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Sam tells him on a Monday night before school. It’s 2AM and Dean’s just getting home. He knows he smells like beer and hits of pot and a girl whose name he’s already forgotten, and Sam comes out of his room across the hall at the same time Dean’s fumbling with the doorknob of his.

Sam doesn’t say, “Hey.” He doesn’t ask, “Fun night?” and Dean doesn’t turn around, so if Sam looks at him like he’s worthless, because he is, Dean doesn’t see it.

Dean almost misses it, too many drinks making his head pound too much for him to focus, but then Sam says, “I got in, you know. Stanford.” Dean doesn’t turn around, doesn’t move. There’s no sign that he’s even heard, but for his sudden urge to vomit. Dean never throws up.

It’s nothing he didn’t expect. Sam’s always been seconds away from a good school, seconds away from getting out of Lawrence and never looking back. Sam’s been giving him that look that says I can’t believe we’re related for the last six years, and Dean’s never blamed him.

His back is turned, but Dean can feel Sam getting closer, see his shadow getting bigger and bigger on the door in front of him. They’re the same height now, exactly, but Dean’s been feeling like Sam towers over him for longer than he can remember.

When Sam speaks, Dean can feel his breath on the back of his neck, can smell toothpaste and soap and every clean thing that Dean isn’t. Dean’s nails dig into his palm and he wants to get to his room, far enough from every thought that’s running through him like wildfire.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Sam asks. His voice is rough, almost like Dad’s when he’s had a few, but it changes in an instant. “I’m leaving, Dean. Mom and Dad and this place and –“

Dean turns around on the next word, keeping his head still, finding Sam’s eyes in a second even in the dim light from the streetlamps outside. “You,” Sam finishes, but the force gets knocked out because then Dean’s moving, pushing, pressing Sam against the door to his room and Sam’s asking, “Dean, what are you –“

“You want a reason, Sam?” Dean asks then. They’re pushed together and Sam’s eyes are cartoon big and he’s breathing so fast, as though he’s breathing for both of them. “You need me to give you something else to get you gone?” voice low and raw, gaze trained dead center on Sam’s mouth as it says, “Dean,” like it always has, even though this has never happened before.

Not really, anyway.

There was a moment, weeks earlier, when Sam met Dean in the hall downstairs and helped him to Dean’s room and Dean held on too long when they reached the door and even dead-drunk he knows Sam felt it, whatever it was, like he could read his mind. But nothing happened, because Dean’s not – he isn’t trying to –

“All right then,” Dean says, and he pushes that final inch, kisses rough and mean and nothing like he wants to, like Sam deserves. Dean’s fairly certain Sam deserves better than his big brother, anyway.

The kiss doesn’t last long; Sam’s hands are only just getting on Dean’s shoulders (to push, Dean tells himself despite the way Sam’s fingers start to grip him, not to pull) when Dean draws back. “Dean,” Sam starts again, like it’s the only word he knows, and Dean’s stomach twists again as he remembers Sam saying that word, not Mom or Dad, not hello or goodbye, before anything else.

“You got a reason now, Sam,” Dean says then, and he turns back toward his room, quick, because if he goes any slower he’ll realize that Sam kissed him back, and that can’t happen.

“Congratulations on getting in,” Dean says, and the weird thing is, he means it.

*

Dean thinks that’s the end of it, right there. That morning Dean wakes up to the sounds of his mom and dad celebrating Sam’s good news, and when Mary comes to get him Dean stumbles out of bed to tell his brother congratulations again, this time in the light of day.

Sam doesn’t look at him when he says it, just mutters, “Thanks,” and then, “I have to get to school.” Dean nods, heads upstairs, and sleeps three more hours before driving down to the garage. There isn’t much work today, just some old guy’s Toyota needing an oil change and a new set of mufflers, and Dean finishes not long before Sam gets home from school.

Sam’s at the kitchen table when he gets back, reading over the pamphlets Stanford sent. Normally they’d ignore each other, just nod in greeting and move along, but Sam says, “Hey.”

“Hey,” Dean says, surprised that Sam’s speaking to him when no one else is around. Dean’s still wearing his work shirt and Sam’s looking him over, probably ticking off imperfections.

“So, it’s a full ride,” Sam says, gesturing to the papers on the table. “Did I tell you that part?”

“No,” Dean says. He’s spent the day trying to forget everything Sam told him, that anything even happened.

Out of the two of them, Sam seems to be doing a better job.

“Yeah,” Sam says, still watching him. “All Mom and Dad have to pay for is my plane ticket out there.”

“That’s great, Sam,” Dean says. He means it, more than anything, but he doesn’t know why Sam’s telling him. Why it matters. They barely know each other, anymore. This is probably the longest they’ve talked, at least while Dean’s been sober, since before Sam’s prom night.

And even then, they weren’t exactly close.

He starts to move out of the kitchen, toward the bathroom to get cleaned up, but Sam gets up from the table and steps into his path. Dean could push him out of the way easily; Sam’s bigger than he was last year, but he’s still too skinny.

He doesn’t, though. They’ve never fought like that, even when Dean fucked Sam’s prom date last May, even when Dean drained Sam’s bank account so he could fix the Impala after that fender bender last year. Sam didn’t break Dean’s jaw like he should’ve last night, this morning, whatever.

Nothing happens for a minute, and Dean waits until Sam says, “Mom and Dad want to take me out to dinner tonight. They asked if you – if I minded if you came along.”

Dean waits for the blow; no matter how many times Sam looks at him like he’s useless, he’s never so much as said it. Kid’s too nice for that, and sometimes Dean hates him for it. Wants to, anyway.

That’s not what happens, though. Sam just asks, “Do you think – do you think you could stay sober, for tonight?”

And there it is again, Sam surprising Dean so much with that easy tone of voice, no hard edge to it, that it’s all Dean can do to say, “Yeah. Yeah, sure, if you…”

Sam nods, dropping his gaze then. “Dinner’s at six,” he says, shifting so Dean can move past him. “Get cleaned up. You smell like shit.”

Dean lets out a bark of a laugh and Sam smiles at him. It’s nothing huge, just a quirk of his lips – the kind of small smile he used to give when Dean would mouth off around John and Sam couldn’t pretend he didn’t think it was funny.

It’s something, though, something that feels nothing at all like disapproval, like disappointment. Dean isn’t sure what to do with it, so he turns abruptly and heads for the bathroom.

*

So, Sam used to have this really cool older brother. He doesn’t remember much about being a kid, just his too-big feet and his little legs and the way certain words wouldn’t come out right no matter how he twisted his tongue, but he remembers dragging Dean across the playground to meet his friends, remembers saying, “This is Dean,” like that explained everything.

It still sort of does.

Dean being Dean pretty much explains why Sam is having his celebratory dinner alone with their parents tonight, why he’s picking at his chicken parmesan while John talks softball and Mary keeps trying to catch his eye. She wants to give him the same look she always does when Dean lets him down, that he’s your brother, he still loves you look that Sam used to buy into.

But Sam’s not having any of that tonight, he’s just not, so he keeps his gaze on the fork in his hand.

They’re all home by seven-thirty, Sam’s dead silence enough to kill any notion of doing anything else with the night. Dean and the Impala are nowhere to be found, and Sam doesn’t stomp up the stairs and slam the door to his bedroom – he stays downstairs with John and Mary until they say goodnight, then quietly makes his way upstairs. Sam’s never understood what people say about not being able to go to bed angry, because Sam’s simmering rage puts him to sleep in minutes.

He wakes up hours later to a light tap on his door, but before he can even lift his head Dean’s already standing in the doorway. Even sleep-bleary, Sam knows his brother looks absolutely trashed, and when Dean gets further into the room, Sam can smell it on him.

Sam keeps the covers pulled tight around him, hoping Dean won’t notice that his eyes are open, that Dean will just leave.

Dean doesn’t, of course.

“Hey, Sammy,” Dean says. Dean only calls him Sammy when he’s especially drunk, so drunk it must be some minor miracle he got home okay.

“Go to bed, Dean,” Sam says, training his voice to sound tired – sleepy –, not petulant. Not disappointed.

“’m sorry I missed your night.” Dean’s further into the room now, and as Sam’s eyes adjust he can see Dean’s still wearing his boots, those big dumb work boots like Dean’s too cool for regular fucking sneakers.

This isn’t the first time Dean’s let him down like this, and Sam’s developed a method for dealing. He always says it’s fine, always keeps up a sturdy wall of distance between them. He still misses the old Dean sometimes, the one he never wanted to share with anyone, but he does a decent job of dealing with this one. He’d been doing well, really, until last night.

And last night –

Sam knows his next line is, “Don’t worry about it,” so that they can both get to sleep and go back to ignoring each other in the morning.

“I am, too,” is what Sam says instead, and he hopes Dean’s too drunk to notice the crack in his voice.

“Sam,” Dean says again. He kneels down, his hand on the bed level with Sam’s stomach, and Sam forgets to breathe for a second. “Sammy, you didn’t want me there.”

It’s too dark to give Dean the right kind of scowl. “Then why did I ask you to come, Dean?”

Dean frowns, hand running up and down the sheets like he’s trying to smooth out the creases. There’s plenty of distance between him and Sam, but if Sam shifted just right –

“Nevermind, Dean. Just –”

“’m sorry, Sam,” Dean says again. “You should go.”

“We’re in my room,” Sam points out.

“No.” Sam can see Dean’s fingers, clean and soft-looking despite what seems like a lifetime at the garage, trace the green stripes of the sheets. “I mean, you shouldn’t – you shouldn’t be around me anymore. After –”

“Dean.” Quiet, firm, the grown-up voice he uses for mock trial. “You ever think that maybe I want you around?”

Dean’s face screws up like they’re talking quadratic equations instead of family, and Sam guesses that’s fair. Dean’s not the only one responsible for how fucked up things are between them.

“You shouldn’t,” Dean says after a minute.

“Too bad,” Sam shoots back, not sure if they’re talking about the same thing or not right now, but damn well meaning it anyway. “Go to bed, Dean, before you wake up Mom and Dad.”

At the mention of them, Dean’s eyes get wide like they were doing anything but talking, and he’s up like a shot. “I’ll make it up to you, Sam, okay?” Dean asks, and Sam knows he shouldn’t believe him, but he does. “Okay,” he says. “’Night, Dean.”

It’s minutes before Sam hears Dean snoring across the hall, but it’s hours before he falls back to sleep, unable to stop thinking of Dean’s hand, near but not on him, of Dean’s mouth the night before, harsh stubble and soft lips pressed against him. It’s nearly light out before he finally closes his eyes.

*

It’s noon by the time Dean crawls out of bed the next day, the taste of stale beer and cigarettes sharp on his tongue, head pounding, stomach twisted into knots. Dean feels like a sixteen-year-old with his first hangover, except even at sixteen, Dean knew better than to drink like that. He’s not even sure how it happened.

Well, okay, fuck that: Dean knows. Sam being nice to him freaked him the hell out because he didn’t deserve any of that, so instead of meeting Mom and Dad and Sam at the restaurant, he took the opposite direction to the same bar that hasn’t carded him since he started going there two years ago. He started with whiskey straight off, just wanting to burn all the feeling from his tongue, and by the time he’d moved on to beers he’d caught the eye of some girl with legs from here to West Texas and Dean’s not even sure if they fucked, that’s how drunk he was by then, only that when he kissed her he couldn’t think of anything but his little brother.

So, yeah, Dean’s pretty sure it’s a sign of how much the universe hates him that he managed to get home in one piece.

He meant what he said to Sam, though. He wants to make this up to him, wants to fix them. He’s just not quite sure how to fix their whole damn lives.

The garage is busy by the time he shows up; it’s a big day for oil changes and another guy comes in with a busted carburetor. Five o’clock hits and Dean’s still working hard, sweating his hangover out because there’s not really time to go dry heave into one of the trash bins. He doesn’t get home until after dark, and the house is completely quiet when he does, dark but for the dim light coming from the kitchen.

“Hey you,” Mary says when she sees him. She’s sitting at the counter, a steaming mug of coffee in front of her and a book in her hand.

“Hi, Mom,” Dean says. He steps toward the refrigerator, hoping there’s something leftover from dinner because his stomach finally doesn’t want him to die.

“There’s some pork chops I can warm up for you if you want,” Mary says. She doesn’t turn around to look at him, keeps her gaze on her book, but Dean knows she’s observing him, anyway. “Mashed potatoes, too.”

“Think I can manage,” Dean says, pulling the Tupperware containers out of the fridge. “Thanks.”

“Mmhm.” She doesn’t say much for a while after that, and Dean busies himself with piling everything on a plate and heating it up – he knows better than to eat straight out of the containers when his mom’s here. He grabs a can of soda out of the fridge and then takes a seat at the counter across from Mary.

“Where’s everybody else?” he asks in between bites of food.

Mary looks up from her book, studying him a while before answering. “Your father went out with a few of his softball buddies,” she says, and even though her expression is perfectly neutral, Dean knows that tone of disapproval. Dad’s softball buddies are pretty much dicks, without exception; only a few of them actually have families, while the rest of them only seem to exist for game season. It’s never a relief when the season’s over, though, because that just leaves John around the house, looking for things to fix or take apart or fuck knows what.

Dean doesn’t comment, just chews his food and then asks, “Where’s Sam?”

“In his room, studying I guess.” Mary raises an eyebrow, and Dean kind of gets what people mean about them looking alike. “You know, I know that boy has friends, Dean. I worry about him, spending so much time up there by himself.”

“Can’t all be world-class screw-ups like me, Mom,” Dean says. It’s not something Dean would ever say to John, or even Sam, really, but with Mary, things have always been easier. She’s been the good cop to John’s bad one for as long as Dean can remember – it’s not that she coddles him, not really; it’s just that her brand of honesty quite clearly comes with love, while with John it’s a little harder to decipher.

Mary doesn’t laugh, but when she lifts her coffee cup to her mouth, Dean knows she’s hiding one of those small, thoughtful smiles. “We would’ve liked to see you at dinner yesterday, Dean,” she says then, and it makes Dean’s chest ache just a little.

“Yeah, I know.” He doesn’t say I’m sorry, but it’s right there in his tone, anyway. Mary nods, and that’s the end of it. She asks Dean about work while he finishes his dinner, and once he’s done they watch old movies on the couch together until John gets home. It’s easy, so much easier than Dean and Sam or Dean and John, and Dean is grateful and regretful all at once. He goes to bed early that night, even more determined to fix things, somehow.

*

Sam’s not sure if he’s just avoiding Dean or the whole thing’s mutual, but the most he sees of Dean for the next two days is at the dinner table Thursday – Dean rarely misses a meal, probably because he’s biologically incapable of doing so. Dean doesn’t really talk, though, and he and Sam sure as hell don’t talk to each other, so it’s like things are back to normal.

Not that Sam would exactly call any of this normal.

Friday, though, Sam gets out of school and Dean’s just – there. Right at the corner outside the school, leaning back against his fucking landmark of a car wearing dirty boots and shredded jeans and that stupid leather jacket Dad let him have a few years back. He spots Sam and grins, and Sam waves a couple of his school friends off before shifting his bag on his shoulder and heading toward Dean.

Not even bothering with a hello, Sam says, “You know, most of the cheerleaders here aren’t legal yet.”

Dean’s grin widens at that, and he shrugs before saying, “Yeah, well, doesn’t hurt to look.” He scratches at his neck, and Sam notices Dean’s actually bothered to shave today. His eyes aren’t bloodshot, and as far as Sam knows, Dean wasn’t out late last night.

He doesn’t ask about that, though, just asks, “What are you doing here, Dean?”

“Thought you might want a ride.” Dean says it easily, like this happens all the time, but Sam can’t even remember the last time he rode in the Impala. He remembers what it was like of course, leather seats and scent of pot, that fucking cheesy rock music Dean always plays, the hum of the engine. But he and Dean don’t hang out, and when Sam needs to go somewhere he walks, or rides his bike, or tags along with one of his friends, so it’s been a long, long time since Sam’s been near this car.

“Uh,” is what Sam says first, because he gets it, that Dean’s trying to be nice. He shifts again, his books heavy on his back and Dean’s gaze uncomfortably steady on him.

“I’m sober, Sam, I promise,” Dean says. “C’mon, even I wait until sundown,” he jokes, or tries to joke. They both know it’s really not fucking funny. “We’ll get a burger or something, what do you say?”

Sam thinks about it. Food would be neutral territory for them; they could eat, go home, get back to avoiding each other, nothing lost or gained. But that’s too easy, and Dean can’t just show up like this, like they’re buddies. They fucking aren’t; Dean’s made sure of that.

