the sides, and only then started in on the brown, crisped top, cheese and pasta hardened until they crackled under his fork. Dean closed his eyes after each bite, blissed out, the fingers of his free hand curling against the chipped surface of their table.

Such a small thing, a hot meal on a chilly evening. Such a long time since Dean had been happy like this, since he'd even seemed to care about eating or any of the other sensual appetites that Sam had always thought were integral to his character. At first after his resurrection, there'd been moments when he'd seemed like pre-Hell Dean, but Sam had eventually realized that it was denial powering those smiles, and then even denial had fallen away, replaced by the grim determination that had kept them staggering towards the finish line.

Sam had lost Dean a long time ago. This was only—it was a repair, and it let Dean be more himself than he could otherwise be. Sam could live with no longer being known if it gave Dean back that fire at his center.

"This is awesome," Dean said, catching Sam's eye. "You want some?" He waved the fork invitingly.

Sam shook his head. "I'd hate to horn in on what seems like a fulfilling relationship."
Dean snorted, as if it had never been a point of pride for him to ignore Sam's stupid jokes, and Sam didn't get how he could feel so happy and so destroyed at the same time.

****

Sam searched Dean's duffel before he brought it into their new room. Fortunately, they'd just done laundry, so everything was clean, or as clean as Winchester clothes got. He found two notes in girls' handwriting with phone numbers on them, and one in block letters that said, "DEAN—THANKS." It had a number on the bottom too, not one Sam recognized. He threw the papers out, and then the bag could have been anyone's.

It was hard to think that Dean had so little of a record in the world, when he'd been so vital to saving it. Sam, too, but Sam had given up on the whole fame and fortune thing years back.

"This is for you," Sam said as soon as he was inside. He raised the bag, holding it out in front of him, the way Dad used to before he'd throw it at Dean. When Dad had done that, it had always meant that he and Dean were going on a hunt, sometimes with Sam, sometimes without. Dean had always grinned, either way, but when it had been the three of them he had practically gleamed.

Now, Dean only brought his head up from the laptop with a puzzled expression (Sam made a mental note to check the cache later; Dean had never bothered to clear his browsing history before and certainly wouldn't have started now). "What's that?"

"Clothes, some toiletries, I think there's a knife or two."

Dean's eyebrows headed for the ceiling.

Sam strode to the bed nearest the door and plopped the bag down. "It was my brother's." He left it there and headed to the bathroom to splash some water on his face. It had been a long day, and he was grimy. He left the door open as he rinsed his hands in the sink.

"Anyway," he continued, loud enough to be heard over the running water, "I couldn't—you should use his stuff, it oughta fit you just fine and I—my brother would want it to see it used."

He pushed his hair off of his forehead and looked at himself in the mirror. Pale, forehead creased, nose flaring, whip-ends of his bangs like a brace of needles. Keeping it together.

He heard Dean rise from his seat and cross the floor until he was standing in the doorway, taking up more space than he really should.

"You sure?" he asked, soft and careful. "That's awful generous of you, but—"

Seeing Dean's clothes on Dean wasn't going to make distinguishing the two of them any easier. But outfitting Dean anew wouldn't be cheap, and Sam hadn't screwed up the story so far. He nodded.

"Okay then," Dean said with finality. They wouldn't need to talk about this again. Sam was grateful that this Winchester trait had persisted.

****

While Dean slept again, the sleep of the just and the new, Sam cleaned out the IDs in the Impala, sorting Dean's from his own. It wasn't like before, when he'd done it mechanically, hurting so much every time he saw one of those crappy little pictures of Dean that it was almost like not feeling at all. This was—it was spring cleaning. He hid Dean's IDs in the secret panel that he hadn't even known about until Dean had shown him a couple of months before his deal came due. He wasn't ready to get rid of his records of Dean's cocky face, even the Bikini Inspector grin.

Aside from the fake IDs, he had a couple of snapshots of Dean as a young boy. When he looked at Dean's smile in those pictures, full of bravado, Sam remembered how it had been when those shots were taken. Back then, Sam had thought that Dean knew everything there was to know.

He also remembered how he'd looked at the same images a couple of years back, seeing Dean as a boy who knew too much, weighed down with a lifetime's worth of grief and anger before he hit his teens.

Now, after all they'd survived, those same pictures showed him a Dean fresh and untouched. Never damned, never resurrected. Innocent.

There was no reason for Dean to connect the dots even if he somehow came across Sam's stash of pictures of them as kids, so Sam didn't bother concealing those photos other than to shove them to the back of the trunk.

****

Of course, the very next day Sam found a hunt not two hundred miles away. Dean came out of the shower to find Sam with the story circled in the paper on the table in front of him, running the standard searches. Dean wouldn't let up until Sam admitted that it was probably a poltergeist killing workers at the construction site.

"What are you waiting for?" Dean asked, grabbing at his towel with one hand as he gestured with the other. "Let's go waste it. Or whatever you do with ghosts."

"That's exactly the problem!" Sam pointed out. "This is my job, not yours. We still don't know who you are—"

"Or how to find out," Dean rejoined, practically bouncing on his heels. He was as eager as he'd been when they were kids, when the worst thing that had happened to them was Mom's death and a new knife was cause for Dean to celebrate. He hadn't shaved and his beard was coming in heavy. Sam was going to have to show him Dean's straight razor and hope he remembered enough to avoid cutting his own throat.

Dean sighed at Sam's lack of response. "What'm I supposed to do, sit here with my thumb up my ass while you go off and keep saving people? You're the only one who even understands what the hell happened to me."

"Someone might come looking for you if you stay here!" No, that was bad, because no one would come, and it wouldn't get Dean moving into a new life. Sam flicked his hair out of his eyes, annoyed at himself. "Anyway, you don't know what you're doing. This isn't for amateurs."

"You get paid?" Dean was entirely too interested.

Sam shook his head, half convinced Dean was being deliberately obtuse. "It's dangerous."

"Talkin' to a guy with fairy-induced amnesia here. I kinda get that it's not a vacation cruise. And everybody's gotta learn sometime, right? I mean, you must've had a first hunt."

Sam closed his eyes. The first time he'd done more than research and organize the supplies on a hunt, he'd been sixteen. Dean had been ten times prouder than Dad when it was over. Nothing big, just a basic salt-and-burn, Dean hovering by his shoulder through the entire process. Sam had already been deep in disgust for their lives, so he'd pretended that he hated every part of it, even though Dean had looked at him with confused hurt when he'd shrugged off the one-armed victory squeeze Dean used instead of a hug. Sam had just recently grown as tall as Dean, much to Dean's dismay, and Dean had lacked his later bulk, so it had been easy enough to push Dean away. Sam had stalked upstairs—they'd been living in an actual house, for once—slammed his door and thrown himself on his bed. He remembered the sound of Dean's voice, higher back then, and Dad's weary rumble, discussing what a numbnuts Sam was for wanting a normal life.

When he hadn't been looking at either of them, he could admit to himself that the part where the ghost flickered and then popped out of existence like a switched-off television had been kind of cool. Nothing worth what he'd had to give up for Dad's crazy quest, but not awful in itself.

Sam shook off the memory. It was hunting that had gotten them to the point where amnesia was a blessing.

"This isn't a good life," he said, quiet and sure, not meeting Dean's eyes.

"How about you let me decide that for myself," Dean suggested, and maybe Sam was too stuck on the hunt-drunk brother in his head, the rowdy unscarred boy who could do anything he set his mind to, but he nodded, even though he knew it was a bad idea.

****

Dean whooped again, leaning his head out of the passenger-side window like an enthusiastic dog. "Told you!" he yelled, bringing himself just far enough in that Sam could hear him over the roar of the wind.

Sam couldn't suppress his grin. Dean's happiness bubbled through the car—she even seemed to travel smoother with him so joyful inside—and Dean deserved the opportunity to crow.

Dean had approached the site warily, hanging back behind Sam's shoulder. He hadn't ever let Sam cross his line of fire, though. Once the supernatural action had started, every instinct had been spot-on. Sam's research had proved insufficient and they'd had to deal with three sets of bones instead of the one Sam had expected. Sam had watched Dean put two shells dead center into two of the ghosts while running, then reload while jumping a zig-zagged path up the half-constructed walls of the office building.

Now, Dean turned away from the window, reaching over and putting his hand on Sam's shoulder, warm and solid, just long enough for Sam to remember Dean's years of playful and congratulatory shoves. When Dean pulled back, he gave Sam an almost bashful smile. "This gig seems easier with two," he said.

Sam remembered telling Dean that he could look for Dad alone, and he had to stare hard at the road ahead, asphalt bleached out by the glare of the headlights. He tried to formulate the right sentence, the magic words that would convince Dean that they could both quit. Dean might listen to a stranger; God knew he'd never paid heed to Sam when Sam was his little brother.

"Lone hunters don't last long," he said when he had his voice under control. "Look what happened to you."

"Yeah," Dean agreed. "So maybe we oughta stick together for a while."
Sam started, because it was the exact opposite of what he'd meant. He couldn't tell Dean so, not now.

He could leave once Dean had found a place to settle. Dean had his new life; Sam's could wait a while. Quitting outright, when Dean still had the taste for it—the idea felt oddly disrespectful to Sam. Doing some more hunts, even nice easy ones, might be a good way to illustrate the downsides of the life to Dean, and then he'd be willing to walk away of his own volition.

In any event, it wasn't like Sam had a positive agenda for alternatives. Continuing would mean a lot of extra work for Sam, but he could deal with that. Aside from Bobby, most of the hunters they knew had died fighting Lilith, so it might not be much harder to cover Dean's tracks.

****

They should have gotten two rooms at the next motel, but Sam took a double by force of habit, and anyway money was tight. As long as he dressed in the bathroom, there shouldn't be a problem.

It didn't occur to him that Dean might find the instant closeness a little weird until over two weeks, and five different rooms, later. And by then Dean was already accommodating Sam's peculiarities, like the way Sam always took over the tables for his files and his computer, leaving the beds (for weapons check and cleaning) and the bathroom counters (for product) for Dean.

Except that Dean had totally switched his self-care regimen: new toothpaste, new facial soap (which Sam was pretty sure hadn't been part of the ritual before), new shampoo, new styling gels, even a new comb, all bought with money that Dean accepted sheepishly but without overt resistance.

For over a week, Dean's hair looked like a hedgehog had mistaken it for a mate and attempted to mount, until Dean figured out how to get that casually ruffled look that only took ten minutes staring in the mirror to achieve. This time around, Dean used something that called itself 'wax,' though Sam doubted that actual wax was involved. Once Dean had settled on the wax, Sam couldn't tell the difference in the hair. Dean had always been a little bitch about finding just the right brands, and Sam several times had to stop himself from commenting on how the results were the same even without spending $50 on a tube of goo.

Sam wondered why Dean didn't just use the stuff in Dean's old kit, which of course had worked well, but then he figured out that Dean probably felt uncomfortable using a dead man's hair gel.

****

"Whoa," Dean said when Sam gave him his present. "This is—" He looked as happy as he'd been when Dad had given him his first full-sized shotgun, bright-eyed and wondering. "Thanks." His eyes crinkled at the corners, a real ten-thousand-watt Dean special that made the casual smirk he'd put on for the camera seem more plastic than the smiley face at Wal-Mart. Sam hadn't seen that look on Dean's face in what seemed like forever.

He grinned back helplessly and watched Dean's hands sort through the IDs. "Thought you could use them." A lot of them were worn from use, but he figured that Dean would chalk that up to careful forgery.

"That was what the picture was for, hunh? You're really some sort of Photoshop wizard." The pictures in the IDs had multiple different backgrounds, and Dean was older or younger by a couple of years in different ones, but there were definitely computer programs that could achieve those effects, so Sam wasn't worried.

Dean finished examining the badges and licenses—Sam had omitted the Bikini Inspector one, because, seriously—and grinned up at him. "We could get in a lot of trouble for these."

"We could get into a lot of trouble without them," Sam pointed out.

"I wonder what I used to do," Dean mused. "I mean, I didn't have anything on me when I got mindwiped. Shouldn't there've been something, even a fake ID?"

"Maybe you had a cache somewhere," Sam said, trying for indifference.

"We should've checked to see about cars that got towed in the area in the next couple of weeks," Dean said. "Maybe gone around to the local hotels and motels, seen if anyone recognized me."

Sam liked the first idea a lot better than the second. "I can hack into the Ashton databases and see about the cars. Even if your car was in a motel parking lot, they have to report it before they can treat it as abandoned property. Those records should all be in the system by now."

Dean nodded. "Sounds good. Shit, I wish we'd thought about the hotels before we left."

Sam didn't let himself take a deeper-than-usual breath. "We can go back and try now. Someone might remember." There'd be no harm in checking places Dean had never been, after all. As for what had really happened, Sam had rented the room in Ashton the first time around. Dean had been too surly even to get out of the car, already half-drunk. And they always kept housekeeping out, because it was too much trouble to put all the weapons away, so the maids wouldn't have seen them. Even if someone had seen Sam and Dean together, they'd been together after the fairy, and there'd be no reason for Dean to suspect that the timeline was off.

Dean tilted his head, considering. His eyes were dark and distant. "Maybe you could check and see if anybody's filed a missing persons report or something like that. Just in case someone's looking."

"Of course," Sam agreed. And he did, even though his negative results made Dean go silent and glum for hours. Sam could barely look at him. Even if this suffering was nothing compared to forty years in Hell, Sam was directly responsible for stripping Dean of any certainty. He'd ignored his prophetic dreams about Jess and gotten her killed, but this was a different guilt, because he could tell Dean the truth even now, as long as he was willing to explain all the horrors behind his choice.

No. Dean might always wonder about the past, and Sam would always miss their shared history, but Sam had bought Dean a future, and it was worth the price. It wasn't like he'd sold his soul.

Sam found them a steakhouse and insisted that Dean get the biggest piece of meat on the menu. By the time he finished it and started in on the chocolate cake, Dean was smiling again.

****

"I got you something," Dean said before Sam closed the door. He was already on his feet, bouncing like a kid, his hands behind his back.

"What?" Sam wondered if he'd misheard. Random gifts were not a Dean thing.

Dean quickly stuck his hand out, like he was worried he was going to lose his nerve if he didn't do it fast, and at least the plastic bag wrapping was familiar enough that Sam could smile. He accepted the bag gingerly.

"You've been pretty awesome, taking me in, and I just—" Dean was already bright red under his tan, probably running ten degrees hotter than normal.

Sam decided to put Dean out of his misery. "It's my pleasure. Really, I—I could use the company. I mean, thanks." Apparently he wasn't putting Dean out of his misery so much as pushing Dean off of his misery and stepping onto it for him. Sam fumbled to untangle the bag while Dean shifted impatiently on his feet.

