“Hey honey I’m home!” Dean yells out as usual in his most sarcastic sing-song voice as he bangs in through the front door.
Sam cracks up like always, and answers just as sarcastically, “In here dear, go wash up for dinner; I’ll bring your high-ball in to you in the drawing room.”
Poking his head into the small kitchen Dean grins at his brother, just absurdly happy to see him up and around at this time of day. “Did you find the donuts I left for you?”
Struggling a little as he stands up slowly from the kitchen table Sam grins and points at his powdered-sugar coated lips, “Yeah, they were great.”
Dean’s eyes light up at the sight, he quickly comes in close gathering Sam in, licking all the sugar off, kissing him deeply and then sighing happily at how good his brother tastes with a little extra sugar added, “you save that for me Sammy?”
“Yeah, been sitting here for a half an hour trying not to lick it all off myself. Couldn’t even drink my damn coffee.” Sam laughs into Dean’s hair.
Dean breaks out of the embrace, but holds Sam up lightly around the waist, not wanting him to sit back down again, “Brought you something from work.”
“Using your discount again?”
“Yeah, use or lose it, right?”
“What is it this time?”
“Gotta go outside to see, c’mon.” Dean pulls him into the hallway, and puts his own coat back on.
Sam reluctantly pulls on his winter attire, boots, gloves, hat, scarf, giant puffy jacket that Dean never stops teasing him about. “You all bundled up good?” Dean helps him out the door and down the slick icy steps. “I cleared this off yesterday, and it’s all icy again. Remind me again why we stuck around in South Dakota?”
“Jody, remember her? What was it you said back then? ‘Sammy she’s like the only person left in the world who knows us, who knows our story, and she needs us.’”
Dean gets Sam safely to the Impala’s rear bumper where he can hold on for stability, “Yeah yeah, I know. Anyways, tada!” Dean hoists up the Impala trunk and there’s a huge bright red plastic cooler with all the manufacturer’s stickers plastered all over the lid and sides.
“What is it?” Sam asks.
“A cooler, ya dummy. Costco’s finest, there were a few left from summer in the back, my manager gave me an awesome deal. The old one was leaking on our last fishing trip remember?”
“Oh.” Sam says flatly, looking around almost frantically and not focusing on the new cooler in the trunk at all.
“I thought you’d be excited, you were bitching so much about your books getting wet because of the leak. It’s longer than the old one, should be enough room for those trout you’re always catching. And it’s red, you like red.”
“Yeah, I like red, and it’s great, no more leaks. Thanks Dean.” Sam says flatly, not with the happy voice that Dean was expecting.
“C’mon, what is it Sam, what’s wrong?”
“What’d you do with the old one?” Sam asks, with an insistence in his tone that almost but not quite worries Dean. Sometimes Sam gets obsessed or stuck on things these days and it usually starts like this.
“It’s out next to the garbage at the curb.” Dean answers, hoping that’s the end of it, but knowing it probably isn’t.
With a funny look that’s not quite a smile Sam requests, “Can you bring it to the backyard and put it up on the deck for me?”
“Sure, I guess. What do you want with that old thing?” Dean cocks his head to the side, imitating Sam’s usual gesture, and shrugs, knowing he won’t get a straight answer out of his brother for a while yet.
Sam doesn’t answer, just gives Dean one of those un-ignorable looks that tells him just-do-it-please, and turns to begin walking slowly and carefully with his cane for support back into the house once he sees Dean’s headed towards their backyard with the old beat-up, green cooler.
When Dean’s gone at work the next day, Sam bundles up again and heads out to their little deck in the back that overlooks his sad looking winter ruined garden. He brushes snow off one of the plastic chairs and slowly sits down, pulling the old cooler closer with his uninjured foot. Taking off a glove he traces their initials carved in the painted metal top.
S.W. and a larger D.W. carved in, with the + added on later in-between after they’d finally been brave enough to be honest with each other.
Sam’s taken back to that night; the cooler had been emptied of all the beer by then, and the sub sandwiches they’d shared in between bouts of what now seems like athletic sex long gone. Dean had whipped out his knife and carved the plus sign there on the cooler lid, like a promise when the green metallic paint flaked off down onto Sam’s bare leg. Dean had leaned over and blown the paint flakes off, tickling his leg hairs and making Sam laugh. That small symbol between their initials making them into a single unit instead of two pieces that could always come apart.
Sam remembers that this cooler has been everywhere with them, through the fire, the apocalypse, his soul-lessness, the Leviathan, Dean’s absence in Purgatory. It had always been there, just like the Impala. A mass-produced metallic witness to their unique and blazing love story over all these long years. It was even there on their final hunt ten years ago, when Sam’s foot was reduced to a useless, flopping bag of bone shards at the end of his leg.