“I can’t,” Sam says. He tips his head, gesturing back toward where a few of his friends are waiting on the steps. “A bunch of us are going over to our friend Jesse’s house for a study group.”

“A study group?” Dean raises an eyebrow. “Dude, it’s Friday night. And you’re a senior.”

“Yeah, well.” Sam shrugs. “I still gotta graduate somehow.”

“Right,” Dean says, and Sam can tell he’s trying not to look disappointed, and part of Sam feels kind of bad because Dean came here for him and Dean doesn’t do that kind of shit, but, well. The other part of him is okay with him letting Dean down for once. “Man, though, senior year’s supposed to be… I mean, when I was…”

Dean stops, clears his throat instead, probably because he has the same vivid picture of his senior year that Sam’s getting. That was the year everyone thought Dean got that girl pregnant, the year he got pulled over for drunk driving, the year he nearly got expelled. No one’s really sure, Sam least of all, how Dean even managed to graduate.

“Look, I gotta go,” Sam says, once they’ve both let the silence sit for a little too long. The sun’s out in full and it’s a warm September day, leaves on the grass beneath their feet and a good breeze blowing, and the last thing Sam wants to do is think about any of this. “My friends are waiting,” he adds.

“Yeah, okay,” Dean says, nodding. It’s awkward and Sam hates it and he thinks he wants to apologize for that more than anything, but he didn’t make them this way, just helped it along. “Have fun studying,” Dean says, and then tosses, “nerd,” at him just as Sam starts to turn away.

When Sam gets back to his friends, he can’t really explain to them why he’s grinning.

*

Dean’s not sure he’s been sober on a Friday night at any point since he was sixteen years old. It’s an interesting experience, definitely, in that it’s really fucking boring, and it leaves him with way too much time with nothing to do. Dean doesn’t have friends, just people who he occasionally drinks with and girls he sometimes messes around with – and these categories blend together, so.

So Dean’s still up and watching TV in the living room when Sam gets home at midnight. It takes him a full minute to work the lock on the door and that should be indication enough, but Dean has to stare at him for a while after that to really believe it. Sam is drunk. Really fucking drunk, if the way he stumbles over his own feet and struggles with his sneakers is any indication.

“Study group, huh?” Dean can’t help it; he’s grinning. It’s the first time he’s ever seen Sam this way and he’s pretty sure he shouldn’t approve, and mostly he doesn’t, but damn – it’s nice to see Sam act like a normal teenager for once.

Sam laughs. “We studied,” he assures Dean from the floor, where he’s still working the knot on his left shoe. “’m gonna pass my history test with flying – fuck.” He kicks his shoe straight across the room, and it lands under an end table.

“Nice one,” Dean comments. “You know what they say about getting drunk when you study, Sam.”

Sam jerks his head up at him, then tries and fails to pick himself off the floor. “No, what?”

Dean scoffs. He gets up from the couch, steps over to Sam, and holds his hand out. “C’mon, let’s get you to bed before Dad wakes up and glares at you.” Dean knows that’s about the worst John would do, too. Sam’s pretty much the golden kid in John’s opinion, and Dean guesses he has every right to be.

“Not tired,” Sam protests, gripping Dean’s hand even after he makes it to his feet. “What are you doing up?”

“What’s it look like?” Dean asks, gesturing toward the TV. He managed to find a movie that isn’t half bad, but he lost track of the plot about ten minutes before Sam showed up, anyway. “Workin’ on my thesis.”

“Asshole,” Sam retorts, and Dean laughs again. Drunk Sam is kind of fun. He pushes past Dean and settles down on the couch, and since Dean can’t think of a good enough reason to send Sam upstairs, Dean sits back down next to him. He figures it’s a matter of minutes before Sam falls asleep, but instead – just as Dean’s starting to get caught up on what’s happening in the movie – Sam asks, out of fucking nowhere, “Why’d you fuck Rachel Nave?”

If Dean could pretend he hadn’t heard Sam, he would, but they’re sitting too close for that. Still, the only response Dean can come up with is, “What?”

“My prom date,” Sam scoffs, like Dean might’ve forgotten her name. It’s a fair assumption, really. “She was there tonight… ‘s why I got drunk. I was just gonna go home afterward, but everyone was drinking, and I saw her and I just…”

“Didn’t know you had such a thing for her,” Dean says, quietly. “Never saw her around before that night, you know?”

“Not what I’m talking about, Dean.” Sam’s looking at him, Dean can tell, but Dean’s keeping his gaze fixed on the TV. He’s not sure he’s a fan of drunk Sam anymore, not at all.

“I started thinking about it, when I saw her. Thought about it before, but…” out of the corner of his eye, Dean sees Sam shrug. “Is it because you wanted to –”

“Shut it, Sam.” Dean’s words are sharp, louder than he meant them to be, but they do the trick. He turns to Sam and Sam’s staring at him, mouth hanging open, letting out breath after breath of tequila. Dean’s betting on one hell of a hangover tomorrow, and he’d give anything to trade places with Sam, to be the one too drunk to remember any of this tomorrow.

Sam licks his lips, then, and he still has that look on his face, same deep-thought expression he’s had since age four when he started asking why to everything Dean said. Dean remembers Sam driving him crazy back then, all the questions about things Dean barely understood himself, and it’s kind of like that now.

“It just makes sense, is all,” Sam says finally, with another shrug.

“No, Sam, it doesn’t,” Dean tells him, and then he stands up and shuts off the TV, leaving them both in the dark. “Quit thinking so much. I’m goin’ to bed.”

If Sam answers him at all, Dean doesn’t hear it. He’s already halfway up the stairs, and he doesn’t breathe right until he hears Sam switch the TV on again.

*

Sam Winchester has never wanted to end his life more than he does at this moment. At 10AM, he wakes up with the distinct notion that his head is about to split open from pain, that if he ever opens his mouth again all that will come out is last night’s tequila – that if moves his limbs he’ll discover that they really are made of Jell-O.

The only reason he decides to get up is that, when he tries to untangle his legs from the blanket he’s suffocating in, he realizes that he is not in his bed at all, but on the couch in the living room. The remote control for the TV is digging into his side, and there’s a puddle of drool on one of the couch cushions.

And then of course there’s the sun coming in through the window, threatening to blind him before he can even open his eyes completely.

“Gugh,” Sam says to no one in particular when he tries to sit up. Those blinds need to be closed before the sun actually destroys him. He fucking hates the world and his life and even though he’s not sure why, he thinks he also hates Dean. This has to be his fault.

Speaking of. “You up?”

Sam whips his head around – bad move, since there’s an awful crick in his neck like only a night on the couch can produce – and through sleep-bleary eyes he sees Dean by the entrance of the living room, dressed and showered and, wonder of wonders, looking like he, at least, didn’t go twelve rounds with José last night.

“Kill me,” Sam says, before burying his head back in the couch cushion. Now his cheek is wet. Awesome.

“Think you almost did a good enough job of that yourself, kid,” Dean says. “Not to mention the impending death sentence you’ve probably got coming from Mom.”

“Fuck,” Sam groans again. It’s too warm under this blanket and Sam has a feeling that after today he’s going to go nowhere near this stupid couch, but he can’t bring himself to look at Dean just yet. He shifts so just one side of his face is on the couch, then asks, “Mom and Dad know?”

“Uh,” Dean says. “Kind of hard to miss, when you passed out down here and you fucking reek, dude.”

“Thanks for your sympathy,” Sam snorts. He sits up, runs a hand through his ragged hair, sniffs at himself. Dean’s got a point; he’s in pretty bad shape.

“Hey now,” Dean says as he takes one step into the living room. “Did anyone wake you up this morning? No. You know why? Because I’m an awesome brother and I told them to lay off you because even perfect kids make mistakes.”

Sam isn’t sure which part to answer first – that he’s not perfect, that Dean didn’t have to do that to him, that no, no one did wake him up – so he doesn’t say anything.

“Get dressed,” Dean says after a minute. “I’m taking you out for breakfast.”

Sam’s eyes widen, which is another bad plan because again, there’s way too much sunlight and fuck if he wants to go out in any of it. “Jesus, Dean, are you trying to kill me?”

“Nope,” Dean says. “Just tryin’ to get you through your first hangover in one piece. So go shower and meet me in the car in twenty, all right?”

There’s no room for argument in Dean’s words and Sam is too exhausted to try, so he nods and untangles himself from the couch before heading upstairs to shower. It takes him longer than twenty minutes because Sam really does fucking reek and the hot water feels good on his skin, but Dean doesn’t comment on any of that by the time Sam gets in the car. There’s a song on the radio Sam actually recognizes, something by Dylan, and it’s not half bad.

“I’m really not hungry, you know,” Sam says once Dean pulls away from the house, and Dean sighs. “They aren’t teaching you enough at that school,” he says.

“Obviously not,” Sam replies, grimacing as they head east toward the sun. Sam pretty much wants to die again and he keeps his eyes shut tight until Dean nudges him on the shoulder and drops a pair of sunglasses into his lap.

Sam puts them on without comment, and the radio switches to something louder, more like Dean’s usual taste, while Dean says, “A greasy breakfast is the perfect cure for even the nastiest hangover.”

“Yeah?” Sam asks, not sure if Dean’s bullshitting him or not.

“Just wait,” Dean says, and they spend the rest of the ride in silence, Dean singing along to just about every song that comes on the radio, whether he knows the words or not. Sam’s head still aches and he still wants to die, but he can’t help grinning now and then, anyway. It’s been years since he’s been in a car with Dean but it’s familiar, comforting even, and Sam’s half asleep by the time they arrive at the diner.

As it turns out, Dean does know what he’s talking about, and by Sam’s second helping of hash browns, eggs, and bacon, his desire to cease existing has lessened considerably. Despite his obvious sobriety, which Sam can’t convince himself to ask about, Dean eats twice what he does and still has room for a milkshake afterward.

They don’t talk much while they eat. Sam only remembers bits and pieces from last night, and almost nothing from after he got home, and the stuff he does remember he doesn’t want to think about. Dean doesn’t ask about anything, although from the way he glances occasionally at Sam, Sam can tell he’s tempted.

It’s easy, though, easier than it should be. Or, well – they’re brothers; Sam guesses it should be just fine for them to sit in a diner together and eat and not have fucked up conversations that both of them regret seconds later.

Either way, for the first time in years, Sam can’t find a single bad thing to say or think about his big brother, and when they arrive back home, Sam turns to Dean in the car before they get out. “Hey,” he starts, then waits for Dean to kill the engine before saying, “Thanks.”

Dean turns to look at him and it’s kind of startling to see him like this – rested and at ease, the sun on his face and a glow to his eyes that Sam hasn’t seen in years. Sam thinks Dean’s about to ask thanks for what? but instead Dean says, “Yeah, well. You better not make a habit out of it. There’s still time for me to be Mom and Dad’s favorite.”

“Yeah, right,” Sam snorts, and there might be something wrong with the way they both laugh, but they ignore it for now. The air is crisp and clean when they get back outside and it’s a gorgeous fall day and Sam wishes, just a little, that they could hold onto this moment for a little while longer.

They can’t, though. Sam has an essay due Monday and another pile of homework waiting for him upstairs, and Dean probably has to get to work at some point, so Sam just smiles at him again before heading into the house.

*

It’s not that everything fits into place after that. Dean’s not sure what that place would be, anyway. It’s just that once it turns out Sam’s not perfect, it gets easier for them to be in the same room together. Sam speaks actual words to him at dinner time; Dean picks him up from school a few times a week, and if they’re both home with nothing to do, they’ll watch a movie or grab something to eat or just hang around and talk. Sam’s got a better sense of humor than Dean remembers, and he tells Dean stories about dumb teachers and friends from school and actually listens when Dean mentions the garage.

Dean still drinks, some nights, but not the way he did before. If he gets home too late he never stands outside Sam’s room, and when he wakes up the next morning there’s nothing awful to regret. Things are going great at the garage, and one day in the middle of October Sam rides his bike over to visit him. Everyone makes jokes about Dean calling Sam his little brother, because sometime in the last month Sam gained an inch on him. Dean finds he doesn’t mind, that much.

They’re still not as close as they were, but it’s something. Sam gets Dean up on particularly cold mornings to make him drive him to school, and Dean takes Sam driving a few times, telling him it’s no use having a license if he’s not going to make good use of it.

It’s November before Dean realizes that he and Sam hang out almost every day, now, regardless of school or work or other friends, even if it’s just for a little while. He doesn’t even notice it, until Mary points it out to him one day when Dean comes home for lunch. Mary fixes sandwiches for both of them, humming a quiet tune as she does, and Dean grins when he realizes it’s a Doors’ song.

The kitchen is warm despite the cold wind blowing outside, and every surface is clean without being overly clean – mail piles up on one edge of the counter, unsorted and sticking out every which way, and the kitchen table remains a depository for thumbed-through magazines, notebooks, and key rings. Mary sets both their plates down, and they dig in. The food’s perfect, as usual: bread warm from the toaster, vegetables freshly cut, meat spread all the way across the bread. Dean’s so busy thinking that he’s infinitely glad he decided against fast food today that it throws him what Mary says next.

“It’s nice to see you and your brother getting along again.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, nodding carefully. He watches his mom brush some of her hair off her face, watches that small smile form on her lips.

“Your father and I were worried for a while,” she adds, plucking some of the crust off her sandwich before taking another bite. “But you both seem a lot better. Happier.”

Dean nods again while he chews his food, not sure what else to say. But she’s right, definitely. Things with him and Sam are still weird; they’re always going to be that way, but if nothing like that one night ever happens again, it’s an acceptable level of weird. Dean and Sam can be brothers, friends even, and when Sam comes back on visits from college, they won’t be weighed down by the heavy, resentful silences that used to define them.

As long as Dean doesn’t fuck everything up again.

“I am, I guess, yeah,” Dean says. He doesn’t know what to say about Sam, because it never seemed to him like Sam was all that unhappy. Sam’s got friends and good grades and he’s going to college. He’s going to be something and make their parents proud and Dean, Dean doesn’t hate that anymore, just accepts it as a fact.

Mary reaches across the counter to squeeze his hand, and her wedding ring sparkles in the sunlight that pours through the kitchen window. “I’m glad, honey,” she says. “We’re both so proud of you. Both of you.”

Dean manages to smile at that, but there’s a pit in his stomach that keeps him from finishing his sandwich, and he goes back to work earlier than he needs to. He gets high before dinner that night, the buzzing in his head enough to distract him from everything else on his mind. Sam waits until they’re alone and cleaning up the table to call him a dopefiend, but he smiles when he says it – Dean can’t seem to stop making him do that, lately.

*

Sam’s senior year is rushing past him, September turning into October turning into November. With worries about college out of the way, classes seem even easier than they were to begin with, and because of half-days Sam has even more time on his hands – time he almost inevitably spends with Dean. “I thought you hated your brother,” one of his friends, Trina, says after school one day when he ditches her and the rest of their group again on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. As far as he knows he and Dean don’t actually have plans, but Sam doesn’t want to be anywhere else in case they do.

“I guess I don’t,” Sam says, and Trina gives him an odd look that Sam does his best to ignore. “We all miss you, you know,” she says, pulling her coat tighter around her. Sam knows she means she misses him, remembers a time earlier this year when everyone was just holding their breath for them to get together. Sam’s been too busy learning the words to all of Dean’s stupid rock songs and the names of all the dumb girls Dean hooks up with for any of that to happen.

“Sorry,” Sam says, and he means it, but he’s looking over Trina’s shoulder as the Impala pulls around the corner. “I’m a crappy friend, I know it. Maybe next week, all right?”

“Next week I’m going to my grandparents’, Sam. Just like I do every year.”

“Oh,” Sam says, frowning, because he knew that, or at least he used to. He starts to say something else, but Dean honks the horn because Dean is an asshole, and he fumbles some apology again without waiting to hear Trina’s response before he rushes off to the car.

Dean has plans, it turns out. Sam doesn’t find out until after dinner, when he finishes his homework and then wanders across the hall to see what Dean’s doing, only to find that Dean’s not even there anymore. It’s not like Sam tells Dean what he’s doing all the time, and he guesses it should’ve been obvious that Dean would go out on a Friday night – he’s twenty-one and single and even if he doesn’t do it as often as he used to, he still likes to drink.

It’s too late for Sam to call any of his friends, though, and after today’s awkward conversation with Trina, he’s not sure he wants to do that. So he stays in his room and reads and tries not to wonder if Dean’s going to hook up tonight, tries not to wonder when Dean will come home and if maybe, this time, it’ll be like that night again.