Inside the bag was a box containing a 3G modem for his laptop. "Means you can surf lots more places," Dean said, staring at Sam's shoulder.

"Thanks," Sam repeated, still reeling. "It's perfect." Puzzling, because Dean would no sooner give his little brother an appropriate present than he'd put on a tutu. But then, how was Dean supposed to know that? Sam's stomach twisted.

Dean ducked his head. "Well, you know. Wouldn't want to get caught out on a hunt with no way to look stuff up."

"Where'd you get the money for this?" Sam asked, a little suspicious. Dean had never been all that good at shoplifting—attracted too much attention just by existing, in Sam's opinion.

"You let me worry about that," Dean said, and Sam almost staggered backwards with the echo of it. Dean had said the same thing a hundred times when they were kids, when Sam had gotten old enough to wonder just how Dean always managed to keep them fed, housed and clothed when Dad was away. Hearing it now, after so many years, filled him with warmth, even as he remembered how angry and guilty that line had made him by the end.

Dean was still taking care of Sam, even if the methods had changed along with the memories. It wasn't like there was much to miss about Dean's calculated inconsiderateness. Not exactly. And—it was a really cool piece of equipment.

"Come on," Sam suggested. "Let's take it to the car and try it out."

Dean followed, and waited patiently for an hour of configuration difficulties, and when Sam finally got it to work, he was as smug as Sam.

****

"So it's a given we don't know how I got into this gig," Dean said as they painted the runes on the walls of the haunted house. "But what about you?"

Sam swallowed. He'd spent a while thinking about the story, and it would be perfectly natural for him to do so even if Dean had really been a total unknown, so it didn't matter if it sounded rehearsed. "Hand me the blue?" he asked, because he still needed a pause to work up to this.

The protective ritual they were doing was usually a last resort because of how conspicuous the runes were. But they'd come up with zip on the identity of the malicious spirit and the owners were hippy-dippy types who'd been pretty thrilled to hear there was a decorative way to solve their near-deadly haunted dining room problem, so, whatever worked.

Dean shoved the can over with his foot, and Sam got a couple more strokes in before he began. "When I was six months old, a demon killed my mother." He gave Dean almost everything at the core of the Winchester saga, from the demon blood to the visions, Jessica's death, and the Colt. Everything except his death and Dean's deal: his entire existence, with the one event he most needed to change fixed, and all its consequences erased. Instead, Azazel had held Sam's brother hostage to force him to open the Devil's Gate, until they'd turned the tables, shot Azazel, and spent the next couple of years chasing down the demons they'd released.

Dean seemed surprised by the whole angel-demon war for the seals thing, but then Sam wasn't sure what an appropriate reaction would be. Sam's brother was the hero of that story, saving the world at the last possible minute.

"And then, everything went back to normal. At least as normal as it ever is for us." Sam winced at the present tense, but Dean was concentrating on a tricky spiral and didn't seem to have noticed. "Like it never happened. So, we got back on the road and kept doing what we do. I expected some sort of, I don't know, supernatural hiatus because of kicking Lilith's ass, but no such luck." He stopped and took a deep breath, working himself up. "Two months before I met you, he. It was just a regular, ordinary—"

It was okay that he had to stop. Dean was nodding in sympathy, refusing to pry.

Sam concentrated on his breathing, on the even blue lines he was creating, waves representing the endlessness of existence. The smell of paint filled his lungs, not the harsh chemicals Sam had expected but milky and almost sweet. Maybe the hippies were on to something (as well as, Dean would have said, on something).

"That sucks," Dean said at last, and it was so much like the wit and wisdom of Dean from years past that Sam couldn't help but laugh.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Really, really fucking unfair." God had thrown Dean away like a used kleenex, not strong enough to hold together after all that had passed, and sure Sam knew that it was the basic problem of evil: why God lets bad things happen to good people. But that it wasn't a new question didn't make his suffering any less, didn't make Dean's pain smaller.

Sometimes, Sam empathized pretty heavily with Lucifer's disillusionment.

"You think he's in heaven?" Dean asked. "I mean, angels and demons, hell, kind of implies there's a heaven too, just for balance."

Sam closed his eyes. "I don't know," he said honestly. "It would be nice—but I think maybe, the reward you get is to be gone. We've met a few ghosts that weren't twisted. Some of them had missions, and when they finished they just—disappeared. I think if there is a heaven it has to be a place where a soul kind of dissolves, all the earthly cares gone. Otherwise, if you remembered, if you were who you were while you were alive, how could you be happy, watching all this pain continue here on earth?"

Dean grunted consideringly at that, and then Sam had to hold an extremely rickety ladder stable while Dean painted stars on the ceiling, so the conversation ended there.

****

"Samuel," Dean drawled teasingly, and Sam snapped his head around hard enough to hurt, instantly forgetting the details of the multiple murders in the 1950s laid out on the microfiche reader in front of him.

"What is it?" he managed after a few seconds of gawking up at Dean. Dean was looking at him like his head had just spun full circle.

"Nothing," Dean said, a little worried now. "I just—it's lunchtime, and you didn't answer when I called."

Sam squirmed on his seat and pulled the phone out of his pocket. Sure enough, the message light was on.

"Sorry," he said. "I guess I got caught up."

Dean shook his head. "No problem. Gonna tell me whose spirit decided to recreate Joshua Harding's killing spree?"

Sam smirked up at him. "I've got a theory. But you said something about food?"

Sam used to hate watching Dean eat, back when Dean's lack of manners embarrassed him so much. Dean now was a lot quieter and neater, which meant that most of that had been a put-on to annoy Sam. Half the time he missed it, knowing that Dean had put so much effort into riling Sam. Half the time he was just grateful that Dean was still present, still so in love with life that even a crappy diner sandwich was an opportunity to enjoy himself.

****

Sam had expected that, without the weight of Hell on him, Dean would go back to swaggering into every new place like he expected every girl to drop to her knees and every guy to slap him on the back, the way he'd been when Sam had been eighteen and resentful and Dean had been convinced of his own invincibility.

He hadn't figured on the amnesia making Dean hang back. Dean checked out every new situation as if he were looking for the one thing that might jolt his memory and make his entire history fall back into place. Not that he ever told Sam that was what he was doing, but Sam knew Dean's speculative, hunting expression. Sam just wasn't used to seeing it applied uniformly, rather than just let loose on gravesites or piles of research.

If Sam left him now, he'd wear that look twenty-four seven, not even the familiarity of Sam's presence to keep him grounded.

Constant vigilance aside, Dean was still orders of magnitude better than he'd been. Once he'd gotten the lay of the land, Dean relaxed and brightened up. When he smiled, even just politely, people fell over themselves helping him out. He was better at the fake identities than he had been before; no more grinning too wide or overclaiming his expertise.

"You were really smooth," Sam told him after the third bluff in as many hours. "I totally would have believed you were an EPA inspector."

Dean shrugged, relaxed and a little self-satisfied. "Hey, I'm as much an EPA inspector as I am anything else. If it could be true, might as well act as if it is. I can be whatever they want me to be." Sam glanced over, but Dean's lashes were lowered, his expression pleasant and unreadable.

Without the nightmares, the circles under his eyes had faded and he'd put on a couple of sorely needed pounds. He drank, but only the way Sam drank, a beer or two at the end of the day. Occasionally Sam would catch him examining his angel-marked shoulder in the mirror, touching the raised welts as if sense memory might kick in, but Dean never mentioned the scar directly.

****

"Fuck!" Dean spat, staring up at Sam, who'd just put him on his ass for the fourth time in a row. Dean was pissed at himself more than at Sam, and for the first time in as long as Sam could remember Sam was okay with that, because it was only superficial anger.

Sam was kind of cheating, because he knew every one of Dean's tells, but it wouldn't hurt to have Dean convinced that Sam was just that good. "You drop your shoulder right before you swing," Sam told him. "Makes you easy to predict." He held out his hand, and Dean grabbed it solidly, letting Sam pull him up, his fingers dirty and warm against Sam's.

The weather in Florida was glorious and the grass was green and soft in the little clearing behind the motel. It was a perfect place to spar, invisible from the road, and they could have been the only people in the world. There was beer and chicken waiting when they finished, and the slime monster (seriously) had been blown to pieces, and all was right with the world.

For the first time ever, Sam understood why Dean loved hunting, in itself and not just because it filled a hole inside of him. Even with the scratchy motel sheets and tiny motel towels waiting for them back in the room, this had been a pretty good day.

Dean backed away and got into a crouch. "C'mon," he said, his amulet swinging on his chest, catching the light from the peach-and-pink sunset. "One more time."

Sam nodded, smiling and then smiling wider as Dean fake-sneered and advanced.

****

It should have been harder to remember that Dean was brand new. Sam should have slipped up a thousand times, unthinkingly referenced events from childhood or hunts they'd done together. But, after he'd told Dean all but the worst of it, the master planner living in the back of Sam's brain prodded him to give Dean a near-complete history of the Winchester Adventures, so that Dean would have the necessary background. He left out most of their worst failures, especially the ones tangled up with Dean's deal, though he made sure to emphasize just how dangerous and treacherous demons were.

Dean was so hungry for hunting stories that he swallowed every detail. Sam just had to remember to say "my brother" instead of "you," which wasn't as hard as he would have thought because Dean himself served as the reminder.

It wasn't the same as being able to reminisce with Dean, but it was enough like that he could cope, especially since the payoff was Dean himself.

In return, Dean talked constantly about who he might have been, speculating wildly and adapting movie plots into his own made-up history.

"Secret agent," Dean said as Sam took the ramp to 80 West. "Part of a secret government project to catalog and control the supernatural."

Sam laughed, rolling the window up to minimize drag as they hit the highway. "Man, you've obviously watched too much Buffy."

"Hey, it could happen," Dean said, pretending to be wounded. The smile lines around his eyes gave him away.

"Yeah, you found dogtags, or a chip implanted in your shoulder?" Sam teased, but Dean didn't say anything back.

After a minute, Sam looked over. Dean was staring out the window, watching the traffic go by.

"Hunters tend to be solitary," Sam said, conciliatory. "We're distrustful, misanthropic bastards. Which kind of begs the question why we go around saving people."

"Don't think of it as saving people," Dean suggested. "Think of it as killing things."

Sam blinked through his relief. "Yeah, that's much better."

****

They stared in dismay at the pile of junk behind the haunted house, which emitted a distinct garbage-dump smell. The EMF meter had gone off the charts around the pile, and they were pretty sure there was a chunk or two of Harvey Dorf under all the other stinking mess, but neither of them stepped forward to start the search.

"Rock-paper-scissors?" Dean suggested at last.

Sam nodded and they turned towards each other, pounding their fists in unison.

Sam threw rock—and stared when Dean held up his flat palm in triumph, then wrapped it around Sam's fist and squeezed, smiling fondly.

"Two out of three?" Sam managed. Dean considered a moment, then shrugged.

Sam went for scissors this time. Dean grinned again and did a mini-fist bump, not bashing the tips of Sam's fingers the way he would have done when they were kids (if he'd ever managed to win a single round of rock-paper-scissors after Sam turned eight, that was), more of a gentle tap.

Sam surrendered and turned towards the garbage, leaving Dean to stand guard while Sam sifted through the muck. It didn't make sense: every move Dean made, whether fighting or just walking along the street, was utterly familiar, so how had Dean become unpredictable at a kid's game?

****

Dean's notes were scattered throughout Dad's journal, in his terrible unchanged handwriting, which meant that it had to live in the secret compartment. Sometimes, though, when Dean was safely away on some errand, Sam would take it out and look for scraps of his brother's past. Mostly they were familiar, but some of the notes had to have been made during Sam's years at Stanford, because he didn't remember the relevant hunts.

'Charm to ward off spirits who died of starvation,' he read, and rubbed his fingers over the page, even though the pen Dean used hadn't marred the smoothness of the thick acid-free paper. Five pages later, in a little pyramid at the upper left corner of a page otherwise about the dangers of voodoo, a recipe involving ladyslippers and cobwebs: 'possible aphrodesiac?' Dean had written. Sam could imagine the leer on his face as he'd scribbled, his tongue between his teeth.

If Dean had ever tried the spell, he surely would have told Sam about it, one way or another. Dean rarely tried to disguise his romantic misadventures, since they were so much less frequent than the adventures.

He would have shared the story, if there'd been a story. Sam was certain of it.

****

"Pueblo Indians used handprints on their rock art so that supernatural entities would know who was praying," Dean said as Sam pulled away from the library. "Handprints could also represent the act of obtaining power or transferring energy from humans to the rock, or maybe the other way around."

Sam put on his best listening expression and mentally reviewed the directions to get out of town. The next job on their list was two hundred miles away, and if they wanted to get there before every takeout joint in town closed he'd have to drive fast.

"The red handprint was a symbol of a war god."

"Sorry," Sam interrupted, because Dean was clearly gearing up to go on, with all the verve of a fifth-grade book report, "but what does this have to do with Pukwudgies?"

"Jack," Dean said. "But it might have something to do with my shoulder."

Sam balanced the harmlessness of the pursuit with the demoralization costs to Dean of failing to find anything, and came to the conclusion that it didn't matter: Dean was still stubborn all the way through, so Sam was just going to have to deal with hands in folklore until Dean himself decided he was done looking. "So, what do we do with that?" Bobby was still coming up with zero in terms of reversing the amnesia. Sam would have to check with him about possible Native American solutions, because no way were they consulting some shaman who might see through to Dean's past.

Fortunately, Dean hadn't shown any inclination to talk to psychics or the like, and he didn't suggest starting now. "Keep looking," he said. "What I found's all about rock art, nothing about putting marks on people."

Sam had imagined Dean's journey from Hell a thousand times, the angel's hand so tight on Dean's soul that it seared his resurrected body. None of it made physical sense, but Sam could accept a bodily manifestation of angelic favor. If only Dean had been able to recognize what Castiel had: his worthiness, his desert.

"Fair enough," Sam said, checking the rear-view mirror and seeing nothing worth note. "In the meantime, what can you tell me about Pukwudgies?"

****

Sam got off both barrels, then dropped the shotgun and pulled his handguns, no time to reload with the pack of wyverns closing in. None of the books mentioned how they screamed when they were wounded, like teakettles. In the night-vision goggles, they were cool purple, just barely distinguishable from the background air, shadows that could be made to bleed.

Dean pressed up behind him, back to back in the center of the cave. Sam could feel his muscles flexing as he aimed and fired, not a shot wasted, but there were a lot of wyverns and they didn't go down with the first bullet.

"Down!" Sam yelled and they ducked together, Sam on one knee and still firing as the biggest one yet swept over them, its claws outstretched and making an eerie yodeling sound.

