The first time that Sam Winchester fell in love, it was perfect. Romantic dinners, dates in the park, studying together late at night, all of the things he thought it would be. Jess was perfect, loved roses and getting dressed up and holding his arm when they were out. Falling in love with her had been gradual, from sitting behind her in class, watching the way her hair used to escape her sloppy bun when she got excited, until they finally moved in together and he made love to her on the floor of their living room, their kitchen, fell asleep beside her every night.
The second time that Sam Winchester falls in love, it’s sudden, abrupt. There are no roses and Sam’s been wearing the same t-shirt for a solid week. He won’t realize what has happened for months.
It goes like this:
Bobby’s house is cold in the early mornings, but as soon as the sun gets over the horizon it heats up fast. The house and yard are full of metal, useless car parts and hubcaps, and they catch the light and turn Bobby’s junkyard into a glittering, blinding wasteland. The gleam worms its way into every room in the house, throwing refracted sunlight on the ceilings that shift and glimmer as though they’re living underwater.
Dean is washing dishes. The water’s turned on too hot and Sam sits at the kitchen table and watches the skin on his brother’s forearms turn lobster pink. They’re not talking, but Dean hasn’t done a lot of talking lately, and Sam doesn’t feel too awkward about it. He’s sweaty from his run and just beginning to be aware of the fact that he hasn’t changed his shirt for a week and he’s probably soaked it through with sweat at least twice.
The sunlight picks out the short hairs on the back of Dean’s neck, the dark shadow of stubble on his cheeks. He holds up a plate and squints at it, rubs a broad thumb over its surface, plunges it back into the water and scrubs. There’s soap caught in the hair on his arms and everything smells faintly like lemon and scrambled eggs. The rest of Bobby’s house smells like the house of every one of Dad’s friends, like musty books and liquor, so the change is nice. It stirs up scent memories in Sam’s brain, the grungy, two bedroom rentals that populated his childhood, watching Dean do the dishes or Dean make dinner or Dean making him turn off the goddamn TV and go brush his teeth.
Sam watches the line of Dean’s shoulders and thinks that Dean has lost weight. The shirt he’s wearing has traces of motor oil on it, even though Sam knows that Dean had something else on yesterday. Dean carries the smell around with him these days, heated by his body. It permeates the room that they share, what belongings they were able to rescue from the car, so much so that Sam has almost stopped being able to smell it. He doesn’t mind so much. It’s a good smell, bitter and familiar.
Dean leans back without shutting the water off, fingers held out to his side as he stretches his shoulders. The cloth of his t-shirt bunches between his shoulder blades and he sighs as his spine lets out an audible pop. He doesn’t turn around or speak, just goes back to washing dishes with the slightest smile lingering around his mouth. Sam watches that smile, the first he’s seen on Dean’s face in a while.
Sam’s eyes drift lower. The seat of Dean’s jeans is worn, tan with dust and use. His legs look strong inside them. You’d never know that a week ago, one was broken and the doctors hadn’t done more than set it because they didn’t think Dean would live long enough to use it. Sam shifts his elbow onto the table, rests his head on the heel of his hand, shifts his legs unconsciously. His blood is up from the run and for a long time, he doesn’t even feel himself getting hard, not until his cock is already aching. It’s a slow realization, almost gentle in the prosaic setting of Bobby’s kitchen, tacky wallpaper and wheezing refrigerator, but Sam is hard for his brother, wants him. It’s surprising more than anything, as if his brain has slipped a gear or stepped out for a moment and left him sitting at a cracked Formica table with a hard on, watching his brother stack dishes along the sink to dry.
Eventually Dean runs out of dishes. He stands with his hands under the water for a long time, turning them this way and that, leaning forward so that the water splashes nearly up to his elbows. His concentration is absolute. Sam might as well be on the moon. Dean shuts the water off but doesn’t move, his chin tilted towards the sky, staring out the kitchen window at a thousand gleaming suns.
Sam gets up, grimacing and confused, and Dean turns for the first time, his eyebrows raised as if to ask, when did you get here? Sam freezes, crouched over the table, palms flat.
“Morning,” Dean says. Sam nods in return, goes outside to walk it off. It’s a while before he can forget about it, but he does, and when Dean drops a newspaper full of cattle mutilations and beheadings onto his lap two days later, it’s as if it never happened.