If there’s anything Sam knows, it’s that ever since that night, Sam’s felt less and less like leaving home.

*

Dean gets home near 1AM, and Sam can tell he’s at least sober enough to try to keep quiet. Sam’s waiting up but trying not to be too obvious about it; the light’s on in his room and he’s reading On the Road again even though his English teacher said they wouldn’t, as it turned out, be able to get to it this year. He’s at the part with the Mexican girl by the time Dean finally taps at his door, and he mumbles, “Come in,” even as Dean’s turning the knob.

“Jesus,” Dean says when he sees him, and Sam wants to say the same for different reasons. Dean’s clothes are rumpled, his hair sticking out different ways, his mouth too pink. Sam wishes he’d left the light off and gone to bed so that he couldn’t see Dean’s dilated eyes or the flush to his cheeks. “It’s Friday night and you’re up late reading. Someone didn’t raise you right, Sam.”

“Fuck off,” Sam replies, but he sets his book down and scoots to the edge of the bed, anyway. “We can’t all be drunk losers like you, you know.”

“Drunk losers who got laid,” Dean retorts, grinning widely.

“Whatever. You always get laid.” Sam shrugs. “It’s not exactly news, Dean.”

“Touchy,” Dean says, but Sam thinks he’s probably too drunk to mean it the way Sam does, because Sam is touchy about it. He lolls his head against the doorway, and then takes a step back. “Just came in to say goodnight, kid. Quit being such a nerd and get to sleep.”

“Yeah,” Sam says, except he’s standing up before he knows it, big bare feet moving in Dean’s direction while he says, “Hey, wait.”

And Sam knows, in that second, that Dean’s starting to get it, but he seems frozen to the spot, there in the doorway, dark hallway behind him and dim lamplight in front of him and no one else is awake so Sam just makes a decision.

His lips only touch Dean’s for a second this time, not long enough for Sam to see if they feel like before, not long enough for Sam to even get a sense of how Dean tastes. Dean doesn’t push him away completely, though, just jerks his head to the side and says, “Sam, don’t.” He touches Sam’s shoulder, and Sam knows it’s because Dean’s trying to push him away instead of pulling him closer, but he doesn’t do either one.

Sam has a full two inches on Dean now, and he wonders if it bothers Dean the way it bothers him. He leans down, resting his forehead on Dean’s shoulder, breathing in as he does. Dean smells like booze and smoke, like sweat and soap, like nothing Sam has ever wanted more.

“Sam,” Dean warns, but the thing is, he’s still not moving, and in that case Sam isn’t going to, either. “Sam, hey.” He brings his hand up to Sam’s face, pushing him back a little to look him in the eye. “Which one of us is drunk here, huh? We can’t do this.”

“You started it,” Sam retorts, his face twisting up as soon as he says it because it’s petulant and stupid – but he still means it.

“I know I did,” Dean says, running his hand through Sam’s hair. “I know, and I’m sorry, and – god, Sam,” he drops his hand back to his side then, but they still stand close enough to breathe each other’s air, same as they’ve been doing since late September. “I’ve been tryin’ to make that up to you. I can’t do that if you –”

He swipes his hand over his mouth, shifts his gaze down to the ground, and Sam feels guilt build up in his chest, but not regret. Never that.

“Okay,” Sam says, even though he doesn’t want to, even though he knows if he pushed Dean up against the doorframe right now, Dean would let him, would open his mouth against Sam’s and there wouldn’t be any more talking about this. “Okay, yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow, Dean.”

He takes the first step back, watching Dean’s shoulders relax and his head tilt up to look at Sam. “All right,” Dean says after a minute, and Sam knows he’s forcing that easy smile now, but it’s not the worst that could happen. Then, before he turns to go, “Damn, Sam. If you’re gonna be up this late reading, at least make it skin mags.”

Sam laughs, and once Dean’s gone he falls asleep easily despite the heat in his belly and the ache in his cock, despite the desperate want that he’s not sure will ever stop clawing at him.

*

The next afternoon, Dean hands Sam the keys to the Impala and does his best not to hyperventilate on the drive over to their favorite diner. Sam’s a decent driver and Dean’s feeling less than awesome, but that doesn’t mean he won’t kill Sam if something happens to this car. It’s kind of the only thing Dean has going for him. The car still smells like last night, like smoke and booze and sex, and Sam’s nose crinkles when he gets behind the wheel, but he doesn’t say anything. Dean thinks he’s kind of fantastic for that.

Or he does, until Sam switches the radio to stations it was never meant to go with a smirking reminder that driver picks the music.

Fucking Pearl Jam. Dean’s going to be singing “Jeremy” at the garage for weeks now. He’s just glad, after that, that the drive to the diner is a short one. He pretty much accosts Sam on the way in, snagging the keys back and putting them in his coat pocket.

“New rule,” he says as they sit down in a booth near the back of the restaurant. “I pick the music. The end.”

Sam rolls his eyes as he unfolds his menu. “I know all your stupid music. You could learn some of mine.”

Luckily, Dean doesn’t have to respond to that, because the waitress comes by to take their orders and Dean spends the next two and a half minutes flirting for all he’s worth. She’s not that attractive and Dean’s learned his lesson about hooking up with waitresses at places he plans to go more than once, but whatever. He needs to do something to distract himself from the conversation he’s about to have with Sam.

“Wow,” Sam says when the waitress is out of earshot, her big hoop earrings swinging while she walks, “that was kind of disgusting to watch.”

“Are you kidding me? I’m awesome. You could learn something from me.” Which, really, Sam could. He never seems to go out with girls anymore, unless he’s just not bringing them back to the house – which Dean guesses would be understandable.

There’s a pause, and Sam looks at him with so much focus that Dean wishes they had their food already. Then he says, “Yeah, I’ll pass,” and starts fiddling with his silverware.

The waitress comes by with their drinks, OJ for Sam and a milkshake and coffee for Dean. Dean unwraps his straw and tosses his wrapper and catches Sam in the shoulder, and Sam looks back up at him with a scowl. “Seriously?” he asks.

Dean shrugs, takes a sip of his milkshake before asking, “You got plans tonight?”

Sam makes a noncommittal noise and shrugs before dropping his gaze again. “Why not?” Dean asks. “I saw you talking to that girl yesterday, Tanya?”

“Trina,” Sam tells him, in that tone that translates perfectly as idiot.

“Right, yeah. She seemed interested. Why don’t you go out with her, huh?”

“She’s just a friend, Dean,” Sam mutters, scowling at the table instead of Dean. “I’m not really interested.”

“Oh,” Dean says, and clears his throat before stumbling on, “so do you like guys are somethin’?” This was not the conversation Dean actually intended to have with his brother this morning. Or, ever.

“No!” Sam says, and then he blushes before saying quietly, “I mean, maybe, but not – it’s not that. Girls aren’t the problem. Girls are fine. I just… don’t want to go out with anybody.”

“You should,” Dean says, and Sam looks up at him, eyes wide and mouth open to respond, but then the waitress is standing there with four hot plates of delicious, grease-charged breakfast food, and Dean has never been more grateful to see food in his entire life, possibly.

He unwraps his silverware and digs in, and after a minute Sam follows suit. Dean doesn’t tell Sam what he came here to say, and neither of them tries to continue their conversation. Sam keeps looking at him, though, that searching gaze that makes Dean feel like his insides are on his outsides and he’s all mixed up. Dean keeps his eyes on his hash browns and when they get back in the car he plays Zeppelin too loud for any kind of talk.

*

After he drops Sam back at home, Dean works a short shift at the shop. There isn’t much to do but he just wants to get his hands dirty, wants to keep his mind on engines and sparkplugs and motor oil instead of whatever’s going on between him and Sam this time.

He guesses it’s the same old stuff, except this time he’s not the only one, and that scares the living hell out of him. He doesn’t know, really, what to do about any of that, so he busies himself under the hood of someone’s Camry, busies himself with work chatter and plans for later tonight. Some of the guys are talking about heading out to the bar, and Dean knows he probably shouldn’t, but a couple of beers with the guys sounds good, and when Dean comes home to clean up and finds Sam gone (“Girl picked him up,” John mutters from in front of the television set, “’bout time, too,”), it’s an easy decision.

He doesn’t stay for too long, though. He has a few beers, kicks Frank’s ass at pool, and goes home well within the legal limit. It’s a fucking accomplishment, actually, but to be fair, there was no one pretty to make eyes at and the bar was too crowded for his taste.

Still, it’s midnight by the time Dean gets back and the house is quiet and dark but for the hall light left on upstairs. Dean glances at Sam’s room, sees the lights off and figures he must’ve gone to bed already, so after brushing his teeth he strips down to his boxers and does the same.

Hours later, he wakes to someone else’s breathing, the sound of someone else clearing their throat.

“Sam?” he asks, once he blinks a few times. The blinds are open so there’s a decent bit of moonlight, and he can see Sam standing in front of the door facing him, head leaning back and his eyes trained on Dean.

“Hey,” Sam says, and if the late hour and Sam’s unkempt clothing weren’t good enough indicators, that one word tells Dean that Sam’s been drinking again.

Dean sits up, moves so his feet touch the soft carpet, but he doesn’t turn on the bedside lamp. “Everything okay?” he asks, keeping his voice down. Their parents tend to sleep like the dead, but Dean doesn’t want to risk waking them. He doubts they’d let Sam get away with drinking like this twice.

Sam shakes his head, scraggly hair getting in his eyes before he shoves it back again. He steps further into the room, legs hitting the edge of Dean’s bed before he stops. “Trina and I fucked,” he says, quick and sharp, like he has any experience with the words, like he’s – like he’s trying to make it casual, the way Dean would.

“Well, hey, congratulations,” Dean says, grinning sleepily. “I’d say we should celebrate, but by the looks of you you’ve been doin’ enough of that for both of us.”

“Yeah,” Sam says shortly, eyes roaming Dean’s bare torso before settling back on Dean’s face, “I have.”

“Well, don’t get too excited.” Dean’s trying to keep the mood light, but the more his eyes adjust the more he wishes he could just tell Sam to get out.

Instead of doing that, Sam sits down on the bed. There’s a stretch of mattress between them, but Dean still feels vaguely suffocated. They can be in the car together for hours, hang out downstairs watching TV, go out to eat – but Dean makes a pretty concentrated effort not to let situations like this happen.

“It wasn’t bad,” Sam says. “I mean, we both… And she seemed okay, afterward. But I don’t want her.”

Dean shuts his eyes, willing the room to disappear along with Sam, willing the sun to come up and the rest of the house to come alive. When it doesn’t, he opens his eyes and asks, “What do you want?”

Sam lets out a breath, long and low and Dean bets he reeks like the cheap beer that high school kids always buy. He thinks Sam’s next words are going to be come on, Dean, that Sam’s going to flat-out say it and Dean’s going to have to punch him or full-on drag him out of here, but it doesn’t work that way.

What happens is, Sam starts talking, quiet and steady and Dean has to wonder if Sam’s as drunk as he thought. “You know, until a couple of months ago, I couldn’t figure out why that thing with you and Rachel bothered me so much. Why I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about the two of you. I kept picturing it, and I…” Sam sighs again. “I didn’t get it. Because she was my date and you were a fucking asshole of a brother, but it shouldn’t have gotten to me the way it did, you know? I barely knew her. Trina already had a date so Rachel asked me to go and, whatever. But it kept eating at me. And then you… and it all made sense, and it wasn’t just me.”

Sam’s been staring at his hands while he talks, gesturing when the words refuse to come out just right, but he looks at Dean then, and Dean’s surprised to find that despite how much he knows he should get up and run, all he’s doing is watching Sam. Waiting.

“That’s why you did it, isn’t it?”

“Sam,” Dean says, watching the distance between them on the bed get slowly swallowed up as Sam moves closer.

“Dean,” Sam breathes out, and then he’s right there, warm mouth pushed against his, big hands on Dean’s bare shoulders and Dean wants.

He shuts his eyes and lets it happen, lets Sam pry his mouth open with his tongue, tilts their faces to get the angle right, drags his teeth along Sam’s bottom lip and gets a fistful of Sam’s hair. It’s exactly how he wanted to kiss Sam that first night, slow and heated, not a fuck you or an apology or anything but a kiss.

It’s just a minute, maybe ninety seconds of Dean giving in before he pulls back. Sam’s eyes are open, and Dean gets the feeling they’ve been that way the whole time. He grips Dean’s shoulders hard and tries to dive in again, but Dean’s still stronger and quicker despite the three inches Sam has on him, despite the size of Sam’s hands exceeding his own, and he lets out three words before he stands up.

“You’re what?” Sam asks, sounding out of breath and frustrated. He stands up, too, staring down at Dean.

“I’m moving out,” Dean repeats. “I found a place not too far from here.” It’s what he’d tried to tell Sam this afternoon, what he’s wanted to say for a week now. He looked at the place on Monday, signed the lease the following morning – it’s kind of a dump and a little out of his price range, but it’s close to the garage and it’s his. It’s about damn time, he thinks.

Dean,” Sam says, like that’s any kind of argument. Dean guesses it kind of is, seeing as it makes his stomach clench up. Sam’s standing close, breathing right against Dean’s neck.

“Can’t stay here forever, Sam,” Dean says, trying to sound reasonable even though he’s half-hard, half-drunk, and completely exhausted.

Sam touches his arm, runs his fingertips along Dean’s bicep, eyes fixed on the skin there, but he doesn’t push in any closer. “When?”

“After Christmas,” Dean says, and Sam’s hand stops moving, holds still at his elbow. “First of the month, actually. C’mon,” he says then, when Sam still hasn’t said a word. He nudges Sam’s leg with his foot. “Quit actin’ like it’s the end of the world. You can move into this room, if you want. There’s more space for your big-ass self.”

“Yeah,” Sam says quietly, and all at once he’s pushed right up against Dean again, head on his shoulder and his other arm around Dean’s neck. “Goddamn it, Dean,” he mutters against Dean’s skin, and Dean can’t repress the shiver that brings, can’t summon up enough thoughts to stop the flow of blood to his cock. He can’t stop himself from putting his hand on Sam’s back, holding him there, rubbing at the cotton of his t-shirt.

He thinks he knows what Sam means, too. It’s not about this, this thing between them, this want that Dean can’t explain or stop no matter how hard he tries – it’s about the two of them finally becoming brothers again, and now Dean’s moving out. But he knows it’s time, regardless of Sam. He’s twenty-one years old, almost twenty-two, and it’s just time.

They stay like that for a while, bodies too close together and their breathing in sync, until Sam finally pulls away and gives Dean a small, sheepish smile that Dean can see perfectly in the moonlight. He backs up further toward the door, runs a hand through his hair, and then says, “I guess it’s about time, you big loser. Congratulations.” He grins, opens the door, and heads toward his room.

Dean sleeps easily that night because he knows, if nothing else, Sam meant that.

*

Mary and John take Dean out Sunday night to celebrate him getting his own place. Sam considers bowing out, considers being a dick about the whole thing and just finding somewhere else to be, but in the end he sits right next to Dean at the dinner table, stealing Dean’s breadsticks and occasionally kicking Dean in the ankles.

The rest of December passes by too quickly. Sam’s used to the weeks before Christmas break dragging on, used to weeks of dull classes and hearing everyone else’s vacation plans. But this year, Sam can’t make the time go slow enough, can’t delay January sneaking right up on him. Dean’s going to leave Sam alone in this house with their parents and their plans and the endless college talk that makes Sam choke; Dean’s going to go be an adult. Sam knows it’s a long time coming, knows Dean’s still going to be so close Sam could damn near walk to Dean’s apartment if he had to, but he still fucking hates it.

Sam’s always been a decent actor, though, and he doesn’t let his hatred show. A few days before Christmas Dean takes him to see the new place. Dean never really described it as anything but a dump, so Sam’s surprised that it’s not actually that bad. Sure, the paint’s peeling off the doors and the hallway kind of smells like dirty laundry and onions, but the apartment has a lot of space for what Dean’s paying a month, and Sam’s willing to bet there won’t even be a bug problem.

“Don’t let Mom see this place,” Sam advises Dean once they’ve toured the apartment – big living room, small kitchen, one bedroom, and a bathroom half the size of the one back home. “She’ll make you break the lease in a heartbeat.”

“Fuck off,” Dean says, punching him on the arm. He’s smiling, though, and Sam can’t help smiling back. For all that Sam fucking hates it, he knows that Dean loves this place.

He just needs December to go by a little slower.