They shuffled towards the pocket in the rock wall that offered the best protection, Dean going forwards and Sam backwards as Dean unrolled the wire. Sam ran out of ammo and dumped his magazines, and like clockwork Dean held out his hand for Sam to slap the empty gun in and provided a fresh one. Dean kept interrupting his work on the explosives to resupply Sam, who was keeping the pack away from the both of them.

The shots were deafening in the enclosed space even without the terrible screaming, and Sam was getting disoriented. The wyverns looked ever more like afterimages, hard to track.

He felt Dean's hand clutch hard around his arm, squeezing once: one minute. They'd planned on being out of the cave when the charges went, but then they'd planned on being alone. Having to liberate the two lost Boy Scouts and the three Search and Rescue folks who'd found them, then been trapped in the wyverns' food pen, had put them significantly behind.

Sam pressed himself hard against Dean, shoving him as close against the wall as possible. He wasn't sure how much extra protection two hundred pounds of blood and bone would be against the C4 Dean had laid down, but it couldn't hurt, and if the whole cave collapsed on them it wouldn't matter. Dean struggled, but he was outweighed and hampered by his dependence on Sam to keep shooting until the last moment.

The explosion, when it came, felt like an earthquake. He was shoved into the wall, crushed against Dean so hard he'd have bruises in the shape of Dean's shoulderblades. Sam's nose and mouth filled with dirt, and for a moment he thought the cave really had collapsed.

Then he choked and spat, and was able to spit, so there was air, even if it was gritty and metallic. The screams peaked and then slowly began to taper off.

Dean shoved back, weakly at first and then with more enthusiasm. Sam stood, almost blind from the flare transmitted through the goggles—stupid, Dean had warned him but he'd forgotten—and the returning darkness.

They made sure that the eggs were all shattered and finished off the few half-crushed wyverns remaining alive, then struggled their way out of the now much smaller cave mouth. One of the Search & Rescue team members was still there, waiting to see if they'd come out. Sam guessed the others must have gone back with the Boy Scouts. He wondered what story they'd make up for popular consumption. Lost in the woods, most likely. There were two other Boy Scouts who were never coming home, and Sam tried not to think too hard about them, because focusing on what you'd lost was a royal road to losing more.

Sam pushed his goggles onto his head as the Search & Rescue woman approached. She was saying something, her mouth visibly moving in the bright moonlight, but his ears were ringing too hard to hear it.

"I said, are you all right?" he managed to read off her lips.

Sam turned to look at Dean. He was filthy, so covered with chunks of dirt and rock and stray wyvern parts that he might as well have been a tulpa as a man, but he was standing straight and moving easily, no worse off than Sam himself.

"We're fine," he told her, probably louder than he should have spoken.

Later, when they'd seen the woman back to the Search & Rescue base camp and had hiked back to the Impala, Dean whacked him on the back of the head.

"What was that for?" Sam complained.

"You're a hunter, not a freakin' human shield," Dean snapped. "Don't ever pull that again. You're not expendable."

"Neither are you," Sam pointed out, opening the door and sliding into the driver's seat. Belatedly, he realized that he should have cleaned himself off a bit further first, but of course Dean didn't snap at him for abusing his baby.

Instead, Dean put his hands on the top of the car, preventing Sam from closing the door as he leaned down. "Yeah, I got that, but it goes both ways. Partners, Sam. We protect each other."

Sam swallowed down the heaviness filling his throat. It was good and fair and right, but it wasn't what his brother would have said, and he was a selfish bastard to want the Dean who would have insisted that it was his job and his job alone to protect Sam, no vice versa allowed. Sam had hated that part of Dean when it had existed, so he was being irrational as well as self-centered. Dean had been on-target, all those years ago, when he'd claimed that there was no pleasing Sam.

Sam's own freakish codependency wasn't Dean's problem, not any more.

"Okay," Sam said, and waited for Dean to get around to the other side before he turned on the headlights.

****

Dean stuck the bills in his back pocket, tilted his head goodbye, and headed out of the bar. Sam waited long enough to be sure that none of the good ol' boys were going to follow, then made his own retreat.

He found Dean grinning like a jack-o'-lantern in the car, counting the money again for good measure. "I am awesome!" he declared.

"I don't even—" Sam began, then shook his head. "I left you playing pool, Dean. Pool, like we planned. How the—?"

Dean shrugged, unashamed. "Guy said it was a silly game, all physical and nothin' mental, which I coulda told him was stupid five ways. But he had to be all, 'Oh, chess is so much better, I'd destroy you at chess,' and I had a feeling that he was just as wrong about that. The barkeep had a board, so after they reminded me which one was the queen—"

Sam closed his eyes. It was no more rash than any of Dean's standard moves. But he had to struggle to keep still, to refrain from grabbing Dean and demanding to know where he'd learned to play chess. All those years, and Sam had never heard a word of it, so now it was gone completely, with only Dean's shit-eating grin and a couple of hundred dollars as a marker of what had been.

"Hey," Dean said, his tone worried. He put his hand on Sam's shoulder and squeezed. "I know you like your plans, but, Sam—"

God only knew what Dean was thinking right now. Sam breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth, careful, careful, until he had wound up all the threads that were loosening in him. "I'm okay," he said, still staring at the darkness behind his eyelids. "I just—it surprised me."

"If you don't like surprises, you picked the wrong career," Dean said, but he said it gently and Sam managed a smile for him.

Dean should have known better than to pretend that Sam had ever been given a choice. On the other hand, Sam should have known about the chess.

****

"No offense," Dean began, which was always worrisome, "but do you have any music that was recorded sometime after you were born?"

Sam avoided a double-take only because the traffic near Chicago was heavy enough that he couldn't even look once at Dean. "These were my brother's tapes," he said, signalling a lane change, then realized how that must have sounded. "I mean, I don't really like—I'm not going to throw them away, but we don't have to—What do you want to listen to?"

"I'm not sure," Dean said, which Sam supposed was fair enough. He would have expected the cock-rock preferences to persist, the way the love of Corona and the dislike of green peppers had, but maybe Dean's music had always been more about Dean's view of himself than the deathless musicality of arena bands. And now Dean's view of himself was—unfixed.

"Tell you what, you get radio control for the next week," Sam suggested as he hit the stop button on the tape player. "Maybe by then we'll have a better idea."

"Thanks," Dean said, and gave him another one of those supernova smiles, the ones Sam had mostly seen from an angle. After Stanford, Dean had seemed to think that Sam didn't need Dean to be his cheerleader anymore, so the Category 5 grins had all gone to pretty girls, or to people who had useful information. Then after Hell, of course, they'd barely hit Category 1.

Sam shifted in his seat. "No big deal." He didn't know what they'd do about whatever Dean's musical tastes turned out to be. Satellite radio maybe, if he could figure out how to pay for it.

An iPod jack was out of the question. It would be exploiting Dean's rebirth.

As it happened, Dean preferred jazz, especially instrumental, and Jack radio, the one where they threw all sorts of different songs at you without much in the way of an announcer. Those were easy enough to find on the radio dial, so Sam tried not to worry overmuch about it.

****

Coming off a successful hunt in Potomac, Maryland, they stumbled into a wedding reception, three hundred cheerful faces at least. Even though they were two out of only five people who didn't seem to speak Hindi, they were swept up in the dancing. The girls were wrapped in rich silks and embroidery, colors so rich and true they seemed to come from another world than the Winchesters' ghosts and graves, and they laughed when they grabbed onto Sam and Dean's hands and showed them the steps. Dean was just as terrible as Sam at it, but that didn't seem to matter to anyone.

There was a whole table full of desserts, jellies and candies and puddings and something like a donut hole soaked in sugar syrup. Dean ate five of those before Sam turned away, his own stomach lurching, and when Sam looked back Dean was already dancing again, a girl on each elbow, laughing at himself.

Sam thought about getting in the car and just driving, because Dean could make himself a new life anywhere. But he couldn't be sure Dean was all right, not unless he was watching over Dean. And, he could admit to himself now, it wasn't just that he couldn't trust Dean's safety to anyone else. Sam didn't have anyone else left either. He was as much of an orphan as Dean. His own memories weren't doing him any favors. They needed to make their own society.

So he waited until Dean stumbled off the dancefloor, flushed and sticky-fingered, and beelined over to Sam, asking "Where to next?" He smeared syrup all over Sam's wrist when he grabbed Sam to drag him off, but Sam couldn't make himself mind.

****

"You're bleeding," Dean snapped, as if Sam could have missed that fact. "You need to get that sewn up."

"When we get back to the room," Sam grunted out. He had to pause before he could work up the breath to continue. "Show up in an ER with a cut like this, cops get nervous."

Dean's lip curled, reflexive contempt. Since the amnesia, they'd yet to be arrested, but something of Sam's stories of FBI misinterpretations must have stuck with him.

Sam pressed the rag harder down on his thigh. "Just a couple more minutes," he gasped.

And Dean always could make the Impala move like a bullet train, so it was no surprise that even this first time Sam gave him the keys he brought them back to the motel faster than Sam could have done on Sam's best day. Sam also had reason to appreciate Dean's field-medic skills. When he was looking after Sam, his stitches were as neat as a sewing machine's.

But Sam had fucked up badly. Dean cut away his jeans to get at the wound, and that wasn't a problem. That was SOP. No, the fuckup was that it was only accident—luck, really—that the flying glass had sliced his thigh and not his chest. Dean would have stitched that wound up too, no doubt, but then he'd have wanted a chat about why Sam happened to have an identical tattoo.

The next morning, still limping and a little zoned on painkillers, he made Dean head out to the library. One of the great benefits of Dean's reboot, other than the small fact of eliminating Dean's death wish, was that Dean no longer resisted doing his share of the research. Sam suspected that Dean felt the need to prove himself. Dean thought that the amnesia was the reason he didn't remember the basic facts of the supernatural, and no doubt there was a fair amount of truth to that, but Dean had never known the shit he was picking up now.

While Dean was furthering his education on the varieties of incubus, Sam headed to a tattoo parlor that had gotten good reviews on the web. The artist wasn't thrilled about Sam's request because the original was in such good shape, but Sam had come in with very specific designs and he was good at talking people into doing what he wanted.

That night, after dinner, he showed Dean. With the skin around the new work sore and red, and the old lines still solid black underneath, there was no way Dean could tell that the basic protective design had already been there, and no reason for him to think of it.

"You had to one-up me, didn't you?" Dean asked, looking at the red flames curling around the circle, and the runes surrounding it. Sam just smirked and shrugged, which stung his overstretched skin.

The runes might even buy Sam some more armor against evil. In fact, if all went well, he might drag Dean in to have the work repeated.

"Can I?" Dean asked, and Sam realized he was asking permission to touch.

Sam nodded; he'd put the bandage back on when Dean was done. Dean ran his fingers over one of the runes, making Sam shiver involuntarily, but Dean didn't stop. His touch was feather-light, almost indistinguishable from the puffs of breath hitting Sam's chest as Dean bent to look more closely. Sam's instinct was to pull back, but he forced himself still.

The rune Dean traced was algiz: protection in dangerous endeavors.

****

Sam started to forget which places he'd been in with Dean-before and Dean-after. He kept a very careful record in his journal, though, a new one like Dad's, always stashed in the car. And he made sure to consult it before every hunt. He wasn't going to take Dean anywhere he might get recognized.

Dean didn't notice Sam's careful chivvying. It was a big country and there were always hunts. Dean loved traveling, too—when Sam broke down and gave him On the Road, Dean read it in a couple of days and then spent the next few weeks quoting it nonstop and calling Sam 'Sal' just to watch Sam twitch.

Sam couldn't stop watching him. Whether he was tired and sweaty, covered with grit or bits of sticks and leaves, or fresh from his shower, skin damp and pinked with heat, he was incandescent. This was Dean as he deserved to have been all along, a thoroughbred in his prime. Castiel had taken away the physical scars, as if they mattered at all, but left so much damage behind.

****

They were coming off a grueling hunt that had left them both bruised all the colors of the rainbow, driving through the night because there was a werewolf in Tulsa and still three nights of the cycle left to go. "Your brother, John," Dean said, and Sam stuffed the automatic wince down into the deepest reaches of his soul, "it's his stuff I'm using, right?"

Sam nodded shortly, figuring that it was totally okay to not want to talk about his poor dead brother. Even Ruby had ordinarily hesitated to bring him up, back when it had been true.

But Dean was apparently made of sterner stuff. "Why'd you keep it?"

Sam looked down at his hands on the wheel. "I couldn't," he said. "It was too soon." When Dean had died on the Trickster's Wednesday, Sam hadn't bothered to take anything out of the car. It would have been inefficient, and Sam didn't really notice when an empty fast-food cup rolled up against his foot in the driver's seat anyway.

When Dean had died at the end of his year, Sam had cleaned out Dean's clothes immediately—no point in cluttering up the car when he had so much ritual paraphernalia to collect, so many books to read. Clothes could always be replaced. Dean had never said anything about having to buy a whole new wardrobe in the nearest Wal-Mart (the grave clothes with their stink of rot, somehow not made whole by Castiel's otherwise thorough resurrection, abandoned as soon as Dean had an alternative), but Sam had known he'd felt it. After that, it would always be too soon.

Enough of that must have showed on his face that Dean didn't speak for another few minutes. "You keep saying I should quit. But why don't you?"

Weirdly, he hadn't asked himself that question in a while, not even when he'd had Lilith's head on a plate, just as requested. Of course there'd been Dean, falling apart, to deal with at the time. Killing evil things was the only way he'd known how to keep Dean remotely functional. Now, though—

"I think about it," he said. "Maybe we've done enough. It's not that easy to start a new life, but—I think about it."

His world had narrowed a lot since Stanford, which was kind of funny when you thought about all the places they'd been and how none of them had offered a way out. On the other hand, everybody made choices that cut off other options, not just hunters. If Sam had somehow avoided Azazel and had been working as an associate now at some white-shoe law firm, hoping to make partner, he would have lived with the knowledge that Dean was out in the world with no backup. Or, more likely, he would have lived with the knowledge that he was the last Winchester standing.

"Maybe—" Dean said, but even after Sam waited five minutes, he didn't finish the sentence, and then he fell asleep, head smushed against the glass, stubbled jaw angled towards Sam and legs splayed carelessly. The periodic highway lights brought him in and out of shadow, reappearing from blackness again and again. Sam kept glancing over, checking to make sure his breathing was still untroubled and noting the way his fingers twitched rhythmlessly against his thighs, like a dog chasing cats in its dreams.

There was more in the world, but Sam needed to remember how much he already had.

****

Mixed in with Dean's research about recent deaths by misadventure in Topanga was a printout about a haunted fire station in Chicago. In 1924, a fireman had been killed in a burning building right after predicting his own death. He'd left a handprint on the window of his firehouse that resisted all attempts to clean it. But the window had been shattered in 1944 and the firehouse itself torn down in the 1970s.