After the vampires, after the zombie, after they spent three days tracking what they thought was a werewolf but was actually a bear escaped from a local zoo, they head west. They make good time through Missouri, power through Kansas. They wind through the Rockies as the night winds down and Sam dozes for long stretches. There’s a single car on the road and they chase it for a while before overtaking it. The only light is their headlights and those of the other car, gleaming like eyes in the rearview mirror.
The sun finds them on the other side of the mountains. Sam’s twitching in the passenger seat by the time they turn off the highway. He leaves Dean in the car and wobbles to the bathroom. Two men in hunting outfits give him the eye as he crosses the gas station parking lot, their gazes flickering back and forth between Sam and Dean, slumped in front of the wheel, measuring. It isn’t the first time it’s happened; two guys traveling through America’s heartland are bound to raise some eyebrows, but it prickles on the back of Sam’s neck and it isn’t until he’s washing his hands that he remembers the smell of oil and dish soap.
The parking lot is empty when he comes out of the gas station, arms full of individually packaged pastries and energy drinks, and Dean is asleep. His hands are still wrapped around the wheel, his forehead resting against the top as if he’d only meant to lay his head down for a second. His lips are parted. He shifts a little bit as Sam opens the door, but only groans when Sam throws an elbow into his side.
“I’m thinkin’ I should drive, man,” Sam says.
Dean scrubs both hands through his hair and stares blearily at Sam. They had the heat turned all the way up for most of the drive and the car is just beginning to cool down. It had been a slap in the face to Sam, stepping out into a cold that bit into his bones. There’s a flush on Dean’s cheeks that Sam stares at, feeling almost academic about it, examining himself for any signs of those alien thoughts. Dean just looks like his brother, just a guy that Sam’s seen in every state of undress and state of mind.
“You ok?” Dean asks, after a moment, and Sam wants to laugh.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” he says instead. “I mean, come on. The great Dean Winchester, taken out by Yogi Bear?”
Dean lets his head thump back against the steering wheel and mumbles something that’s probably “Fuck you.”
“Bet you’re glad BooBoo wasn’t there to hold you down,” Sam adds. “Then you really would’ve been fucked.”
Dean punches Sam in the arm and shifts himself out of the driver’s seat and into the back without making any smartass comments, moving stiffly. He would’ve been fucked, if BooBoo or something else had found them; Dean had shot it twice with rock salt before they realized that it was a fucking bear, and it repaid him by laying him open from his shoulder blades to the small of his back. He settles on his stomach, his boots kicked ridiculously up in the air to fit, but he shifts willingly enough over to his side when Sam dangles a pastry over the front seat.
“I got us some Rockstars,” he says. Dean tears the package open with his teeth and shakes his head. He mumbles something that could be “Sleep.”
He’s mostly asleep by the time Sam chugs his Rockstar and chases it with a pastry. The heat roars back on when Sam turns the key, blissful on his hands and face. He puts the car in reverse, looks over his shoulder to back out of their parking spot and his eyes catch on Dean’s boots, his jeans sagging down to reveal grungy socks and an inch or two of pale, hairy ankle.
It’s just because you’re making a big deal about it, Sam says to himself. If you stop trying not to think about it, then it’ll go away.
Dean lets out a long, ponderous sigh. “You gonna drive anytime soon, Sammy?” he asks, his cheek mushed against leather.
“No,” Sam says lightly. “I’m good.”
The thing is, Sam’s never had to say goodbye to Dean. When he left for California, Dean wasn’t even there, hadn’t been there for a week or more, nothing more than a voice on the phone checking in every few days, calling Sam every night around midnight. Dean was hunting up some old book that a friend of a friend of Dad’s friend was supposed to have, sent off by Dad or driven away by all the fighting, Sam can’t even remember.
Voices on the phone can’t get in the middle or play referee or haul you off until you calm the hell down. Sam had been on a bus for two days before Dean left five minutes of silence on Sam’s voicemail, barely the huff of breath against the mouthpiece until, right before the phone clicked off, there was a furious, wordless noise. Sam never called back.
He thinks about it sometimes, when he can’t think about Dad anymore and his brain clicks over to Dean, automatic as breathing. The smell of the hospital, the silence of Dean’s room without even the huff of breath, machines doing Dean’s breathing for him.