*

It snows for the first time that winter on Christmas morning, but Sam barely notices because there, parked in front of the house, is his Christmas present. “You guys bought me a car,” Sam stammers, breath coming out in big white puffs as he stands barefoot on the porch, snow soaking the bottoms of his pajama pants.

He turns his head to look back at John and Mary and they’re beaming at him, and Sam bets there’s a catch about insurance, bets he’s going to have to get a job and say a million words of gratitude, but he doesn’t fucking care. It’s a car.

Truth is, Sam had never given much thought to getting a car of his own. He’d never planned on staying in Kansas for college, and ever since he got his license it seemed more important to save up for school than it did to save up for something he’d have to leave behind in a year or so, anyway.

Doesn’t mean this isn’t the best gift he’s ever gotten.

Mary steps up behind him, puts her hand on his arm. She’s warm despite all the cold air Sam’s letting inside, smelling like coffee and the French toast she made for breakfast, and Sam can’t stop beaming down at her. “We had a lot saved up already from your college fund, honey,” Mary tells him. “We figured since you won’t need that now…”

Sam doesn’t let her finish the sentence, just pulls her into a tight hug, nearly lifting her off the ground in his enthusiasm. “You’re welcome, sweetheart,” she laughs. “Now put me down.”

He does, but he doesn’t let go until he sees Dean standing behind her, hair sticking up at odd angles and a sleepy grin on his face. “Dean,” he says then, “they bought me a car.”

“Can see that, Sam,” Dean says, nodding his head toward the open door. “You gotta get to school on days like this somehow now, huh? Riding the bus is for losers.”

Sam still can’t stop smiling, even after Dean reminds him that he won’t be here to drive Sam anymore, that he won’t be waiting outside Sam’s school a few times a week to pick him up, that even if he still lives close, nothing’s really going to be the same.

Sam can go wherever he wants now, though. He could drive straight out of Kansas right now if he wanted to, take the keys and just go until he’s ready to come back.

He chooses to stay, though, because Dean’s already pulling him away from Mary and talking about taking the car out for a spin. “After breakfast, though. I smell French toast, and I am not missin’ that.”

*

They end up waiting until nearly three, because there are still other gifts to exchange, piles of wrapping paper to clean up, and Christmas specials to watch. It’s the first decent Christmas Sam can remember in years, with no one hungover or fighting or throwing temper tantrums, and when Mary fixes them each a cup of hot cocoa before they head outside, Sam almost feels like a kid again.

He isn’t, though. He’s holding the keys to his own car, and he and his big brother are headed out for a test drive. His hands shake a little when he puts the keys in the ignition, but he doesn’t even get a second to relax because a loud, horrific sound immediately issues from the radio – fucking opera, at top volume. It must’ve taken Dean ages to find this station.

Dean’s laughing so hard he’s shaking when Sam turns to scowl at him. “I hate you so much,” he says, and hits one of the buttons on the stereo – Dean’s programmed this one to death metal of some sort, and who knew Lawrence even had a death metal station?

He settles for shutting the radio off. “You better hope,” Sam says as pulls out of his parking space, “that I don’t get a hold of your keys anytime soon. Jackass.”

“It’ll be the last thing you ever do,” Dean assures him as he wipes away a few tears. “So where are we headed?”

“Not sure yet,” Sam says. “Figured we’d just drive for a while, so I can get a feel for her.”

“Her, huh?” Sam’s eyes are focused on the road, but he knows Dean’s grinning, ready to tease the hell out of him. “Yeah, all right,” he says. “Sounds good.” He reaches forward for the stereo, and Sam nearly risks causing an accident to lean over and strangle him, but Dean hits the fourth button instead, and Sam relaxes when he hears his favorite alternative station kick up. He guesses he doesn’t have to kill Dean just yet.

*

The sun’s setting by the time they get back home, and most of the snow has already melted. Dean only put up with Sam’s music for an hour before starting a station war, and though they’ve settled on Dylan now, the moment’s kind of ruined by Dean’s awful, obnoxious imitation of “Maggie’s Farm.” Sam only remembers as he’s unbuckling his seatbelt that their parents have some party to go to with some of Mary’s work friends, so they have the house to themselves.

They spend about ten minutes raiding the kitchen cupboards before Dean grumbles, “Fuck this. We’re ordering a pizza,” and they settle in to watch A Christmas Story while they wait. Sam forgets every year how much he hates this movie, so he’s barely paying attention to anything that’s going on, and he doesn’t mind like he usually would when Dean starts talking in the middle of the movie.

“Man, remember when I got the Impala?” he asks, seemingly out of nowhere. “I couldn’t believe it when Dad handed that thing over to me. I thought he was out of his mind.”

“Well, he was,” Sam says, unable to stop himself. “Letters DUI mean anything to you, Dean?”

“Yeah, I guess. But man, those first couple weeks… I remember taking you out, must’ve been the first day or two, and you kept saying slow down.”

“I thought you were gonna kill us,” Sam agrees. Dean doesn’t exactly drive like a maniac, but Sam’s never seen him obey the speed limit, and he considers it a miracle that Dean’s never gotten worse than a DUI by now.

“Yeah,” Dean says, chuckling. “But by the time I got us back home, you didn’t wanna get out of the car.”

Sam nods, but he keeps his eyes on the movie he’s not watching and doesn’t say anything else. He still feels that way now, sometimes – like more than anything else, he’d rather be in the Impala with Dean, regardless of where they’re headed or what they’re doing. He’ll take Dean’s stupid music and fast food wrappers over a too-quiet house any day.

The pizza arrives and they switch to watching Year without a Santa Claus, which Dean insists is much more enjoyable to watch while stoned. “Isn’t that…” Sam licks a stray fleck of sauce off the corner of his lips. “I mean, isn’t that what they say about everything?”

Dean gives him this look then, tilted lips and raised eyebrow and Sam’s kind of reminded of that time when they were kids and Dean insisted that Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind, really, if they turned their garage into a funhouse and charged kids admission.

Sam swallows. “What?” he asks, and then again when Dean just shakes his head. He sets his plate down on the table and stands up, muttering, “Stay here,” before turning and heading upstairs. Sam watches, bewildered, and then turns back to the TV where Mother Nature is pitching a fit.

*

It’s like this: Christmas is going good, really fucking good. Dean can’t remember the last time Christmas didn’t epically blow, didn’t involve fighting or tears or someone storming out or, at the very least, some really awkward silences.

He and Sam are fine and they have the house to themselves and there’s pizza and Christmas specials and then Sam talks about getting high like it’s the most foreign concept in the world to him and man, Dean can’t just let this kid go off to college in a few months (almost eight, but Dean’s pretty good at not counting) like that.

Which is why, sometime after six o’clock on Christmas night, Dean Winchester’s kid brother is practically hacking out a lung. “Idiot,” Dean says, patting Sam on the back. “What did I just say about breathing?”

Sam turns and glares at him, eyes watery from choking so hard. “You’re a dick,” Sam informs him, and then coughs some more.

“Kind of beside the point, but all right.” Dean makes a grab for the joint still clenched between Sam’s fingers, but Sam moves out of his grasp. “Nuh-uh,” Sam says. “I’ll figure this out.”

So, okay, when Dean made a joke about how no brother of his was going to go off to college without decent of knowledge of getting high, he didn’t expect Sam to take it so seriously. “It ain’t calculus, Sam,” Dean tells him. “You just hold it in and let it out when you’re ready.”

Sam’s still glaring at him like he maybe wants to give Dean a violent jab to the ribs, but he nods and tries again. There’s minimal coughing this time, and Dean manages to get the joint out of Sam’s hand to take a hit himself. It’s pretty cheap pot, since Dean’s been saving up for moving out and that’s left him with less money for bad habits, but it does the trick okay and pretty soon Dean’s warm despite the winter chill and it’s not long after that before Sam starts chuckling beside him.

“Huh?” Dean asks. Pot never makes him slap-happy, not like alcohol, but it seems to be having about that effect for Sam. They’re sitting on the steps in back of the house and Sam’s practically on top of him, chattering in Dean’s ear.

“Hey, remember when we used to fight monsters back here?” he asks. The joint’s mostly gone now, and Dean hasn’t bothered to lecture Sam about hogging it. “You used to pretend it was our job to save people and you’d make up funny names for all the different creatures.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He must’ve been ten at the time, which would’ve made Sam six. Back then, Sam would follow him around, play any game Dean suggested just so that Dean wouldn’t go off with the neighbor kids and leave him behind. He remembers how weird it was when Sam finally grew out of that one – how suddenly Sam had all these friends, and Dean was left to figure out who he was without his kid brother.

He guesses that’s what he’s supposed to do now, too.

“It’s going to be so weird without you here,” Sam says, and because Dean’s high it seems like Sam’s reading his mind, but he knows that Sam’s just saying whatever comes out of his mouth because if Dean’s high then Sam’s fucking gone. “Who am I gonna talk to all the time? Who’s gonna steal all my girlfriends?”

“Sam,” Dean starts. He thinks about telling Sam that they only just started talking again, anyway, but Sam laughs again, right in his ear.

“Fuck, Mom’s gonna be pissed,” Sam says then, and Dean’s heart clenches because he thinks Sam means something else entirely. “I can’t believe you got me stoned.”

Dean opens his mouth to say something, but Sam won’t fucking shut up and he beats him to it. “Hey, I’m cold. Let’s go back inside.”

“Yeah, all right,” Dean agrees, putting aside whatever else. They wipe their shoes off on the mat and Sam practically cackles when he sees that the movie’s still going. Dean leaves him on the couch so he can clean everything else up, leaving the pizza – Sam’s first munchies are bound to be epic – and throwing out the boxes.

When he gets back, though, Sam isn’t paying any attention to the TV. He’s looking at Dean, and Dean’s realizing just what a bad idea it might’ve been to get Sam – Sam, who can’t keep his hands off Dean any time he’s a little under the influence – stoned.

He glances at the TV and then Sam and back and he doesn’t know what to do, what to say, but he knows he can’t just sit down next to Sam and ignore everything. Not right now, not when his head is spinning and his hands are itching to touch and Sam just keeps looking at him. There’s a dot of sauce still on Sam’s bottom lip and Dean drags his eyes away from that to look Sam in the eye when he says, “Let’s go upstairs.”

*

Dean means to just get them both upstairs and deposit Sam in his room until they both come down, lessening the chance of their parents coming home and seeing Sam like this – he really does. But as it happens, Dean takes a wrong turn on the stairway and they end up in his room instead, and from there he flicks the lights on and shuts the door and he isn’t sure who starts it, he really isn’t, but then there’s Sam’s mouth and his mouth and the taste of pizza and pot and spit and Dean can’t fucking help himself.

It lasts much longer this time, the two of them panting against each other’s mouths, Sam tilting his head down to suck on Dean’s neck, Dean’s hands skimming Sam’s stomach and just barely managing to keep them above Sam’s waist. Sam uses too much tongue and he’s fucking noisy, little whimpers escaping him when Dean’s barely fucking touching him, and it’s the hottest thing Dean’s ever heard. They’ve barely even moved; they haven’t made it past the door, and Dean wants, wants to move his hands lower and get Sam pressed further against him, wants Sam grinding and panting, wants to get his hands on Sam and just –

He doesn’t, though. Five minutes, maybe ten go by, and Dean thinks he has Sam’s mouth memorized, thinks Sam’s managed to give him a hickey or seven, but something finally snaps and he pulls back.

Sam’s eyes open slow, pupils beyond dilated, a slow grin curving his lips even as Dean takes another step from him. “Jesus, Dean,” he says, but Dean just shakes his head and lowers his gaze. “Mom and Dad are gonna be back soon,” he says. “You should…” he can feel Sam’s eyes on him, feels the argument coming. “Just go, okay? Please?”

And for once, Sam doesn’t argue. Sam’d argue about the grass being green some days just to get under Dean’s skin, but right now he just looks at Dean, mouth red and clothes wrinkled from Dean grabbing helplessly at them, and he nods. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”

There’s a good half a foot between them, but before Sam turns to go he reaches out, tugs once at the gold chain around Dean’s neck – and Dean thinks of being fourteen and opening that on Christmas morning, feeling baffled by the gift but sure he’d never take it off, anyway, because Sam’s gifts weren’t the type to toss in a drawer and forget about – and then says, “All right. Merry Christmas, Dean.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “Yeah, you too.”

*

Dean spends most of New Year’s Eve packing, and by the afternoon of the first he has everything set to go. He convinces a few of the guys from the garage to help him out, and they load Dean’s bed and dresser into Bill’s truck; the few boxes Dean has he manages to fit into the Impala. All the snow melted days ago but it’s chilly, and the guys call Dean an asshole for not waiting ‘til spring to move. He can’t explain to any of them why it had to be now, why if he didn’t leave soon he wouldn’t at all.

He just buys a couple cases of beer and orders pizza and pretty soon they’re all standing around in his new apartment cracking jokes. Dean doesn’t even have a couch yet, or end tables or real plates or kitchen appliances aside from a stove and a refrigerator, all of which the guys are quick to point out. Dean helpfully reminds them that they’re all still living at home or trapped with a girlfriend, and that shuts them up quick.

The beer goes fast and Dean thanks everyone for their help, and then it’s just him in the apartment, about a dozen boxes in front of him and ten empty beer cans on the ground, and he’s wondering what he’s supposed to do now when there’s a knock on the door.

“Hey,” Sam says when Dean opens up. His teeth are chattering despite the big winter coat he’s wearing, cheeks red with cold. He looks past Dean into the apartment, and rolls his eyes. “Thanks for inviting me to the housewarming party, asshole.”

“You weren’t home,” Dean says. This morning was pointedly not a big deal. Sam spent the night at a friend’s house and John was already at work by the time Dean started to bring his stuff out to the car. Mary quick kissed him goodbye and said she’d see him soon.

“I didn’t think you’d leave so soon.” Sam shifts, kicking some rock salt off his shoes. “Figured you’d wait a while.”

“I’m not across the country, Sam,” Dean says, for what feels like the hundredth time in the last week at least. “I’m right here.”

Sam looks at him, and he doesn’t have to say a damn word for Dean to know what that scowl means. It means then why bother leaving at all, and they both already know the answer to that. He looks back down at his shoes then, expression softening, and for a second Dean almost feels like a stranger.

“So,” Sam says then, “are you gonna invite me in?”

*

Sam doesn’t stay for long. He helps Dean unpack his stuff and drinks a little of Dean’s beer, and by the time they’re done the rest of the place is still pretty barren, but Dean’s bedroom almost looks like home. They stand in the bedroom doorway for a while just looking in, the dresser and nightstand and lamp and bed arranged just slightly different from the way they used to be. Then Dean turns and realizes Sam isn’t looking at the room anymore, but at him, and he breaks away before anything can happen.

“Dean,” Sam says, following him back to the living room. Dean starts picking up the beer cans, finds an empty box to throw them into until he owns practical things like garbage bags.

“Mom and Dad know you’re here?” Dean asks. There’s still a little beer left in one of the cans, and Dean drinks it straight down.

“No reason to lie.” Sam leans back against the wall, keeps looking at Dean like he’s waiting for something.

Dean wants to tell Sam that he’s right, but he knows that’s not true. Sam being here is screwing with his head; it used to be all right, being alone with Sam, but now it’s – now no one’s going to come in and stop them, if something happens. There’s no bigger barrier than the empty boxes and beer cans on the floor between them, and it seems to Dean that even with all the empty space of this apartment, there’s still no air to breathe.

“Why don’t you get on home to dinner, Sam?”

“What?” Sam pushes himself off the wall, dirty sneakers scraping the wooden floor beneath his feet. His jeans are torn at the bottoms and Dean wonders when Sam stopped paying attention to that kind of thing.

“You heard me.” Dean tries to keep his voice neutral, tries not to be mean or desperate or say anything with his words but what he’s saying. “Go home, Sam. You got a car now. You can come see me any time you want.”

He doesn’t mean to say that last part, but it’s true enough. Just because he moved out doesn’t mean he spent three months trying to fix things with Sam for nothing. They’re still brothers, still friends, no matter what else is going on.

“Can’t you come with?” Sam asks. He’s standing closer now, and he kicks a beer can in Dean’s direction as he says it. “Dinners without you are always hell.”

“C’mon,” Dean tells him. He gets his hand on Sam’s arm, tugs him gently toward the door. “A couple months ago a meal without me would’ve been the best thing you could think of. I know Mom’s gonna miss me so much it’ll be hard for her to pay any attention to your ugly self, but you could at least try.”

“Jackass.”

“Don’t you forget that.”