Sam didn't say anything about the story to Dean, who seemed perfectly willing to focus on the poltergeist of the moment.

****

Gravedigging was a good workout. Not that it wasn't grimy and tough enough to deserve some bitching, too, but it wasn't dangerous and progress was easily measured, which was not something that could be said of most of their endeavors. Dean passed the time by recounting, or exaggerating, stories he'd read in his researches. When they'd been kids, Dean had always possessed the knack of making characters come to life, and Sam was pretty sure he embroidered just as much these days, even if he was no longer focused on the goal of tormenting Sam with tall tales.

Sam just chuckled along and countered with yarns of his own, some he'd read but most he'd lived through. He wasn't sure whether the hunts he'd done during the Trickster's half year counted as real or not, so he told Dean about them as if they'd happened to some other hunter, like he'd heard the stories at the Roadhouse. If he concentrated hard enough, he could imagine that slightly different life, the one where they'd been welcome among other hunters, where Sam hadn't needed to watch out for the ones convinced that he was the Antichrist in training.

Sam had too many stories to tell and Dean had too few. He felt the gap every time Dean got distracted by something new, trying it to figure out whether he liked it: romance novels, no; flip-flops, no; cigarettes, yes, but Sam threatened to make him eat the whole pack and that was the end of that experiment. Except that now he'd sneak them in bars while Sam had his back turned and justify himself on the ground that they both stank of smoke after a bar crawl anyway. Dean had never smoked in front of Sam, not even when they were kids—filthy habit, Dad had always said, and expensive to boot—but Sam thought maybe Dean had tried it when he was out on his own, given how natural a cigarette looked dangling from Dean's lips or held in Dean's always-moving hands.

When Dean had defended his filthy cravings on that ground, though—"C'mon, Sam, obviously I smoked before!"—Sam had argued him into compliance, pointing out that he hadn't gone through withdrawal right after the fairy curse, not to mention the lack of stained fingers, teeth, et cetera. Plus the health consequences; hunters who couldn't run without huffing were properly defined as prey, not hunters. And anyway, Sam had continued, Dean remembered all sorts of minor preferences, so what was the point of all the experimentation?

Dean had stopped and thought it out. "'Cause all the stuff I know about myself, it's a percent of what somebody normal knows," he'd said. "I don't even know what I don't know, so I might as well try it all. Even if I didn't know about Thai food or whatever before, well, maybe this is my chance to find something I like even better."

Sam had felt a little queasy about that, for reasons that were too hard to untangle in his own head. But when he thought about it as a kind of mid-life crisis, without the mid-life part, it made more sense. There was no harm in trying new things as long as the new things weren't likely to draw blood.

Still, he half wished that Dean didn't feel quite as much of a compulsion to fill the silence as they dug. It was too easy to hear the need in Dean's voice as he told every history but his own. There was no way that Dean was in as much pain as before the amnesia, but Sam still couldn't fix it.

In time, Sam swore to himself, there'd be enough stories between them to satisfy Dean.

****

Dean carried three kids to safety, one under each arm and one clinging to his back, while Sam took out the dire wolf that had been using their campground as a butcher's block. Afterwards, when the weeping parents couldn't stop thanking them, and Dean grew shy and pink under their effusiveness, Sam wanted to go back in time and show Dean-then that this was who he'd been all along.

Dean had pretty much stopped talking about Hell after the siren. The last time he'd said anything about it, he hadn't even been aware that Sam was listening. It had been the night after they'd put Lilith down, and Dean had been shitfaced. Sam had been jumping out of his skin with a combination of relief, the remnants of his terror, and anger at his complete inability to imagine the future when he was supposed to be glorying in his triumph. He'd needed to get away from Dean's drunken bellicosity before he broke every bone in Dean's stupid face, so he'd taken a walk.

He'd returned to find Castiel, his hands on Dean's shoulders, holding him back as Dean lunged uselessly at him. Sam had stopped in the open doorway and neither of them had seemed to notice him. Castiel's tone was as even as ever, telling Dean that he wasn't headed back to Hell.

Dean's face had been contorted like a gargoyle's. When Castiel promised him safety from the Pit, he'd stopped struggling and stumbled backwards, crumpling onto the bed. "You know," he'd slurred, " all my life, all I ever wanted was someone I—someone to say I was good enough. An' here's the punchline: even Alastair never said it."

"God does not require perfection," Castiel had said, looking distressed, or as close to it as the angel got. Sam had known even before Dean tried to get up and take another swing that Castiel hadn't given the right answer.

Sam had wondered, later, how much longer it would have taken before Dean would have become a demon for Alastair's approval, how close Castiel had cut it. At the time, he'd been frozen inside and out, his thoughts as blank as Lilith's eyes. He'd stood and watched Dean spit curses and tell Castiel to get out, get the fuck out, until Castiel had finally complied; that was the last time they'd seen an angel.

When Castiel had winked out of sight, Dean had managed to get himself into the bathroom and started throwing up. Sam had walked back out. Defeating Lilith was supposed to have been the end of his troubles, and he'd been incapable of dealing with Dean just then.

Dean wouldn't have believed him if he'd said what Dean wanted to hear, anyway. And it wouldn't have been true. Back then, he'd thought that telling Dean he was good enough would mean endorsing every shitty thing about their lives, giving up on anything better. With the benefit of hindsight, he thought that maybe Dean had just wanted to know that he was a good enough Dean.

The only thing Sam could think to do was to get Dean-now tipsy at the nearest bar. That entailed some drinking on his own part, so he ended up leaning against Dean, nearly pushing him off his stool, telling him over and over that he was a hero. Dean clapped Sam on the shoulder and said, "Dude, for such an enormous guy, you are a total lightweight," but Dean still smiled at him, relaxed and golden, and it was almost, almost enough.

****

The engine overheated on I-95 just outside of Baltimore. This was clearly Sam's fault. He hadn't done any maintenance in months, Dean's presence having made him forget that it was his job now.

Sam popped the hood and took a look. "What do you think?" he asked Dean, who was looking over his shoulder with a detached sort of interest that was as uncanny as any spirit they'd hunted. There was a sweetish, burnt scent, which he knew he should recognize.

Dean shrugged. "Dunno."

"Do you know what that smell is?" He watched Dean's face carefully. This felt like one of Dean's tests, except that of course it couldn't be.

Dean shook his head, and Sam could tell he wasn't bluffing. "I got nothin'."

Sam took a deep breath. He would have thought that the Impala's innards would be as familiar to Dean as cleaning a gun.

Maybe he'd forgotten because the car was such a big part of his identity. In a lot of ways, the Impala was Dean's biography. Most of what had happened to it was invisible, scars it should have borne replaced and rebuilt by Dean's hands in place of God's. Like Dean, it was so sleek and powerful that it could take your breath away, flashy and swaggering and packed to the brim with weaponry. And the car was Dean's only home. When Sam thought of it like that, he wasn't surprised that the Impala had been cut away with Dean's other core memories, despite the fact that the trivia remained.

Once Sam forced his mind off of Dean and back to the car, it didn't take him long to figure out that it was a radiator hose leak. Unpleasant to fix, but not impossible, not with what he'd learned during the long months without Dean.

Without Dean in a different way now, Sam was the one loosening the clamps and burning himself on the hot metal while Dean watched, crouched down, and occasionally offered color commentary. It was almost like they'd swapped bodies, Sam the mechanic and Dean the cool observer offering to look things up on the internet.

The repair took him three hours. Dean would have mocked him mercilessly. Under other circumstances.

****

Quitting had been his original idea right after Dean's memories were lost, and it still had a lot of upsides. Hunting was a young man's job, and Dean wasn't getting any younger, even if the amnesia had removed the hundred-ton weight that had been smashing him flat. They could get jobs doing construction if nothing else. Sam could go to community college and work his way up some corporate ladder.

The problem was: what would be left of Dean then? Sam couldn't see himself slaving in an office, tossing back beers at the end of the day as the highlight, but more than that he couldn't see Dean if Dean wasn't kicking ass and saving lives.

Twenty years ago, they could have managed IDs solid enough to get Dean on a major police force where many of his skills could have been put to use. Now, though, their choices were some small town where Dean would quietly rot and go crazy, or maybe an EMT job in a big city, as long as the city was inefficient about background checks. Sam didn't think that Dean would last long as an EMT. He'd start resolving disputes and intervening to make sure battered women didn't get hit a second time on his watch. Noble, but there'd be attention, and even the positive kind was too likely to end with some detail-oriented FBI agent noticing a picture in the paper.

It didn't seem fair that this version of Dean was still paying for the comfortable lies about his earlier incarnation. But what could Sam do?

Anyway, the idea of abandoning hunting had appealed more when Dean was trying so very hard to get himself killed on the job. Now, when they were scything down evil like humanity's own Reapers, Sam saw more clearly what they'd be sacrificing by quitting. He didn't know exactly who'd die if they stopped, but there'd be a body count for sure, and Dean would never want that.

In a couple of years, they could settle down some, cut back. They'd earned the right to pick and choose, at least. But to stop now, when Dean wouldn't have if he'd remembered—that seemed like it would be an abuse of power.

****

Dean still sang along to the music, but only with songs he'd learned recently. Without the automatic layer of 'annoy Sam' over everything Dean did, Sam thought that Dean actually had a pretty nice voice. And when Sam made fun of him for singing Fall Out Boy, Dean just stuck his tongue out and belted out "a loaded God complex, cock it and pull it" louder.

****

They took a break to see a county fair in the middle of Montana. "Are you sure?" Dean asked, wrinkling his nose as he examined the dusty, nearly full parking lot and the clots of pale humanity surging towards the gates.

"If the nagual sticks to its pattern, it isn't going to hunt again for another three weeks," Sam pointed out. "And we never got to go to one of these when I was a kid."

"I don't know," Dean said, still dubious as Sam locked up the car. "Maybe I hate carnival rides."

Sam closed his eyes, briefly enough that he could pretend it was just a stray bit of grit. "Let's find out," he said through the swelling in his chest.

Dean thought the ferris wheel was boring, which was anticlimactic given that Sam had half expected a full-on fear of heights freakout. He guessed it was just planes, then. But then Dean rode the Gravitron six times, eyes shining brighter each time. Sam stumbled off, sick to his stomach, after round four and watched the thing whirl.

This was a completely new memory, something they'd made together. Theirs.

Dean gave every appearance of enjoying winning stuffed animals at the ring toss that he then handed to the next child who blinked up at him. And once Sam swore up and down that the food wasn't going to give him salmonella, he got into the spirit, sucking down sodas and stuffing his face with chili dogs, cotton candy, a deep-fried Oreo, and a couple of things Sam didn't even want to know about.

Sam expected Dean to be on the demolition derby like smoke on fire, but he ignored the signs and dragged Sam towards the animal exhibitions. He loved the show horses, standing on the bottom rung of the wooden fence and leaning over it like a fourteen-year-old girl in the throes of her first crush. Sam watched Dean's eyes light up with wonder and tried to remember, not all that successfully, not to look like he was humoring Dean.

One of the riders, a buxom blonde (naturally), saw Dean's interest and brought her mount over so that Dean could examine it (yeah, right) close up. Dean cheerfully admitted that he knew nothing about horses, but Diana was more than happy to explain the various competitions to him, and to praise Dean's apparently instantaneous feeling for horseflesh.

The grin on Dean's face when the horse got its spit all over his hand while sucking off the sugar cubes Diana slipped him was as wide as any he'd ever had hunting. "That tickles!" Dean mock-complained while petting the horse's enormous head with his free hand.

Sam edged further away. Its eyes were too human, and too black, for his comfort.

When Diana suggested that they could come visit her ranch, have a look around, maybe pick up some work if they were looking for it, Sam wasn't so much shocked by the speculative look on Dean's face as he was by the context. He was pretty sure that Dean didn't care nearly as much about getting into Diana's well-filled-out jeans as he did about playing cowboy.

Fortunately or not, Dean could read Sam's signals when they were flaring this high, and he managed to extract himself with a phone number and a promise to drop by next time they were in the state. A couple of times on the way back to the car, Sam thought Dean was about to say something, maybe ask why Sam had gotten his back up about Diana after knowing her for all of ten minutes, at which point Sam would have agreed that, yes, all they knew about her was contained in ten minutes (and a tight top). But Dean just examined him, as if he were trying to figure something out, and didn't ask.

****

"What was that, Dean?" Sam yelled. "Fucking amateur hour!" He slammed the door and wished that there was something in the room he could throw to make his point.

Of all the things he'd expected, Dean nearly getting them both killed by inattention on a hunt had been pretty low on the list.

Dean wouldn't look at Sam as he headed towards the bathroom, but the hunch of his shoulders communicated that he understood how badly he'd fucked up.

"She said ... she said she'd tell me who I was," he managed after a minute, barely audible over the rush of water in the sink.

Sam was instantly rigid, anger flash-frozen to fear. He forced himself to talk. "She was a witch, Dean. She'd give you any lie to get you to come running." Now that he was paying attention, he saw a patch of wetness on Dean's shoulder, darker than the black of the shirt itself. "You're hurt."

Dean shrugged, then went pain-stiff. Sam hurried into the bathroom, nearly smashing Dean up against the sink in the tiny space, and batted Dean's hands away as he investigated the wound. Small, but nasty—she'd had some sort of bone knife. Sam was betting she'd made it from a previous victim.

"Let's get this off," he said, conciliatory, as he unbuttoned the shirt and helped Dean slide it off his shoulders. Dean always did need to learn his lessons with his body. He'd be more careful now. And there was a small, shameful part of Sam that liked the idea of a scar Dean would recognize, securing him more firmly in this life.

****

"I've been researching my amulet," Dean told him after they finished up a hunt for a water sprite in Kentucky. "It's so strange, I think it has to mean something. Maybe if I figure it out—"

"Lots of people wear symbols without knowing what they mean," Sam interrupted, because as far as he knew the amulet was unique. If there was a picture of it out there, it would be attached to a picture of Dean. And some of the people Dean might consult could recognize him. "Goths with crosses and ankhs, tons of Egyptian and Greek crap. I don't—you shouldn't get your hopes up."

Dean threw his hands up and increased his pace. They were wet and the night wasn't getting any warmer. "This isn't a freaking cross, Sam! It's a weird bull-thing with horns. I haven't found anything like it in any of the books."

Sam let Dean get a step ahead, in case something was showing on his face. "Maybe that just means it's some, I don't know, craft-fair thing you picked up."

"Do I look like a guy who goes to craft fairs?" Dean demanded, totally serious, and Sam couldn't help but crack up.