It hadn’t been like a kick to the stomach, hadn’t been like a knife in Sam’s belly. It had been something beyond that, a thought that took hold of him and wouldn’t let go, seeing his brother like that, Dean who could do anything, Dean who couldn’t even breathe on his own anymore.
So maybe he looks at Dean a little bit differently because of that. Maybe he sees Dean in a different light than he used to because of the year they’ve spent on the road together, maybe because they’ve lost Dad, maybe because he threw Dean against a wall once and all that Dean said was you’re all I have.
Sam’s awareness stutters back on and finds Dean’s hands on him, holding him down. One hand on each wrist and his hip jammed up against Sam’s knee, grimly holding onto Sam’s flailing limbs. He grins a little, his face pale, when Sam blinks up at him and mouths his name. Sam can’t speak; his throat is dry and dusty and his head swims a foot above his body.
“Sam,” Dean says, like a prayer’s been answered.
Sam lets his head flop back down against the flat motel pillow, finds terrycloth laid over it, stiff and sticky with raspberry jam that smells of copper and - he giggles and tries to curl onto his side, away from the foul smell of the towel Dean’s laid under his head. Dean holds him fast, his mouth a thin line. “Uh uh,” he says. “Hold the fuck still, Sam. I’m not gonna tell you again.”
It takes Sam longer than it should to feel the wound on his leg, the stretch-pull of his skin split along the meat of his thigh, and when he does his laughter dies away into a confused gurgle. He wants to know if it’s bleeding. He wants to know if it hurts. He thinks that he might be able to ask Dean but all that comes out is a groan. He lifts a hand and pats Dean’s face instead.
“You’ll be fine,” Dean grunts, as if he can read Sam’s mind. Maybe he can. It certainly seems possible. “It didn’t hit anything important, anyway. Arteries, I mean.”
“I’m so stoned,” Sam slurs.
Dean rolls his eyes. “At last, it speaks.”
“What did you give me?” Sam says. His hand lands heavily on his own belly, startling and warm. He shifts his hand, feels the bones in his wrist rotating, feels calluses scrape across his skin.
“The good stuff,” Dean says. “You gonna hold still while I stitch this up?”
“Yeah,” Sam says. He lets Dean lift his leg, settle it far enough away for Dean to work. Dean pulls the knee over his own, arranges Sam’s thigh over the towel in his lap.
He can barely see the top of Dean’s head over his own body. His eyes focus briefly towards the ceiling and then back to the bristles of Dean’s hair, the pale line of his cheek. There’s blood on it. Probably Sam’s blood. It doesn’t really seem to matter. The needle is a burn on his thigh, hardly worse than when he was sixteen and this girl talked him into piercing his ears. Dean’s leg is warm under Sam’s, warm enough that the difference between them blurs until Sam can’t feel where he ends and Dean begins, his muscles oozing comfortably, twitching as the needle puts him together again.
And it’s the feeling of Dean’s fingers that cuts through the haze even more than the pinch of the sutures, the muzzy feeling of head wounds and painkillers, Dean’s fingers spreading over the hair on Sam’s upper thigh. They edge underneath the hem of Sam’s boxers. He hunches over Sam’s leg, steady and confident as he works, his breath ghosting across Sam’s skin. Sam’s own breathing thickens pleasantly, the blood in his ear and in his scalp no more than a distant sticky itch, far less important than Dean’s hand encircling his leg.
He doesn’t remember closing his eyes, but he has to pry them open when Dean’s hand stills. Dean’s smirking down at him, his eyes bright in his face, the only light in the room. “Never told me you were masochist, Sammy,” he says, and Sam lifts his head enough to see the outline of his hard-on, clear enough through the thin fabric of his boxers. He can see Dean pause, waiting for him to blush, but Sam just looks at him.
Embarrassment seems about as far away as Dad, and it takes him a moment to remember that Dad is dead and even further away then when he was just a voice on an answering machine, about as far away as you can ever get. He wants to tell Dean that he actually forgot for a moment, that he almost forgot the way Dad didn’t smell like Old Spice anymore when they picked him up from the hospital and the weight of their Dad in his arms as they set his body on the pyre. But then he’d have to tell Dean how much it scares him when Dean gets that dead, flat look in his eyes again and all he wants is to see Dean smile like he’s washing dishes.
“Huh,” Dean says and Sam realizes belatedly that he said all of that out loud.
“Oh my god,” Sam says.
“Yeah,” Dean says. “Awkward.”
