Chapter 1: Sam
‘You like it?’ Dean says, smiling.
Sam loves the way the laugh lines gather at the corners of Dean’s eyes, tiny splintering slivers of happiness that remain branded behind Sam’s eyes long after Dean has stopped smiling and looked away.
He carefully unwraps the little package. Dean’s birthday present for him is made of dark silver, an oxidized wristband engraved with protective sigils.
The wristband is custom-made, the symbols on it a tangible marker of the need to ensure Sam is always safe, a need that’s hardwired into Dean.
The wristband is also unisex, a fact that Sam clings to as though his life hinges on it.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Sam says, soft, like his heart isn’t denting under the weight of the secret he’s kept from Dean, from the world, for thirty-six years.
For decades, Sam has yearned to go nowhere. To live a life that isn’t full of frenetic activity, moving from one monster to another, one mission to another, one small town to another. Everything in his life has always been changing, nonstop, a rollercoaster that he just about barely manages to cling on to, no safety belts in place to ensure that he doesn’t hurtle off into nothingness.
His outsides have never matched his insides.
Sam figured out early on that he was a boy, but no one else ever did.
Not even Dean, and it wasn’t because Dean wasn’t observant. Dean was plenty observant, sharp enough to notice a new bruise on Sam’s knee or a new hole in his jeans (which meant either darning or throwing the pair out and ensuring Sam had new ones). He just didn’t notice about Sam’s gender because while Dad and Dean were training Sam to be a hunter, Sam was training himself to become a secret-keeper.
Getting away from Dean’s idea of birthday celebrations isn’t easy, but Sam manages it by faking a stomachache.
‘Aww,’ Dean says, kissing the top of his head.
Casual affection has always been one of Dean’s things. It’s a thing he reserves especially for Sam.
(How lucky Sam is that his parents named him Samantha, so easily shortened to a name suitable for a boy, Sam. Or Sammy, when Dean’s feeling particularly affectionate.)
‘You sure you’ll be fine on your own?’ Dean asks, fingertips brushing lightly over Sam’s jaw. Sam fights the urge to close his eyes so Dean doesn’t see the effect that the slightest of his touches has on Sam.
(If Dean knew Sam’s othersecret—how exhausting it is to have so many—he’d probably punch Sam in the jaw and throw him out of the bunker. But Sam has had thirty-six years of experience hiding things from Dean, especially the things he feels when Dean touches him casually, obliviously. Large things, things that fill up his mind like granite stones, like Fortunato’s wall that cuts him off from the outside world, keeps him fenced in until he runs out of air and suffocates to death.)
‘I’ll be fine,’ Sam says, forcing a smile. Forced smiles are his specialty. ‘Go kill some bad things.’
‘You know it,’ Dean says with a wink, hefting his bag. ‘Be back before you know it, princess.’
Dean will definitely be back in no more than two or three hours. They have a tacit rule not to stay apart for too long. Sam tells himself it’s something that all hunters do, because it’s safer to hunt in pairs.
Which means that Sam doesn’t have much time.
As soon as he hears the door slam behind his brother, he jumps out of his chair and runs down the hallway to the basement. Beyond the dungeon, beyond the bunker’s many storerooms filled with decades of paraphernalia, small passages splinter away into the distance. Sam and Dean have often wondered if the bunker is endless, going on and on underground like a labyrinth of crimefighting technology, stretching for forever under the surface of the unknowing earth. They’re always meaning to explore further, always prevented by the rise of some new Big Bad or some new-old enemy surfacing from the past and demanding all of their attention like petulant children.
Three days ago, Sam had discovered this particular room, its door hidden away like a secret in a crevice of one of the darker, mustier passages.
He’d found it entirely by accident. Kire, the black cat he feeds whenever she senses his presence at home and wanders in for a meal, had decided on a whim to skitter down the hallway and out of sight after she’d finished her tuna. She’d probably been chasing a mouse, either real or imagined. Or ghostly. Sam won’t put that past the bunker.
(Dean doesn’t know about her. Dean doesn’t know that sometimes Sam feels that every breath he takes is a secret, a form of existence that shouldn’t be allowed.)
Shaking his head to clear it, he pushes open the hidden door, wincing at how loudly it creaks in the utter silence.
‘Hello?’ he says, turning on the light. It hadn’t been working when he first found the room, but he’d fixed it with a new bulb. ‘Evanora?’