"No," he wheezed, barely keeping pace. "You look like the guy who hits on the girls at the craft fairs. And the girls not at the craft fairs."

Dean's step hitched and he turned back, his expression curious. "You really think I need to hit on them? I don't know what I was like before, but I'm pretty sure a face like this doesn't have to work that hard."

Sam flushed. It was true that Dean without his memories was far less brash, and girls still threw themselves into his lap at the first excuse. So far, he hadn't taken any of them up on their offers, even though his physical skills would surely return there as readily as they had in other areas of life.

Dean's relative monkishness made him wonder: how much of Dean's constant stream of pickups in the past had been about filling an emotional need, not a physical one? Sam had always assumed that the girls were meaningless because they were always being left behind, and that the point was to avoid any real connection. But maybe Dean's braggadoccio about being good in bed was about some kind of validation he couldn't get other ways. Or maybe new Dean was just as horny, but was being abstemious because he was sticking so close to Sam, the only quasi-familiar person in his world.

****

The next time a girl grabbed Dean and took him over to her friends, Sam tried to suggest with his raised bottle and his smile that Dean was welcome to meet him back in the room later. Dean didn't go off with her, though, just finished his drink and returned to collect Sam.

Sam hated to do it, but talking was actually required. He waited until they had finished the latest hunt, a cakewalk (with a riverside pyre instead of candles, and sadly lacking in actual cake), and Dean was checking the supplies as Sam cleaned the shovels preparatory to returning them to the trunk. "You know, if you wanted to hook up tonight, we could find a place," Sam suggested.

Dean didn't look up from the shells. "That's sweet, Sam, but don't you think you oughta buy me dinner first?"

Sam fumbled the shovel he was holding, nearly dropping it back into the dirt. "I meant—" Dean was already chuckling, though, so Sam gave him the finger, as much as he could while hanging on to the shovel. "It's just—you know, if you want to find a girl, it's not like I have any moral objections."

"Doesn't seem to be your thing, though." Dean rubbed his fingers over the curves of the ammunition, gold dimmed by the night.

"Every once in a while," Sam admitted. "But yeah, I don't usually see the point when it's someone I won't see again. If you do, seriously, you shouldn't hold back on my account." He shivered a little in the chill night air, glad that for once he hadn't been dumped into the water.

Dean paused. "On your account, hunh?"

Sam opened his mouth, then closed it, not entirely sure where the conversation was headed.

Dean waited a minute, then closed the box with a loud clank. "I've got two good hands myself, Sam, it's not a big deal." He headed for the front seat, ending the conversation, and not a moment too soon.

****

Except that two nights later, Dean said, "Samuel," and his voice was as thick as Turkish coffee, dark and sweet. Sam froze like a spirit trapped in salt, then made himself turn away from his laptop, because his instinctive reaction was crazy

Sam hadn't noticed his approach, but Dean was only a few feet away, and he closed the distance too fast for Sam to think. Fight-quick, he straddled Sam's lap, settling his weight down as he put his hands on Sam's shoulders and leaned forward until their faces were less than an inch apart.

"I want to hook up tonight," Dean said, low and almost growling into Sam's mouth, which had dropped open.

"Unnh," Sam said, staring into Dean's eyes, which were wide with arousal. The freckles over the bridge of his nose were darker from the six days they'd spent on the river. Dean moved forward, tilting his head as he went, until Sam felt a feather-light touch on his lips.

He jerked backwards until he was stopped by the chairback. "Dean!" he gasped, sounding like an outraged virgin even in his own ears. His hands flailed at his sides. He could stand up, dump Dean off, push him away if necessary, but he couldn't seem to make his muscles move.

"C'mon," Dean coaxed, the tone Sam had heard a hundred times in bars or through too-thin walls. "I've seen you looking. You watch me like you've been at fat camp for six weeks and I'm a chocolate cake."

Sam shifted, trying to get his groin further away from Dean's, but Dean wriggled to keep up. His thighs were heavy brands on top of Sam's, his breath even hotter as it hit Sam's face. "This is a bad idea," Sam said, too breathlessly, and continued with the first thing that came into his head. "You, you could be married."

Dean held up his left hand, conspicuously ringless.

"Not all guys wear rings," Sam said, knowing it was pathetic.

"Yeah, 'cause clearly I don't like jewelry," Dean told him, smiling almost tenderly, forgiving Sam's idiocy.

"You don't even know if you like guys," he tried, but Dean just rolled his eyes and thrust his hips, demonstrating exactly how much Dean liked guys.

"Sam," Dean whispered, his lips an inch from Sam's ear, "I want this. You want this. I'll be good, I promise."

Sam's stomach flipped over, but unfortunately it wasn't an entirely unpleasant sensation. "You don't know that," he said, a clear challenge, which wasn't at all what he'd meant to say.

He could feel the heat of Dean's smile against his cheek. "I got a feeling." Dean's hand slipped under his shirt, just the lightest touch of fingertips against his stomach and chest. Sam gasped. "Remember how I was at target practice? Let me show you what I can do with your gun."

It was so terrible that Sam laughed, but the sound turned into a moan when Dean dug his fingers into Sam's skin, squeezing a handful of flesh, and followed up by plunging his tongue straight into Sam's mouth. His other hand cupped Sam's cheek, turning his face into the kiss.

He tasted like beer and under that, something sweet and clean.

Panting, Sam wrenched his head back, breaking the kiss. Dean's hand dropped away and Sam's cheek was instantly cold. "No," he said, shaky. "There are—we don't even know why this could be a bad idea."

"Sam," Dean told him, his eyes forest-shadowed, "if you don't want this, stop talking about me and start talking about you."

Sam inhaled. "I don't want this." Every word felt forced through concrete.

Dean swung his leg off of Sam and stood, turning stiffly. "Liar," he said, before he strode to the door and slammed himself out.

You have no idea, Sam thought.

The Dean he'd grown up with wouldn't have let it go at that. He would have ignored the words in favor of what Sam's body was screaming, which was 'yes' in any language. Sam wasn't sure whether that difference made things better or worse.

Old Dean would have stomped back in the next morning, smelling like liquor and pussy. But apparently that had changed too. When Dean returned after two, he was quiet and, as far as Sam could tell, both sober and untouched.

****

The thing was, Dean had moves, and Sam had never known, even after years watching him get into girls' pants with a few drinks and a well-timed smile.

He leaned over Sam to look at the laptop screen, just a bit too close, his breath ruffling Sam's hair, warm and tempting and in exactly the right place that leaning away would have been awkward and obvious. He stripped down to his undershirt when they dug and when he did pushups and crunches in the motel rooms, showing off his arms and his chest where the shirt clung, sweat-heavy, the amulet swaying in the center. He brought Sam breakfast, the coffee sugared just right and always somehow the best egg biscuits around. He watched Sam, openly appreciative, and smiled slow and promising whenever Sam met his eyes.

Sam knew he was being courted. He just didn't know how to make it stop.

Worse, he liked it. Dean's full attention had always been a physical weight, oppressive and comforting by turns. Now, he felt Dean's gaze like gravity, tugging him off course, altering his already erratic orbit.

When Sam put his hands at the small of his back and groaned through the stretch, aching from two and a half hours spent crouched to get at the bricked-in body under the Death House (as the local tabloid called it), Dean asked if he wanted a backrub.

It was the oldest trick in the book, so blatant that only Dean could have made the offer without blinking or blushing.

But Sam recognized the strategem, and fuck if his lower back wasn't cramped and sore, so he shrugged—that hurt too—and laid down on the bed, toeing his shoes off to thud on the floor. He didn't bother to take his clothes off.

Dean took a few minutes coming over, and when he did, Sam could smell cinnamon and sandalwood. He'd stocked up on supplies, and at that point Sam should have rethought his acceptance. But Dean's hands were already smacking together, rubbing the oil warm against his palms, and it would have been rude to change his mind now.

Dean's fingers were warm and slick when he slid them under Sam's shirts, skimming up over the waistband of Sam's jeans and onto his skin, the heat instantly soaking into Sam's back. Dean's hands were as strong as a gorilla's, years of target practice and car repair and digging up graves all aimed at kneading into Sam's twisted muscles. Sam moaned without meaning to, and Dean only increased the pressure until it was deliciously painful. He was straddling Sam's thighs, the heat of him soaking through Sam's jeans.

After the third time Dean's hands jerked to a halt, tangled up in Sam's shirts, Dean grunted and swung himself off of Sam. "Take these off," he ordered, tugging back, and it was true that Dean was stretching the cotton, likely to tear them at the seams, so Sam lifted himself up on his knees long enough to unbutton and strip, then collapsed forward into the pillows again, already chilled with the loss of Dean's touch. He couldn't suppress a quick shudder when Dean returned to his place on Sam, the backs of his thighs newly sensitized to Dean's weight and warmth.

Dean worked on Sam's lower back for a while, until all the muscles were warm and loose. Then he moved upwards, skimming along Sam's spine, working his way to Sam's shoulders, then the tired biceps. He didn't let up, just kept kneading and pressing, the oil smoothing out his touches until Sam felt as pliable as uncooked dough.

He hadn't realized that he was making sounds until Dean chuckled, cocky and intimate. "If I'd've known you liked having your back rubbed this much, I would've been doing it all along."

Sam blushed and raised his head, his hands fisting on the pillow to either side. "Uh, thanks." He got why girls put out after massages, getting half-naked aside. It was like dancing, a way of showing off what you could do with your body if you were only allowed. And if there'd been an Olympic medal in backrubs, Dean would have brought the gold home to America.

"Anywhere else you want me to rub?"

Sam closed his eyes and swallowed. Dean's thumbs traced the line of his shoulderblades, hot and smooth. "No, uh. I'm good."

Dean leaned down, the hem of his T-shirt falling away from his body to brush Sam's lower back, the fabric coarse and still warm from Dean's skin. His amulet rested just below Sam's neck, a concentrated nugget of heat. It had never gotten this warm while Sam was wearing it during the months Dean was gone, like Dean ran at a higher temperature. Sam shivered.

"Sam," Dean said, his breath ruffling the ends of Sam's hair, the moist puff of Sam's name sending a spike of pleasure straight to Sam's dick, "I wanna suck you."

Sam shuddered, whole-body, but Dean just pressed him further into the bed. Sam could smell the spice of the massage oil and his own sweat, ground into the sheets.

"I can't," Sam moaned. He'd meant to shut things down before they got this far. He'd meant a lot of things.

"Why not?" Dean's mouth was closer now, his lips brushing across the hairs on the nape of Sam's neck.

Sam pushed back, because he couldn't not move, and Dean rolled smoothly off, pulling Sam towards the center of the bed with him. Now Sam was on his back, Dean pressed up against his side, leaning over him with one hand cupping his jaw, Dean's thumb rubbing down Sam's cheek.

Dean was as intense as he'd been when he'd rescued Sam or asked him to stay. But his eyes were brighter than Sam had ever seen them. Sam thought it was hope, because Dean thought he might really get what he wanted. "Give me one good reason we shouldn't do this."

Sam stared up at him, unable to surrender the truth, and the thing he should have been able to say in its place was an obvious lie.

"I'm afraid," he said, when Dean looked like he was half a second from deciding not to wait any longer and just lean down to claim Sam's mouth. "What if—I don't want to lose you." Everyone I love goes away, he thought.

"Samuel," Dean said, so fond that something in Sam's chest clenched and released, a flower blooming in stop-motion, "we could get killed tomorrow, or a fairy could come along and take our memories. But we've got here, now. What good's it do to say no to the fun stuff?" Dean's thumb was still moving, tracing the line where Sam's beard would grow in if he let it, down over his cheek to his upper lip.

Sam couldn't catch his breath. Dean was everywhere, hard and strong and alive, alive, alive, a miracle ten times over, and the rest of the world could go fuck itself; what had it ever done for him?

"No good at all," Sam said, and closed his eyes.

Afterwards, he stared at the ceiling, white tiles pockmarked with tiny holes, a starfield in reverse, the same as a thousand other cheap motels across the country. Sometimes Sam thought that there was really only one motel room, and little sprites moved it around, redecorating on occasion, faster than the Impala could travel. Sometimes he wondered whether, if he left a pair of socks in a drawer in Peoria, he might find them again in Tempe.

Beside him, Dean snuffled, almost a snore. He was grinning slightly in his sleep, the sheet pulled up only to his waist so that his bare chest and arms gleamed faintly in the light from the parking lot outside. His amulet was a dark spot in the middle of his chest, the bull-god seeming to smile at Sam.

Okay, Sam thought, this can't be as bad as it seems. Yes, Dean was Dean, but not exactly. This Dean was what Dean could have been, should have been, without Sam's cursed existence warping him. Dean was innocent, regardless of what he could do with his tongue, which Sam was not going to think about; Sam would never know where that skill came from, anyway, so it didn't matter.

If there was any guilt, it was Sam's, and that was nothing new.

****

The old Carbon County Prison in Pennsylvania had a hanged man's handprint embedded in the wall, over a hundred and thirty years old. It had survived repainting and replastering and every other attempt to eliminate it; the story went that the condemned man had put it there just before his execution, as testimony to his innocence.

It gave off EMF, no shock there, but there were no mysterious deaths or other ominous portents associated with the handprint. After a week spent in the area, Dean agreed that there was no job, and no understandable connection to his own scar.

They moved on to a black dog in Northbrook, Illinois.

****

"Look at me," Dean said, his thumb moving back and forth, rubbing a spot just above Sam's hip. "Look at me, Sam. Sam," demanding, coaxing, like he used to be when he was trying to get Sam to close his books and come practice target shooting, only this time the physical activity Dean was promoting was quite different.

Sam shuddered and turned his head until it was pressed into the pillow. Dean, solid and heavy above him as if he were made of gold, leaned down and mouthed at the line of his neck, biting gently, then worrying the skin until Sam gasped.

"Sam," Dean said, moving towards pleading, and Sam realized that Dean wasn't just being sexy. If Sam kept his eyes closed, Dean would think that Sam was—well, pretending.

And if there was anything he should have known by now, it was to commit to a side. He'd made his choice.

"Dean," he breathed, and opened his eyes.

Dean was beautiful.

****

They found a hunt in West Virginia that required a ritual cleansing performed in a charmed circle every night through an entire moon cycle. Dean might have mumbled something about a honeymoon, but Sam didn't hear it properly.

They camped out in a show house—the developer had gone under in the recession and the rest of the planned community was just markers and string, nobody around. It was hot enough that having only cold water—the heaters hadn't been installed—was no bother. Sam woke up every morning already sweating, showered off the night's grime, then immediately got soggy again even before any sparring. Sam knew he looked like a wet dog most of the time, and smelled not much better, whereas Dean just gleamed like he'd been dipped in bronze, and he didn't even have the decency to stink. Though actually that fact had its benefits; by the end of each day Dean was irresistible, magnetic. After the first three days, Sam dug a bottle of tequila out of the trunk and they did body shots, sans lime or additional salt, while the sun went down.