“I just wanted to ask you why,” Sam says plaintively.
Dean cocks his head, his brows knotting. “Why what, Sam?”
“Everything,” Sam says, and then, tentatively, “Will it hurt?”
Dean’s frown grows deeper, real concern showing in his eyes, but his answer is big brother quick, firm, “Course it won’t.”
Sam wants to say, because you’re here, but he’s never needed to say it before and he thinks if he says it now Dean will just laugh at him. “Okay,” is all that comes out, and his hand finds Dean’s where it’s still braced on Sam’s thigh. Dean’s fingers wrap around his and squeeze briefly.
He helps Sam stand when they’re finished, a neat line of black stitches marching across irritated skin, and he slings an arm over Dean’s shoulder and they hobble to the bathroom. Dean makes him sit on the edge of the bathtub and he washes off the blood on Sam’s leg with water from the tap, turns the shower head on and pushes Sam’s head nearly between his knees to wash the blood from his hair. Sam’s eyes slide closed but there’s light behind his eyelids. He smells the shampoo before he realizes that there’s some in his hair, Dean guiding him with a hand on either side of Sam’s skull, rubbing at his scalp, muttering about taking scissors to it when Sam’s too goofy to resist.
Dean is flush with Sam’s side, his knee braced on the side of the tub next to Sam’s hip. The water flows down the side of his thigh but it doesn’t hurt, nothing hurts and everything is bright again. Dean grumbles a little bit when Sam’s wet head rolls against his shirt, laughs when Sam’s wet face presses against his neck and then goes completely still when Sam kisses him right underneath his ear where his hair turns soft and thin.
Sam’s wounds heal clean. Dean’s don’t.
Dean runs a fever for three days before Sam notices. It’s hot in Arizona and Dean picked up a low-grade sunburn on the first day, freckles sprouting across the bridge of his nose. He’s pink and irritable all the time and it isn’t until Sam catches Dean popping antibiotics that he realizes there’s anything wrong. Dean curses Yogi Bear until the tranquilizers put him to sleep, and Sam drains and re-bandages the wounds and paces the room until Dean wakes up again.
They go to ground. Dean sleeps most of the time, sprawled out in the motel room in his underwear, the edges of his bandages turning damp with sweat. Sam changes them twice a day, drags Dean into the shower to hose him off. Dean’s fever spikes over the weekend and he pulls most of his stitches out during the night. Sam wakes to bloodstained sheets and Dean standing by the window, insensible. Sam gets his brother cleaned up and spends the rest of the morning hunched at Dean’s side, talking himself into taking Dean to the hospital.
By noon, the fever’s broken and Dean’s a pain in the ass again. It’s all Sam can do to make him comfortable, run and fetch shit, Pepto and chicken broth and 7-Up. It isn’t until he’s got Dean tucked into a nest of blankets watching daytime TV that he realizes that he’s run through everything Dean used to do for him when Sam was sick, his Big Brother Checklist minus the bedtime story.
Dean’s a horrible patient, belligerent and demanding. He refuses to eat and pukes up everything that Sam forces down his throat. They watch TV and Sam spends hours on the laptop, looking for their next case, answering email. Sometimes he looks up to see Dean watching him instead of Oprah, his eyes glazed and unreadable.
Sam moves from the chair by the window, to his own bed and then onto Dean’s, the laptop balanced on his knees, Dean curled on his side, asleep. It’s cold in the room, boiling outside of it. The air conditioner has two settings: OFF or FUCKING FREEZING and Sam has piled most of the blankets around Dean. He sneaks his feet under the blankets, finds Dean’s, pokes at them with his toes. Dean grumbles into the pillow. The sun sets and Dean’s still asleep. Sam makes a meal out of two microwave lasagnas from the gas station down the road. He prods Dean into semi-consciousness around nine, forces pills down his throat and tries not to move when Dean settles back into sleep curled around him. His knees draw up around Sam’s and his head butts against Sam’s hip. Dean is amazingly warm. Uncomfortably warm until Sam takes a deep breath, shuts off his computer and the lights, and climbs into bed with his brother.
Dean’s a snuggler in his sleep, always has been. Sam used to wake up surrounded by his brother, nearly smothered with arms and legs and prickly hair. Dean snorts and mutters nonsense as Sam arranges him, and then scoots even closer and throws an arm around Sam’s waist, rubbing his forehead against Sam’s collarbone. “Flashlight,” he says clearly, and Sam strokes a hand through Dean’s hair.
