Leave the gun on the table, this has nothing to do with happiness.
Lisa accommodates his books and tools but when he wants to leave the trunk full of guns in their garage, locked away, she says no. If there are going to be guns she's going to know where the key is, and if he's going to keep using them then she's going to know how to use them too.
It's the hardest thing to let her in, because everything in Dean is urging him to protect her by keeping her away from the hunting life. It's terribly reasoned but he wants out, out of fear, out of responsibility for losing someone else.
He can't keep himself out of the life though, and when he comes in one morning before dawn, bruised around the ribs and face from investigating an angry spirit, Lisa is waiting for him at the kitchen table with coffee. It's clear she hasn't slept.
"You need to let me in," she says, for the first time insisting.
"Yeah," he says, and pours himself a cup. Lisa doesn't insist on small things. "You want to help me dig up a body tonight?"
A year in and at the peak of his alcoholism, Dean lost three fingers and gained a scratch across one eye that left him half-blind and grim-looking. That was the end of his drinking. The night before that, he’d sat at a dead bar, going through his research, going through his journal, not writing anything down, just reading and storing up inside his head, feeling the ache of years past. Drinking never numbs him anymore, only brings back the pain he thought he was numbing years ago. The eternal return, he dry-laughed to no one, as though what little reprieve he once found was just prolonging the inevitable, trading in that pain for, say, ten years, and then getting it back forever the rest of his life.
He knows that’s not the eternal return. Sam once went on about it when they were drunk years and years ago, after Dean had picked him up from Stanford, after Jess had died. Dean hated to hear him say it – how after Jess died he only went on to avenge her, couldn't even find joy in being alive, knowing she was dead and that he could have done something. If life was not worth living over and over again into eternity, and this life certainly wasn't, then was it worth going on at all? Was it worth praying to the great beyond if he knew by doing so he'd indebted himself to going there, to paying homage? He wanted everything to be over, and if he wanted it over now, well then what was going to stop him from ending it then?
That was when Dean slugged him, and it wasn’t the best decision either of them made, but after Sam swung back Dean was at a loss. Couldn’t hit him again, just held Sam down in the gravel lot of the bar, knuckles sore and raw from Sam’s face and the ground. They struggled there, Sam to get up, to hit Dean again, Dean to keep Sam down, covering Sam’s body with his own. Dean wouldn't kiss him there, but it was the first time since Sam got back in the Impala with him after Stanford that it felt like a possibility, like something that could really happen between them again, if he could hold Sam here, if he could hold him down and think of kissing him and not do it. Not yet. But eventually they got up.
It was the closest they got that year to comfort while Sam was conscious, and Dean never asked the next day how drunk he was, if he remembered, what he remembered.
Now Dean knows, a bit, how Sam felt.
Dean doesn’t want eternity, hasn't for a long time. He wants finity. He wants a magic number. He wants this to be intermission; he wants a clock somewhere to be ticking down since the second Sam took the leap into the pit, zeroing in on the next act in their life. Their life together. Dean’s life is in stasis and he can’t yet accept that. He can hardly call it living, but he has to, it is some kind of living, even if he can’t understand why he goes on and on. Even now everything that happens should hurt more than it does.
So Dean drank to memory that night, invoking his phantom pains, and when he couldn't take it anymore he went on that hunt for the poltergeist in the house and didn't come back the same.
- — -
He emerges from the gorge in spring, the surrounding trees long bent with snow straightening: spring, the graveyard of frost. The headstones and the sky are bone-white, nothing innocent, not quite a blank slate. Sam knows his name but there are many other things, just bubbling under the surface, if he can get them out.
Sam has the charms – a name he repeats like the first letter in the alphabet, hopes if he says it enough without thinking too hard the rest will follow in a fit of instinct. It's not his own name. His own name can't be a safe word or a synonym for blood. He's got someone else to call. “Sam” is the name he listens for, “Dean” is the name he wants to call, the name of something he's looking for, the need he feels inside him.
Born out of a graveyard ditch, a grown man with a mystery life, Sam has an excuse for magical thinking.
He passes off his assumed given name as his given name, figuring he knows so little about what he wants that he might as well grab it, secure the opportunity, get a foothold of identity in the world.