No internet, so Sam read George R.R. Martin while Dean worked his way through the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels that the decorator had stocked in the master bedroom. As Sam might have predicted, Dean loved hard-boiled detectives. He'd even interrupt whatever Sam was doing to read out choice phrases, which Sam wanted to find annoying.

Dean also spent some time playing with the abandoned construction equipment, teaching himself how to use a backhoe, which was mostly hilarious except when it was terrifying. But apart from the one time Dean got covered with mud, nothing untoward happened, so Sam just rolled with it.

At night they cooked out, their fire the brightest thing for miles in any direction, before heading out to do the night's iteration of the ritual. Dean burned enough meat that even he had to concede that he probably hadn't been a chef, and after the first week they started to make s'mores every night. Where he was terrible with the burgers, he was a genius with the marshmallows, each one plucked from the flames just as it started to swell and blush golden brown. Dean never could wait for them to cool down, smooshing his between the graham cracker and the chocolate and cursing incomprehensibly as the hot fluff burned his tongue each time.

When he leaned over so that Sam could kiss it better, he tasted like sugar and freedom.

****

The next five months were like that: in most ways, as happy as Sam had ever been. They were certainly a match for the other candidates. His blissful eighth summer, when they'd spent the entire time in Akron and Sam had gone to the library in the morning and the swimming pool in the afternoon, before Sam had understood that they were poor and itinerant in a world that favored neither of those things. His junior year at Stanford, when he'd finally learned to fit in and Jessica Moore asked him out and he aced every class.

Sam had learned to distrust happiness, but the lingering unease of what he was doing with Dean was enough to keep him from obsessing too much over how well things were going.

Dean, meanwhile, turned heads everywhere they went, like he was from a different dimension where people were more alive, more joyful than the real world. He smiled and people opened doors and mouths and hearts to him. He praised the pie in diners and ended up with extra pieces, which he usually split with Sam. He burned bones and threw his arm around Sam's neck, pulling him down just to rub their cheeks together in affectionate victory.

One time, he made a dreamcatcher to reassure a little girl whose parents had been killed by a closet monster, and she hugged him and begged him not to go, but she listened when he knelt to talk to her and nodded seriously when he explained that it was her job to take care of her aunt and uncle now. Later, he sat on the grass by the side of the road while Sam was working on the car and looked out at the passing traffic, a beer in his hand and his ring glinting on his finger, radiating contentment like a tomcat.

At night he flipped back the sheets and gestured for Sam to get in bed, and no matter how crappy the mattresses or thin the pillows, Sam always slept through the night, because there were no more nightmares for either of them and Dean put out enough heat to rival an electric blanket.

Sam started to get used to the looks people gave him, the ones that said 'good on you!' and the ones that said 'faggot.'

****

"How'd you get that scar?" Dean asked, rubbing his thumb across the raised flesh on Sam's back. "Looks pretty bad."

"It nearly killed me," Sam said, glad that he didn't have to watch Dean's face. Dean had worked hard to avoid seeing Sam's naked back after Cold Oak, ducking out of the bathroom when necessary or, if Sam stripped down in front of him, turning away as if the pattern on the wallpaper had suddenly started moving. Dean from before would never have stared at the scar, much less explored it with his hands, as if it was just one more thing about Sam that needed to be learned.

"My brother saved my life," Sam told him, because that was important. "It—he got hurt pretty bad doing it. He was never really the same, after."

"Wasn't your fault," Dean said, his clever fingers moving away, pressing hard against the tired muscles in Sam's upper back.

"You can't know that," Sam said, struggling to keep his inappropriate and intense anger out of his voice.

Dean shifted his weight onto Sam, pressing down almost painfully and forcing Sam to stay still. "Sure I can. I know you."

Except Dean didn't.

If Sam had known, if he'd thought for one second that there was even a risk that Dean would have made a deal for Sam despite having rejected the same thing for Dad, Sam would have snapped Jake's neck himself before the disaster had a chance to unfold. But Sam hadn't known his brother well enough to understand that he was actually breathing for two. And on Dean's side, Dean hadn't figured out that saving Sam the way he did would only drag out the destruction. So in that way, Sam guessed, nothing had changed: they were still overconfident and reckless with each other.

All he could do was hope that he was the one who'd have to pay for it.

When Dean's hands went from relaxing to seductive, Sam moaned gratefully and let himself stop thinking.

****

So, the zombie priest had a couple of defensive moves up his rotting sleeve. They made it past the phantom hounds guarding the perimeter of the old mansion by throwing them meat basted with a paste made of couch grass and other herbs, a variation on the drugged meat of a thousand heist flicks. Dean's idea, and one he'd be justifiably crowing about for weeks, not that Sam would tell him that more than once.

After that there was a flight of poison darts—Sam saw the cobweb trigger line hovering over the creaking steps just in time to shove Dean down, both of them rolling painfully but not lethally onto the concrete of the walkway while the darts pattered uselessly above and past them.

Then there was a spell that moved the doors and windows around, so that kicking out the front door by the hinges just left them facing a brick wall. It was frankly creepy. Also painful on the kicking foot.

Dean began the incantation, an injunction to clear all paths, to open and hold the way, and Sam caught the rhythm quickly, going almost in a round. His blood fizzed in his veins; he felt like a hound of the Hunt himself, aching to get through and bring down this latest threat to innocent lives.

The bricks groaned and collapsed out of the doorway, falling apart like bones going to ash. Sam sputtered out the dust, thick and red and gritty in his mouth, and they went inside, where the darkness cocooned them instantly. They flicked on their flashlights together, not a heartbeat separating them, and examined the entranceway. The space was as big as some of the houses they'd squatted in, pale-veined marble like gravestones on every surface.

The grand stairs swept upwards, and Sam watched Dean play the beam of his flashlight along the steps, thick with dust and mouse droppings.

"Evil things go down," Sam said.

Dean didn't make any of the obvious jokes, too caught up in the quest.

The basement would be accessed through the back of the house. Sam stepped forwards, into the hallway past the stairs, his light bobbing with his steps. Dean followed at his shoulder. Wallpaper hung in ragged curls from the sides of the hall, reaching out to them, and Sam kept as close to the center as he could. He could smell it already, the fresh grass-and-burned bone scent of magic.

The door at the end of the hall was ajar. Sam reached out and hooked it all the way open, stepping through before it had stopped swinging.

He didn't notice any of the details of the kitchen because there were people waiting there, bunched together at one side like a group waiting for a family portrait.

Dad, Jessica, the wavering shade of his mother, and a quivering mass behind them, so many people, so many lost for him, because of him—

"What the fuck is your problem?" Dean asked and pushed past him.

"Don't you see them?" he asked, trembling even though he knew they had to be illusion.

"See who?" Dean whipped his head around, following Sam's gaze and then turning full circle. "There's nothin' here, Sam. Sam! Samuel, keep it together." He was on guard, gun out and backed up against Sam, but his voice was pitched just for Sam. Sam wanted to turn and bury his face in Dean's shoulder.

He sucked in air. "Revenants. Shades of the unquiet dead."

"They gonna hurt us?" Dean was jumpy, but in that horror-movie there's-something-coming-around-the-corner way. Professionally jumpy. Sam tried very hard to emulate him. He'd thought that his grief had been burned out of him over the past few years, but there was something about the holographic image of murdered loved ones that had peeled back all five stages of grief and left him raw and shaking.
As they'd been intended to do. A fear spell to make him see the most distracting visions possible. Nothing more than shadows.

Sam made his breathing slow down. "No, they're just guardians. Put here to scare off the tourists. Come on," he said, bringing his gun up and aiming it at the door to the basement. "Let's go kill some bad things."

****

"I didn't see anyone," Dean said, later that night, while they were burning the bones of the priest's victims. He said it like a challenge.

Sam thought of all the people who would have been standing in front of Dean a year ago, and closed his eyes. "You ever think maybe that's a good thing?" he asked, then waited through an hour of Dean's silent treatment before Dean broke and started talking about the difference between hoodoo and voodoo.

Remembering the afterimages—they weren't spirits, no more reality to them than photographs—hurt more than a stab wound. All his sins remembered: Jessica, terrified and helpless, betrayed by the secret irrationality and evil of the world. Dad, sad-eyed, devastated by Sam's failures. Mom, unfamiliar and pale, her strength stolen. Madison, her skin stippled because he'd been close, so close when he shot her. Andy. People he barely recognized; only on reflection did he identify that poor doctor Ansem killed, the one Sam hadn't been able to save. Others, if he cared to think about them.

Sam hadn't seen Dean, though. That was all that mattered. If he'd seen Dean—

He pushed the thought away. It was irrelevant. The spell had fucked with his head, but it was over now, and by tomorrow evening they'd be three states away.

****

In Ithaca, New York, the vamps they were hunting broke into their motel room, and Sam wasted a good five seconds grabbing for the Bowie knife Dean kept under his pillow, except that of course Dean didn't know that was his habit any more and the Bowie knife was safe in its sheath across the room.

Fortunately the guns were still on the bedside tables, and the dead man's blood dried on the bullets worked better than they had any right to expect, so the delay didn't get them killed. After they'd cleaned up enough to keep the police from being called in, Dean made fun of Sam for his confusion, joking about Sam looking for quarters left by the Tooth Fairy even as he brought out the Break-Free and started cleaning the guns.

Sam sat on the edge of his bed and clenched the bedsheets between his fingers, watching the wrinkles they made on each side of him. Their lives were just like these motel rooms, remade and renamed in each town, anonymous and unmourned. "My brother always kept a weapon under his pillow," Sam admitted, surprising himself.

Dean stopped, then resumed his careful ministrations. "You miss him pretty bad," he commented, eyes on his tools. "You get this look sometimes, like you're expecting—someone different than me." His ring gleamed as he turned the barrel this way and that.

Sam couldn't breathe, didn't want to be in the room, couldn't imagine being anywhere else. If he let himself miss Dean, that meant that Dean wasn't still here, and that meant that Sam was the abomination Uriel had called him. But he couldn't help it, sometimes, especially when Dean was careful with him. Underneath everything, Dean had always known that they didn't need to like each other to be family. Watching Dean try to earn what was his by right hurt, when Sam let it.

Dean deserved a response. "He was—he was really tired, by the end. He's—I have to believe he's at peace."

"Doesn't mean you don't miss him." Dean's voice was gentle. "I wish I coulda met him. Way you talk about him, I bet he'd've kicked my ass for messing with his baby brother."

Sam choked on air, horrified and halfway to cracking up at the thought. "He'd say you were way out of my league," he managed. Dean would—he'd want Sam to be happy, but he'd also worry that Sam had forgotten him. But Dean was certainly more present than if he'd bled out in some self-destructive gambit, which he would have done by now if not for the fairy. Sam had to believe that the core of Dean, all that strength and fighting spirit, was still with him. He had to believe it, like he'd believed that he'd be able to save Dean from Hell, like he'd believed that he'd be able to control his demon blood: because when that belief slipped, he was dangerous to everyone around, not least Dean.

This line of thought did no one any good. Sam shook his head, pushing away everything but the memory of Dean smiling after a hunt, tossing a shovel up onto his shoulder and swaggering back towards the car. That was Dean, preserved in Sam's memory and also here, now, perfected at least as much as he'd been diminished.

"Samuel," Dean said, using the intimate sing-song he saved just for the long version of Sam's name. He was done cleaning the guns now, and Sam watched as he stood and stretched, rolling his shoulders. "C'mere," he ordered.

Sam rose and went to him.

****

When they found themselves on the trail of a lechusa, Sam realized pretty quick that they were in over their heads. Bobby said that he might have something that could help, but he insisted that they come see him. It wasn't strictly necessary, Sam knew, but this was Bobby's way of checking on Dean, and Sam couldn't exactly turn him down without a good reason.

So instead, he had to manage Dean.

He explained about his old family friend, and how helpful Bobby had been to the Winchesters in the past. Then he took a deep breath and stared down at his hands. "Look, you can't—Bobby's a great guy, but he's, uh, pretty conservative. If he finds out about us, it's gonna be pretty nasty." Sam silently apologized to Bobby and looked up, confident that Dean would take his obvious discomfort the way Sam intended him to.

Dean frowned, his eyes jade-green with annoyance. "If he can't deal with me, why do I gotta deal with him?"

Sam shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry, okay? But he knows all about this lechusa, and we need him."

So Bobby was a bit perplexed when Dean reacted to his too-open welcome with coolness. Dean took the beer-with-holy-water and tipped it towards him in thanks, but then kept the bottle up near his mouth like a barrier, watching Bobby warily as Sam discussed the hunt with him.

****

Sam tried to work fast, to get them out of there as soon as possible. But by the second day, Dean was bored, and the cars in the lot didn't serve as the distraction they once would have done. By the afternoon, Dean was flitting around like a hummingbird, sticking his nose into everything, reading Bobby's books, except that he couldn't get through more than a couple of pages without getting restless again.

Bobby came up from the basement, where he kept the most dangerous items, and caught Dean poking at a cigar box in Bobby's study. Bobby hurried over faster than Sam thought he could move, and grabbed it from him. "Watch out!" he chastised. "Didn't your daddy teach you better than—"

Dean snapped to his full height and practically growled. "What the hell do you know about my daddy?" he sneered.

Bobby's mouth dropped open and he put the box back down on his desk without looking at it. "I'm sorry," he managed.

Dean closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them again his face was nearly pleasant. "No, man, my fault. Shouldn't've been in your stuff, you're absolutely right."

Sam stood there, gaping, stunned all over again by how much Dean had lost. Bobby was—he wouldn't have been any better a father to Sam than Dad had been, but Dean had loved him with a devoted purity that most people couldn't manage. Sam's ugly lie had prevented them from reconstructing even a rickety copy of that connection out of Bobby's one-sided memories.

Bobby dragged Sam out to the porch while Dean went to make himself a sandwich. "This is wrong," he told Sam, low and angry. "Dean has a right to know who he is."

Sam took a step forward, but Bobby, to his credit, held his ground. Sam leaned forward and very deliberately did not reach out to shake some sense into the man. "I'll say it again, Bobby. Hell. He went back to Hell every night. He was killing himself. A few memories, that's a cheap price for a fix."

"You're lying to him in every kind of way," Bobby told him.

"What a new development in my life," Sam said, pleasantly. "I lied to everyone around for years. I lied to my teachers and my friends and the girl I was going to marry. Lies are easier, Bobby, you know that. Lies are better. And if you can't deal with that, I guess we'll just get out of here and figure out how to deal with the lechusa, and everything after, ourselves."