‘Have you decided?’ The voice—the disembodied voice—that Sam has become accustomed to hearing is as dry as ever, the speaker always sounding as though she’s on the verge of making a caustic remark. So far, though, she’s been pretty decent to Sam.
She’s offered Sam the world, and then some.
‘No.’ Sam sits down on the wooden chair with the faded red plush cushion that seems to have become ‘his’ spot since they started this conversation.
‘Why not?’ The speaker sounds curious; only mildly so, as though inquiring about the weather outside.
When Sam doesn’t respond, the speaker chuckles, a new lilt to her voice. ‘Ooh, it couldn’t be because I’m a witch, could it? Samantha can’t handle the thought of collaborating with one of the bad people?’
‘Don’t call me that,’ Sam says shortly. Of all the people he’s ever known, this person—this ghost, this witch, whoever—is the only one who knows his secret, and Sam hasn’t shared it voluntarily. Apparently, Evanora has a gift for reading people.
‘Why not? It is your name, isn’t it?’
‘You’re being deliberately cruel,’ Sam says, toneless. ‘It’s not exactly an encouraging thought.’
‘I’m not. In fact, if you think about it, I’m probably the only person you’ll ever know who’s willing—and able—to give you exactly what you want. The body you’ve always dreamed of having.’
For a long moment, Sam lets himself imagine it: the stubble that would grow on his face by the end of every day. The feel of a flat chest, a liberating surface. Perhaps a slightly broader jaw, longer legs. Holding himself in his hand, full and thick, when he pleasures himself. When Dean—
No. Stop that.
All Sam needs to do is find the key to the door at the other end of the long, dusty room. It’s all Evanora has asked for in return for gifting Sam with the body that is truly his own. Get the key and let her out.
A key he’s already found: it wasn’t difficult, with Evanora’s description. Tucked away unobtrusively in a small drawer in one of the library’s many desks, it had shone with a dull gleam, as though asking to be found, when Sam had slid the drawer open. It’s ornate, bronze, large enough that Sam can’t close his fist over it, with tiny, intricate carvings etched into its ancient surface.
Evanora doesn’t know he has it. Not yet.
He puts his elbows on his knees, bows his head, pushes his hands through his almost-shoulder-length hair. It’s too short to be considered traditionally feminine, too long to belong to a someone who’s masculine in the conventional sense. Sam’s always existed in in-between spaces, liminal and contrary, and even his hair reflects it.
‘Let me give you a glimpse of what it would be like,’ Evanora murmurs, and something drifts against Sam’s nostrils.
An invisible smell, he thinks, and is immediately struck by the absurdity of the idea.
‘Let me show you. It won’t be real. Just an illusion. But you’ll know.’
In all of his life, in all of the times that exhaustion took him over, convinced him that there was never any chance for someone like him, no one has ever offered him an actual solution. A way out of his endless misery.
‘All right,’ Sam says.
Chapter 2: Dean
Getting rid of a poltergeist is kinda sorta always a breeze.
Having to get rid of one on the eve of Sam’s birthday, though? Not so much.
‘Sam?’ Dean calls out, dropping his duffel on the nearest table. The weapons in it make a satisfying clunk. ‘I’m home.’
Sam doesn’t answer immediately, and Dean starts down the hallway toward their bedrooms. It’s not like Sam not to be hanging around in the library, waiting for Dean, when Dean is out on a hunt alone. Dean does the same when Sam goes off on a hunting-related task alone. It’s just something they do.
‘Sammy?’ Dean knocks on the door. ‘You in there?’
He waits a moment for an answer that he knows isn’t coming—the silence from within the room makes him feel Sam’s absence in his bones—before pushing open the door.
Sam’s room looks like it always does.
‘Hello,’ Dean says, blinking in surprise at the very large black cat lounging among Sam’s books on the shelf. These are the books from Sam’s personal collection, many dating back to their childhood days, that Sam has somehow managed to preserve through decades of moving from town to town, from mission to mission, from one life to another.
A special edition of The Lord of the Rings lies on the desk, an engraved illustration of the Tree of Life on its dark green cover. They’d bought it on Sam’s fourteenth birthday. Sam’s always treasured books like they were worth everything, especially the ones that were gifts from Dean. Dean tries not to think too hard about that sort of thing, because that way lies complete foolishness.