Of course Dean’s gesture of buying a brand-new cooler is sweet, especially that he thought of the color and Sam’s books getting wet, and the fish not ever fitting. But suddenly Sam realizes that he’s going to miss using this old thing that’s served them both so well. It’s been around as long as he can remember, hell it might have even come with the Impala for all he knows. But things get old, they stop being useful, and then they get thrown away. He tries not to take this personally, he really does, and he knows it’s stupid, but he finds himself identifying way too much with the damn cooler. It’s way too easy for Dean to just toss it and forget all about it, replace it with a better looking, and functional model.
It’s just a little after dusk when Dean comes home to an empty, darkened house and feels his body flood with cold dread and instant blinding panic. He hollers out “Saaaammm!” hoping against hope that Sam’s just fallen asleep somewhere, and just not gotten up to turn on the lights, it did just get dark after all. But then he hears a far away sounding “out here Dean.” He finds Sam out on the back deck, sitting in one of their crappy plastic chairs, shivering and blue-lipped.
“What the hell are you doin’ out here?” Dean demands relieved and still concerned all at once.
“Just came out to say goodbye, lost track of time, ‘m sorry.” Sam answers, not really focusing on Dean’s face so he misses the intense look of worry that passes over his features.
“No sorries, just, c’mon, get inside; we gotta warm you up Sammy.”
“I’m okay Dean.” Sam growls as Dean’s roughly patting his face with his gloved hands.
“No you’re not; your lips are fucking blue. What the hell were you thinking? You can’t fucking do this stuff when I’m gone Sam!” Dean yells, so frustrated and scared that his brother has endangered himself again; the memory loss issues are getting worse every month it seems like.
“I know, I said I was sorry.” Sam protests weakly, knowing he’s really screwed up. Again.
“I know you are, can we just get you back inside please.” Dean reaches down and hoists Sam up out of the chair, taking most of his brother’s weight.
“Dean, you can’t throw it out.” Sam says, sounding a little delirious as he’s draped over Dean’s shoulder.
“Okay okay,’ c’mon Sasquatch let’s go.” Dean pulls a reluctant and slow Sam back inside, settling him on the couch near their fireplace which they haven’t used yet this winter. He whips out his lighter and starts the wood going that’s been waiting in the hearth for months. Sam’s just sitting there staring into the small orange flames, no expression, no sounds coming out of him. “You okay Sammy?” Dean asks as he folds the quilt Jody made for them, all around Sam, covering as much of him up as possible.
Sam startles out of his fugue and comes back to the present, “yeah ’m okay now, thanks.”
“I’m gonna make you some tea, stay there and get warm.” Dean commands on his way back into the kitchen.
All Sam can think about is that night with Dean carving on the cooler lid, and how terrified they’d both been of changing everything between them, giving in to what seemed like a lifetime of postponed desire. When Dean comes back in with tea and a microwave heating pad for his foot, Sam’s more than warmed up again just from the memory. He’d be great except the pain in his foot is making itself known again, but he wants to tell Dean before he forgets. “Dean, you remember that night with the cooler?”
“What cooler, the old one?” Dean asks, moving Kilgore their enormous Maine Coon cat off Sam’s lap, settling down on the couch and getting under the quilt with him. Kilgore jumps up to the back of the couch and settles near Sam’s shoulder away from Dean, who he favors with a disdainful look.
Sam takes Dean’s hands in his under the blanket, stealing the warmth from him and thrilling to the zing of connection that he still feels at touching his brother’s work-roughened palms, “Yeah, remember we drank all the beer and you carved the plus sign?”
“Uh huh, that’s a long time ago, how the hell do you remember something like that when you can’t remember to feed Kilgore on a daily basis?”
“Different part of the brain, short term versus long term memory. Anyways, Dean, don’t you remember that night, what it meant, why I’d never forget it?” Sam asks, practically begging with his eyes. It can’t just be something he made up, it’s one of his very favorite memories, and Dean’s got to remember it too.
Dean searches Sam’s face more closely because he’s starting to sound a little on the edge of panic, racking his brains for what Sam could be talking about, he thinks about the cooler, and the SW + DW that’s been carved in the top forever, and it was that one night, that first night when it all changed. He smiles at Sam, so full-watt, you could grow plants indoor by it, and answers him, “Yeah, of course I do Sammy, that was our first time together.”
The sigh of relief that Sam lets out might be a little insulting to Dean, but he doesn’t say anything, just scoots over closer to Sam, getting his arm around his shoulders and pulling him in tight. “What’s this really about?”
“The cooler, the old one, you can’t throw it away, promise me.” Sam says earnestly.