Bobby's face was stone. "You ain't the only one who lost him, Sam. And you ain't the one with the right to make decisions for him. And what in creation happened to 'he's out'? If you're still hunting, why not tell him who he is?"

"Hey," Dean said, bracing his hands on each side of the doorway and leaning his head out. "Either of you want a sandwich while I'm at it?"

They both turned, stiffly, to face him. Sam shook his head—he never could eat when he was upset—but Bobby nodded, conciliatory. "That'd be kind of you, thanks."

Dean ducked back inside. Sam reached out and grabbed Bobby's arm. "He knows who he is," Sam told him. "He just doesn't have to live with knowing what he's lost." There was no way to restore Dean's memories, so the only thing they could give him was a story that might as well have happened to another person, its only confirmation the angel's handprint and even that, well, that was resistant to interpretation.

Bobby shook his hand off and glared at him. But Bobby's disapproval didn't change the felicific calculus. Aside from the difficulty of telling Dean the truth after all this time, Sam didn't want Dean constantly measuring himself against his past. Dean being Dean, he'd find a way to come up short no matter what. And if Dean knew, he'd be able to tell just how much Sam mourned the countless moments the fairy curse had destroyed, every 'bitch' and 'jerk' a pull on the cord that had connected them before, a reassurance they'd offered each other as easily as breathing.

When Dean had come back from Hell they'd lost the rhythm, like yelling at each other down tin can phones with no wires attached. If Dean hadn't been so badly damaged, or Sam had been stronger, better, more, maybe they could have found each other again someday, without magical intervention. Maybe they could have learned to live two good lives instead of one terrible one.

At least this way only Sam had to deal with the memories.

Sam was about two seconds from bursting into tears. He fisted his hands until he could feel his nails drawing blood from his palms and breathed in deep through his nose, swallowing hard.

Bobby shook his head, his mouth twisting with disgust, still waiting for Sam to admit that he was wrong. All of a sudden, Sam realized that Bobby might have been the one who taught Dean to play chess. He could imagine it, Dean and Bobby leaning over a board on a cold night when Dean complained of being bored with research. That was probably exactly what had happened, some time Dean had been at the yard without Sam.

He couldn't ask Bobby about it now.

"You gonna tell him?" he asked, making it a challenge. They needed to settle this between them. He wasn't entirely sure he was planning to knock Bobby out and run if Bobby said yes, and he truly hoped he didn't need to find out.

Bobby flinched and looked down at the uneven floorboards of the porch, rising and falling like a little topographical map. Hunters had to pick and choose what they took care of. "I tell him, it'll—"

It would kill him. Sam nodded. "You keep that in mind," he suggested, letting the swirling, crumpling feeling in his stomach come out as anger. "I'm gonna take a look at the car." Bobby wouldn't want to see him for a while, and Sam wasn't feeling too kindly disposed himself. Dean would be awkward, stuck alone with Bobby—more awkward—but he could focus on his Dagwoodesque sandwiches to make up for the strained silence. Soon enough, Sam and Dean would be back on the road.

They wouldn't make the mistake of returning again.

****

They killed the lechusa after two days of boring tracking and two minutes of extremely interesting fighting.

Once the threat of sudden death was lifted, Sam noticed that it was a beautiful evening, the sky royal blue and the moon looking like it was only shouting distance away. They picked up dinner on the way back to the motel—Sam did the buying, because he was basically presentable—and sat out on the warm hood of the car to eat it.

Dean handed him a beer, bottom-first, and Sam took it with a weary smile. Dean's shoulders were rounded with exhaustion, he was smeared with dirt like he'd rolled in it, and his jeans had two new holes, torn right over the shins, irreparable. He'd have scabs a foot long, and he'd probably roll out some new curses when Sam disinfected the wounds. But he was glowing, like the warm lights of home, and his eyes were bright as he used his ring to pop the top of his own beer.

He swigged and glanced over at Sam. "I got something on my face?"

Sam grinned. "A shower wouldn't be a mistake."

Dean raised his eyebrows. "Think we could both fit?"

"No," Sam allowed, "but we'd have a good time trying."

They drank in silence then, the coolness of the beer a blessed reward after the exertion of the hunt.

Dean turned the bottle in his hands, his thumbnail worrying the label. "This is—it's real good. I wonder, you know, what my life was like before. But it can't have been better, so—I guess it doesn't matter." His muscles were tense with the confession, grooves on his forearms telling Sam even more than the words alone.

Sam closed his eyes. His chest hurt, tender and sweet and awful all at once. "I'm glad," he said, and he was. "I—I got a new start, too. You're my new start."

****

"I think I found another fairy," Dean told him.

Sam swiveled his head, too fast, but Dean was focused on the computer screen.

It was another hamlet with a plague of weirdness, people's possessions changing color and shape and size—an armchair the size of a small house, a widescreen TV the length of Sam's thumb. Fairy tricks, Dean insisted, mischief that made people question their own senses.

Sam thought it was plausible. As always, he factored in the risk to his secret. Fairies didn't have special mindreading powers or anything, and there was no reason this one would know what the dead one had done to Dean or what it had meant.

The temperature dropped suddenly, fall arriving like an executioner's axe, and the sky was the color of frostbite as they drove into Popperville.

It took all of three chilly hours before Sam saw a familiar hatchet-faced figure slipping around a corner.

Sam slammed himself against the wall of the house he was casing, shuddering. He grabbed for his phone. The bricks were as cold against his back as if they'd been refrigerated, sucking the heat out of him, but he pressed himself as flat as possible anyway, his body reduced to the animal hope of remaining still and unseen.

"Dean," he said as soon as the call went through, "we've got to get out of here." Dean squawked a protest, which Sam ignored. "Meet me back at the room, now." Maybe they hadn't been noticed. Maybe turning tail would be enough to protect them.

Sam's hands were shaking so hard he could barely drive.

Dean had taken Sam seriously enough that he was actually waiting for Sam at the motel, pacing in front of the yammering television. "What the fuck—?" he started as soon as Sam opened the door.

"It isn't a fairy, it's the Trickster," Sam burst out.

Dean stopped, his eyes widening and his hands spreading out, his whole body asking what the fuck was going on.

Sam had forgotten that he'd never told Dean anything about the Trickster. It had been too painful even to include in his war stories.

"He's a god. A for-real, unkillable, capricious and vicious god. We—my brother and I—we ran into him twice. The first time he just played with us, but the second time—"

Dean crossed the room to him in three quick strides. His hands were warm on Sam's biceps, pulling Sam into his chest, holding on as if he were still the older brother, still believing himself capable of protecting Sam from anything outside. "Hey," Dean said, distressed, patting him a little absently. "Whatever it is, it's okay."

"Dean," he moaned, pressing his forehead into the shoulder of Dean's jacket, "he killed—Dean. He made me live one day over and over again, and each time my brother would die and the day would reset."

Dean was rubbing Sam's back now, easing him over to sit down on the nearest bed and kneeling in front of him. "Jesus. Groundhog Day in hell."

Sam sniffed and raised a hand to push his hair out of his eyes, which also got Dean to back off a little. "Yeah."

"How many times?" Dean asked, gentle, his hand now on Sam's knee. His eyes were seaglass green, pure in their concern.

"I lost count," Sam said, same as he always did when Dean asked that question.

But this time, Dean shook his head. "No, you didn't."

Sam closed his eyes and wondered if Dean had always known that. "One hundred and eighty-five. Plus one." He shivered, wishing they'd turned the heat on before they'd left in the morning.

"Plus one?" Dean's voice was careful, but it was his hunting tone. Sam was a witness now, which meant that Dean was still thinking that they could go after the Trickster, and there was no way Sam was allowing that to happen.

"I figured out it was him and confronted him. Threatened him with something that was supposed to kill him. The Trickster said he'd stop, and that day—my brother didn't die. But the next morning he did. And he stayed dead. For six months. I hunted the Trickster full-time. Finally he let me catch up with him, said he was teaching me a lesson."

Sam knew that he'd gone dead-eyed and blank, back as straight as rebar. Dean had never seen him like this, and Dean's eyes had gone as wide and frightened as Sam had seen them since the fairy's gift, his lips parted as if for once he had no idea what to say.

Before, Sam hadn't told Dean about the plus one, the first Wednesday and all that followed it, because Dean hadn't needed the extra pressure with his clock ticking down. The repeating Tuesdays had been enough of an explanation for Sam's freaked-out behavior, at least enough that they'd stopped talking about the Mystery Spot and moved to the next case.

"What was the lesson?" Dean asked at last, still soft and unthreatening.

And this part needed heavy editing. The Trickster might have been right that Dean had been Sam's weakness and that all they had done to each other was cause pain, but that was past now. "The lesson," Sam said and smiled, allowing it to be just as bleak as he'd felt those six long, unreal months, "was not to fuck with the Trickster. So he sent me back half a year and my brother was alive—" with less than five months left until Hell for real, so it was still a nightmare, just another fucking reset with a longer fuse—"and we got our asses out of town. Exactly like we're going to do now."

Funny when he thought of it: with all the Tuesdays added on to the deal clock, and then Dean's messed-up head after Hell, he'd been living with a dying man for years. But Dean was in remission now and Sam planned to keep him that way.

Sam looked over at the corner of the room, where their duffels sat half-empty. "Please, Dean, I need you trust me on this." He wasn't sure he'd ever said that to Dean, not in his life.

"Okay," Dean said easily, like it was nothing to him, like Sam was the only thing that mattered, and Sam couldn't stop himself from turning and grabbing Dean's face with both hands, pulling him into a kiss. Dean only struggled to gentle it when Sam would have drawn blood.

They pulled apart when they heard the knock.

Sam nearly gagged with fear, but he stood, putting himself between Dean and the door. If it was the Trickster, not answering wasn't going to help. He waved Dean to sit down, though he saw Dean reach behind himself for a reassuring grip on his gun, and went to the peephole.

It was just the housekeeper with a cart full of linens. She was wearing a crisp grey and white uniform, nicer than Sam would have expected given the quality of the motel. She even had a little peaked white cap on her neatly pinned-up brown hair.

Sam opened the door a crack and smiled at her, relief making him dizzy enough that he hung onto the doorframe for balance. "Sorry, we don't need a cleanup, but we'd take some fresh towels."

"Are you sure?" she asked. "Because I heard that there were two very dirty boys in here."

"What?" Sam asked dumbly. "Listen—"

"Oh, Sam," she said, false fondness dripping from her voice, "you just go from bad to worse, don't you?"

"No," he said, denial and plea and desperate, hopeless prayer all at once.

She melted into the Trickster with the speed he recognized from before.

"Little pig, little pig, let me in, let me in," the Trickster cooed.

Sam backed up, because he didn't want to see the Trickster's version of the Big, Bad Wolf. He nearly stumbled into Dean, who caught him by the elbows, then stood shoulder to shoulder with him as the Trickster entered.

The motel door slammed behind the god, untouched.

"Please," Sam begged. "Just leave him alone."

The Trickster shook his head. "Oh, Sammy, you have been such a bad boy. I think Dean here deserves to know just who he's been living with all this time."

"What is he talking about? Sam?" Dean was confused, all his wariness still focused on the Trickster.

Sam gulped air. "He's the Trickster, Dean. He's just trying to cause trouble."

The Trickster grinned. "Yeah, Dean, whyever should you trust me and not Sam, the only friend you've ever known? See, your life, it's pretty good. There's only one problem. Or maybe it's not a problem. But it is an interesting factoid: Sam here knows who you are. He's known all along."

Dean jerked his head around, eyes widening in shock. "Sam?" he breathed.

The Trickster's smile disappeared, and now he was the grim monster Sam remembered from Florida. "But he's not going to tell you, is he? It got a little late for honesty, so he went for happiness instead. Understandable, totally. Forgivable? Who knows?" He examined the room. "You've got a really comfy setup here. Just like always. Well, mostly. Sam here has less use for his free porn site bookmarks these days." He went to where Sam's laptop was open on the side table and waved his hand. The screen lit up, showing pictures of men writhing together. The pictures looked a lot like Sam and Dean.

Dean raised his gun. "Tell me what you know."

Sam had never learned the trick of talking through his tears, so it took him a few tries to get the words out. "Don't, I'll do anything. Please."

"Would you like to remember your life, the way it was before that fairy jumped you? So crude, fairies." The Trickster's grin was scalpel-sharp. "They don't like to watch their tricks play out, the way I do."

Dean looked like he'd been shot, shocked and pale. His mouth parted, and Sam could tell that he was about to ask.

"I'll tell him!" Sam forced out. "Just don't, don't give his memories back—"

"Well," the Trickster said, sitting down in front of Sam's laptop and tipping the chair onto its back legs. He cupped his chin in one hand and blinked up at them. "This ought to be interesting. Hit him with your best shot, Sam-I-Am."

Sam had to take a couple of breaths and wipe at his running nose, but the Trickster was shifting impatiently. "You're my brother. Dean. You—some really bad stuff happened, things I've never told you, and you were messed up so bad. You were killing yourself. The fairy, it was a new start. You were, it was like night and day." He felt his face collapse, every muscle screaming.

Dean shook his head, more in confusion than in denial. "I—" He took a step backwards, the gun wavering towards the floor. "Your brother?"

Sam forced himself to nod.

Dean's face contorted. Sam couldn't look away; he knew every expression on that face: rage, fear, grief, self-hatred. "So, what, you let me stay like this so we could fuck without feeling guilty about it?"

The Trickster giggled.

"No, I swear," Sam put up his hands, and Dean retreated another step. "I never meant—that was never supposed to happen."

The Trickster leaned forward so that the front legs of his chair hit the ground with a thump. "Okay, Dean-O, you've heard the basics from dearest Sam. The East German judge gives it a five." He waited a second while they both gaped at him, then shook his head. "No appreciation for history. Fine. So, are you satisfied, Dean Winchester? Or do you want the hi-def version?"

Sam ached to grab on to Dean, but Dean wouldn't let him get within a yard. "Please, Dean. Whatever you think, it's not worth it. My—my brother, he wouldn't want those memories back."

Dean flinched. "Well," he said slowly, "your brother isn't here right now, is he."

"How very recursive," the Trickster said, and Sam wished for his powers back just so he could set the repulsive little demigod on fire, burn him up from the inside out. "So what's it gonna be? Forgive and forget, or remember and revenge? Fair warning: I reboot you, you're probably going to destroy yourself, maybe take little brother along with."

"Dean, don't. For you, not for me. Don't." Sam's voice sounded shredded in his own ears. He turned and addressed the Trickster, even though it was hopeless. "Don't let him remember Hell."

"Yes," Dean said, refusing to meet Sam's eyes. He must think Sam was being metaphorical. How could he think otherwise, with all Sam had hidden from him? "Give it to me."