“Yeah,” he says, and closes his eyes.
And wakes up again when Dean pulls away. He opens his eyes and sees Dean’s, glinting in the shuttered light from the window, inches away.
“I’m not gonna kiss you again,” Sam says.
“Thought you didn’t remember that,” Dean grunts.
“Yeah,” Sam says, and leans forward.
“Don’t,” Dean whispers. His breath is warm on Sam’s lips.
“Why not?” His mouth brushes Dean’s and Dean jerks back, just a little. Sam’s hand is on his shoulder, invisible in the darkness. The bed creaks underneath them and Dean hisses between his teeth. Sam stays still, his hand moving over the ball of Dean’s shoulder, gently, like he’d stroke a nervous animal.
“Because it’s wrong,” Dean says.
“Says who?” Sam whispers back. He closes his eyes when his voice cracks.
“I can’t do that to you, Sammy,” Dean breathes, but he doesn’t move away. His shoulder is tense under Sam’s hand, fever-hot, a tenuous contact to the world. And two weeks ago Sam was sneaking out of the room when Dean was asleep or in the shower, hiding behind the car until he didn’t want to throw up or throw his brother against a wall but he’s past that somehow. His stomach is churning knots and Dean smells of sweat and sickness but. But Sam’s never loved Dean more in his life.
“Fuck,” Sam whispers, and leans across their pillows and kisses Dean until he stops saying no and says nothing at all, only breathes against Sam’s skin, into his mouth, one long exhale of uncertain sound.
Then Dean’s hands come up and push Sam away, awkward and cold and Dean heaves himself up onto one elbow, then his knees, his feet dangling off the bed. “No,” Dean says. “I know it’s not a word I tell you a lot but no. I won’t. I can’t. It’s wrong.” He climbs off the bed and into Sam’s without waiting for a response, his face closed. When he turns his back, Sam can see blood soaking through his bandages. Torn his stitches again.
Sam turns over. The blankets are still on his side of the bed and after a moment, Dean’s hand reaches across and tugs one off of him. Sam laughs before he knows he’s going to, hiding his face between his arms the way he used to when he was small, small enough for Dean to carry him home.
One morning, not too many miles down the road, Dean will wake Sam up with kisses, his mouth warm and his breath just a little sour, before pulling the blanket over his head and swallowing Sam’s cock. They’ll argue about breakfast and end up spending most of the day in bed, driving through the night towards a skeleton found inside the trunk of an elm tree. They’ll be too tired to fuck that night and will fall into bed still covered in graveyard dirt, but Dean will throw his arm over Sam, same as always.
But this morning, Sam wakes to darkness and cold sheets, the air conditioner’s roar not muffling Dean’s voice as he moves through the shadowed room, muttering to himself. He’s packing, moving from one end of the room to the other, not bothering to flick on the bathroom light, a warm presence in the chill dark.
It’s a steady monologue, checklists and complaints in Dean’s growly whisper. He sounds a little bit like their dad when he’s trying to talk quietly and for a moment it fools Sam, his consciousness slipping back to days when he’d shiver and beg for five more minutes and they’d actually give it to him. Back then it was an actual checklist, not Dean’s modified version, short attention span shooting him around the room, Dad asking and Dean confirming and both of them talking about him when they thought he couldn’t hear.
“Shotguns in the car, where the fuck did he put my jacket, swear I’m gonna kill him, do laundry in the next town, bag’s looking a little empty. Where’s my comb?”
Sam’s clothes land on the bed that Dean slept in, flying shadows. Leaving Sam to pick out his own outfit. He can see Dean’s silhouette, lean, moving stiffly. He’ll have to take a look at those stitches before they leave. He hopes Dean will let him.
The bed sags by his knees, and there’s a long moment before he feels Dean shift, before he feels Dean’s hand ruffle through his hair. Dean doesn’t say anything, but he hasn’t said much lately that wasn’t bitching about something, so Sam isn’t really worried. Dean’s palm scrubs over his scalp, his fingers scratching lightly. Sam keeps his eyes closed and tries to look asleep.
It’s not roses. It’s infections and crappy motel rooms, can’t and won’t and wrong. It isn’t perfect, but maybe it’s you’re all I have, and maybe that’s ok.