Dean pats his shoulder gently, trying to calm him down a little, “Of course, okay, calm down, can you explain it a little more than that for me? I feel like I’m really missing something here.”
“It’s the only thing we have like that, and I’d like to be able to see it now and then, we don’t need to use it on trips or anything, the new one will be great for that. I guess it’ll probably sound dumb, but that and the Impala are just about all we have that’s got our history marked on it.”
“I didn’t think of it like that, sure of course we can keep it. You want to have it outside or inside?”
“I’d like it somewhere I’ll see it all the time.” Sam answers, he knows he’s being vague, but Dean doesn’t seem to mind that he keeps making demands like this.
Since Sam has practically turned into an agoraphobic, only venturing outdoors when he has to chase Kilgore down or Dean makes him go somewhere, Dean realizes that Sam of course wants the cooler to be inside the house. “Okay, so inside. How about you use it as a side table for your spot on the couch?”
“I can store all the Kilgore things in there, so you’re not tripping on them all the time.”
“Sam you know I don’t need to hear a reason beyond you want to keep it right?”
“I just hate feeling like I’m demanding everything be my way all the time like I used to.”
Dean sits back a little and removes his arm from around Sam’s shoulders, using his hand to gently turn his face towards him so he can see his eyes, “Sam, wouldja cut it out? I don’t see it that way at all. I ask for stuff, you ask for stuff. Isn’t that how we grownups are supposed to work stuff out?”
“When did you turn into a grownup? Pretty sure you were supposed to ask me first.” Sam shakes the hand off his face irritated that Dean's practically petting him.
“Bobby always told me it’d happen when I’d least expect it.” Dean answers, reaching over behind Sam to scratch Kilgore’s ears the way he likes it.
“Well, I’m glad I’m still around to finally see the day.”
“Me too.” Dean says simply, not wanting to add anything else to that. Because what else can he say really? If Sam wasn’t still alive and here, well, he wouldn’t be either, that’s just the way it is with them. They sit under the quilt, still holding hands, both looking into the now blazing fire.
Sam interrupts the silence, “I forgot to make dinner…again.”
“Like I care about that right now.”
“Wish it wasn’t like this. Forgetting shit all the time. I hate it.” Sam says with such a sound of defeat that it makes Dean’s stomach contract with a wrenching pain that after everything, Sam’s got to deal with his memory being screwed up.
“I know Sammy, it sucks. I’m here though; you’re not forgetting me right?”
“Never. Not ever Dean. No way.” Sam answers fervently, holding on so tight to his brother’s hand that he sees Dean almost wince.
“Good, you’d better not. Now how about I order us some pizza?” Dean asks, whipping out his cell phone with the hand that he’d been petting Kilgore with; he dials one handed just outside the blanket where they’re so warm together. Sam nods, thinking that pizza sounds good, and that he’s not going to let himself feel guilty for forgetting about making dinner.
“How long until they get here do you think?” Sam asks as Dean hangs up and throws the phone down on the coffee table.
“Given the snow, probably more than the usual twenty minutes, why?”
“Just wanted to see if you’d want to keep doing this until then.”
“What? Sit here under the blanket with you watching the fire in our dark house?”
“Thought we could do this too, if you don’t mind,” Sam leans over and brushes his lips softly over Dean’s surprised mouth. Dean responds by deepening the kiss, pulling Sam in even closer.
“Don’t mind at all when you put it that way.” Dean murmurs into the skin behind Sam’s ear where he’s busy sucking a new red mark just where Sam always likes it. One of the good things about being with the same person for so many years is that you’ve got a roadmap, with all the best spots to stop already marked so you won’t miss any of the good stuff.
They kiss for a while, getting pretty hot and heavy, just like always, but Sam seems to be trying extra hard for some reason. Before Dean gets a chance to stop his brother and ask what’s really bothering him, the pizza delivery guy arrives, with the side order of chocolate chip cookie dough he ordered just because he knows Sam will love the surprise. Dean detours into the kitchen, so he can get the cookies popped into the oven without him seeing, and yells to Sam, “You want a beer with your pizza?”
“No, just water please.” Sam hollers back. And Dean’s happy to hear that tone of voice, Sam sounds like he’s back on an even keel again, not desperate and worrying about coolers of all things. Arranging plates and napkins on top of the pizza box and grabbing a glass of water and a beer with the other, Dean comes back into the living room and stops in his tracks. Sam’s taken his shirt off and is lying there spread out on the couch where Dean had left him in mid-kiss, just staring into the fire, a small smile lifting just the corners of his lips. Once again Dean offers up his feeble version of thanks and prayers to whatever gods and or goddesses that are listening that he’s still here, with Sam, no matter how old or messed-up they are. He recovers himself and sets everything down on the coffee table, knowing that Sam’s now watching him closely instead of the fire.