The Trickster clapped his hands together. "I'm so glad you asked. Done."

Sam's "No!" felt ripped out of his guts. The world rippled, like an earthquake had struck.

Dean dropped to his knees and put his hands to his bowed head.

Then he screamed, fury and loss and despair mingling into a sound Sam had never heard him make, not even when he'd been stuck in nightmares. After that, the screams were replaced by sobs, brutal and tearing, and Sam didn't notice when the Trickster disappeared.

The crying eventually stopped, but Dean didn't get up from his crouch, curled in on himself like a caterpillar's abandoned chrysalis, shaking a little, fine tremors almost invisible to the eye.

The first necessary thing was to protect Dean from himself. Sam had the keys so Dean couldn't drive himself into a collision, and as for other methods he'd knock Dean out and tie him up if that's what it took. That wouldn't work long-term, but he'd figure something out. "Dean," he tried, low and careful, "tell me what's going on."

Dean stilled entirely, as if he'd been exposed to a Gorgon. Then he laughed, one bark that told Sam exactly how bad matters were.

"We'll work it out together," Sam said, wishing he sounded like he believed himself.

"Together," Dean said, making the word sound like a curse. "Sam and who?"

"You," Sam said, and this at least was true. "It was always you."

"You didn't want me." Dean's voice was steady, empty as the sky after a great storm. "You wanted someone else in a Dean suit." He stood up, slowly as a tomb door swinging closed, looking at his hands, his arms, as if they were new again.

"No," Sam managed, through a throat that felt squeezed shut. "I hated not having you remember me."
Dean snorted. "'Harder, please, yes,'" he imitated, like three quick headshots. "You got a funny idea about hate." He stalked over to the side of the room where their bags were piled and jerked his out from under Sam's, throwing it roughly on the bed.

Sam closed his eyes, then forced them open so that he could at least look like less of a coward. "I know I—I fucked up bad, so bad, but I didn't know how else to keep you alive."

"So you erased me? How is that any—" He didn't finish. Dean already had an idea of why Sam might like a brand new person in Dean's body better, and it had very little to do with sex and everything to do with sloppy, messy, needy Dean. Dean snorted, rich with contempt, and the worst of it was that Sam knew most of it wasn't aimed at him. "You must've loved teaching me all about hunting. You always were the smart one, right?"

Sam flinched, because there was too much truth in that. "It was still you," he attempted, his voice like an unpaved road. "The person you are, saving people, you were the same. Just—happier."

Dean swiveled and fixed him with a gaze like a throwing knife. "Thinking I was all alone in the world, no one cared enough to find me. And yeah, you know what? I was happier." He turned his back on Sam and started throwing dirty clothes in his bag, weapons jumbled in carelessly. He held his hand up for silence when Sam said his name, and the words dessicated in Sam's mouth.

But when he headed towards the door, Sam couldn't let him go. "Just tell me one thing," Sam managed. Dean stopped, his shoulders as rigid as a castle's defensive wall. "How is what I did worse than what you did to me? You sold your soul. You went to Hell and I begged a crossroads demon to swap places with you but I couldn't, it wouldn't take the deal." Dean turned at that, shocked even through his anger; Sam had never admitted that failed attempt before. "I wanted to be dead and in Hell, Dean. You did that to me. You did it to us. So, yeah, I did a selfish, bad thing because it hurt too much not to do it. I'm not the only one."

Dean's mouth trembled, tears standing in his eyes. "I did it because I didn't—I couldn't—But you, you couldn't live with me. Why didn't you just leave?" He dropped his bag and covered his face with his hands, bending over as if he wanted to shrink into himself and disappear.

Sam approached, barely daring to reach out, but Dean was in no condition to pull a weapon. He let his fingers brush Dean's shoulders, and Dean whimpered. Deciding, he crushed Dean to his chest, wrapping his arms around Dean's back so there'd have to be a struggle to get them apart. Dean crumpled like tin foil, all sharp edges and no strength behind them; his knees gave out and Sam bore them both down until they were kneeling, Dean's face hot and wet against Sam's throat.

"I couldn't save you," Sam managed through his own tears. "I tried so hard, and then you were back, but you were—and I couldn't do anything to help. When you lost your memories, it was like—I could save a part of you, at least. I'm sorry, Dean."

Dean jerked and clutched his fingers in Sam's shirt, digging in hard. "Sorry you lied, or sorry you got caught?" He waited a moment. "Yeah, that's what I thought." He shoved at Sam, but Sam wouldn't let him go, and Dean lacked leverage.

"It wouldn't have done any good, telling you things you didn't remember. It would just have hurt you," Sam insisted.

"I'm in love with you," Dean ground out, like each word was a mortal wound. "Your smile, your stupid hair, the way you eat, and I can't, I can't—"

Sam ran his hand up Dean's shuddering back, cupping the nape of Dean's neck in his palm, his skin prickling with the edges of Dean's hair. "Then it's all right," he said, relief rising in him like a tide. "I don't care how fucked-up it is, we can work it out, I love—"

Dean pulled away so fast Sam's hands stung. "Don't you say it," he warned, voice thick with rage, his lips curled in the defensive sneer Sam had tried to forget. "You're not in love with me, and you know how I know that? 'Cause you're in love with him. The guy who doesn't need three drinks before he can make himself go outside, the one who lets you pick the hunts and the diners and, oh yeah, whether you want me on my knees or on my back." He chuckled, like an engine throwing a rod. "I thought I was so fucking lucky you found me. You were—I thought we were perfect."

"I only wanted—I wanted you to be safe," Sam said, helpless. He reached out and put his hand on Dean's shoulder, the bone too fragile for all that it had endured but still there. "Dean," he whispered. "Let me help you."

Dean folded in on himself, hiding his face against his forearms, bowed down to the floor like he was reliving how he'd bowed in Hell.

If Dean still remembered what it had been like after the fairy whammied him, then he could be reminded what it felt like to be happy, to desire life and all its small victories. If Sam could call that back, he could keep Dean from falling down into his self-made pit.

Sam shuffled over so that he could curl around Dean, his chest against Dean's back, soaking in the fever-heat of him and feeling every trembling breath of Dean's transmitted directly to him. "I just want you to be okay," Sam said into the back of his neck, and they stayed like that, crouched over on the hard cheap carpet, until Dean's shudders slowed into exhausted sleep. Sam carried him to the bed, praying automatically and without faith in anything but Dean, and wrapped himself around his brother.

****

Sam flickered in and out of sleep, adrenaline stabbing him fully awake every half hour as he checked to make sure Dean was still there.

He'd told himself over and over that this was still Dean, that Dean's continued Dean-ness was obvious. Even when he'd let Dean seduce him, he'd counted it as sin on his side. But that hadn't been all the way true.

Before Sam had left for college, during that last fight with Dad, Dad had yelled that Sam was a hunter, not a civilian. Not a coward who hid from reality. Sam had screamed right back: "Don't tell me who I am!"

How'd the song go, cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon? For all his rebellion, Sam had ended up just like Dad in every way that mattered.

Dean didn't start awake from nightmares, which was something. Sam woke for good as soon as the light started to creep around the curtains. He saw no reason to move, not even to lift his hand from Dean's shoulder. There was a foul taste in his mouth and his throat ached like he'd been crying, but Dean was warm through his shirt and the sound of him breathing was like a lullaby. Dean's face was turned away from Sam, pressed into the pillow, and Sam could see a scattering of freckles where Dean's T-shirt had pulled away from his neck.

He needs a haircut, Sam thought. Dean had never kept his hair this long, before.

Sam watched Dean's back move, his exhalations loud and open-mouthed and so familiar that Sam thought maybe that sound, that basic noise of Dean living, was what had kept Sam from going completely crazy during the war of Heaven and Hell. He half expected Dean to sense the observation and wake, snappish and self-conscious, but Dean didn't react. If this was the last morning Sam was allowed with Dean, he was going to draw it out as long as possible.

The late-morning sun finally brought Dean to consciousness. Dean snuggled himself deeper into the sheets, wriggling his ass in a way that Sam couldn't help but find amusing, but that was just a prelude to Dean's reluctant groan. "Jesus, Sam, whyn't you get me up? It's gotta be—"

And like that, Sam saw him remember. Dean froze, every muscle tensing. Sam hesitantly moved his hand down Dean's arm, trying for reassurance.

Dean flinched, and Sam let go. They were both fully dressed, of course, and seeing Dean stretched out on the bedspread, still in his boots, his face creased with unease, was too much like all those mornings after Castiel dragged him out of Hell, back when Dean only slept when he was falling down with fatigue. Back when Sam had to wonder each morning whether Dean cared enough to try to make it through to the next day, when Sam's concern only infuriated him further.

"What I don't get," Dean began, "is why you didn't dump me somewhere. Was it so important for you to be the big man that you'd stick with hunting just to be one up on me? Or was it ever really hunting you hated at all?" The words came out scraped thin, like they had blood on them.

If Dean was still talking to him, there had to be hope. "I was trying—" Sam had to stop, because his voice was all screwed up. "I wanted to do the right thing for you. I hated what hunting did to us. But you were—without all the crap we never deserved, you were—" If he said "just right," it would break whatever pieces of Dean were left unshattered. "You weren't killing yourself any more."

A muscle twitched in Dean's cheek, his jaw tight. "You don't just get to pick the good stuff about me," he said.

"Okay," Sam acknowledged. Dean jerked in surprise, as if he'd expected Sam to fight back. "The thing is, Dean, you don't just get to pick the bad." Sam turned over and pushed himself up until he was leaning back against the headboard, not threatening but not about to let Dean get away, either. "If it's you in love with me, then it's you I love right back."

Dean's eyebrows raised and his mouth pursed as he tried to work through Sam's words. "That doesn't make any sense," he said automatically, and yeah, that was his brother talking.

Sam shook his head. "It makes perfect sense. You just don't want to admit that I'm right."

Sam reached out until his fingers nearly brushed Dean's cheek, though he wasn't courageous enough to bridge the last inch.

Dean was stone, but he didn't rear away from Sam's near-touch, and that was something. He just turned his head and studied his pillow as if it had dirty pictures printed on it.

"I don't know what you want from me," he said at last.

Sam almost smiled, because that was the easiest thing Dean could possibly have asked from him. Sam knew how to be greedy, especially when it came to Dean. "I want my brother and my partner, for as long as I can have him. I want to see you smile for real, and I want to know where in God's name you learned to play chess. And when it gets hard, I want to be there for you and I want to know you're going to be okay."

Dean didn't say anything for a minute, just took shuddering gulps of air. Sam could almost feel Dean's heartbeat, pounding unevenly, as if they were skin to skin. "I don't know if I can do that," Dean told the headboard, just as Sam had decided he needed to say more.

Sam held himself still. It was physically painful not to grab Dean, but he couldn't risk sending Dean into fight or flight mode; either one of those meant he'd lose. "Can you try?" he asked.

Dean breathed out like he'd been shot, wet and ragged. "Yeah. But—"

"What is it?" Sam prompted.

"I am so fucking mad at you right now." The admission itself seemed to help Dean center himself a little, steadying his shoulders and bringing his head up, though he wouldn't look at Sam. "I want to beat your face in and then I want to break every fucking mirror in this state. I don't—I didn't want what you did, but I don't know how—" His voice broke and he swallowed, loud.

"Yeah." Sam remembered, from when Dean had made his deal and from when Sam had been left alone. So furious that the self-hate had merged with the hatred of the world until it had seemed like there was nothing left of him but that vicious molten core, where hurting himself seemed like a fine idea because at least then he'd be sure that he was inflicting some pain. "It gets better."

"You really—" Dean stopped, groaned, and pushed himself upright at last, but Sam was no longer feeling the need to tackle him. He sat with his back to Sam, rolling his shoulders and knuckling his eyes. "You really think that's the same thing, my deal and you building yourself a better—guy?" Sam really, really didn't want to know what word Dean had substituted away from at the last second.

"Not the same thing," Sam said, wishing for a toothbrush and a cup of coffee and, why not, a couple of years of therapy before this conversation. "But it seemed like the best option at the time, and then—" And then, well, his initial falsehood had turned into a Ponzi scheme that needed to be fed with new lies to keep it going. Moving forward on momentum, harder to stop than to continue, even when—yeah, not thinking about that right now.

The back of Dean's head bobbed up and down, not in agreement but at least in partial understanding.

Eventually, his shoulders straightened. "I need food to do this. Fuck, I need bacon. Like, a pound of bacon and a cinnamon bun the size of Princess Leia's hair."

Sam knew he shouldn't, but the grin was uncontrollable. This was his Dean, hungry for everything. He'd given Dean enough time for Hell to fade some, and that was a triumph.

But Dean kept talking: "You know, if you wanted my ass that bad, you could've just used the goddamn love spell."

"Love spell?" Sam repeated automatically, his smile falling apart. Naturally Dean was going to pick the most awkward possible way to deal with the situation.

"The one in the journal," Dean said. "Ever heard anyone say, 'works like a fucking charm'? Like that." The back of his neck was flushed pink, anger or embarrassment or both.

Sam bit his lip and drew deep juddering breaths, his glee dispelled like a salt-shot ghost. "You never told me about that," he got out.

"You never asked." Dean's back was as stiff as the handle of a knife.

He cleared his throat. "I'm asking now."

"Peachy," Dean said, not moving. Sam got it: Dean didn't want Sam listening out of guilt. He wanted Sam cringing away from Dean's crassness, sticking his fingers in his ears at appropriate points to emphasize just how much he didn't want to hear. Maybe Dean didn't know that Sam had always been listening anyway, through the show; until he'd lost Dean's memories, Sam hadn't fully known himself.

Sam had to be the one to get them through this. Dean had enough work to do just remembering why life was better than death.

"Whatever you want to tell me, I want to hear." Dean didn't react, which Sam was willing to consider a good sign, since it wasn't a punch. "Wanna take some time off, go to Montana and play cowboys?" he suggested.

Dean half-turned. His face was still pink with sleep, his hair standing up in little spikes, and Sam's heart squeezed hard in his chest. Dean's lips closed, then parted again as he searched Sam's face. "You think I still—you think I want that?" It wasn't particularly hostile, more honestly curious. His shoulders were solid curves of muscle under his shirt, and Sam wanted to crawl over and touch him.

Sam shrugged. This was the key, the thing he'd been working out while he watched Dean sleep. "I think I spent way too much time deciding what you wanted, and now I want to be with you while you figure that out for yourself." There was always the chance that what Dean wanted was not to be with Sam, but Sam was pretty sure he could argue Dean out of that particular bit of insanity. As for the rest of it, well, that was the point after all: to find out.

Dean rubbed his hand over his mouth. "Okay," he said, and Sam felt the future open up again, maybe better this time. "Okay, Sammy."