The cat, in true cat fashion, gives him a disdainful look before resuming its very through grooming session.
‘Don’t think I haven’t seen you lurking about,’ Dean says, pulling out his phone and scrolling to Sam’s name while waggling a finger at the cat, who proceeds to ignore him completely. ‘You and Sammy think you’re so clever, sneaking around behind my back, but I’m on to you.’
A low vibration comes from somewhere. For a wild moment, Dean thinks the cat has super purring powers, because cats don’t usually purr that loudly. Then he realizes that Sam’s desk is vibrating faintly.
Pulling open the drawer, he sees Sam’s phone inside, its screen flashing with Dean’s name. It’s on silent mode, set to vibrate.
For the first time since he returned to the bunker, Dean feels a real twinge of worry. Where would Sam have gone? They always, always make it a point to keep their phones with them, especially when they’re apart. With the kind of lives they live, there’s just no predicting when one of them will need to reach the other.
‘Damn it, Sam.’ Dean cuts off the useless call and takes a deep breath. There’s probably no need to worry. Sam’s phone is here, therefore Sam can’t be very far away.
Twenty seconds later he’s sort of in frantic mode. Something about not being able to reach Sam on the phone is tearing at Dean’s insides in a horribly unpleasant way, and only the sight of Sam whole and unharmed will make Dean be able to breathe properly again.
Something’s been off with the kid for days. Dean knew. Dean knew, and he still went on a hunt by himself, leaving Sam alone. He’s done some monumentally stupid things in his life, but this one makes the top ten, probably. Sam’s a good actor; Dean already knows that, and not just because of Our Town. He just hadn’t known Sam was good enough to fool him so completely. He’d actually bought the freaking stomachache excuse, for fuck’s sake. It was those eyes, the way Sam could make them look all wide and innocent. No one looking into those eyes would ever think Sam wasn’t telling the truth.
‘Sammy!’ Dean’s stalking down the corridors now, randomly throwing open doors, yelling into each one.
On the way to the basement, he nearly trips over the cat that’s suddenly appeared beside him, winding herself in typical feline fashion around his feet, a small furry trap for his ankles.
‘I’m not Sam, and I’m not feeding you right now,’ Dean says, nudging the cat with his foot. ‘Go away.’
The cat gazes up at him. It has startlingly green eyes and a weirdly un-feline gaze. Do cats usually make eye contact—and hold it—like that?
Then she walks confidently down the hallway and disappears down the stairs to the basement.
‘Oh, come on. Don’t go down there,’ Dean says with a groan. ‘I don’t have time to go looking for stupid cats lost in dungeons.’
A loud mew sounds from below the floor. Dean knows enough about cats to recognize the sound of one protesting indignantly.
There’s something down there that Sam’s stupid secret cat is mewing at.
The light in the corridor at the bottom of the stairs is on. Only one person could have switched it on.
‘Sam!’ Dean’s voice echoes eerily through the empty space around him. There’s no sign of Sam, but a loud yowling comes from somewhere far down the corridor.
‘All right, I’m coming,’ Dean mutters, turning on the flashlight on his phone as he turns a corner and reaches a darker, dustier part of the basement. He and Sam haven’t gotten this far in their explorations of the basement.
The cat is scratching at something wooden in the corner, letting out cat-sounds of annoyance, as though the thing has personally offended her.
Dean moves closer and sees a line of light on the floor. It takes him a moment to realize that the dark patch of wall that the cat is sharpening her claws on is a door, almost completely hidden in the darkness.
He kicks it open.
Chapter 3: Sam
There’s a tiny, rough tongue licking his cheek, little whiskers brushing his skin.
‘Kire?’ Sam murmurs, reaching out a hand to pet the cat, his eyes struggling to open.
‘You named that thing Kire? What does that even mean?’ Dean’s voice is rough.
Sam blinks, letting his bleary vision focus. Dean’s face is above his.
He’s lying on the floor in Dean’s arms.
‘What happened?’ Sam asks, sitting up shakily.
Dean doesn’t let go of him, so he leans back against Dean’s warm, solid chest.
‘You tell me,’ Dean says. There’s a vivid undercurrent to his voice that tells Sam that he’s keeping himself together with a superhuman effort. ‘I found you unconscious on the floor.’
‘How—how’d you know where to find me?’
‘I didn’t,’ Dean says shortly. ‘I followed your cat.’