He gets a job to go with his pocket full of IDs, the only paper trail he’d have laid and none of the names his. Sam is a butcher, a meat-packer, an overgrown (he laughs, and it's someone else's laugh) organ-grinder. His single worn-in outfit, which he hangs onto, doesn’t wear anymore except late at night when he puts it on all together and looks at himself in the mirror and holds his breath and repeats the names, all the names, but especially the name Dean.
Sam has a mental catalogue of knives.
Sam knows the scent of blood in his nose and figures this butcher shop is probably the right place to be, right now.
He has all these things that could be clues, could lead him to answers, but he realizes the only answer he’s interested in is Dean. He feels the shape of the name in his mouth, rolls it around, swallows it and holds it inside. It’s not an answer yet. It will be.
- — -
Lisa takes to hunting, really takes, and once Dean’s eye is scratched blind he’s the one hanging back at home. He works on his cooking, works on his reading.
When she comes home he’s passed out with his face on a newspaper, the newsprint bled onto his skin. She laughs when he lifts his head. Dean lets her caress the stubs on his hand, some metaphor for all the years that she’s allowed him to sip from her cups, allowed grief to pass her threshhold and share her bed.
It’s a wonder, Dean thinks, that he’s scarred up from this, without dying. He never felt strong about his words, and now finds strength in speaking little, making his gestures. Pancakes and engine-tune-up lessons for Ben. There are pieces of himself he’d give and has given, to bring Sam back, in years past. He doesn’t have to carve out chunks for Ben and Lisa. He finished up the old game, he made it to the afterlife, a world with other rules. He's still feeling them out.
- — -
We have not been given all the words necessary.
Sam wonders what kind of person he is, that he hotwires a car by instinct, that he’s a giant who feels like hiding in something inconspicuous but gravitates toward choosing flashy or rustbucket classics. A remnant of childhood, it must be, or maybe only a fragment of memory in a broken mind, one that preserves what it will regardless of significance.
He figures out quick that his way of reading the world holds one key. He finds himself circling mysteries in the papers, missing persons, and at first he thinks it's because he himself must be a missing person, and that he's just looking for the ad or article telling him who he is, but it's these other mysteries that grab him.
Then one day in a gas station in Oregon, the island service worker's eyes turn black and it reaches in his open window, grabbing the arm outstretched with a stranger's credit card, and goes for Sam's throat. Sam moves instinctually to fight and Latin comes flooding from his lips: Exorcizamusteomnisimmundusspiritusomnissatanicapotestas - He has an iron grip and won't let go.
As the sulphurous smoke gushes past his face, Sam has the biggest flash of memory and insight he'll ever have. He sees this guide to the magical, monstrous world unfurl in his mind, and now recognizes the pieces before him, his habits that have been conditioned by a life fighting monsters. His long habits of looking out for peculiar dangers, not to him but to others, and the urge to follow the trail instead of running away.
Sam drives straight the rest of the way to the border till he's far away from the demon gas station. He stops when he's on empty again, and buys the largest container of salt they have, an atlas of the lower forty-eight, three long-blade hunting knives. He'll look at them in the car and bring them into the motel that night, imagine that he’ll somehow dig home out of his skin.
He runs his fingertips over the knives and over his collarbone, lifts them higher and there it is, familiar. He grins. His fingers leave red streaks around his throat and it’s like being held close and warm by a blood ghost. He wants, suddenly, Dean, his hands no longer an afterthought. He grins in yearning, looking for another grin.
There's an empty space next to him in the Taurus. He makes it in the shape of everything he needs, and calls it Dean, the only name he has.
- — -
In a fit of grief, Dean threw every photo he – he and Sam – had kept over the years in a box in the Impala into the sink and thrown a match in there with them. He doesn't see Lisa behind him, can't have heard her come in through the roaring in his ears, but she reaches around him to turn the tap on quick.
He shouts in surprise and indignation, but she looks at him reproachfully, scoops the photos up quickly and carries them with her to another part of the house.
Dean finds them days later back in the box he took them from, charred and water-warped but dry. Some are burnt beyond recognition but still there, some he can see Sam's shoulder and hair and Dean's thumb half over the lens, the rest obliterated. He finds the one that is Sam’s 15-year-old face, when he started high school and the last year before his belated growth spurt, picture taken surreptitiously with a near-dead disposable camera found in an accident-report car kit. There were pictures of Dean too, which Sam had kept. Dean threw those away. Now it's just Sam and Dean's blurry thumb. Young, still looks like a kid, but already the one driving Dean crazy.