“I did, for a while,” Sam admits. They’re right in front of the door now, and Dean reaches past Sam to turn the lock, but he freezes when Sam tugs at the hem of his shirt. “I just,” he says, looking down at the material between his fingers. Dean can’t fucking breathe. “I guess I just wanted to say thanks, you know. You really…” he looks up again, smiles, and even in the dim light the apartment provides, it’s fucking blinding. “I’m glad you’re not such a fuck-up anymore.”

“Thanks, Sam,” Dean snorts, and Sam nods, and when he leans in Dean just barely remembers to pull away.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay.” He steps around Sam to unlock the door. “I’ll see you soon, all right?” Sam nods again and heads out, and Dean locks the door behind him. He doesn’t see Sam again for weeks.

*

Sam knows Dean’s not completely to blame. As soon as school starts up again he’s busy studying for finals, and all of his friends want to hang out since he blew most of them off over break, and then there’s some winter formal and finals themselves and suddenly January’s halfway over.

That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t plenty of times Sam’s wanted to see Dean. Dean hasn’t shown up to dinner once since he moved out, hasn’t called Sam, hasn’t come by his school. His car’s not outside the apartment the few times Sam drives past, and Sam stops short of visiting him at the garage – something about that place makes him feel uncomfortable, small, entirely out of place. He doesn’t even know what he’d say to Dean at this point, what his first words would be after two weeks of silence.

And it’s not that Dean hasn’t been around at all. Sam comes home one Friday and Mary tells him he just missed Dean, that he stopped by for lunch before going back to the garage. “Are you two fighting again?” she asks, and she sounds almost as sad as Sam feels. He wants to give her a straight answer just to dodge the questioning look in her eyes, but he doesn’t know. He shrugs and heads upstairs to do his homework.

The second time, it’s Saturday and Trina asks him out, and dinner is awkward and stilted because Trina is funny and cute and one of his best friends but Sam doesn’t want to be here. It’s such an intense feeling, right then, that when he gets home that night and Mary tells him Dean stopped by for dinner, it barely surprises him. He grits his teeth and tries not to show anger or disappointment or anything but mild curiosity, but when he goes upstairs this time, the first thing he does is pick up his phone to call Dean.

It rings and rings, and nothing happens. Dean’s voicemail message starts up and Sam realizes it’s the first time he’s heard his brother’s voice in weeks. Hey, this is Dean. You know what to do.

He calls another time, and a third, but he never says anything after the beep.

*

Two and a half weeks after Sam’s been back at school, Dean shows up at the house for dinner – Mary’s making spaghetti and meatballs, and Sam supposes he should’ve guessed that Dean would show up this night, but he’s still surprised when he comes downstairs and Dean’s just there, in the living room, having an awkward conversation with their dad.

Neither of them speaks for a minute.

The TV’s on, 6 o’clock news up to sports coverage, and Dean’s wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt Sam’s never seen before, and he looks good. Like he hasn’t spent every fucking night since he left thinking about Sam, like he hasn’t sat through two week’s worth of family dinners without his brother as a buffer, like he hasn’t –

God. Sam wants to strangle him.

He doesn’t, though. The moment breaks and Dean smiles at him, not wide and open like he would if they were alone but a smile nonetheless, and Sam just walks over to him and all but hugs him – he nudges Dean’s shoulder with his and smiles shyly back and says, “Hey.”

And it’s just fine.

At dinner, Dean eats enough to feed a small elephant and Mary asks him what he’s been living off of (“Beer and potato chips, Mom, jeez”), and afterward he and Sam take up dish duty. They don’t talk at first; the spray of the water is too loud and the things running through Sam’s head are louder still. No one said much at dinner and Sam still doesn’t know where Dean’s been, what he’s been up to, if everything’s all right. He doesn’t know if he’s allowed to ask, doesn’t know if it would make a difference, since either way Dean’s here, next to him, scrubbing marinara sauce off the countertop.

Sam shuts the water off after a while, though, and it’s not long before Dean says, “Hey, listen.”

The TV’s on in the living room, news again, and Dean’s talking quietly. Sam turns from the sink and looks back at Dean. He’s standing with his back against the counter now, rag held loosely in his hands. “I know I should’ve – I’m sorry I haven’t been around in a while.”

Sam’s surprises himself when the first words out of his mouth aren’t yeah, I noticed but just, “Hey, it’s all right.”

“No, it’s…” Dean clears his throat. “It’s not. I’m close. I could’ve…”

“I could’ve come to see you, too, Dean,” Sam points out. “I have a car now.” He grins a little, trying to lighten the mood. “I suck just as much as you do.”

“Quit tryin’ to steal my title,” Dean says, grinning right back. “No, but, we should…” He looks toward the kitchen door, but it’s still just them, and Dean shrugs and drops his gaze. “You know, if you still want. We should hang out. Tonight, even. If you want,” Dean repeats. He looks up at Sam again and Sam feels his breath catch a little, and it makes Sam want to roll his eyes at himself because it’s just Dean.

But, it’s Dean.

It’s Dean, so Sam doesn’t flat out say, of course I want to, idiot, just stretches out his leg, kicks Dean once (a little harder than he needs to, maybe, but the fucker’s been gone for weeks), and then says, “Yeah, I guess I could free up some time for a loser like you.”

Dean laughs, quiet and warm and just for him, and Sam’s missed that more than he even knew until hearing it just now. “Awesome,” Dean says. Then he nudges Sam back and says, “So let’s dry these dishes and get the hell out of here, bitch.”

*

They take Dean’s car, because it still makes Mary nervous when Sam drives at night and because Sam’s missed this stupid car almost as much as he’s missed Dean. The doors creak and the engine purrs and Zeppelin blares out from the speakers, and when Dean pulls away from the house Sam doesn’t bother asking where they’re going.

Once they’ve been on the road for a while, Dean asks, “Everything all right back home?”

Sam knows Dean’s looking at him from the mirror, so he shrugs. “Dad’s still Dad. Mom hasn’t taken the college forms off the table since they showed up.”

“Yeah, she was looking at them when I came by.” Dean speeds past a truck on the highway, even though Sam’s pretty sure they don’t have anywhere to be, and then says, “But you’re all right?”

“Fine, I guess.” It’s dark already and he can see his reflection in the window, messy bangs and a hoodie that’s getting too small for him, and past that he can see Dean, eyes on the road but his grip tighter on the steering wheel than it needs to be. He tells Dean’s reflection, “It’s not the same, though. We all… you know.”

Dean grins, and Sam turns in time to catch it full-on, big and white-toothed and real. “Yeah, Sam,” Dean says. “I missed you, too.”

Sam’s next words are almost so come home, but he knows how childish and unrealistic that would be, so instead he says, “I didn’t move into your room, you know. Mom even said I could, since your bed’s gone anyway, but I…” he stops, says instead, “I’m leaving next fall, anyway. Not really a point, I guess.”

Dean nods, but he doesn’t answer, not for a while. They drive around for hours, tapes changing from Zeppelin to Metallica, then Dylan and the Stones, and even though they run out of things to say by the third tape, Sam still feels better than he has all month. Dean drives him home and they stay there in the car for a while, neither one of them moving.

“You know,” Sam tells him when the last tape runs out, “Mom wants to do something for your birthday again this year.”

“Jesus.”

Sam’s pretty sure they’re both remembering Dean’s twenty-first last year, when Dean didn’t even show up until the party was mostly over and he was almost too drunk to blow out his own candles. Dean spent the remainder of the party hanging on to Sam and breathing vodka into his ear, and Sam remembers hating him, really hating him at that moment. That’s when, Sam thinks, things started to get so confusing.

Or maybe they always were.

“Yeah. She probably wants it to be a surprise, but I figured I’d give you fair warning, in case…” Sam knows Dean wouldn’t do something like that now, but it’s only been a few months since that’s been true.

“Thanks.” Dean rubs at his neck and looks out the window toward the house. The lights are off in the living room, but Sam can still see the blue glow of the TV.

“Look, I know you wouldn’t…”

“No.” Dean looks at him then, straight on and fierce and Sam feels his own eyes widen in response. “No, you don’t really know that. Things have been…” His eyes shutter closed for a second, and Sam gets the feeling that Dean’s about to reach out, do something, but he doesn’t. “I just, I’ve…”

“Yeah, Dean.” Sam smiles at him, ignores the effort it takes. “I’ve missed you, too.”

“’Course you have. I’m awesome.”

Sam laughs, and instead of pulling Dean toward him, instead of climbing right on top of Dean like he desperately fucking wants to, has wanted to all night and who knows for how long before that, he just punches Dean in the arm and says, “Fucker. You’ll show up, right?”

Dean’s expression sobers, too, but that glow’s still in his eyes and everything’s okay. “Yeah, of course. You better buy me something good.”

“Whatever,” Sam scoffs, and he punches Dean again before saying goodnight and getting out of the car. He shivers on the porch steps, but he waits until he hears the Impala rumble down the street before heading inside.

*

It turns out to be a pretty decent birthday party, even though Mary can tell right away that Dean isn’t the least bit surprised. “Sam told you,” she says, her pretty face twisting up into a scowl as she takes Dean’s jacket from him. “You know that kid can’t keep a secret to save his life,” Dean tells her, even though it isn’t the least bit true.

Still, it’s a good thing Sam warned him, because up until then, Dean had spent just about every night drinking. Without Sam around to say anything he’d just fallen into it again; there are three bars within walking distance to the apartment, and it’s always too quiet at his place after work, and he hadn’t wanted to bother Sam by showing up all the time like he used to.

He knows how important tonight is, though, so he keeps his beer intake to a minimum. All of his friends from the garage show up, along with their girlfriends and a couple of kids, and there’s food and cake and a football game on TV and the house is warm and noisy. After dessert Dean opens a few cards and presents, most of which are things for his new place: some cheap dishes, pots and pans from his parents, and even a toaster.

Sam stays next to him most of the night, teasing him and depositing all the food he doesn’t eat onto Dean’s plate. He seems uncomfortable – Dean knows he’s never liked the guys from the garage, and some of Dad’s friends are here, too, who neither of them like much –, but happy, and if Dean’s heart feels heavier the few moments they have completely alone together, he tries to ignore it.

Everyone starts to head home near midnight, and Sam and Dean send their parents off to bed so they can clean up. They pack up the rest of the food and collect all the garbage, and Dean hums a CCR tune because Sam’s not talking and suddenly it’s too quiet, just the rustle of garbage bags and the sound of furniture being moved around. His senses feel heightened the way they do whenever he’s around Sam lately, and he knows Sam’s watching him, that he’s waiting to say something.

They’ve been cleaning for half an hour when Sam finally does. They take the trash bags outside and deposit them in the bin and that’s when Sam says, “Dean.”

Dean stops on his way back to the house, turning back to face Sam until he catches up. It’s cold and neither of them brought their coats, and there’s so much cloud coverage Dean can barely see the moon. But he can see Sam, standing right in front of him and shivering, breath coming out in little puffs of air. He’s just wearing a t-shirt and jeans and boots Dean doesn’t remember him buying and Dean can see goosebumps forming on his stupid scrawny arms but Sam’s just standing there, taller than him and looking down.

“What?” Dean asks, and he’s only quiet because they’re outside and it’s not that late – not because of the way Sam’s looking at him. When Sam doesn’t speak up right away, Dean starts to say, “Jesus, Sam, it’s fucking cold, come -” and Sam grabs him. He gets his hand on the back of Dean’s neck and pushes, gets their mouths together and their teeth clack against each other hard and Dean grunts in protest. He gets his hands on Sam’s shoulders to push him back, but somehow that turns into just moving them, fixing the angle so it feels better, opening his mouth against Sam’s and sucking Sam’s tongue until Sam moans, quiet and desperate, presses further against him. They stumble the rest of the distance up the pathway and Sam’s not shivering anymore, just gripping Dean’s t-shirt like a lifeline and whispering Dean’s name quietly while Dean sucks a mark into his neck.

He pulls away when they reach the porch steps, and the way Sam’s looking at him makes him feel dizzy and drunk even though the two beers he had earlier must have worn off by now. Sam always makes him feel like that, and Dean can’t even look at him anymore when he says, “Come upstairs.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dean mutters. He’s heard the words a hundred times before, or ones similar to it, but it’s never meant anything to him the way this does. It’s also never made him feel guiltier than right at this moment.

“Dean, I want,” Sam says; his hands are still on Dean, one of them palming his cheek, running down his neck, and Dean feels a cold sweat forming where Sam touches him. Sam sighs and drops his hand, but his voice is steady when he says, “Just come upstairs, all right? I want you to.”

“Maybe I don’t want to.” It’s a lie, and they both know it. Dean has to keep his head down, has to stare at the dirt on his boots and the scratch on his arm from an accident at the garage yesterday. He’s there all the time now; it’s the only place where Sam almost completely leaves his thoughts, the only place where he feels entirely himself despite the huge part of him that’s missing.

Sam touches his neck, the spot Dean just dug his teeth into, and it’s all Dean can do not to lean forward and put a matching mark on the other side. Before he can even think to move, though, Sam’s pushing him again, shoving him against the house and his hand moves low, skimming from Dean’s stomach to the front of his jeans.

“You do,” Sam breathes, and Dean feels himself get harder just at that but he still shakes his head. “Don’t,” he says, quiet again, but he meets Sam’s eyes this time and that’s enough to get Sam to back off. He nods, not like he believes a word Dean’s said but like he’s done arguing for now, and they both go inside so Dean can grab his coat. He stands near the stairs while Dean gets his jacket on and gathers up his stuff, and when Sam helps him to the car Dean stops before getting in and says, “We can’t, Sam. We just can’t. You know that, right?”

Dean waits, and Sam doesn’t answer. He drives home in silence.

*

 

Sam heads back inside after Dean leaves, and he spends a while watching bad TV in the living room before going upstairs to his room. He turns on his stereo and listens to music while he tries to read, but all he can think about is that moment outside tonight; all he can feel is the mark Dean left on his neck.

He waits an hour, an hour and a half, and then he goes downstairs, puts his shoes back on, and grabs his jacket. The drive to Dean’s apartment takes less than fifteen minutes, something Sam is constantly aware of – they’ve hung out only twice this month, despite how easy it is to cross this distance.

Sam drives exactly the speed limit, finds a space just outside the apartment building, and he’s up the steps and to Dean’s door in the time it usually takes him to walk up the path to their house.

It takes him minutes to knock.

It takes him minutes to bring his fist up to the door, minutes of listening for sounds that might indicate if Dean’s still awake, minutes of staring at the number on Dean’s door like it might change and he’ll have to go back home. He listens, and waits, and then he finally knocks and does the same.

When he opens the door, Dean doesn’t say anything. His mouth opens and Sam can smell beer and cigarettes, neither of which Dean particularly smelled like two hours earlier, and his expression is one Sam is horribly familiar with: Dean is trying to hide what he’s feeling, but Dean is a fucking terrible liar and it isn’t working.

Sam pushes past what it means that Dean appears damn near relieved to see him, and just says, “Look. I know, okay? I know that it’s… that this thing with us is… it’s fucked, right? And we shouldn’t, and that’s why you tried to push me away, and you think that… God, Dean, I don’t know what you think, but you’re wrong all right? Or you’re… maybe you’re not, but I don’t care.”

“Sam,” Dean says, quietly. It’s a little different from Dean’s usual warning tone, but Sam ignores it all the same.

“I don’t fucking care, Dean. I just.” Sam’s shoulder’s sag; he’s been up since eight this morning and he’s starting to feel it. “That’s what I came here to tell you, I guess. That, and that you don’t get to fucking run away, and it’s –”

“Sam.”

What?” Dean raises an eyebrow at him, and Sam becomes slightly more aware of the fact that it’s two in the morning and he’s standing in the hallway of Dean’s apartment building and making no real effort to keep his voice down.

Dean doesn’t say any of that, though. Dean listens to Metallica and can belch the alphabet and he’s certainly not going to get on Sam’s case for something like that. He says nothing, actually, just grabs Sam’s arm, pulls him into the apartment, slams the door behind him, and shoves Sam right back up against it. Sam has something to say about that, but then, for the second time tonight, Dean’s mouth is covering his, Dean’s kissing him and his lips are soft, almost like a girl’s, but there’s the scratch of his stubble and the sting of his teeth when he nips at Sam’s lip and Dean can shove Sam around all he wants, really, because it’s fucking perfect.

“Jesus,” Dean laughs against the side of his mouth. “When’d you get such a mouth on you, huh?”

“Got a bad influence for a brother,” Sam huffs out, and he feels Dean freeze against him, mouth still against his jaw, but then Sam reaches up and puts his hand on the back of Dean’s neck, touches the soft hairs there and Dean starts to move again.