‘Yeah, oh is about right. You wanna get out of here? Can you walk?’
Sam looks around. There’s no sign of Evanora. Not that there was before, given that he’s never seen her true form, but it’s obvious that she’s not going to reveal herself in front of Dean.
‘I can walk, I think,’ he says, getting to his feet, Dean’s arm still secure around him.
‘Good,’ Dean says, his voice still sounding like he’s swallowed bits of broken glass, and Sam feels a twinge of guilt.
‘Sorry,’ he says, soft, as they make their way down the corridor.
Dean says nothing, but his arm is relentlessly strong around Sam, holding him up as they make their way slowly upstairs.
‘Evanora,’ Dean says, as Sam relates the story of the last three days (with some significant omissions). ‘Wait. I’ve heard that name somewhere before.’
‘It’s in the Oz books,’ Sam says, tilting his head toward the bookshelves. A small part of him is absurdly pleased that Dean recognizes the name. ‘She’s one of the so-called ‘bad’ witches in the stories.’
‘Hey, I read,’ Dean says, as though Sam had made a jibe about him actually picking up a book.
Sam smiles at his attempt at a joke, reaching out and putting his hand on Dean’s for just a second. The warmth of Dean’s skin bleeds into Sam’s, grounding him like nothing else can.
Dean turns the key over in his hand. ‘So—what’s her deal? The door’s another portal to Oz?’
‘I think so. She must be trapped here like her sister.’
‘But why were you unconscious? She attack you?’
‘No. Nothing like that.’ Sam takes a sip of the whiskey-laced cocoa that Dean made for him.
‘Then what, Sammy? ’Cause I gotta say, I was fucking scared.’
Sam squirms in his chair, the full weight of Dean’s vivid gaze on him. ‘She—she offered me something, Dean. In—in exchange for setting her free.’
‘What, like world peace or something?’
Sams lips quirk. ‘Or something.’
‘Something you really want?’
Sam sips some more of his drink. ‘Yeah.’
‘You gonna tell me?’ Dean says, his voice curiously gentle.
‘It’s.’ Sam puts his mug down and rubs his eyes. ‘It’s complicated, D.’
‘I get that.’
It’s Dean who reaches for Sam’s hand this time, tangling their fingers lightly. Throughout their lives, their relationship has been curiously genderless: Dean has always been fiercely protective of Sam, but has never treated him as vulnerable or powerless simply because of his assigned gender. Dean’s the only one with whom Sam hasn’t felt judged to be seen as female, because Dean has never really made him feel as though his gender matters to what they do. They’re both trained hunters, good at what they do: among the best, even. Dean trusts Sam to do the job. It’s one of the most liberating—the most life-saving—things that Sam has felt.
‘She offered me a different body.’
The words escape Sam like a trapped animal springing free from a cage. He’s not aware of having made the choice to say them. But now they’re out, after thirty-six years of being held back, and they hang in the air between Dean and Sam, resoundingly loud, even though Sam’s sure his voice isn’t capable of being more than a whisper right now.
He can’t look at Dean. His whole body is wired like a machine pushed too far, too hard, about to spring apart at any moment.
When Dean finally speaks, he says the last thing that Sam could ever have imagined that he’d say. For years and years now, he’s been rehearsing how he’ll come out to Dean. What he’ll say, how Dean will react. Not once, in all of his imagined scenarios, did Dean ever say what he says now.
‘We,’ Dean says, squeezing Sam’s hand, ‘will find another way.’
‘I—what?’ Sam says, completely thrown.
‘This Evanora—nothing good is gonna come out of releasing her, right?’
‘Uh… no. Not that I can think of.’
‘Then we’ll find another way,’ Dean says, resolute.
‘Another way to what?’ Sam whispers.
Dean is silent for a long moment. Sam wants to weep.
Then Dean gets up and comes closer to Sam, crouching in front of him.
‘You know what,’ he says. His fingers, rough and gun-accustomed and tender, brush Sam’s bangs out of his eyes.
‘How long have you known?’ If only Sam’s voice would rise above a whisper. If only his body would cooperate, be strong for him. But his body has never really been his own. At least not from the outside.
‘Since before Stanford, I think.’ Dean’s voice is soft, as though matching the tone of Sam’s. They’ve always been so alike in all the ways that really matter.
‘What?’ A thrill of shock runs through Sam.