Sam pulls him in, running his hands up and down Dean’s back and sides, nuzzling his head into Dean’s neck, breathing him in deeply, and then going limp in his arms, as if the plug’s been pulled. Dean lays him back down onto the couch and looks at his brother’s shuttered face with deep worry, this is still about whatever’s been bugging Sam since the whole cooler thing. Dean caresses the side of Sam’s face and down his neck, gripping at his shoulder, kneading gently until Sam finally looks at him.
“I don’t know why you put up with all of my shit anymore. Sometimes I just think you’d be better off with someone that was functional.”
“Sammy you’re not just some hunk of metal, I could never replace you, don’t you know that?”
“I do, Dean, guess I just forget, like everything else these days. Sometimes I can’t believe you’re really still here.”
“Where else would I be Sammy?”
“Nowhere, that’s not really what I mean, it’s just, you know I get a little lost and I’m not sure anymore.”
“Is this the ‘you wondering if this is real thing’, is that happening to you again?”
“Never really stopped happening, I just gave up fighting it. But no matter how lost I get, I always feel you here with me.” Sam presses on his chest right below his tattoo, right over his still-beating heart. Dean leans over and worms his hand under Sam’s so he can feel that steady rhythm, always amazed too that in the face of everything, his brother is still going.
“I feel that too, always did, even when we were apart, that’s ‘cause we’re soul-mates.” Dean says quietly.
Sam’s eyes change into something else as he hears Dean’s words, becoming pools of depthless memory, he never forgets, not really. “Oh I know , there’s no way that ends, Winchesterland remember?”
“Hah, yeah, of course. Ash was right you know. We are a special case. I’m glad we have that to look forward to you know? Not that I want to stop living now, but when it’s all over I’m glad I know where we’re going, and that we’ll be there together.”
“Me too, all of that keeps me going, but I’m still sorry you have to deal with all of my dysfunction. I wish I could be better for you.”
“Listen to me, yeah you’ve got your issues, and man I’ve got mine too, but none of that really matters in the end, you get it? Soul-mates aren’t supposed to give up on each other because it gets a little challenging. That ain’t ever happenin’ Sam, you are stuck with me dude.”
“Yeah, yeah I know, you’re the stubbornest s.o.b. I’ve ever known, and I’ll never forget it I swear.”
“Good, now let’s eat this pizza.” They dig in simultaneously, practically inhaling the still-warm pizza, chewing their way through all the toppings that Dean always insists on ordering even though he’d rather just have meat and cheese. They share the beer that Dean brought out, Sam downing most of it and grinning with the last of the foam on his lips. Dean leans over and has to lick that off thoroughly. The pizza’s almost gone when the oven dings in the kitchen and Sam smiles widely through his last mouth-full. “Oh Dean, you didn’t.”
“Oh yes I did. Hold on one sec.” Dean jumps up and strides into the kitchen; bangs around with the cookie sheet and returns soon with a plate-full of cookies balanced on a cup of milk.
Sam bites into one of the cookies and groans with such satisfaction Dean’s almost jealous until he hears Sam say, “I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta say it. You’re the best.”
“Don’t you ever forget it.” Dean says with a proud smile on his face.
“How did I get so lucky?” Sam looks at him with a wondering happy smile.
Dean shakes his head, embarrassed beyond anything for the millionth time, “Brother, for you to say that, it really tells me how messed in the head you are.”
“No, I mean, I’m just so damned happy right now. Yeah, I can’t really walk too well, and my memory’s shot to hell, but you’re here, loving me like this and it just couldn’t be better.”
“God, good thing I didn’t give you a whole beer.” Dean scoffs, knowing it’s useless that Sam’s on a sharing caring bender and there’s no way to stop it.
“Seriously Dean, all of it, the soul-mate thing, even the damn cooler. You get me, you really do, and I get you and we’re in this together and I’m just feeling damn lucky about it. Call me a girl if you have to, but I mean it.”
“Geeze, if all I had to do was get you cookies on top of pizza, I woulda done it ages ago.” Dean says, helplessly caught up in the feeling of rightness, and yeah, (fuck yeah they sure as hell deserve it), happiness.
“Shut up. You did it like last week.” Sam grins, seeing that his brother has accepted all the sappiness without his usual level of bitching, which means he really heard him this time thank god.
“See you do remember.” Deans retorts, stuffing another warm cookie into his mouth so that he won’t say anything to match Sam’s chick-flick worthy dialogue. At least he knows since his soul mate will be there with him always, he knows he has all the time in the world to say everything he never seems to be able to say. Someday he will and won’t Sam be surprised…