Sometime this month Dean bought a couch, second-or-third hand by the looks of it, and once Sam’s jacket gets tossed to the ground, they make their way over to it. Dean pulls Sam down on top of him, Sam’s legs on either side of him, and Sam makes a noise that’d be downright embarrassing if he cared at all. Dean’s cock presses up against his through their jeans and Sam wants, wants Dean’s hands and mouth and every bit of skin that he can get, but he’s too eager to get anything done the right way.

Dean holds him still, gets one hand on Sam’s hips and the other on Sam’s t-shirt to pull it off, and Dean’s kissing at his stomach and biting at Sam’s hipbones when Sam hears himself murmuring, “You too, Dean, wanna see.” And Sam’s seen his brother shirtless plenty of times, but of course it’s completely different now – just the muted TV to provide a blue kind of light, the chain around Dean’s neck glowing differently now and a flush across his freckled, toned skin that Sam wants to get his hands all over.

And he does. He does, because there’s no one around to stop him, not even Dean’s stopping him, and then his too-big hands find their way past Dean’s stomach to his belt and he and Dean stare at each other, just breathing a while, before Sam finally unbuckles it. Dean does the same for Sam, and it feels almost like a game, the two of them mimicking each other’s movements – Dean yanks his jeans and boxers down as far as he can without getting up, and Sam does the same and kicks his boots and socks off before he moves back on top of Dean. There’s nothing between them now and Sam feels suddenly, inexplicably nervous, like he hasn’t thought about this, or something like this, since before Dean even kissed him.

If Dean’s nervous, it doesn’t show. Dean hesitated every step of the way up until now, but right now, Dean just gets his hand in Sam’s hair, pulls him down and kisses him again, slow and easy and reassuring. Sam’s the one who’s been trying to say it’s okay for the last two months at least, but Dean says it now without letting out a single syllable, and Sam relaxes against him again, just lets Dean lead the way.

It’s easy from there. Dean gets his hand around both their cocks, finds a rhythm that’s so fucking perfect that the only thing Sam can even concentrate on is breathing, is not falling right on top of Dean. He groans and bucks against him and digs his nails into Dean’s shoulder and just like with everything else, as soon as Dean comes Sam does, too. He collapses against Dean then, feels Dean’s heart beating as hard as his and they’re both sticky and gross and exhausted and Sam doesn’t fucking care. Not at all.

They stay there for a while until Dean touches his shoulder with his clean hand and says, “C’mon, Sam, up,” and Sam complies, but only because it’s Dean. Anyone else would have to wait for him to remember how to move again. He stumbles to his feet and gets cleaned up, tugs his clothes back on with some reluctance, finds his jacket and his keys. Dean isn’t talking but it’s a different kind of silence, and Sam chooses not to question it. He just puts his jacket on and heads to the door, and before he opens it he asks, “You wanna hang out later this week?”

There’s a second, then, when the room seems darker than Sam remembers it being and Sam can’t seem to hear any other noise but his jacket rustling as he turns the doorknob, but then Dean answers, “How about Tuesday?” and Sam doesn’t know how, but everything’s all right.

*

Things fall into a pattern after that. Dean goes into the garage every day around nine and stays until four unless they need him. Some days he returns straight to his apartment and kicks back in front of the TV. Some days he goes home, sees Mary and maybe his dad and they talk about the shop, about the Super Bowl, about whatever things Dean’s supposed to care about. Sometimes neither of them are home and it’s just him and Sam and Sam closes whatever textbook he’s immersed in, looks up at Dean with a kind of weight that makes Dean feel warm and terrified and amazing all at once. Dean tries not to hope for those days.

Sometimes, Dean walks to the bar after work and drinks until his limbs feel perfectly light. Some nights when he stumbles back to the apartment Sam’s there waiting for him, and even though Dean wouldn’t say no, can’t seem to say no, they don’t touch. Sam just settles down on the couch next to him until it gets late and Dean’s eyes start to droop, and then he goes home again. It makes Dean think of when they were kids, and Dean would sit up with Sam whenever Sam woke up from a bad dream. He’d just talk and talk about nothing until Sam fell back to sleep.

But it’s not the same, not at all, because the next night Dean will be sober and Sam will come back and he’ll kiss Dean like he’s never thought about doing anything else and Dean will run his hands over those long limbs, pull Sam’s clothes off and just taste every inch of skin there, mouth hovering as he gets lower until Sam’s just begging him to touch him.

They never talk about it. They clean up and throw their clothes back on and depending on the hour Sam goes back home or maybe sticks around for a while. The one thing Dean knows is that things are somehow easier now. It’s easier to be around Sam without wanting to get his hands on him, without needing to at that second. It’s still fucked up and Dean still isn’t sure how he let it happen, but they can be in the car with each other and just talk; they still bitch at each other and Sam still rolls his eyes at Dean like he wants to disown him for his taste in music and his bad habits, but there’s no underlying argument.

It’s fine, because of how much it’s not.

*

Sam rarely visits Dean at the garage. The thing is, for all that Dean and his dad know about cars, for all they’ve tried to teach Sam, none of it sticks. An engine is a piece of foreign machinery for him, and although he could probably change a flat tire if he had to, he’d rather leave the rest up to professionals. And said professionals, the ones Dean works with, well. They’re all decent guys, Sam guesses, but they tend to look at Sam like Dean does, sometimes: like he’s scrawny and young and too smart for his own good. That’d be fine, except Sam tends to look right back at them in a way that says yeah, but I’m not going to be in Kansas forever.

So, yeah. Sam tends to avoid this place. But it’s been three days since he and Dean have seen each other because Sam had midterms and Dean’s been swamped at the garage and staying at home just means hours of Mary talking about Sam’s college plans and all the things he’s going to do. He’s heard it all before and lately, whenever he thinks about going away, he gets this ache in his chest that makes it hard to breathe for a while.

So to avoid all that, Sam risks the mid-March rain and wind and drives over to the shop. Dean’s not too busy today, so he cleans up and takes his break with Sam, and Dean flashes Sam one of those all-consuming grins when he sees Sam’s brought him a bacon cheeseburger. They’re just sitting around, talking but not really saying much, Sam stealing Dean’s fries and sips from his Coke when she turns up.

Even with her disheveled hair and her soaked, muddy clothes, Sam can tell that she’s gorgeous. She has long legs and golden skin, dark hair and a great body, and she looks about Dean’s age. Sam’s not looking at Dean but he can feel the look Dean’s giving her anyway, knows Dean’s checking her out and probably deciding which pickup line would work best in the given situation.

Apparently, though, Dean’s decided to act like a professional right now. “You okay?” he asks.

She nods, even throws Dean a little smile that Sam has to admit makes her even prettier. “Fairly positive my car's not, though,” she says. “I barely made it here. Some of your guys are looking at it already.”

Sam can feel how it gets at Dean, that she calls them his guys, like he runs the damn place. He tries not to roll his eyes.

“That’s good,” Dean says. He tosses his food wrapper in the trash and stands up, wipes his hands on his jeans before holding one out to her. “So, I’m Dean,” he says. “This is my little brother Sam.” Sam smiles at her, which proves a little difficult to do with the way Dean keeps checking her out.

“Carmen,” she says, shaking Dean’s hand. Sam sees that her nails are trim and unpolished, and she doesn’t wear any jewelry on them. He’s sure Dean’s noticed that last part.

“Carmen,” Dean repeats after he lets go, and Sam again focuses on not rolling his eyes. Or scowling. Or doing any of the things Dean makes fun of him for doing. “Why don’t you have a seat with us? It could be a while yet.”

She nods and sits down, and she and Dean talk. It turns out she and Dean are the same age, that she moved here from Chicago a few years ago for a boyfriend she’s no longer with, and that she’s studying to be a nurse. “Which I’m not doing a very good job of,” she adds with one of those little smiles, “since I’m already about half an hour late for work.”

“You are?” Dean asks, and when she nods he says, “Well, hey, I’ve still got a while here, but I bet Sam could get you there okay if you wanted. Right Sam?”

Sam, who has been listening to them talk and watching the way Dean focuses what seems like all of his attention on her, tries to look like anything but a deer caught in the headlights when they both turn to look at him. “Um,” he says, at about the same time Carmen starts to say, “Oh, no, you don’t have to…”

“Come on,” Dean says, waving them both off. “You don’t have anything else to do today, right, Sam?” And Sam wants to tell him he does, that he was planning on hanging out here until Dean finished work, but he knows he can’t say that and Carmen seems nice enough and unlike most of the girls Dean picks up who Sam’s had the misfortune to meet, she doesn’t seem like a complete idiot.

“Yeah,” he says after a minute. “Yeah, I could do that.”

“Great,” Dean says, and Sam tries not to mind so much that he can’t tell who Dean’s aiming that smile at. Sam and Carmen leave once one of the other mechanics gives her a run-down of the damage, and Sam even lends her his hoodie since apparently hers got soaked straight through while she was having a look at her car.

“I know a little bit about them,” she admits to Sam during the drive. “I mean, I know most of the parts, and if you give me the right tools I could probably change a tire. But I figured it was best to leave it up to you guys.”

Sam feels a little grateful that Carmen managed to skip that detail about her familiarity with cars while they were at the shop. Then he corrects her, “I don’t work there. I just came by to see Dean.” It feels like it should be weird to say it, to admit it that way, but Carmen doesn’t blink. “It’s nice that you guys are so close,” she says. “I barely talk to my family anymore.”

“Yeah,” Sam says, not knowing what to say to that. He remembers what it was like, hardly speaking to Dean, and thinking about that now makes him a little panicky. They drive in comfortable silence after that, and Carmen doesn’t complain about Sam’s taste in music, doesn’t say anything when he chooses to drive the speed limit. When they reach the hospital she turns to Sam and smiles, says, “Thank you. You really didn’t have to do this.”

Sam shrugs. She’s too nice, he’s decided, for him to say something bitchy about how he only really did it because Dean wants to fuck her. He’s not even sure that’s true anymore. She starts to unzip the hoodie, but Sam tells her to hang on to it. “Just give it back to Dean when you see him again,” he tells her, and the look she gives him lets Sam know that she knows exactly what Dean was trying to do – and that she doesn’t necessarily mind. “Thanks, Sam,” she says again, and after she puts the hood up and gets out of the car, Sam waits until she gets inside the hospital before he pulls away.

*

Dean’s never had an actual girlfriend. He messed around with some girls in high school more than once, and on occasion he hooks up with Shannon, one of the bartenders from his favorite bars, but he’s never done anything serious. He’s barely dated, and he’s sure as hell never introduced a girl to his parents.

It doesn’t take long for him to get that Carmen’s going to be an exception, though. She comes to pick up her car the next day; she’s still wearing hospital scrubs and no make-up and her hair’s pulled up into a messy bun, and Dean thinks she’s fucking gorgeous. He gets through the bill with her with no problem, and he’s nineteen seconds from asking her out when she leans over the counter and beats him to it.

“So, I know it’s kind of early,” she says, her voice low enough that if anyone else walked over they’d have to strain to hear her. “But I was thinking about going out for a drink to celebrate not having to buy a new car because I thought it was completely trashed.” She flashes a quick grin at him, and Dean’s ready to say yes to anything she might decide to ask him. “You interested in joining me?”

It’s three in the afternoon, and even Dean usually waits until sundown to start drinking, but he knows Sam’s going to be busy with school today and Dean’s pretty sure he’d even say yes to coffee if Carmen asked right now.

“Yeah,” Dean replies easily. “Yeah, I think I could probably swing that.”

Dean tosses Dave some excuse or other and he smirks knowingly at Dean but lets him go anyway, and after Carmen says goodbye to whoever drove her to the shop, she follows Dean in her car. They head back to his place so he can shower some of the grime off of him, but when he gets out, Carmen’s found his stereo and some of his tapes, and she has Zeppelin II playing softly. Right about then, Dean decides there’s whiskey somewhere in the kitchen if they want it, but they’re not going anywhere.

He fucks Carmen up against the wall, her long legs wrapping around him as he sucks marks into her neck and shoulders. She digs her blunt nails into Dean’s back and her moans carry over the music and Dean loves it. Later, they bring out the whiskey and Carmen tells him about growing up in Chicago, about her rich parents and their cultured friends and how the first time they dragged her to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she was stoned out of her mind. “But I was convinced they were playing for me,” she says with a laugh, “so it wasn’t a total waste of time.” Dean gets it, then, that she’s a fuckup like he is – she ran out here to be with her boyfriend and hasn’t been back since, but she’s still doing something with herself.

He doesn’t say anything about that, though, just kisses her soft and slow and licks the chapstick off her lips and the whiskey off her tongue, brings her back to his room and gets her off with his mouth and hands until she’s shaking and moaning beneath him. She doesn’t stay the night because she has an early shift the next morning, but she writes her number on a piece of paper for Dean (she doesn’t try to program it into his phone like some girls, or write it on his arm in permanent marker) and says, “Call me some time, huh?” And Dean realizes, once she’s gone and all that remains is the hooded sweatshirt she left on the couch, that this is the longest he’s gone without thinking about Sam in years.

*

“She likes Ozzy,” Dean says. “One of her brothers was a roadie for them or something. Came back with all these crazy stories.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I guess he’s the only one she talks to from her family, though. The guy she came out here with was kind of a douche.”

“Well, obviously.” Sam scoffs, half at what Dean’s saying and half at his own apparent interest in this. Carmen’s been around for about two weeks now, and Sam’s seen Dean four times since then – but to be fair, his classes are honestly attempting to kill him and his friends keep trying to get in “one last party before we graduate” even though it’s only April. Sam adds, “She came all the way to fucking Kansas and he broke up with her.”

Dean raises an eyebrow, probably more at Sam cursing than at Sam’s bitchy tone. “Nah, she ended it with him.” Then he shrugs, crumples up the bag of potato chips he just finished, and sets it on the coffee table he finally bought a few weeks ago before sitting back against the couch. “So anyway, she –”

“Dean,” Sam stops him, looking at him dead-on.

“Huh?”

“Are you seriously talking to me about a girl you’re with?” Sam stops himself from saying girlfriend, but just barely. Dean has never talked about girls to Sam, at least not like this. He’s talked about the way they moved under him, the sounds they made. He’s talked about girls with too much lipgloss, and the first girl who ever went down on him. Sam remembers the first time Dean kissed a girl (for real, Sam, with tongue and everything), because Dean immediately came home and told him about it. But he’s never talked about women like they were people, like they had personalities – while Sam’s pretty sure some of the girls Dean’s been with were dumber than posts (they’d have to be, to go for Dean’s pick-up lines), they can’t all have been and Dean’s just never bothered to find out.

“Huh,” Dean says to that, after a minute. “Yeah, I… I guess I am.”

Sam can’t help smiling a little, teasing. “You really like her, huh?”

Dean scowls. “Shut up.”

“You like her,” Sam insists. “And not just because she wears a sweater like –”

“Sam!” Dean laughs, turning the teasing right around because Sam never talks about girls that way. “I’m surprised at you.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Sam rolls his eyes. Carmen’s nice, and if Sam had to, he’d admit that she seems good for Dean. He seems to drink less, anyway, and his place looks less barren since she probably pointed out that furniture was a good thing. He still doesn’t want to talk about her, though.

“She does though, doesn’t she?” Dean asks, holding his hands out in front of him and grinning. “And man, the other night, she did this thing with her tongue where she…”

Jesus,” Sam says, and that’s it. There’s a Royals game on TV that they’ve been watching on and off – baseball is the one sport Sam marginally appreciates, probably just because of John –, but without another word Sam’s moving, shifting, getting right on top of Dean, pushing their bodies together and waiting for that moment when Dean will say Sam, half a protest and half something else entirely.

He does, and Sam breathes easier even though he can already feel his jeans tightening, can already feel Dean’s cock hardening in response. He lowers his head to Dean’s neck and Dean breathes out sharp when Sam places a mark there with his teeth. He arches up and Sam gets his hand under Dean’s t-shirt, runs his fingers over the sweat already forming on Dean’s abs. Dean bucks against him and Sam laughs softly, pulls his head back to look at Dean and asks, “Do you want me to stop?” right before he pops the top button of Dean’s pants.

“No,” Dean growls, and that’s enough for Sam. It’s what he needs to know, that just because Dean’s grown up enough for a girlfriend, he’s not – they’re not going to stop. Not yet.