Dean puts his hands on Sam’s kneecaps, thumbs brushing over the denim of Sam’s jeans.
‘Why didn’t you say something?’
‘I. I dunno, Sammy. Took me a long while to even begin to understand, you know? And you—you always kept it a secret. I didn’t—I wasn’t sure you wanted me to know.’
‘I—I wanted you to know. I—Dean, you’re the only one I…’ Without his permission, silent tears are streaming from Sam’s eyes.
‘Hey. Hey, kiddo.’ Dean’s large, warm hands are on Sam’s face now, thumbs sweeping under Sam’s eyes. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Don’t… don’t do that. Don’t cry, Sammy.’
The things Evanora had shown him. The way his body, new from the outside, had felt. The way Dean—fuck. Oh fuck. Dean had been there in the vision Sam had been shown. The things they’d done. The way Dean had shown Sam how loved he was. Finally, finally.
Sam is being cleaved open, right there in front of Dean.
‘Come here,’ Dean says, hoarse, like he's scraping the words out of his throat. He pulls Sam out of the chair and into his arms.
They stay like that for a long time, kneeling together on the musty old carpet, Dean’s arms wrapped around Sam, his scent filling Sam’s senses. Sam weeps into Dean’s shoulder and Dean lets him, his body shivering against Sam’s as though he’s the one who’s letting go of the weight of a lifetime. He’s saying soft, tender words that Sam can hardly bear to listen to, his fingers tangled in Sam’s hair.
‘I got your shirt all wet,’ Sam says finally, pulling back a little. He doesn’t go very far, still in the circle of Dean’s arms.
‘There’s something else,’ Dean says. ‘Something else that I’m not sure I’m right about.’ He cups Sam’s chin in his palm, tilting his face up so their eyes can meet. ‘Right?’
Sam can’t breathe. He can’t look away from Dean’s eyes.
‘Right, little brother?’ Dean says, smiling a little, the sweetness of it unraveling Sam in a way he’d never known he’d been craving.
He’s holding Sam’s face again, his fingertips so light as they graze Sam’s skin that Sam has to put his hands over Dean’s to convince himself they’re really there.
Sam nods. Words are a thing from another life, the one he had when he was alone, when he thought Dean didn’t know.
Dean tilts Sam’s head gently, inclining his own to the other side, an inch away from letting their lips slot into place against each other’s.
‘Tell me this is okay,’ Dean says. ‘Fuck, please say this is okay.’
Looking back, Sam thinks that maybe this, Dean saying those words, is what truly made things start being okay.
In response, he leans in and closes the gap between their mouths.
His world doesn’t slot instantly into place, but it tilts on its axis, realigns itself into something that had been impossible a moment ago. Dean’s mouth isn’t new to Sam. His lips have been on Sam’s cheeks, his forehead, the crown of his head, a million times, one of the few constants in the multiple lives they’ve lived.
But this—this is new like a discovered planet that’s very like your own. A place where you can breathe, that gives you oxygen, that nourishes you. A place you’d never thought could exist, but here it is, shining, shattering you open like it’s cracking off a hard shell you don’t need anymore.
‘I’ve got you,’ Dean says against his mouth. ‘I’ve got you.’
Sam kisses him again, just because he can. Dean’s mouth yields to him, letting Sam take whatever he wants, as much as he wants.
‘You knew,’ Sam says later. They’re still on the floor, Dean on his back and Sam tucked against his side, his voice muffled against Dean’s chest. ‘You always knew.’
Dean breathes against Sam’s hair. ‘What don’t I know about you, kiddo?’
Dean knows. Maybe the rest of the world doesn’t, but for now, Dean knows. It’s the best start that Sam could have hoped for, that he hadn’t dared to hope for.
‘I knew,’ Dean says, lifting Sam’s head, gentle and unsure, something unhappy flickering in the depths of his eyes.
It’s the look he’s always had when he’s afraid for Sam. He doesn’t have to be, not this time, and Sam will tell him that in a minute, when he’s found his voice again.
‘I know,’ Dean adds. ‘And we—we will figure it out.’
‘Just like we always do,’ Sam finishes for him.
You and me against the world. Like always.
They’re thinking the same thought now, their mouths finding each other’s again.
One day, they’ll reach a place where they’ll go nowhere, where they won’t have to go anywhere, because they’ll be home.