He'll lock them up but won't try to burn them again, and seeing them again, the decision to keep them around for certain, hurts but in a way that he's decided is good, because Lisa is good to him in ways that he can't be good to himself.
- — -
Sam writes himself a story: seven years of searching to come back home.
Their eyes aren’t on the clock or calendar. These aren’t a literal seven years. It’s Biblical, it’s legendary, it’s seven days for the dove to return to the ark, it’s the creation myth for slower creatures than God himself. Sam hunts and butchers like it's a calling, a promise that'll bring him home. But he doesn't sleep well, and he doesn't dream. He's left less and less satisfied by the butchering and burning, keeps looking for monsters hoping to find people. The promise still unfulfilled, the road running out of lullabies.
While sleepless one night he drives up into the desert mountains above Bakersfield, California. He doesn’t know what he's looking for, but lets the urge guide him to pull off down a side road and go on for another mile or so. When he can't hear the traffic he stops and gets out to sit on the hood, and turns his face up to look at the stars, which he can see in thousands now, above the smog of the city.
He falls asleep somehow, despite the discomfort, and finally dreams.
Here is the repeated image of the lover destroyed. Crossed out. Clumsy hands in a dark room. Crossed out. There is something underneath the floorboards. Crossed out. And here is the tabernacle, reconstructed.
You see it as a room, a tabernacle, the dark hotel. You're in the hallway again and you open the door, and if you're ready you'll see it, but maybe one part of your mind decides that the other parts aren't ready, and then you don't remember where you've been, and you find yourself down the hall again, the lights gone dim as the left hand sings the right hand back to sleep. It's a puzzle: each piece, each room, each time you put your hand to the knob, your mouth to the hand, your ear to the wound that whispers.
You're in the hallway again. The radio is playing your favorite song. You're in the hallway. Open the door again. Open the door.
He jolts awake. "Rock of Ages" is playing from his car radio, though he's still on the hood, though the car is off. Something must have shorted with this hotwire job.
He has to sit there, letting the empty waiting in the dream soak into him as if it were substance. The floorboards, the hallways – he feels with his mind for the shapes of the absences that haunt him. He grasps for that face and its contours. The music brings a sense of immediacy, as if there's a message there he should be listening to, as if there is someone there next to him trying to tell him something. This is the first moment of magic in Sam's life since he rediscovered hunting. Nigh on seven years.
That night the calling to endlessly hunt lets him go, like a curse lifting, or beginning.
When he gets a call the next day, a tip-off near the job he was heading towards who wants to meet him down in the desert, he nearly refuses. But something about last night urges him on. This could be it. The last rung.
So he goes to meet his desert oracle.
- — -
Dean writes himself a story: seven years of payment till he’ll have earned Sam back.
Years after he started sleeping through the night in Lisa's bed at last, Dean begins to wake up night after night, a dreamlike urgency making him look for a shadow falling over the bed, someone standing over him, someone there. He hopes, he's afraid, for Castiel or Sam or a demon, but there’s no one there. Lisa is there, when she's not hunting, and Ben is in bed. The house is quiet. His phantom fingers itch.
He starts to ask Lisa if she'd like any backup, and Lisa, seeing that he's restless, says she could use an extra eye. She winks. Dean laughs. He starts hunting with her again, and it feels good, so good he regrets the years he spent away, so good he's afraid it means he hasn't changed as much as he'd hoped.
One day doing recon on a grave site, he finds the ground opened up, with a pile of burned bones at the bottom. He shivers, wonders who’s been there already, runs back to his car in a rush of adrenaline blotting out the pain in his knee, but no one is there, no one to be seen or heard.
There’s a date and a name written across the back of the Polaroid Dean takes to bed.
- — -
If we wanted to tell you everything, we would leave more footprints in the snow or kiss you harder. One thing. Come closer.
When Sam recognizes Dean he can't be surprised by anything the man does, so when he gets a punch in the mouth it's as welcome as a kiss, though it hurts a hell of a lot more.
He says it when Dean balls up a shirt and hands it to him, to staunch the bleeding. Dean doesn't wince or flinch, but rubs his face, his hand over his mouth. Sam recognizes the gesture as well as the heat in his own belly.