Sam goes down on him right there, the Royals losing their first game of the season and Dean’s hand in his hair, Dean murmuring, “Jesus, Sam, fuck,” their eyes meeting when Dean jerks up again and comes down Sam’s throat. Afterward, Dean licks the taste of himself out of Sam’s mouth, pushes Sam down and strips his jeans off and takes ages reciprocating, dragging out Sam’s orgasm so long that Sam’s not sure he’ll ever be able to breathe properly again. They put themselves back together, and they watch the rest of the game, and it’s almost like nothing happened at all – but Dean doesn’t mention Carmen again.

*

They’re eating lunch at the restaurant near the shop and Carmen’s dunking her fries in a chocolate milkshake in between bites from her cheeseburger when Dean tells her, “I want you to meet my parents.”

It’s not what he meant to say. What he meant to say was, “My parents want to meet you,” so that if Carmen said no he could throw the blame on them, somehow, instead of himself. But he can tell his slip was the right approach when Carmen smiles at him, licks a dab of ketchup off her lips and says, “Well, okay.”

He meant what he said, though, so he nods and smiles back and they spend the next twenty minutes discussing his parents. Then they clean up the table, leave the restaurant, and use the remaining fifteen minutes before Carmen has to go to work making out like teenagers in Carmen’s car. She presses one last quick, chaste kiss to his lips before she breaks away and says, “Any time you want me to meet them, Dean, that’s fine. I bet they’re great. I mean,” she adds. “I already like Sam, and you’re okay I guess…”

“That sense of humor?” Dean says, raising an eyebrow. “You’ll fit right in.”

She does, too. They have dinner, all of them, a few nights later at the house, and Carmen charms Mary and John immediately. Granted, they put up with Dean, so any girlfriend probably looks better in comparison to before, but his mom has that glow to her eyes that Dean sees rarely, and even John cracks a smile now and again.

And Sam…

Well, it turns out Sam and Carmen get along best when they’re teasing Dean endlessly about his taste in music and eating habits and the way he talks to his car, but Sam still finds a minute, while Carmen’s helping Mary in the kitchen and John’s still telling both of them about his hopes for this year’s softball season, to drag Dean upstairs and kiss him until both their mouths are red from it, until Dean can’t even remember what he’s here for if not Sam. They stumble back downstairs and Sam tells an easy lie that Dean can’t even hear for the blood pounding in his head. He takes Carmen back to her place not long after and he fucks her desperately, grips her hips hard enough to bruise, pants into her neck like he’s dying.

“Jesus,” she says afterward, reaching up to brush a sweaty lock of hair back from her face, “it didn’t go that badly, did it?”

Dean shakes his head, tries to smile reassuringly, but he doesn’t stay the night. He doesn’t go home, either, just finds the nearest bar and stays until his phone stops buzzing with missed calls from Sam.

Mary calls him the next afternoon and tells him, “We’re so glad you found someone like Carmen, Dean. We’re so proud of you.” Dean spends the next three days drinking everything that’s left in his apartment.

*

The last quarter of his senior year is flying past Sam, and all those years of easy essays and simple tests seem like a challenge in comparison to his current lack of workload. Everyone knows he’s going to graduate, and he’s even spoken to his prospective roommate at Stanford, so the rest is just busywork.

At first, Sam used his free time to hang out with Dean, but ever since that dinner with Carmen – when Dean pulled him into the upstairs bathroom, pressed his mouth to Sam’s and kissed him quick and desperate, sucking on Sam’s bottom lip for so long that Sam felt it for hours afterward – Dean’s dodged every opportunity for them to be around each other. Or at least, for them to be around each other alone – Carmen invited him to the movies with them a few times, but Sam had to say no. He likes Carmen, more than he’d ever thought possible, but he can’t stand the way she smiles at Dean sometimes, the way she puts her hand over his casually, not the least bit possessive. It makes him want to get his mouth on Dean, suck marks into his neck and let Carmen know

But he doesn’t.

In April, Sam buries more of his disappointment and spends his free time in his car. Each day he takes hours driving nowhere in particular – south to Eerie one day; west to Riley a few days later and so on, until he’s seen more of Kansas than he ever really wanted to see. Each time he gets further away from home; each day he speeds up a little more on the way back. Mary and John never question where he’s going, where he’s been, and he rarely gets out of the car – just parks somewhere and takes out a book, Kerouac or Wolfe or any of the hundred authors Sam’s read a thousand times. Their voices make him ache for his brother’s, and he wonders how he’s going to survive college at all, if just getting out of Kansas is this much trouble.

Through all this, Sam completely forgets about his birthday. The days get warmer and he rolls the windows down lower and lower, but the second of May still manages to sneak up on him. He comes home from a short drive and everyone he knows is there, his friends from school and his parents and even a few of his distant cousins, the ones that never show up for anything involving Dean. There’s cake and presents and everyone’s talking in his ear, laughing, joking about all the things he can do and the places he can go now that he’s eighteen, an adult, and Sam’s not listening to a word of it.

He can’t hear much of anything, because everyone he knows is here, except for Dean.

*

It’s late, three in the morning late, but Sam’s still awake enough to hear the Impala’s engine when the car pulls up outside, still awake enough to hear Dean’s soft knock on the front door. Sam stands there with his hand on the doorknob, wanting to walk away and go upstairs to bed, wanting to open the door and shout at Dean until his voice goes hoarse, but in the end, he just unlocks the door and holds it open until Dean steps inside.

Sam turned the TV off when he heard Dean pull up, but even with nothing but moonlight peeking through the windows, he can see that Dean’s a mess. His clothes are rumpled and dirty and there are scuffs on his boots, and his face shows two day’s worth of stubble. He smells like cheap booze and pot and sweat, and it occurs to Sam just how long it’s been since he’s seen Dean like this.

He has a hundred different questions, but the one that escapes him first is simple enough. “What are you doing here?” Dean shakes his head like even that’s too difficult for him to answer and he takes a step forward. Sam can’t be sure if Dean stumbles or if he does it on purpose, but one minute Dean’s standing right in front of him and the next he practically has to hold Dean up as Dean buries his forehead in the crook of Sam’s neck and just breathes.

Sam tries an easier question. “Where have you been?”

Dean laughs, and Sam’s heart speeds up when he hears it, feels it right against him, but he ignores that need to pull Dean closer and instead pushes him back a little, creates the tiniest bit of space between them. Dean’s still laughing but it’s hollow and sad and Sam’s angry again, all at once, so angry he wants to shove Dean to the ground. They’ve never fought like that, not once, and Sam’s not even sure he’d know how, but if it weren’t three in the morning, if Dean didn’t look seconds short of tumbling over anyway, he might be willing to try.

“Driving,” Dean says finally, his laughter cutting off like the flick of a switch. “I wanted… wanted to see how far I could get.”

Sam doesn’t ask from what. He doesn’t ask driving where. He just reaches forward, gets a hold on Dean’s arm, and leads him upstairs. They move quietly, past their parents’ bedroom and down the hall to Sam’s room, and Dean waits until the door clicks shut behind them to say, “I’m still a fuckup, you know.”

“What?”

Sam’s near his nightstand, fingers groping for the lamp, but he turns at that. Dean’s staring straight at him and his voice is rough, quiet, and if it weren’t for his shaky hands and stumbling walk and the strong scent of alcohol, Sam would doubt Dean’s as drunk as he thought.

Dean takes a step forward and Sam forgets about turning the light on; there’s enough from the streetlamps outside. “Before,” Dean says. “When I… when I moved out. You told me you were glad I wasn’t such a fuckup anymore.”

Sam swallows the lump in his throat, shuts his eyes and opens them again before shooting out quick, “A lot’s happened since then.”

“Yeah,” Dean agrees, his face scrunching up in thought. Dean is so much easier to read when he’s been drinking, and Sam hates that in the past he’s been grateful for that. “Yeah, but even then I was. I… until we started…” He gestures between them, then says, “I drank all the time.”

“Seem pretty wasted right now,” Sam points out.

“Yeah.”

“Dean…” Sam starts, stops, takes one step forward and another back. He’s sad and angry and relieved, all at once, all at the same person, and he doesn’t know what to do.

“Yeah?” Dean asks.

Sam sighs, looks from outside where he can see the Impala parked across the street and then back. “What are you doing here, Dean?”

“I’m…” Dean stumbles at that. His mouth opens and closes a few times and he brings a hand up to rub at his neck before he looks down and admits, “Fuck, Sam, I don’t know. I just… I’m sorry about your birthday.”’

“Yeah,” Sam says. “Yeah, I know you are.” He means, you always are.

Dean nods, and that alone causes Sam’s anger to fade, because however he’s feeling toward Dean right now, he knows Dean can only be feeling worse. Dean says, “I even… fuck, I even bought you a present. Card, too. Sings It’s My Party.” He clears his throat, shrugs. “But it was stupid.”

“I hate singing cards,” Sam agrees. He hates his birthday, too, but he’s not going to mention that.

“No.” Dean shakes his head. “No, I mean the present. I…” He stops, stares down at his feet again.

“What’d you get me?” Sam asks, and when Dean doesn’t answer, he takes a step forward so their feet almost touch and asks, “Dean?”

Dean looks up. “It was a calling card.” He laughs again, that same hollow sound that makes Sam’s chest ache, and then continues, “You know, for when you leave. I thought, if you ever… if you ever needed me, you could… but it’s stupid. You don’t need me, Sam. That’s the whole point.”

Sam’s not even sure what to say to that. His mouth moves but no words come out, and all he can think about is being twelve years old. For his birthday that year, his parents bought him a bike, the kind with several different speeds and breaks on the handle bars and a helmet to match. Sam rode it day in and day out, to his friends’ houses and to the store and everywhere, until one day at the end of August he rode too far. He remembers riding around for hours, trying to get back, until finally he found a payphone and called home. He remembers Dean finding him in less than an hour, pulling up in the Impala and not teasing him, not calling him a baby, just loading Sam’s bike into the trunk and stopping on the way home for burgers and fries. Sam remembers thinking even then that he wouldn’t want anyone but Dean for his brother, and after everything, he’s never thought to take that back.

Not once.

The idea that Dean would think that gets the anger stirring in him again and he shoves at Dean, asks, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Sam,” Dean warns, grabbing Sam’s wrists before he can do anything else.

“Jesus,” Sam says. They’re pushed right up against each other somehow, and Sam can see Dean’s dilated pupils and the freckles on his nose and the quick rise and fall of his chest with each breath. He doesn’t try to pull away, just presses in more and asks, “Don’t you get it? I’m… I’m really messed up without you, Dean.”

Because of me,” Dean argues.

“Yeah,” Sam agrees, because just Dean’s hands on him makes him feel warm and drunk and yeah, that’s messed up – but it’s not Dean’s fault. He didn’t make Sam like this. “But not like that. I… I’ve wanted to leave Kansas for the last ten years. Maybe longer than that, I… I don’t really know. And now I…” Dean releases Sam’s wrists, and Sam sighs, reaches up, puts one hand right on Dean’s cheek and feels the sting of stubble. He says, “I need you, Dean, okay? You’re my brother.”

Dean scoffs. “Some brother.”

“You’re my brother,” Sam repeats. He drops his hand back to his side and then asks, “You still got the card, asshole?”

A hint of a smile forms on Dean’s lips and he nods, takes a step back so he can pull the card out of his jacket pocket. The paper’s crumpled and a little torn, but it still sings when Sam opens it, so loud and obnoxious that he has to shut it quick so their parents don’t wake up. He grins anyway, and puts the birthday card and the calling card in his desk drawer before turning back to Dean. “Stay here tonight, okay?” he asks. “You look like hell, and there’s no way you should be driving.”

Dean shakes his head. “Mom’ll kill me if she sees me.”

“Probably,” Sam agrees. “That’s why you’re staying here.”

“Sam…”

Sam gets right in Dean’s space again, gets his hand on Dean’s arm and pulls him toward the bed. “It’s my birthday and you fucked it up,” he says, sounding eight instead of eighteen. “Lie down.”

Dean looks at him for a while, the same way he did that day Sam found out he got into Stanford, like Sam had somehow become a different person without him noticing. Then he blinks, shakes his head, and says, “Fine, yeah, all right. Okay.” He gets his boots off and strips down to his boxers and jeans and settles on one side of the bed while Sam takes the other. They don’t touch; even with Sam’s long limbs there’s plenty of space between them, but Sam still feels warm and comfortable with Dean breathing beside him, and they’re both asleep within minutes.

*

Summer’s coming up fast, keeping Dean busy at the garage with oil changes and overheated cars. It’s close to sundown by the time he gets out of work, changes clothes, and drives over to the house, but Mary’s the only one around – Sam’s out with a couple of his friends, and John’s with his softball buddies. She and Dean decide that cooking isn’t worth it, so they just make some sandwiches and head out to the porch to eat. It’s still warm out, but there’s a good breeze blowing and Dean has a cold beer on the steps next to him. After some indecision Mary grabs one for herself, and it doesn’t take much for her cheeks to turn a little rosy and her eyes to get that slight twinkle in them. They watch the cars pass by and talk about the shop. It went through new management once John retired, but Dean stuck around anyway because he loves the place; it’s always been like a second home to him. And the thing is, he’s good at what he does, good enough that he gets paid the same wage as the men who have been at the shop twice as long as he has. He sees a problem and almost immediately knows how to fix it. The opposite can be said about the rest of his life.

They exhaust that topic pretty quickly, so Mary asks, “How’s everything with Carmen? We haven’t seen her around since you brought her by for dinner.”

She always says we, like she and John are the same person. Dean’s always wondered if they actually talk about this stuff when they’re alone, about what’s going on with Dean and maybe even Sam; the most John’s ever really done since Dean quit softball his sophomore year is bark orders at him. Sometimes he asks about the Impala, too. “All right,” he says. “She’s been real busy at the hospital lately, I guess.” It’s another one of those things Dean appreciates about Carmen: she’s a great girl, and if he had to settle down with anyone it would probably be her, but she has her own life. She doesn’t call him all the time and she doesn’t get mad about stupid things, but when she is around, Dean feels at ease. She laughs at his stupid come-ons and goes for them anyway, and she’s always up for it. Dean’s not sure he could ask for more.

Unless more was Sam, but that’s – yeah.

“Well,” Mary says, “we’d like to see her again, the next time she’s not.”

“Sure,” Dean says, and shrugs. Dinner last time went fine, but it’s still strange to think of Carmen as his girlfriend, as someone he could bring home to his parents. He never even knew he wanted something like that.

“We could go out to dinner, maybe,” Mary says. “Just the four of us.” Dean looks up from his sandwich and raises an eyebrow at her. “What? Any chance I can get you to dress up is golden.”

Dean laughs at that, but he nods. “Yeah,” he grins. “Yeah, sure.” The sunset is beautiful tonight, all kinds of pink and purple, and Dean’s wondering what Sam’s up to, what he talks about with his friends. He wonders if Sam’s normal with them, if he’s funny, if any of those girls are in love with him.

“My boys are growing up,” Mary sighs, and out of the corner of his eye Dean sees her sip from her beer bottle. “You with a real girlfriend, and Sam…” she trails off, and Dean hesitates to fill the silence. Mary and Sam have never been close, not the way she and Dean are. Sam’s always needed their parents less, even though they approve of him more.

He’s sure Mary means to say something else, can feel her building toward something bigger, but instead she looks out at the skyline and tells him, “I have your ticket for his graduation. The address for the auditorium is on that, too. Eleven o’clock, okay?”

“Yeah,” Dean says, and it’s more difficult to do this time. He takes a longer pull from his beer, suddenly wishing he was home and drunk and not thinking about Sam at all, Sam graduating, Sam leaving him behind. “Can’t believe he’s really leaving,” he can’t help but say.

Mary turns to him then, and her eyes are bright and blue and her cheeks are still a little pink but she’s not smiling anymore, not really. She just looks at Dean for a long time and then says, her voice sharper than it usually is, sadder, “Let’s face it, Dean. He’s been gone for a long time already.”

Dean knows she’s right, but he doesn’t respond. They stay outside until it gets dark, and Mary gives Dean the ticket for Sam’s graduation, warning him that he won’t get into the auditorium without it. Dean considers sticking around a while longer until Sam comes home, but the ticket feels heavy in his hand and he doesn’t want to think about any of it anymore, so instead he tells Mary goodnight and drives home. There’s a game on TV and beer in the refrigerator, and Dean loses himself in that for as long as he can.

*

It rains the day of Sam’s graduation, just fucking pours, and most of the people in the auditorium are soaked by the time they arrive. He, Mary, and John ride together, and in all the confusion of wet floors and kids getting their gowns on and everything getting set up, Sam barely has time to look for Dean, to see if he’s arrived yet. He hasn’t seen Dean since last week, but he noticed the ticket on Dean’s coffee table, laid out next to a stack of bills and the remote control. Neither of them mentioned it, even though Sam’s valedictorian this year and he’s supposed to give one of the speeches; they just watched the game and ordered a pizza and messed around for a little while before Sam went back home. Sam knows Dean’s still been drinking a lot lately, could see that by the leftover beer cans and the mostly-empty bottles of whiskey, but they didn’t mention that, either.

Despite the confusion, the ceremony starts on time. Since Sam has to give the second speech, he’s seated near the front instead of alphabetically. He keeps turning his head back to where he knows his parents are seated, keeps looking for Dean, but he can’t find him. He tries to tell himself Dean’s just near the back to avoid the crowd; Dean’s always hated this kind of thing, skipped out on his own graduation in favor of hightailing it to Reno for the weekend with a fake ID and a couple of friends, but he just knows Dean didn’t show. They’ve always been able to sense each other; Sam’s eyes always go straight to where Dean is, and they don’t today, because he’s nowhere. Dean has to know how fucking important this is, not just to Sam but to their parents, and he’s just – he’s not here.

Sam manages, though. He autopilots his way through his speech, doesn’t even remember what he talked about – quoted some authors, mentioned some events from the four years he spent at that school, he’s not sure. He started writing the speech ages ago, before he got his brother back, and he finished it when it seemed like the last thing he wanted to do was leave. His voice cracks near the end, but no one notices; he sees his parents in the audience and tries to smile at them, but Dean’s not around and he can’t. The rest of the ceremony drags and Sam holds his diploma tightly even though what he wants, really, is to drop it and run, to figure out where Dean is and just go.

He doesn’t. It’s still drizzling outside when the ceremony ends, but Sam stands under one of the awnings so Mary can take a picture of him in his cap and gown, diploma in hand and a smile pasted on. His mom’s smile looks just as forced, but Sam has an odd feeling of admiration for his dad when the guy actually seems to be trying to keep the mood light. For one of the pictures, he gets his arm on Sam’s shoulder and just as the flash goes off John reaches up to tug at Sam’s cap, ruffling it around and laughing that deep belly laugh. “We’re real proud of you, son,” he tells Sam a few minutes later, when Mary’s packing up the camera and they’re preparing to walk through the rain to the car. He wants to tell John thank you, to shake his hand or even hug him, but Dean’s not here and nothing comes.

Afterward, Sam changes out of his gown and they meet up with some of the extended family at Sam’s favorite restaurant. Dinner is tasteless and Sam feels suffocated, but one of his more distant uncles says, “Here, son, have one on me,” and sneaks him a drink when no one’s looking. It’s foul and makes his head swim, but it makes dinner pass by more quickly, so Sam gulps it down. There are presents afterward, cards full of cash and a couple of books Sam’s read a dozen times already, and Sam manages to thank everyone sincerely, but he’s still more than glad to get back home.

It’s chilly out by the time he and his parents reach the house, but Mary takes his hand while they’re walking up the pathway and has him stop. She drank a little at dinner and her eyes are a brilliant blue with it, pupils big, her face flushed. Her golden hair’s tied back in a messy braid and her wedding ring sparkles on her hand when Sam looks down at it. “Mom?” Sam asks. John’s already at the door, and he turns back to look at them, but Mary shakes her head and he goes inside, leaving them alone.

“I want you to know,” she says steadily, her tone sharper than she’s ever used on Sam, on anyone but John really, “I want you to know that I told Dean to be here. You know how things work with the two of us, Sam. Your father tells him what to do and I… I let him be who he wants. But I told him to show up. I did.”

Sam stares down at her, feeling warmth and love flood him. Dean’s always been Mary’s favorite and he knows that, knows it like breathing, something so simple and totally complicated all at once. The fact that she’s clearly furious at him, when she’s never been before, not when he missed Sam’s birthdays, not when he drank all the time, not ever – it means something.

“It’s okay, Mom,” he lies quietly. “Really, I’m all right.”

For a long time she doesn’t answer him, and Sam thinks that she’s not going to. Then she reaches up, brushes a piece of hair away from Sam’s eyes, and squeezes Sam’s hand with the one holding his before saying, “I’m really going to miss you, kiddo.” Before Sam can say me, too, she turns back toward the house, only stopping on the way in to tell Sam, “I could kill him. I really could.”

*

Dean means to go. He does. He finds a nicer pair of jeans, ones he hasn’t owned since high school that aren’t torn in seven different places and a shirt that’s not flecked with motor oil, and he pockets his keys and his wallet and grabs the ticket off the coffee table before heading downstairs to his car. He even starts the engine, listens to her purr for a while before turning up the live Ozzy set Carmen threw his way a couple weeks back and starting to drive.

Dean means to go, and he even makes it halfway toward the building where they’re holding the ceremony before it all goes wrong. Before he takes another direction and decides that he just can’t, and it’s pouring rain and Dean fucking hates to drive in bad weather conditions if he doesn’t have to, but he does anyway because at that moment he does have to. He drives for hours, turning the stereo up as loud as he can, going through tape after tape but not singing along to any of them. Dylan always makes him think of Sam, and there must be half a dozen songs by him about rain or driving or cars, but it’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” that he keeps rewinding, remembering Sam as a kid, seven or eight at most, sitting in the backseat of this car on some long drive and singing along, loud and off-key, even though he couldn’t have known what any of the lyrics even meant.

It rains for hours, and Dean doesn’t even know where he’s going, but in the end he makes it home just fine, his ears ringing and his clothes wet, his hands stiff from how hard they clutched the steering wheel. He gets back to his apartment and pours himself a drink, and then another, and then another, until he’s too tired to hear the rain outside, to hear or feel much of anything at all.

He hears someone at the door, though. Hours later, he wakes up on the couch to someone pounding on it, three knocks at a time and then his name, more faintly but still insistent.

“Dean,” Sam keeps saying, and Dean wishes he could ignore it now that he’s awake, just head into his bedroom and pretend he isn’t even here, but it’s not like that. He didn’t miss Sam’s graduation because he didn’t care. It’s not like that at all.

He barely has the door unlocked and open before Sam’s pushing his way inside, using all of the strength of his scrawny arms to push Dean backward and demand, “What the fuck.”

“Sam,” Dean says, his voice scratchy from sleep and whiskey. It’s dark in his apartment and he can barely see a damn thing, nothing much but Sam in front of him, Sam’s wide, furious eyes, the flare of his nostrils. Sam’s been taller than Dean for months, but it’s been a while since he felt Sam towering over him like this.

“You’re here,” Sam says, and he shoves Dean again, and if Dean weren’t so disoriented it probably wouldn’t have much of an effect, but as it is Dean stumbles a little. “You’re here, and you’re fine, and you still fucking –”

“Sam, I’m sor –” Dean starts to say, but Sam cuts him off. Sam reaches out, gets his hand into a fist and actually punches Dean, just like Dean showed Sam how to do years ago, just like Sam said he’d never need to know how to do.

Don’t,” Sam says once he lowers his hand, “don’t fucking apologize to me, Dean. Not this time.”

Dean doesn’t say a word, just keeps his eyes on Sam and reaches up to feel his face. Sam clipped him on the jaw, and there might actually be a bruise there tomorrow, but the damage is minimal.

Whatever’s going on with Sam right now isn’t, though. Dean knows that. His eyes are starting to adjust, and he can feel Sam near him, hears Sam’s heavy breathing, sees Sam’s hands twitching like they want to reach forward and do it again.

Dean says, “You wanna hit me again, Sam, you go right ahead. I won’t stop you.”

Sam glares at him, his hands curling and uncurling into fists, and Dean thinks Sam actually might take him up on his offer – welcomes it, even; it’d be so fucking simple if they just fought like this –, but then Sam just reaches up and pushes at him a little, so lightly it’s obvious he’s not trying to do any damage. “That’s exactly the fucking problem,” Sam says. “You never do anything.”

Dean starts to ask what Sam means, but Sam shakes his head and turns away from him. For one second it seems like Sam’s going to leave, but it turns out Sam’s just looking for the light switch. He finds it, and in the sudden brightness coming from above them, Dean can see Sam’s messy hair and the mud at the hems of Sam’s jeans and on his boots, can see the expression on his face, those sad hazel eyes trained right on him.

“You know,” Sam tells him then, “Mom’s furious at you. Looks like you just got back from a bender, so you probably don’t know, but she must’ve sent you half a dozen messages cursing you out. I’ve never even seen her… how could you make her do that, Dean? Jesus.”

“I’m –” Dean tries again, but Sam stops him sooner this time, pushes into Dean’s space and puts his hand over Dean’s mouth. “I told you to quit apologizing to me, Dean,” he says. “You always do. Every year, every… every time you fuck up, you apologize and I… I believe you. I don’t know if I do anymore.” He takes his hand off Dean, takes a step back. “I guess that’s what I came here to tell you. Not that everyone’s mad at you, not that I – I’m not, right now, not anymore. I’m just… done.”

He turns away and Dean feels like he can’t breathe, like something’s pressing right down on his chest and he can barely get enough air in his lungs to say, “Sam,” quiet and pleadingly, and then, “Sammy.” But Sam’s moving toward the door; they haven’t gotten far and it’s only a few steps and he’s just going to leave like that’s it between them, and Dean can’t – he can’t let that happen. Whatever else that means, he can’t.

He follows Sam, says his name again, and when Sam turns back to look at him Dean pushes this time, shoves Sam and traps him between the door and his body. Sam looks startled and his mouth opens but Dean doesn’t let him say anything, just pushes in, presses his mouth to Sam as desperately as that first time, stubble scratching against Sam’s skin and his hand coming up to hold Sam’s face and he’s not careful, not at all; he’s still a little drunk and he’s scared of Sam leaving and he just needs Sam to stay put.

Sam does. Sam does, and not just because Dean’s holding him there. Sam’s hands come up, both giant paws land on Dean’s shoulders and pull him closer, and he’s kissing Dean back just as desperately, teeth clacking against Dean’s and his tongue sliding along Dean’s and his breath coming out quick through his nose. Dean’s heart is still hammering frantically when he shifts, kisses under Sam’s jaw and along his neck and mutters, “I couldn’t, Sam, couldn’t watch you up there. Didn’t want to think about you leaving, I’m –”

For the third time, Sam stops him from apologizing, this time by dragging Dean back up and kissing him again, easier this time, sucking at Dean’s bottom lip until Dean can hear himself moan. “Goddamn it, Dean,” he says when he pulls back. “When are you gonna get that I’m not leaving ‘cause of you?”

Dean means to answer, means to tell Sam he knows that, that that’s what this past year has been about – him learning that Sam doesn’t hate him, not really, but that almost makes it worse. He knows Sam doesn’t hate him, not anymore, but that doesn’t mean he understands why.

He doesn’t say it, though. He opens his mouth to and his thoughts get confused and he just kisses Sam again instead, gets his hands on him and pulls at his clothes and what started as an apology becomes something else entirely. Dean gets Sam’s jeans undone and his shirt unbuttoned and Sam’s above him murmuring please, Dean, I want, will you? and Dean teases and licks and sucks, drinks up every inch of skin that he’s tried memorizing for months until Sam says something else.

“Fuck me,” Sam pants out, his hand tugging at the short strands of Dean’s hair, and before Dean can say anything else he says, “Please, Dean, I want – wanted for months, god –” and Dean doesn’t say no. Doesn’t say anything at all because his voice won’t cooperate, but he thinks Sam gets that he means yeah, okay – means yes – when he pulls Sam with him toward the bedroom, nods and kisses him and gets their clothes off.

It shouldn’t be easy; it should be a terrible idea, should be something Dean will want to drink away the memory of minutes after it happens, but it is and he doesn’t. He gets inside Sam and it’s perfect; it’s fine; it’s them. At that moment, Dean can’t remember ever wanting anything else.

*

Sam wakes up the next morning in Dean’s bed with the sheets twisted around his long legs, but Dean’s not asleep beside him. He picks his jeans off the floor and pulls them on, then grabs his shirt before leaving the room.

He finds Dean in the kitchen, leaning over the counter and already working on an Egg McMuffin; Sam guesses the hangover from whatever Dean got up to yesterday is already hitting pretty hard. The kitchen is the only room in the house that gets decent natural light, so the sun’s streaming down through the window, making everything glow just a little. The chain on Dean’s neck winks and Dean looks up at him, grins around a mouthful of food.

“Hey,” Dean says. He opens the bag next to him and takes out a couple different items, a hash brown as well as another McMuffin. “Wasn’t sure what you’d want,” he admits.

“Hey,” Sam responds, then, “thanks.” He takes the McMuffin but doesn’t unwrap it yet, just watches Dean. He’s just wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and Sam can see the marks he left on Dean’s neck last night, can see Dean’s skin flush a little when he catches Sam staring at him.

“Dude,” he says. “Eat. I don’t have a microwave yet, that’s not gettin’ any warmer.”

“Barbarian,” Sam scoffs, but he takes his sandwich and they move out onto the couch to eat. Sam isn’t sure what to say; he didn’t come here last night expecting anything to happen like it did, and he certainly didn’t expect to stay the night. He’s wanted something like that to happen for ages, for longer than he realized, but this is – things are –

“I got you something,” Dean says once they finish eating. He takes their wrappers and brings them to the kitchen to toss out, and when he comes back he’s holding something else. It’s not wrapped; Sam’s pretty sure Dean wouldn’t know how, but that doesn’t matter. Dean sits back down and hands the thing over, and Sam doesn’t say anything for a while.

It’s an atlas. Not just an atlas, not like he could buy at any gas station. It’s nice-looking, huge and kind of heavy and each page has tons of details about cities and states, places to eat and stop for the night. It’s detailed and beautiful and just looking at it makes Sam want to leave, makes him itch to get behind the wheel of his car and just go, head west, music on his stereo and the sun in his eyes and everything ahead of him.

Dean,” Sam says finally.

“You don’t have to take it,” Dean says, like he thinks Sam hates it or something. Dean’s kind of an idiot sometimes. “It’s no big deal, I just thought before you start school you could – you know, roadtrip. Do something fun.”

Sam closes the book, picks it up and smacks Dean in the chest with it. “Moron,” Sam says. “I love it.”

“Oh,” Dean says, and it takes him a minute but then he’s smiling at Sam, bright and happy. “Well, you don’t gotta hit me, Sam. Jesus.”

Sam laughs, but then Dean turns his head and Sam remembers that he did, really did, that there’s a small mark just under Dean’s jaw from it. Sam leaves the atlas in his lap, reaches up and touches the bruise carefully, exploring. Dean keeps his eyes on him, even as Sam’s fingers move further, along Dean’s cheek to catch on the stubble there, then to the back of Dean’s head until he’s pushing Dean forward toward him, moving forward himself.

He stops, then, his lips right next to Dean’s when he says, “Thank you.” Dean doesn’t say anything, just quirks an eyebrow at him like he means today, Sam until Sam closes that last bit of distance between them. They pull away soon after, because both their breath is pretty foul and Sam’s too worn out from last night to start anything else, but they stay on the couch for a while until Sam realizes he should probably get home, that their parents are probably wondering where he is.

He stands up, and Dean follows him to the door, but Sam stops there and turns around. He looks down at the atlas, then Dean again. “You could come with,” he says, trying to keep his tone easy. “When I go, I mean. You could come with and then fly back here, or we could take your car, or –”

“Sam,” Dean says. He’s smiling, but his tone is something else, something a little sadder. “I can’t, man,” he says. “You gotta go by yourself, you know?”

“Yeah,” Sam says, because he knows Dean’s right. He wants that, craves that kind of independence, just him and nothing else and the freedom of the road before him, but leaving Dean is going to be – it’s going to be so fucking hard, especially after everything that’s happened. “Yeah, I…”

“Hey,” Dean says, like he knows exactly what Sam’s thinking, and he probably does. “I’ll still be right here, all right? Every holiday, every time you need someone to talk to who speaks English instead of geek…” Sam laughs, and Dean’s smile looks a little forced now, but he still says, “We’ve still got all summer, right? That’s plenty of time.”

Sam wants to say that’s not nearly enough, that he wants so much more than that, more than Dean can conceivably give him (but he knows Dean would kill himself trying, anyway), but he doesn’t. He just smiles back at Dean, real and brilliant, and says, “Yeah, you’re right.”

“I’ll see you soon, okay?” Dean asks, and Sam nods. He ignores the ache in his chest, ignores every bit of reluctance to walk out the door and start planning his future, because Dean’s right. They’re going to be fine.

“Yeah,” Sam says again. “Okay.”

And the thing is, he means it.