"I made up stories about you," he says into the coat, and Dean stares at him, hand still over his mouth.
"I invented you out of a name and guesses." Dean sits then and Sam expects to hear him say, That's enough, or, let's get out of here, or, where can I drop you off. But he doesn't say anything.
There's a niche in Sam's chest, one he's been excavating so long he's afraid he's invented most of it. But here he is, the Dean he's hoped so desperately for dreams of, the mouth that he can imagine or remember grinning, the lips he can imagine or remember kissing.
He feels a certain certainty. Not as if something is objectively true, not a memory that arises within him, but a self-awareness, of what is necessary, intrinsic. Sam isn't seven years of blank slate, but he is seven years of readiness. It's too late to tell himself that Dean isn't the answer to everything, because now he knows the point is moot; they are not normal, they are the whole world.
"You were my brother. We processed meat together, or hunted together. You were my boyfriend. I pretended you were all of them because I didn't want anything less. I stuffed it all into Dean, into you, the only name I remembered, and hoped like hell –" Sam chokes on the word. He remembers some of Hell. "I hoped it was true because I knew it was you, you were it, you were all I had."
Dean fidgets. Sam doesn't want to hear him confirm or deny.
"I had this dream," and it wasn't a lie, it was the only dream Sam had, recurring for a month now, maybe before but he didn't remember. "I had this dream where I kept trying to take your picture with this disposable camera. We were kids, teenagers maybe, in a grungy old house or motel together. Dad was gone. I couldn’t get a picture of you because you wouldn't look at me, I couldn’t see your face. Then when I got close enough you just –"
Sam doesn't know who kisses first. He doesn't ask if it's always been like this, blood in their mouths and flesh between their teeth. If these are unusual circumstances or if this is a lifelong hunger. When they pull back for breath and to nurse their wounds, Sam sees Dean's eyes wide and pupils blown, overlapping fear and desire.
- — -
Parts of Dean he thought were dead. Other parts were still only waiting for something to happen, and as Sam comes close before Dean's dead eye, the ghost of his image haunting Dean's brain is finally merged with reality and completed. Like a Magic Eye picture coming together. Dean is seeing with full sight again, but it's only Sam he can see this way, and the two Sams are not exactly the same. Older Sam, younger Sam. His Sam, this other Sam, seven-years-later Sam.
Sam, kissing him, too close to focus on.
Dean can't get much out of him about what he does remember. Sam won't want to spill his whole imagined history of theirs, since it has no base in reality, but Dean doesn't know why reality would matter. He's the one afraid now. He's the one who's been left without his brother by every power in the universe which he feels owed him this ages ago. He'd like to think. It would have been better for everyone. It shouldn't have been this way, putting upon Lisa till they grew together, inserting himself the drunk grieving madman into their lives, while Sam wasn't apart and alone by choice but only because he didn't know otherwise.
The universe doesn't owe Dean shit.
Maybe it did have to be this way.
And yet, when he asks Sam where to, Sam says, "Was thinking we'd go stargazing," and it's the sweetest punch in the gut Dean's felt. Sam sounds like he's joking but he's looking up, eyes bright in this way that synced up exactly with the young Sam floating in Dean's blind eye. "We used to do that, didn't we," Sam says.
Dean's mouth is still open. He takes a wet breath in that rattles his lungs. "I was thinking maybe I could take you home."
- — -
Sam's been breathing in blood for seven years. He imagined that that was who he was but it's not necessary; now he's tired, now he doesn't know what he wants. Any touch will do.
"It's the same blood," he says, wondering at it, at the fact that the blood itself is so much less than the meaning they give it. Did he expect it to change?
"Always was," Dean says. Sam meets his eyes in the rearview. "Will be."
Blood doesn't remember. Blood just goes on. Blood is life and pain, blood is what they have in common, but when Dean pulls onto the side of the road, Sam reaches over the seat for Dean's face because he wants more. He wants a love that transcends hunger, but he doesn't know if he has it in him. He's not used to this. He only knows how to hope for it.
Dean's looking back at him, no longer in anger. Sam's hand cups his cheek and Dean's eyes half-close, and Dean hauls him in by his shirt. Sam falls towards him with his entire body. They fit together in a way that makes their knees weak, mouths soft and teeth hard, hands holding on to dear life, and that's it, game over.
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.